Brand ambassadors propagate whisky mythology, rather than dispel it, argues David Tjeder.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
14 August 2015
(Takes deep breath…)
This was going to rear its ugly little head at some stage, so might as well get it out there in the open now. I dare say it’s a topic which will re-emerge fairly regularly, like a zombie, or a half-starved dog who has decided you are its new master, or a vindictive partner post-divorce…
(Takes another deep breath…)
There is nothing inherently wrong, evil or nasty about No Age Statement (NAS) whiskies. The reason that there is an increasing number of them is driven primarily by the fact that there currently isn’t sufficient stock to match global demand. This situation will ease, but at the moment producers are faced with this dilemma.
Single malt distilleries are, by their nature, limited in their production. If distillers then say a whisky must be, say, 12 years old before it is released, then that availability is restricted further. Yet demand is rising, and 12 years ago your production levels were low. Do the maths.
The good side of NAS?: Talisker 57˚N
At the centre of the reaction against NAS is the fact that the Scotch industry has spent years persuading people that the older a whisky is, the better it is. That isn’t true. Age is not the sole determinant of quality. There is also a great deal of difference between age (a number) and maturity (character). Age statements blur that reality.
There’s a further underlying issue. In the ‘old’ days, it was generally reckoned that a single malt would hit maturity at around 10 or 12 years of age. The reason for this was that the casks used to mature the whisky were refill, often multiple refill. Today, wood management has not only been improved, but more first-fill casks are being used for single malts, meaning that the whisky can start its mature period at a younger age.
However, since the industry has been wedded to numbers, you can’t just launch an 8-year-old age statement as replacement for a 12-year-old, even if it is better. NAS – the blending of mature young whisky with extra-mature old – is a way around this.
There’s nothing wrong with this as long as the end result is complex and balanced. It is what blenders have been doing successfully since the 19th century, but since the most vociferous opponents of NAS malts are proponents of the paradigm that malts = good, blends = bad, it’s not going to gain any traction.
No Age, therefore, is a way to ease stock pressure and, in theory, make whiskies not by number, but by flavour. It should produce whiskies which are as good, if not in some cases better (Talisker 57˚N is a classic case of the latter).
I get all of that. I defend all of that.
The problem is that not all distillers have played fair. Rather than maintaining (or improving) quality, there have been some (and I would argue it is just some) examples which are less good than the whiskies they are replacing – and they cost more.
My argument would be that if you are making an NAS whisky to replace one with an age statement, then you must ensure that it is better. For me, the issue isn’t NAS, but quality.
I would like to see greater transparency – similar to what Glenrothes has recently done – with distillers declaring what the constituent parts are. They also need to explain why NAS is necessary and what its principles are. So far, they have failed to do so.
Until that happens, the Scotch industry will inevitably face (often unfair) accusations that it is dumbing down quality.
Education is needed. On both sides.
10 August 2015
Up stupidly early one Saturday morning, I did something most uncharacteristic and flicked through the TV channels. There it was, the familiar black-and-white montage of Hebridean life, that well-known voiceover:
‘North-west of Scotland, on the broad expanse of the Atlantic, lie the lovely islands of the Outer Hebrides, small scattered patches of sand and rock rising out of the ocean…The inhabitants scrape a frugal living from the sea, and the sand and the low-lying hills of coarse grass and peat bog.
A happy people, with few and simple pleasures [who] have all that they need. But, in 1943, disaster overwhelmed this little island. Not famine nor pestilence, nor Hitler’s bombs, or the hordes of an invading army.
But something far, far, worse. There is no whisky!… From that day every man went into mourning.’
Whisky Galore is a fantastic film which, like the best of the Ealing comedies (and indeed all the work of Alexander Mackendrick) I could watch on a continuous loop. It was one of my dad’s favourites as well. The opening scene when, after the whisky had run out, the old man simply, silently went to bed and died had him in tears of laughter every time he saw it.
The dram of everyman: a scene from Whisky Galore!
It was that and that line ‘every man’ which resonated with me. My father was a whisky drinker. Not a heavy whisky drinker, but that is what he had every night when he got home off the bus.
My uncle in Glasgow was a whisky drinker too – he had to be as he worked for Black & White. That ensured a decent supply in our house. My uncles in Perth were whisky drinkers as well, but they drank Famous Grouse. My uncle in the Army drank whisky as well.
When they all got together, the glasses would be filled, the music would be played, there would be singing, laughing, war stories and we as kids would watch it all, trying to discern who was speaking through the fug of cigarette smoke.
It would be the same in pubs. Not just the smoke, but also the men, at the bar, the ‘hauf and a hauf’, the bottles of lemonade on the bar top, the water jugs or spigots. Drinking whisky was to be a member of a club. One which I would, in time, be allowed into. To be admitted was to be given a tacit nod that you had come of age.
It was a male-only club as well. My Army auntie had whisky and soda, but that was considered a little ‘fast’ by the other women in the family. There again, she was from Aberdeen.
Mourning would indeed have happened had that whisky supply been turned off. That is what they drank. There was no thought of alternatives, no discussion of cocktails, no wine, just the occasional beer – cracked with a tin opener. Whisky was it. For every man.
There was also a difference between having a dram and being bought one. You sipped whisky purloined in some way as a teenager, but only when someone purchased one for you could you be called a whisky drinker, or indeed a man.
For me, that first time was after my dad had died. I was still below legal drinking age but, hell, this was Glasgow. My Black & White uncle bought me a dram in a bar next to Queen Street Station. He didn’t ask me if I wanted one, there was just this silent slide of a small glass towards me, this tacit invitation to join. I accepted it, of course, not knowing where this first proper dram would eventually lead.
08 August 2015
‘You doing Tales?’ It’s a question which drops into every conversation in the bar industry from January onwards. The reply is usually in the positive and most often accompanied by a knowing smile. If you have done Tales before, then no more words are necessary.
For those who haven’t experienced the full madness of the event, it’s a bit like a Glastonbury for the spirits world – with all the attendant ecstasies, self-inflicted damage, lack of sleep, mass bonding sessions, but maybe more learnings.
To be more precise, Tales of the Cocktail takes place over four days every July in New Orleans – though each day seems like a month. In a good way. There are seminars – geeky, detailed, provocative, educational, instructive. There are tasting sessions, there are pop-up bars, there are enormous parties, there are dinners, there are inevitable late-night sessions where new friends are made and old acquaintances reconnected.
It’s networking in the nicest possible way. All in 100-degree heat and 200% humidity, in a city which has total disdain for sleep.
We veterans have it planned like a military campaign. Don’t overdo it. Plan dinner. Pack Berocca. Don’t be afraid of grabbing a power nap. Avoid late-night tattoo parlours. Realise that New Orleans will always win in hand-to-hand combat.
I get (slightly) better at it every year, but still return to the bosom of my family with a few more lines on the face, a sprinkle more grey hairs; broken, but elated.
Tales also presented an opportunity for Dave to pick up not one, but two Spirited Awards
It is also a chance to gauge the temperature of the bar trade globally: what’s hot, what’s cooling off, what are the trends? Take Scotch, for example. If reports are to be believed, this is a category in decline, a style of spirit that has had its day. Tales would suggest otherwise.
I got a hint of this the day before I landed in New Orleans, when I did a gig at the fantastic Reserve 101 whisky bar in Houston. The next day, I had breakfast with Ryan Roberts who runs Cullen’s – another top-end Houston Scotch bar.
At Tales, I ran into Leslie Ross, who is bar manager for the same city’s Treadsack bar group, and who sent across images and recipes for some of the Scotch-based cocktails she’s been working on.
A dying category? Not in Texas and not, if Tales is the measure, in the rest of the bar world.
When I started going to Tales, you’d be lucky to see a Scotch seminar. Distillers approached the event with a certain trepidation, unsure of how to engage with a world where vodka and (to a lesser extent in those days) gin ruled.
This year there were more Scotch seminars than ever – and they were all were sold out. The bar trade clearly wants to continue to learn.
Ryan Chetiyawardana and I talked of peat and smoke in drinks, Ian McLaren of Dewar’s led an incredible class on scientific research into bottle aging in spirits – something of real interest to Scotch lovers – which also touched on the degradation that takes place in the bottle through oxidation and exposure to light. Much more on this soon.
William Grant threw a massive party, but also celebrated Scotch in the guise of Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Monkey Shoulder. Edrington’s Cutty had events, while Beam Suntory showcased its entire whisky portfolio in its Julep House.
I tried to moderate the proceedings when six malt ambassadors hurled insults at each other in a mass blind tasting in front of 240 people – which culminated in Grant’s Lorne Cousins accompanying AC/DC’s Long Way to the Top on bagpipes.
Meanwhile, Diageo reprised its 2014 class on the difference between age and maturity, with a blind tasting which included Port Ellen and Brora.
Yes, there were other spirits – agave, gin, and a strong showing from Bourbon – but that’s only right. The point is that Scotch is, in Tales terms, on an equal footing. It gives us all something on which to build.
I returned shattered, but happy. Plans are already afoot for next year. Bigger, broader, deeper, more fun.
04 August 2015
In February, Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) CEO David Frost made a speech in which he voiced his concern about the impact of global politics on Scotch.
He spoke of the Russia/Ukraine conflict, of ‘poor economic management in the Eurozone, Argentina and Venezuela’, concluding that ‘it’s clear that we will have to work harder to keep exports growing in future years’.
He was right on all counts.
‘Work harder’: SWA CEO David Frost
In recent years, there has been a worryingly naive belief within the boardrooms of Scotch firms that that every market will grow at amazing rates and fall in love with Scotch.
Their sunny outlook was correct – for a while. When the opposite began to occur, it was time for Plan B.
The question is: what is it?
Some of the circumstances working against Scotch were unforeseen: the clampdown on corruption/corporate entertaining (are the two the same thing?) in China, economic sanctions imposed on Russia in the fall-out from the Ukraine conflict.
But it is a fact of life that no economy grows in a steadily upward direction, there will always be fluctuations, booms will inevitably be followed by slowdowns. The best you can hope for is that they will then plateau before the next boom starts up again.
The get out clause for Scotch has long been that, as one market begins to falter, resources can be put into another to take up the slack.
At the moment, however, the Scotch industry is still casting round for likely contenders to perform this role.
India? It is beginning to move in the right direction, but remains mired in tax issues and internal politics.
Africa likewise has massive potential, but remains politically volatile, while Japan is slipping back into a deflationary mode.
In terms of Scotch’s major markets, that leaves the US – and it is increasingly being targeted.
In March, Paul Ross, Edrington Americas CEO, admitted that the firm was ‘under-represented’ in the US and that it was now treating America ‘almost like an emerging market, to rebalance our global footprint’.
There are two things to be taken from this. First, why hadn’t Edrington noticed the US before? It’s quite big, after all. Second, this talk of an unbalanced global footprint suggests that there has been a slowdown – or that one is anticipated – elsewhere.
Don’t get me wrong. Targeting the US makes perfect sense for Scotch. The irony is that, while it is the spirit’s number one market in value terms, in the grand scheme of things Scotch under-performs in a market of its size and maturity.
The trouble is that the US market is also seeing a revival of interest in Bourbon, indications that Canadian whisky is stirring itself from its torpor, and the rise of small-scale local whiskey distillers.
Stir in Irish and Japanese and there’s a lot of liquid fighting for a share of the American whisky drinker’s pocket. In addition, if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, that consumer is used to cheap whisky and is virulently resistant to price hikes. So, while aiming for the US is the right thing to do, it won’t be straightforward.
At least the US economy is showing signs of life – whereas in Europe a wholly misguided obsession with ‘austerity’ rather than focusing on fiscal stimulus has caused economies to stagnate, resulting in the very people who you need to buy whisky being forced out of the market.
The outcome of austerity has wiped out most of Europe – especially the south – and the UK for Scotch.
Frost is right to be worried about geopolitical risk. With Scotch reliant on exports for 90% of its sales, the industry should be too.
31 July 2015
There is nothing sadder in whisky terms than a closed distillery. It is not just that a building has shut its doors, not just that a community has lost a focal point, but that a small and very precise point of difference in this complex world has been lost forever. Every sip which you take of a dram from one of the members of this club drives it closer to extinction.
Have you ever wondered, however, why they were closed on the first place? The standard response is that they were surplus to requirements in the 1980s when the industry got its calculations regarding supply and demand badly wrong (that would never happen again, would it?).
It’s the right answer, but it doesn’t actually answer the question – why were these specific distilleries chosen? What was the process which chose that one over its neighbour?
Size played its part. When the industry had to contract, it made more sense to concentrate production in larger plants than across a multiplicity of smaller ones. Sounds brutal? Believe me, it was – and was not a decision which was taken easily.
There is another reason, though, one which is rarely articulated. As a blender said to me once, sotto voce: ‘When it came down to it, the whisky wasn’t that great.’
Now I know this flies in the face of received wisdom that every single closed distillery was actually a precious gem, only culled by flinty-eyed accountants and heartless corporate types to try to maintain their share price, but what if there is something in this idea that the whisky didn’t pass muster?
Remember that the cull took place before a single malt category had formed. The make of each distillery was being assessed in terms of what was needed for blends. Some of these plants could have blossomed as single malts, were there an outlet, and had they been suitably set up in terms of maturation profile. I’d have loved it if Convalmore could have remained in production, for example.
Golden?: Brora distillery was closed down in 1983
Many of the whiskies from the 1980s cull are magnificent (and are among my top whiskies of all time) because they were filled into refill casks. The original intent was that these would be used, in blends, when young and fresh. There never was a plan to release them 30-odd years later.
What has happened in that period is relaxed maturation, where oxidation has played a more important role than oak – how many times have you had an overcooked example?
We, however, are guilty of approaching these whiskies with undue reverence. Our eyes go misty when the cork is pulled, our critical faculties disappear. It must be good – it’s from a cult distillery, there’s hardly anything left.
As well as the great relaxed examples, there are plenty where there has been no influence from the wood at all. There might be smoke, for example, but it barely covers the fact that the whisky is thin and lacking in complexity. Is that interesting aroma of baby sick a fault? It can’t be. In fact… it’s not there at all!
My advice? Taste with your mind open. Don’t be dragged into this assumption that not only are older whiskies automatically better, but those from closed distilleries are better again.
Life, and whisky, is far more complicated than that.
27 July 2015
It has to be said that William S Burroughs isn’t known as either a whisky lover (he preferred Tequila), or as a marketing guru, but when I came across this quote I couldn’t help but think of both.
‘Junk is the ultimate merchandise,’
wrote the great sage.
‘The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to the product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise, he degrades and simplifies the client.’
Great sage: William S Burroughs in 1977 (extreme right, with Carl Solomon, Patti Smith and Allen Ginsberg; photo: Marcelo Noah)
Now I also realise that it isn’t necessarily wise in these somewhat febrile times to appear to draw parallels between ‘junk’ and alcohol, so let it be clear from the outset that I’m not. I mean, it’s fairly obvious that Thomas de Quincey wasn’t talking about opium but whisky when he penned the following:
‘Happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat-pocket; portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint-bottle; and peace of mind could be sent down by the mail.’
It’s what is being outlined in Burroughs’ analysis that piqued my interest. It should be the case that anyone wishing to sell more whisky – and, my goodness, doesn’t everyone want to do that these days? – might simply wish to make their whisky better than the alternatives. In other words, to improve it. Is that happening?
We hear a lot about whiskies being more consistent these days than in the past, but that in itself only suggests that distillers have managed to successfully iron out issues which previously resulted in quality dropping on occasion. Aiming for consistency in an existing brand, while laudable, is one thing. Wishing to genuinely improve something is different. It should go hand-in-hand with creating consistency.
Is it being simplified? I wonder if it is. Those of you still reading this are dong so probably because you love whisky’s complexities, and this can be a fiendishly complicated spirit. At the same time, it is the over-emphasis on the arcane world that exists within whisky which puts many people off.
It’s like Game of Thrones. Only once you are fully committed can you understand what the hell is going on. It is tacitly understood that you need to make that extra effort. You are either in, or out. There is no middle ground.
That’s fine – it’s the way the modern world of TV operates. I like Boardwalk Empire, you don’t. Does the same apply to whisky, however? Is the lack of simplicity – in language, in education – potentially hampering its growth?
So, what of Burroughs’ second rule? Are we, as consumers, being degraded and simplified? In the latter case, maybe we are. The mass capture of data, the insidious growth of (anti-)social media and the number-crunching which goes with it have reduced us to ciphers.
We are ‘red’ or ‘blue’, grouped by likes and dislikes, targeted by algorithms – do you honestly think there is someone at Amazon who knows you well enough to suggest what you’ll like?
It’s the 21st century equivalent of astrology. It doesn’t allow for that thing called individuality, it denies the existence of free will – and that, my friends, degrades us all.
This new approach makes it easy – on paper at least – for brand owners to target effectively the right people with specific brands, but by simplifying consumers there is real danger that whisky itself loses its sense of difference.
It is choice which drives it, it is quirkiness, it is the weird unpredictability of a single cask, the fact that it, at its core, is not smooth and neutral, but a wondrously frustrating and enigmatic bundle of contradictions. It cannot afford to lose that.
Burroughs was a prophet, but prophecies do not always come true. They don’t… do they?
20 July 2015
Apparently there are now 3,200 craft brewers in the US (probably even more since I started writing that sentence). They define styles, lead – and create – trends.
They are well-organised, financially viable; they challenge the status quo and have in the past three decades changed the landscape of American beer, its flavour, image and consumption.
The same is happening in the UK, where there are now in excess of 800 breweries. The drinking of craft beer has moved from being the preserve of bearded men of a certain age to being that of… er… bearded men of a certain (but different) age – and, more hearteningly, women (but without the beards).
Initially dismissive of the changes in their industry, the major brewers in the US are now applying a new strategy with regard to craft brewers. They’re buying them.
Anheuser-Busch, for example, has bought four of its rivals since 2011 and has declared its intent to continue its programme.
The same process will, inevitably, be paralleled in the ‘craft’* whisky distilling movement. William Grant’s tie-up with Tuthilltown Spirits in New York was the first – but won’t be the last.
We’ve seen it happen for years with vodka, so why should whisky be any different?
Sign of the times: Tuthilltown’s Hudson Bourbon
The big guy provides capital, expertise, a distribution network and (if wise) acts in a hands-off fashion. It’s the distilling equivalent of Unilever’s ownership of Ben & Jerry’s.
There is another option, again taken by American brewers: the creation of a ‘diffusion’ line.
Think of it this way. The new, small whisky distiller has to be different in order to compete. They must innovate to cut through. The best of that new thinking will pique the interest of the majors.
It might be the trigger for investment in – or takeover of – the craft distillery, or it might just give them an idea for a diffusion range.
On the other hand, maybe the big boys don’t need some newcomer to show them how to make new styles of whisky. Have you ever considered that they might know it all already, but are just not telling?
Little birds land on my shoulder on occasion and tell me of some of the experiments and trials which are taking place in the majors’ distilleries and labs. Some are to assist in production efficiency, but others are genuinely innovative.
The question is: will they ever be commercialised? Indeed, can they? Is it possible to run a distillery on a stop/start regime with different yeasts, cereals, ferment times etc?
It has always been said that you can’t, but maybe you can. Perhaps the majors need to start thinking in a crafty way and set up divisions to sell their own ‘experimental’ whiskies.
Could it happen? I think it should.
* I consider all whisky makers to be craftsmen, no matter what their size.
17 July 2015
It's a slight exaggeration to say that Glasgow was built on whisky. It was built on steel and shipbuilding, tobacco and sugar, but whisky played a significant part in its Victorian prosperity. That legacy has been forgotten in recent years. Scotland’s whisky city? Elgin? Dufftown? Not Glasgow, surely.
Weegie whisky didn’t disappear, it just seemed to go underground. The fact that there has been an operational distillery in the Gorbals since 1927 has been pretty much forgotten. (It’s called Strathclyde, by the way.) The district’s previous plant, Adelphi, closed in 1907 and is now the site of Glasgow’s central mosque.
Strathclyde was the last. The smell of Sugar Puffs emanating from the Port Dundas grain distillery ceased in 2010 and a site which had once had contained three distilleries, including Dundashill, at one time the largest pot-still distillery in the world, closed forever.
The centre of the city was quieter too. From the mid-19th century, the brokers and blenders were located here. Firms such as Robertson & Baxter in West Nile Street, Greenlees Bros and Teacher’s in St Enoch Square, Wm Whiteley, Ainslie & Heilbron and, largest of them all, the seven-acre Washington Street complex founded by W P Lowrie and subsequently taken over by James Buchanan. At its height it contained a cooperage, bonded warehouse (itself the largest in the world), blending labs, offices and bottling halls.
Return of the native: malt stocks mature in Glasgow again (Pic: Gavin D Smith)
I’m old enough to remember the Black & White dray horses which were stabled there and to have experienced the end of an era when I was drammed and lunched in the blenders’ fine wood-panelled offices, an era when little work tended to be done in the afternoon.
There are a few scattered remains in the city centre. Whyte & Mackay still clings on, the Laing brothers run their two operations, while Bowmore still has its bond in Springburn (though the days of being generously lunched there have now ended).
Whisky is still blended and bottled here, though. Dewar’s lies close to Parkhead, while Edrington dismantled and then reassembled the old R&B blending lab in its new blending and bottling hall in Great Western Road. Diageo bottles in Shieldhall, Chivas Bros further out in Kilmalid. For malt distilling, however, Auchentoshan was the closest thing to a Weegie distillery.
No longer. Now The Glasgow Distillery Co has opened in Hillington, close to the airport. In classic 21st century style, it kicked off by launching a gin, Makar, while stocks of malt are already being laid down and, in another modern practice, casks are being sold through a membership scheme.
It’s not alone – or won’t be for long. Dewar Rattray has plans for a distillery (somewhat confusingly called Glasgow Distillery) next to the river in Queen’s Dock, and I suspect it won’t be the last. Glaswegian whisky-making is back overground once more.
15 July 2015
I admit that the Scotch industry and Marxist theory aren’t often seen as natural bedfellows, but musing – which is, after all, what I do here – on quite where Scotch whisky is at the moment, my mind strayed to the writings of Italian communist Antonio Gramsci.
Bear with me.
Scotch has been the dominant player in the overall whisky (indeed brown spirit) category for almost a century. The reasons are many: economic, social, brilliant marketing, inherent quality … and more than a touch of good fortune.
Scotch rules. Therefore, when consumers think of whisky, they think of Scotch, it is their touchstone, their reference point. Other whiskies define themselves as being different to Scotch. That’s just the way the world is, so you best accept it. Scotch has, in other words, a hegemony.
But what of all these new whiskies which are appearing, the revived Irish and Bourbon industries, Japan and Canada? Surely things are not the same? ‘Exactly!’ say I (and Gramsci’s shade).
Marxism is based on the concept of a historical dialectic: that change will happen and society will, over time, become equal. For that to change, argued Gramsci, there must be a counter-hegemonic movement. That is what is happening now.
Counter-hegemonic movement: Antonio Gramsci
Scotch is facing not only emboldened rivals, but is being explicitly criticised by commentators in an unprecedented fashion: it’s too expensive, quality is dropping, it’s out of touch, it lacks innovation, NAS is ruining everything.
Whether any of this is true doesn’t concern us here. The fact that it is happening is what is important. No matter that Scotch’s rivals are facing the same pressures in regard to price and stock pressures, and coming up with the same solution; they are new. In the reductive nature of this discussion, they are not only different, but they are better, simply because they are not Scotch.
In other words, there is a counter-hegemonic coalition building and, according to Gramsci, the more people who flock to the causes and ideas of the opposition (ie buying bottles in preference to Scotch), then the more possible the revolution is. I’m not suggesting that there is a secret cabal of non-Scotch distillers plotting its downfall, but what is becoming clear is that Scotch is no longer calling all the shots.
We are therefore at the point in Gramscian thought of ‘the war of position’, of a fully-formed, alternative culture being created. People then begin to question the way things are (and have always been) and, providing the alternative is properly thought through, the switch from the old to the new is seamless. When that happens, he would say, the old order falls. If we’re not quite at that point in whisky, it is beginning. There is revolution in the air, comrades.
Does Scotch realise this? I’m not sure if it does. It has been used to dismissing other whiskies, not because of quality, but because of their size. Individual countries may not have the volumes needed to challenge Scotch, but collectively they do.
Is there a way out of this for Scotch? Yes, but first the industry needs to realise that the whisky world has changed. It needs to engage with a new consumer, understand their new mindset. It needs to look at narrative, and image. Failing to do so is, I’d argue, dangerous.
Gramsci told you.
08 July 2015
You might have read about the bottle of blended whisky found in a suitcase and which turned out to have been placed there by its original owner after the First World War. According to the official line, the whisky – The Croft Blend – was in the possession of one Corporal William Mill of the 3rd Volunteer Battalion of the King's Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB), who took it to the trenches in 1914 and brought it back unopened. He then stashed it in the case under his bed. The bottle passed through the family until one of them decided to sell it at auction. According to Peter Burns at Scotch Whisky Auctions: ‘It [was] truly a mystery.’ Damn right it was.
I’m not doubting provenance – there is no great fake scandal in the offing here – but some aspects of this are just plain bizarre.
For starters, so far there is no evidence of there ever being a whisky called The Croft Blend, but our people (actually our brand bloodhound) are continuing to dig. What is even more odd is that here you have a man, a soldier, who takes a bottle of whisky with him to France, serves throughout the conflict, never opens it, then brings it back and hides it. Does that sound like rational behaviour?
Maybe he was teetotal and whoever gave Cpl Mill the bottle didn’t realise this. Meanwhile he, not wishing to give offence, just took it with him. But why keep it? Maybe he became teetotal and didn’t want to drink, but again why then have a bottle of whisky there tempting you?
Maybe he was uncommonly mean, or ridiculously brave. I tell you this, if I were on the front line for the duration of the war as Cpl Mill is claimed to have been, I wouldn’t hang onto a bottle in case I needed a drink. It would have been drained after the first bombardment. If, for some inexplicable reason, I mislaid the bottle and only discovered it when I was heading home, I’d have cracked it in celebration.
Alternatively, maybe it was extremely rare – after all, no-one can find the brand – and he held onto it as an investment. If he did, he’d be about 100 years ahead of the game. In Mill’s day, whisky was for drinking – unless you were Mill of course.
Perhaps the Corporal felt that he didn’t need a drink and was happy with the daily rum ration – a quarter gill tot – or the large amounts of alcohol that were available behind the lines.
Actually, it’s slightly unclear whether Cpl Mill was ever under fire. The letter of provenance for the whisky says that in 1906, after six years with the 3rd Battalion KOSB, he joined the 3rd Squadron of the [Lanarkshire] Yeomanry, which was at that time a Territorial division. When the war started eight years later, the Yeomanry divided into two divisions, with one joining the regular Army in Gallipoli and Egypt, and by the end of the war on the Western Front. The other served on the home front.
In 1916, the horses were put back into their stables and the latter division became the 15th Cyclist Brigade and patrolled Dunbar on their bikes. Who knows what path Cpl Mill and his whisky took? If he stayed in the UK – he was already fairly old for active service – maybe this could explain why the whisky wasn’t drunk.
Does any of this matter? In a creative sense, yes, because this blurred label and equally hazy story opens up possible narratives. Why wasn’t there a Croft Blend? Maybe because this was a one-off, with a hand-drawn label made at ‘the croft’ and given to Mill. He never opened it because the bottle itself was too precious. It was a token which reminded someone of home at a time when home was so precious that broaching the bottle meant draining some of that memory away. Keep it close, keep it closed and you will return… even if it is only from Dunbar on your bicycle. There are many more such alternate fictional realities.
It matters from a whisky point of view as well. If a bottle is coming up at auction, its back story needs to be rigorously checked. There’s no room for romance, half-truths, or fiction here. Equally, a brand cannot drift into the realms of fantasy because it makes its story sexier, or more palatable.
Thank you Corporal Mill for reminding us of that.
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