The alliance recognises the new wave of whisky distilleries contributing to the category’s success.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
29 May 2019
My life isn’t all swish launches and whisky festivals, you know. There’s a business to consider, which is how I ended up being invited to Edinburgh for the Scotch Whisky Association’s (SWA) annual Members Day. The theme this year was ‘The Changing World of Whisky’. As the SWA’s chief executive Karen Betts said in her keynote address, ‘Scotch whisky is the world’s number one internationally traded spirit, and more Scotch is enjoyed worldwide than American, Irish and Canadian whiskies combined.’ But that world is changing rapidly.
Let’s put this in some sort of context. In 1870, the world of aged spirits had four major players: Cognac, and Irish, Scotch and American whiskies. By 1900, the global battle was between the last three. By 1921, only Scotch was left and it remained that way for the rest of the century. Okay, American whiskey came back post-war, but never forget that Canadian whisky still outsold Bourbon in the United States until the end of the century.
Top dram: Will Scotch continue to be the most popular whisky in the future?
Since then, the whisky world has changed utterly. It’s worth remembering that Japan only started to export in any volume in 2000. At that point there were three whiskey distilleries in Ireland. Now there are 35, while there are 20 in England and… well, I could go on. All of that has happened in the last decade. The century of Scotch is over, as is its hegemony. To paraphrase Judy Garland: ‘Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore’ (though we perhaps should be aware of what is going on there).
As the SWA’s chairman Peter Gordon said in his opening remarks, ‘Whisky across the world has seen an increase in activity, but Scotch’s share has fallen… We have real and capable competitors across the world, and while I remain optimistic, there are headwinds to overcome.’
His cautious warning underpinned Betts’ vision of the state of Scotch in 2050, and the multifarious ways in which the SWA would be involved (something which I think isn’t as well-publicised as it should be): climate change and the aim for the industry to be carbon neutral, free trade, training and skills, taxation, gender balance and diversity, packaging, transportation, farming, social responsibility and… yes… Brexit, which might just be sorted by then.
Her belief is that ‘Scotch will remain the world’s pre-eminent whisky… its global competitors… will have done their best to knock us off our perch in the intervening years. But they will not have succeeded. Because Scotch whisky’s consistency, quality, diversity and authenticity, alongside its heritage and its stories, will win the day.’
Industry rebirth: New Irish whiskey distillers, such as Killowen, are opening
There is no reason to doubt this, but without wishing to diminish the importance of all of the elements in Betts’ perceptive analysis, for any of it to happen depends on the quality of the spirit and the ability of the industry to change with the times.
Whisky is a long-term industry where innovation, by necessity, takes time. Scotch, however, is having to learn how to be nimble and meet challenges it has never encountered before.
‘Our industry is good at change,’ Betts added, ‘and remarkably resilient in finding balance between continuity and change… By 2050 we will have innovated in our products, so too will we have innovated in the way that we make Scotch.’
This is no time for complacency and seeking comfort in the mistaken belief that just because Scotch is the biggest player it is automatically the best. It’s pretty easy to be the biggest and best in a field of one. Those days have gone.
For Scotch to retain its pre-eminent position it is important to understand the difference between pride and arrogance. The SWA has realised this; what about all of its members?
Star spirit: Japanese whisky continues to enjoy a surge in popularity
Delivering Betts’ vision will necessitate hard work and open minds. It will mean all of the industry understanding that Scotch’s competitors are every bit as obsessive about quality as it is. It involves tasting these new rivals and discovering why a new consumer might be excited by the new wave of Irish, Danish, Aussie or American whiskies. Whether their industries are smaller than Scotch is immaterial. How good is the juice, and what can Scotch do to compete, without losing its own identity? Those who don’t see the need for change are the ones who will suffer.
As the world of whisky evolves so too will people’s idea of what whisky is in terms of flavour, production, sustainability, occasion and method of consumption. That will mean that definitions will inevitably have to shift, another facet of Betts’ innovations in the way in which Scotch is made.
The arrival of a multiplicity of new, small, independent distillers also means that the SWA itself will have to change in order to accommodate their thinking, and understand their challenges – and I’d argue that it is best for all Scotch firms to be inside the tent (as the saying goes).
As Betts said, ‘2050 isn’t far away.’
22 May 2019
‘I use the Dewar’s to clean the shoes,’ Shingo tells me. We are standing next to the shoeshine stand on the staircase outside his bar, Sip. I suspect that sentence needs to be dissected. There’s just too much weirdness going on.
Shingo Gokan is a bartender who has worked in New York and Shanghai and now has his own joint, SG Club, in a surprisingly chilled part of the Shibuya district of Tokyo. The club, like a great cocktail, comes in three parts. At street level is Guzzle, a laid-back, busy, pub-style drinking den. Downstairs is Sip, a speakeasy-style den for the cocktail aficionado – there’s cunningly crafted whisky drinks galore in both places. On the first floor there’s a private members’ cigar lounge (there’s also a secret ‘ninja space’, but if I told you its location I’d have to kill you).
I suspect that doesn’t fully explain why there’s a shoeshine stand.
Cultural exchange: Japan sent a delegation of samurai to New York in 1860
‘I heard a story that when Japan was opening up to the West in the mid-19th century, some samurai went on an official visit to New York,’ Shingo continues. ‘It turns out they stayed close to where Jerry Thomas (author of the first cocktail book) had his bar. I wondered if they visited it and brought some of the ideas back to Japan.’
So, the whole of the club is an imagining of what a Japanese-influenced American bar of the 1860s might have looked like… or maybe it’s an American-influenced Japanese bar. Hard to tell when things blur. Anyway, it’s not beyond the realms of fantasy to believe that a samurai might have decided to hang up his sword and start slinging drinks instead – though it’s unlikely that he would have turned a margarita into a clear drink which tastes like Riesling… No, I’m not going to explain that one.
It seems like an outlandish story, but in 1860 a delegation of 70 samurai left Edo to travel to New York. It’s claimed that they were the first such group to leave Japan for 200 years. While it’s unclear what they drank, or whether they frequented Jerry Thomas’ bar, it was noted that they were prodigious shoppers.
Oh… the Dewar’s. Before Shingo gets a visit from an irate rep, let me tell you it’s there as a finish for the shoes, just to give them a bit of a sparkle. You can also get it in a slightly more conventional manner in Guzzle, infused with Earl Grey and served Highball-style.
Gokan’s gaff: Shingo opened Tokyo’s American-influenced SG Club in 2018
SG Club is an example of how different elements influence each other. In the bars, it is how design sets the mood and tells a story, but we can go deeper. Over the past couple of weeks, first in Elgin, and now in Tokyo, I’ve been doing blind tastings where drams are first tasted neat, and then re-tasted with one (or in Tokyo’s case two) pieces of music (much like the sensory evaluation sessions held in Scotchwhisky.com’s Future Trends Lab at The Whisky Show last year).
The remarkable thing is the manner in which the taste of the whisky changes, often dramatically, when music is included. Take Kilchoman’s smoke. In Tokyo we tasted it, and then I played an ambient piano piece by Virginia Astley. The smoke went and the sweetness was lifted further into focus. This then bled into a piece by John Surman, all multi-tracked bass and baritone saxophone. The smoke suddenly surged forward once again, more intensely than when we’d tasted the whisky in silence.
It shows how it is wrong to believe that our senses exist separately from each other. Instead they are all constantly influencing each other: colour affects taste, as does shape… and sound. High tones accentuate sweetness, and low tones heaviness, while tempo will affect feel and where the flavours concentrate themselves.
Music doesn’t add flavour; rather it acts as an aid to reveal elements which might have been hidden, accentuating some flavours or textures, adding new layers of complexity. It’s a dramatic introduction to the cross-modal world, often showing what lies beneath, where the connections are. We tend to see flavour as fixed, whereas the truth is that it is malleable, at the whim of our senses and suggestibilities.
It is another facet of the blurring of boundaries that Shingo is trying to achieve at SG. Are you in Japan or America? The 21st century or 19th? How does the decor and the lighting change your mood? Does that drink taste different in the three bars – or outside in the street? Would sipping it on the shoeshine stand trigger different flavours? Only one way to find out.
08 May 2019
Walking along Calum’s Road on Raasay as the sun shone on the Cuillin; sipping boilermakers in Aberdeen; the smell of peat and paint in the new Lagg distillery as Storm Hannah belted in from the north; a shift in The Pot Still bar in Glasgow making cocktails; being ensconced in the Copper Dog and Highlander Inn in Craigellachie, and Elgin’s Drouthy Cobbler bar as the snow fell and the whisky world walked through the doors... it’s been quite a month.
If anything linked them all (other than fun and drams) it was a sense of momentum building and a broadening of thinking around that eternal question: ‘what is whisky?’
Scotch has conceivably sat back and said: ‘It’s what we’ve always made, whereas whisky is what you will be making in the future.’
Break with tradition: BrewDog is one of several new distillers challenging convention
It’s what’s behind BrewDog’s (formerly known as LoneWolf) deconstruction of whisky making and asking why it has to be done that way and whether it can be done better; it’s there in Raasay’s building of individuality through its approach to distilling, cereal and maturation; and at Lagg as well. Arran’s new distillery may be a beautiful, sympathetic design – and another contender for ‘best distillery view’ – but at its heart it’s a centre for exploration into peat.
Even The Pot Still cocktails, while ridiculous fun (Buckie Boulevardiers anyone?) showed that there is another way to think and drink, in the same way as BrewDog is finessing the hauf and hauf (or boilermaker).
In all, there lies a shared belief that approaching whisky in a cookie-cutter fashion is a dangerous strategy. If new distillers are to make their mark then they can’t all be using the same casks, telling the same story, or thinking that just because the new make is good (or great) that the job is done. There has to be something different, grounded in quality but pushing things onwards.
I was chatting this over with Ryan Chetiyawardana [aka Mr Lyan] the other day, and he said something along the lines of: ‘It is important to have tradition as well as innovation. As long as we have both pushing each other then we move things forward.’
Tradition is a reference point, but not to the point of it causing stasis.
Another shared theme came into focus when I met up with Bob Dalgarno (ex-Macallan whisky maker) in the Copper Dog. As well as recalibrating Glenturret he is independently looking at barley and malting, his thinking chiming with that of BrewDog and Raasay (and others such as Arbikie and Bruichladdich), and Lagg’s examination of peat’s possibilities. There seems to be a rebalancing of the thinking behind flavour.
Tradition redefined: BrewDog has refined the hauf and hauf, or boilermaker, serveWhile the back end (distillation and maturation) is understood, albeit not known fully, the front end (cereal, malting, smoking, mashing and fermenting) is now being given greater focus.
Rather than the misleading statement that 70% of a whisky’s flavour comes from wood, we are now seeing how every element within the ‘process’ (how I hate that word) is important; that whisky making is holistic, and every part is of equal importance, and all interdependent.
It can be a brewer’s mentality to ferment, or give equal focus to the variety of grain being grown and how it is being cultivated. What a few years ago seemed like an interesting offshoot is now showing signs of being a movement. Underpinning it all is the belief that efficiency is not the be-all and end-all, and if quality (flavour) means accepting lower yields, then so be it.
It may seem paradoxical that a belief in continuity exists within this idea of a constantly-moving continuum, but that is to confuse continuity with consistency. I can see the need for consistent levels of quality, but really, should the ultimate aim of a distiller be to make the same thing every day of the year, forever? Should efficiencies be solely linked to this idea of consistency – making the same but making it cheaper? Or, should whisky making be about improving flavour and quality, even if that means changing it?
Welcome addition: The finishing touches are being made to Arran’s new Lagg distillery Continuity is a state of mind. It is understanding the past, but moving forward. It also applies to people. It is about passing on knowledge. There are worrying signs of a skills shortage across all parts of the industry. As whisky expands, where are the people with knowledge, talent and experience to train the new generation?
It is also about being a guardian of flavour and philosophy while also being open to change. If the new distillers can challenge and move things on with a certain ease because of a lack of branded baggage, then the established players also need to understand this idea of there being continuity within change.
In a decade’s time will we be able to look at Macallan and say there was a Bob Dalgarno style, and now there is a Sarah Burgess one? I think we could – in fact I think we should. But all that depends on firms having the strength to think beyond the bottom line and instead about how things shift and alter; of how guardianship runs from the seed, to the bottle and to the consumer; and understanding that the key isn’t consistency, but continuity. It means having faith in product and people, and also being bold.
24 April 2019
Confidence and honesty sometimes combine in weird ways. Look at what’s happened in the beer world, where Carlsberg has replaced its long-standing slogan of ‘probably the best lager in the world’ to ‘probably not the best beer in the world…’ I always liked the former. It had a certain Danish humour, delivered with a knowing wink. ‘We know it isn’t the best, but it’s fun to suggest it just might be’.
The new one seems to aim for some post-postmodern irony, but runs the risk of turning people off entirely before the second part of the tagline, ‘so we’ve changed it’, has been read. Even then, a seed of doubt has been sown.
Carlsberg… now better than it was… probably.
New approach: Carlsberg has seen a modern demand for craft beer over lager
In justifying up to this volte-face, Carlsberg prostrates itself at your feet in the manner of some medieval penitent and confesses about how it ‘lost its way. We focused on brewing quantity, not quality; we became one of the cheapest, not the best. In order to live up to our promise of being “probably the best beer in the world”, we had to start again.’ Hadn’t its brewers been tasting their own beer?
Confession can be liberating. Once you start it can be hard to stop. ‘The move comes at a time when interest in standard lager is at an all-time low,’ says Liam Newton, Carlsberg UK’s marketing vice president.
Newton explains: ‘The beer market has been forced to accept the prevailing winds of decreased consumption, with 1.6 million fewer drinkers than five years ago, alongside the emergence of craft beer – with its new flavours and brand tribalism grabbing drinkers’ attention.’ He’s right. My friends don’t drink standard lager any more. They drink ales and talk about hops and sourness. So, it’s time for Carlsberg to reformulate, repackage and relaunch. Trying to tap into the new beardy beer market by doing something a wee bit differently. Probably.
Admitting you’ve got things wrong is a rare thing in a brand. ‘Mr Kipling makes pretty average cakes’; ‘McDonalds – not really lovin’ it’; ‘Macallan: make the call… helllllppp’. You just don’t hear it.
Carlsberg is right for saying that the beer world had moved on. It probably realised that when it started the joint venture with the enterprising Brooklyn Brewery. Actually, I had some Carlsberg Jacobson Vintage just last week. It was bloody great.
In those simpler days when beer meant lager, Carlsberg might have been able to stick its tongue in its cheek and say it was probably the best, but today how can you compare a lager to a porter, or a super-hopped IPA, or a saison?
Modern tipple: Will Carlsberg’s #newbrew campaign help it regain popularity?
Who in their right mind can even say what ‘the best’ is? Carlsberg’s new claim coincides with the start of the drinks awards season, with bottles garlanded with medals like children at a nursery sports day. ‘Never mind if your egg smashed Jimmy, here’s a prize for turning up.’
No matter how good the organisation, criteria and judging panel, a competition will only ever be a snapshot of who performed best on that day – and who entered in the first place. Even if every whisky in the world was being tasted, the results would still be influenced by numerous uncontrollable factors: the flights, the order of tasting, humidity, glassware, you name it.
As long as you accept that, you can treat a competition as a bit of fun that gives a good, sober, indication of quality. Both of Carlsberg’s claims follow that line. It’s almost as if they’d taken advice from fellow Dane Søren Kierkegaard and his attestation that ‘subjectivity is the truth’. Kierkegaard’s point was that you cannot root faith on objective evidence or reason: ‘...the paradoxical character of the truth is its objective uncertainty’. Okay, he was concerned with Christianity rather than beer, but you get my drift.
Despite trying to be objective, competitions, and brewing, will always stumble over that truth. Damn that existentialism.
Whether we are brewers, judges or drinkers, all we can ever say is ‘probably the best today’, a statement which already contains the dark truth: ‘and probably not the best, but, hey, I like it.’
That makes sense. Probably.
Trust your palates.
17 April 2019
Provenance is an increasingly important factor in our decision-making process when it comes to food and drink. Where does it come from, who grew it, what are the air miles involved? Establishing a connection between what is on your plate or in your glass, and a place and a person is important. We want to know. Single malt has been a beneficiary of this trend – a drink made at one specific place on the earth’s surface. That’s powerfully attractive.
As whisky evolves, the idea of provenance grows to include barley and the agricultural aspects of flavour. What goes into the distillery matters as much as what goes on inside of it.
What then of the warehouse?
Spanish provenance: Valdespino is one of several Sherry bodegas in Jerez (Photo: Marcel van Gils)
The days of the whisky trade being happy to use any old cask as long as it came from an oak tree have long gone. Most distillers have wood policies in place, and all understand how vital the interaction between oak, spirit and air is on the whisky’s final flavour. But if wood is important, then so is its provenance.
We know that there are three main types of casks: ex-Bourbon, ex-Sherry and refill, but that is no longer sufficient in this new provenance-oriented world. The first two terms are meaningless if you don’t know the cask’s previous history.
As Bourbon is made from a wide range of different mashbills, the char levels will vary between producers, as will the length of time the Bourbon has spent maturing. All will have an impact on the character of the extractives in the wood.
Sherry is even more of a minefield. Despite a long trading relationship with bodegas, I wonder how much the whisky trade actually knows about the wine itself: fortified, made from Palomino, and aged in solera either biologically under a layer of protective flor – giving fino and manzanilla; or oxidatively – giving amontillado, Palo Cortado or oloroso. All have very distinct flavour profiles, so which one was used for that ‘Sherry cask’?
Fortified wine: There are a multitude of bodegas producing various styles of Sherry
Was the cask ex-solera? If so, the wood will be virtually inactive as bodegas want their fino or manzanilla to be fresh, flor-accented and wood-free, while in the other grouping, the impact of oxidation is more significant than the oak type. You’ll get more influence from the Sherry type used if ex-solera casks are used, but very little oak interaction.
These days, most ‘Sherry casks’ used in the whisky trade are made from new wood and only seasoned with the wine. Some distillers will work with cooperages and specify oak type, toast level, type of wine used and length of time of the seasoning. Not all do however. Using new wood means the oak type is more significant. European oak has become the norm because it adds grip, colour and aroma, but American oak is also used. The flavour profile is significantly different between the two.
The size of cask – butt, puncheon, gorda or hogshead – will also have a part to play, as will the seasoning Sherry. What type was it, how long was it in the cask and most importantly, what was the quality of the wine going in?
In other words, it’s provenance. The quality of the final whisky will be not only determined by the quality of the wood, and the coopering, but also the quality of the Sherry which went into the cask. I’m always tempted to ask producers if they know not just what type of Sherry was used, but who made it and whether they’ve tasted it – and if they’d drink it?
Is it even Sherry at all? Does it come from the demarcated region of Jerez, or from Montilla, which sits to the north, or somewhere else again? Montilla makes excellent fortified wines, but as it is warmer they have a different, fatter character (this is also where much of the Pedro Ximénez hails from). Will a cask rejuvenated with ‘Sherry’ in Scotland be the same in flavour terms as one seasoned in Jerez?
Prime location: Jerez is a specially demarcated region for Sherry in Spain
All this might seem as if I’m being pedantic for the sake of it, but think of this. Within the next decade there will be 140 Scottish distilleries with mature whisky. As the market expands, you might expect that the flavour options would increase significantly, but the opposite is more likely to be the case. What defines a whisky’s character style might be down to small, but significant differences between it and its 139 rivals.
Whisky making has parallels to the philosophy of marginal gains that Dave Brailsford placed at the heart of British cycling; the multiple tiny tweaks and adjustments which gave his teams a vital advantage.
Whisky’s marginal gains can come in many forms and that includes the cask and its history. Without a deep understanding of, in this case, Sherry, one potential element of difference has been removed.
You can apply all of this to ‘wine casks’. Some distillers will name the type of wine, maybe even the producer, but I wonder how much of that is for PR rather than flavour. Like Sherry, it’s the finer details which matter. Bordeaux wine casks from two different chateaux may use different oak types, different grape varieties and toasting levels. One chateau might use the casks for three vintages, the other only for two. All of this makes a difference. I’m not even going to go into the options which can exist within rum or brandy. Having a forensic understanding of each is time-consuming, but also hugely exciting in terms of crafting flavour.
Provenance matters, because provenance is flavour.
10 April 2019
As a child I drove my late mother to distraction every Easter. Let me rephrase that. As a child, I drove my late mother to distraction. One of the many – and as a parent now I see justified – reasons for her baffled frustration at my behaviour would come, without fail, in the middle of summer. She’d be rummaging in a cupboard for something and pull out a box. ‘This is your Easter egg,’ she’d say. ‘You’ve still not eaten it!’ She might have then fetched me a mighty buffet around the ears.
The offending chocolate shell, still in its cheap shiny paper, would be placed in front of me. I’d look at it, wait until she’d left the room and hide it again. Inevitably, it would be excavated from its second hiding place later again in the year, the chocolate now dusted with white mould. I think it would then be thrown out.
She’d (rightly I now see) raise the issue with my father. He’d gently chide me, but I knew his heart wasn’t in it. You see, like me, he didn’t like Easter eggs. Eventually, she got the message. The eggs stopped.
Worst nightmare: Broom is averse to chocolate, particularly of the cheap, egg-shaped variety
Since it’s confession time, although I’ve hosted my fair share of whisky and chocolate classes – a series with the astonishing chocolate sommelier Sanae Hirata in Tokyo being a highlight – I don’t actually care that much for chocolate.
That isn’t to say I don’t find the pairing fascinating. I do. I get a thrill from seeing how flavours and textures match or oppose, set up accords and contrasts, why the alcohol cuts through the fats in the chocolate to release flavours, how different fermented worlds can work together. I get it. It works. It’s just that chocolate won’t feature in my life between these events. It just isn’t something I seek out. Chocolate bars, boxes, buttons, brownies exist, but are things I can take or leave, mostly the latter.
All of this means I am still agnostic when it comes to the whole chocolate egg ritual at Easter. Don’t get me wrong, I do like Easter. I’ve fond memories of painting hard-boiled eggs with my Perth cousins and rolling them (and ourselves) down the hill. That was fun. That was Easter for me. Actually, I now realise, ever slow on the uptake, being with them was Easter.
If I don’t indulge in the chocolate egg orgy, organising Easter egg hunts is a different thing altogether. I take great, my family might say obsessive, care with those.
Colourful creations: Painting eggs with family is a fulfilling way to spend Easter, says Broom
First take the eggs: a few handfuls of small ones, with a clutch or two of hen-sized, and distribute them around the site, be that garden, or house. Be as fiendish as you can. Place some in plain view, others deliberately out of the reach of small arms and eye-lines, a few in places which will never be found until, by chance, they turn up later in the year spotted with white mould. Have one large egg as prize for each of the participants.
Some will devour them, others – my daughter for example – will eat the gathered ones and leave the big egg. It will sit in a cupboard for months, much to the frustration of her mother. When it is rediscovered, now dusted with white mould, I will gently chide her, but my heart won’t be in it.
Sit back and watch the fun begin. Smile as they happily discover some. Grin that little bit more when they don’t. Go and get some whisky and pour yourself a dram. Add ice, and a mixer of choice (it is the daytime after all). Sip slowly. Pair the whisky to the enjoyment of the moment.
03 April 2019
Another man gone. Scott Walker’s voice has been with me since that first childhood inkling that those huge, emotionally wrought Walker Brothers singles had a quality which elevated them above standard fare. One phrase from that seductive voice and I was hooked, all the way through the first solo albums, and in more recent times with his extraordinary avant-garde explorations into sound, voice and modernist poetry.
‘Have you heard the new Scott Walker?’ friends would say when one of the last tranche would emerge. ‘I bought it. Of course. I mean, it’s Scott. Awful though. I wish he’d do stuff like Scott 3 or Scott 4 again.’
Modern artist: Scott Walker was noted for his music’s progressive style
I didn’t agree, but I knew what they meant. I still listen to those late ’60s albums and love them, but Walker (1943-2019) wasn’t about nostalgia. He was out on his own – the bleak quartet of songs he penned on Nite Flights, then Climate of Hunter, before the sonic explorations of Tilt, The Drift, Bish Bosch and Soused. Each took his vision further out, exploring areas into which no other musician from his background had dared to venture.
Now, looking at Scott Walker’s corpus, the trajectory becomes clear – seeds sown lyrically and musically as far back as Walker Brothers B-side albums. In retrospect you can see how, in his subject matter, his timbre, the arrangements, he was steadily subverting the mainstream before heading off into parts unknown. If you went along with him, fine; if you didn’t, he would still keep on going. He was never going to come back.
As he wrote in the sleeve notes of Scott 2: ‘It’s the work of a lazy, self-indulgent man. Now the nonsense must stop, and the serious business must begin.’
It’s in the passing of artists like him that you start to wonder why we insist on preserving our heroes at the point when we fall in love with them; keeping them in a permanent state of perfect youth, singing the hits on a loop until the end of time.
What right have we to thwart their ambitions? In all honesty, would you really have bought an endless stream of Scott albums, or would you have given up long before Scott 50 came out? ‘Not as good as he used to be,’ we’d say. ‘The old boy’s trying too hard. Wish he’d just play the hits.’
Pop icon: Walker first achieved musical fame with the Walker Brothers
By rejecting this, he became one of the few musicians who refused to look back, keeping company with the likes of Bowie, Beefheart, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Radiohead… you get the drift. All artists who challenge convention, refusing to conform to our demands that they stay still just for our enjoyment and act as the aural wallpaper for our middle-aged dinner parties. Rejecters of nostalgia. Slippery visionaries.
I know what you’re thinking, reader. ‘Here he is, banging on again about dead musicians rather than writing about whisky,’ but I can see parallels here, especially if you consider whisky-making as a creative rather than a purely commercial act.
The artists who see their work as part of a continuum know that each song or recording is just one step further down the road. What’s next is more interesting than what has just been created. Is there a Scott Walker of whisky? ‘Scotch Walker’… now that would have been a collaboration, but would anyone have dared to make that call?
Don’t get me wrong. I’ll happily enjoy my beautifully made, mature, complex, balanced Scotch in the same way that I will still sink into Scott 4, or be transported by the melancholy baroque of The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine…, but even in that moment of real pleasure, at the back of my mind there’s a voice, nagging away, whispering: ‘Sure it’s amazing… but is that all there is?’
I get that it would be difficult for an established whisky to embark on a Walker-esque strategy, but surely even within the constraints of brand there should be space for evolution. We need people out there taking risks, staying true to their vision (and having one in the first place), influencing, prodding and challenging the status quo. For that to happen there first must be honesty, faith and vision, and bravery (in terms of liquid quality), and communication.
Scott 2: Walker’s hit single Jackie brought him fame early in his solo career
The Scott albums almost invisibly refashioned the ballad; his lush, romantic baritone singing words of alienation and loss. The late works pushed this into a new sonic and linguistic landscape. It showed how the experimental helps to define the middle of the road, how adventurers can be influencers.
You need both, the familiar and pleasing, the challenging and extreme. The latter feeds the former. Without establishing an alternative, if there isn’t someone out there with an uncompromising vision, you will end up with a bland, beige soup.
‘Don’t upset the fans, stick to the formula.’ If you only do that, you’ll be on the nostalgia circuit before you know it; like Scotch was in the 1980s. Half-empty clubs, dust gathering in the corners, the audience growing old with you. Fat Elvis sweats on a Las Vegas stage as the audience chat among themselves.
It would be naive to think that any finance department would permit someone to commit commercial suicide on an established whisky brand, yet once you see the similarities with music you start to realise that rather than creating new work, whisky is in danger of doing little more than remixing the old hits, or pushing a deluxe box set of rarities to the rich and besotted (or gullible).
Who is taking the risks and saying: ‘This is my vision?’ Who dares to upset existing drinkers? What’s exciting and really different? Is Scotch scared? Scott wasn’t.
20 March 2019
Jay Rayner has just celebrated two decades as restaurant critic of The Observer, which means a lot of lunches and dinners, and probably larger trousers. It’s also a long time to continue to be, as he is, engaged, perceptive and witty. After 20 years I’d imagine a sense of ennui would set in. ‘Been there, eaten that’ would be most humans’ response. So, congratulations Jay.
The only reason I know this is that he wrote a piece on the anniversary. His inspiration, he says, was the work of his peers Matthew Fort and Jonathan Meades, ‘who both made it clear that food is not just about taste and texture. It’s about politics and history, about love and sex, the environment, architecture and so much more. I wanted the chance to write about all of that’.
In-depth look: Jay Rayner highlights the importance of the story behind the food (Photo: Bella West)
Food writing is about more than just what the chef has put on a plate; it is about where the food was grown and by whom, and how it fits with a place and a culture. If we are what we eat, then what we eat embeds us on the planet – it touches us in multifarious ways. Where does that leave drinks writing?
This thing we now call ‘whisky writing’ started to form in the 1980s because of the growing interest in single malt. The field was open, there were many areas to explore. Information on production was still handled with a certain caution (and, in some cases, suspicion) by distillery managers who, in the words of former Diageo master distiller Mike Nicolson, were ‘strange men with oil stains on their tweed jackets who were locked away from the public gaze’.
Now, every distillery has been logged multiple times; the same questions asked and reported, the same stories repeated, the same people interviewed. As food writing has continued to move onwards, the focus in drink seems to have narrowed, and the flow of ideas has clotted.
While it is always essential to return and revisit a distillery, each time it has to be with the intention of learning something new. If all the information is already out there, why ask for it again? Instead, the question should be: what angle hasn’t been tried?
Last year, at the World Whisky Forum, InchDairnie’s Ian Palmer spoke of the death spiral that would happen if the industry only talked to (and then agreed with) itself. The same applies to writing. It has to be more than just tasting notes and the same distillery profiles, and tossed-off trivia.
Worldly influence: The story of food, like whisky, originates from people and places (Photo: Rawpixel)
If food is also about politics, then so is whisky. If what is on your plate has a cultural resonance, then the same applies to what is in your glass. If it matters where food comes from and how it affects farming, then it matters where barley and wood and peat come from as well.
Writing can be a way to get into brand ambassadorship (one of the toughest and, often, most thankless gigs out there, by the way), but that should not be the sole aim. As a writer you might get sent samples and maybe go on trips or to events, but freebies are not a reason to start writing.
The story isn’t the liquid, or the distillery. It is what lies behind these structures and products. It is the ‘why’ as much as the ‘what’. Writing isn’t about you, your profile or your ambition. It is about the people, place or liquid you are writing about. You don’t matter. It’s not about clicks, it is about quality.
We all need to look at whisky, wine, beer or food, and see the bigger picture. We need to be provocative, challenging, entertaining and see connections to show how, like food, whisky is a lens through which to understand the world.
13 March 2019
We inch our way up. Kick-step, ice axe to balance, stumble forward. The sky and mountain have blurred into one. Not that I could see, were it any different. I’ve had to take my glasses off as, snow-spattered and misted, they were completely useless. I only needed to see a yard ahead in any case. The holes left by Will’s footsteps are cyan-ringed, revealing the ice below. Another gust of wind forces us to stop. Then on we go, kick, step, stumble. I look at Arthur. There’s ice on his beard. All you can do is laugh.
I’m sure, reader, that your impressions of what a standard new product launch would go something like: luxury hotel, dinner cooked by a Michelin-starred chef, a hired celeb to smile and hold something, buckets of booze. It’s not always exactly like that, but this is the first time in my experience that, in order to get the first taste of a dram, you have to climb a 3,000ft mountain. In Glencoe. In winter. In a blizzard.
Wintry whisky: The climbers on the summit of Buachaille Etive Beag, ready for a chilly dram [Photo: Jonny McMillan]
To be fair, Jonny McMillan cannot control the weather. Even Berry Bros & Rudd has limits to its reach. His idea was a sound one. On paper at least. The firm’s new Perspective range of blends has images of Scottish landscapes on the labels. As Buachaille Etive Mor is on the 40-year-old, let’s crack the first bottle on its summit. Royal Mile Whisky’s Arthur Motley and Highlander Inn’s Tatsuya Minagawa joined me in pandering to his mad notion.
The closer the day got, the worse the forecast became. The big Buachaille was out of the question – a risk of avalanches – so we headed up its little brother Buachaille Etive Beag. Little is relative; it’s still in excess of 3,000ft. Thankfully – and wisely – Jonny had hired Will Manners as a guide. If you are attempting something like this, it’s best to have a man who has winter climbed in South Georgia, the Rockies and Himalayas on your side.
And so it continues. Grasp rock, slip, plod. Baby steps, flounder in thigh-deep drifts. The gradient, once relentless, seems to ease, then there’s scattered rubble in the snow, and then the summit cairn. The bottle is produced. Glasses as well (this is Berry’s after all) and frozen-fingered we toast ourselves with a now wind-chill-filtered and spindrift-diluted dram. Warmth at last. Does it taste good? What do you think?
New view: Berry Bros & Rudd’s Perspective series features Scottish landscapes on its labels [Photo: Jonny McMillan]The celebration over, we head down. The mountain is tolerating us at best and while it is never frightening, you must be wary over where to place your feet, conscious of every step and accepting of what it may throw your way. You walk up any mountain on its terms, not yours. We hadn’t conquered anything. We had worked with it, become part of it, in order to get to the top.
There is something in the idea of summiting, the ‘because it is there’ impulse, which can be aligned to some aspects of collecting: seeking out the extreme, the rare, the remote. There is another way though, one outlined in Nan Shepherd’s book The Living Mountain, where she talks not of walking up a mountain but being, ‘out of [her] body and into the mountain’.
I can see both sides. The climb has rekindled my old desire to be in the hills again, to stand there on the top. There is reward in that, just as there is in getting that bottle of prized whisky. Yet a stronger urge, that of walking into the mountain, is there as well, opening my mind and body and letting the mountain speak to me, rather than the other way round. That too is like whisky.
Spirited summit: Buachaille Etive Beag [centre] reminds Broom of the lengths collectors go to acquire unusual whiskies [Photo: Pxhere]
Collecting is less about possession than buying to understand and share. That, I suppose, is the difference between the collector with a locked cupboard for their investment portfolio, and the whisky lover with open bottles; the walker into mountains and the acquirer of peaks who walks up but cannot see – which is ironic, given my current state.
On the descent, inching over lumps of granite, the cloud clears and I rest beside a burn brimming with snowmelt, looking over to the Aonach Eagach ridge, smothered in snow. A raven scuds down the valley below us. Our slow progress, the speed of the bird, ancient heave of rock, blast of wind, water wellings. All combine.
Back at the car, Jonny assures me he’ll send samples of the range. I wonder whether, to get the proper effect, I’d best taste them inside a freezer. I do know though that the next time I try the 40-year-old, part of me will be back on the mountain, happy, cold, aching, thrilled. It has become part of the dram.
27 February 2019
This might seem a strange place to write about this. I didn’t know the musician Mark Hollis (1955-2019), who has died at age 64. I haven’t a clue whether he liked whisky or not. Why, then, is he here? Because there was a quality about his music which aligned itself to the manner in which we sometimes come to terms with the phenomena around us – it could be a landscape, a look, a piece of art, a plate of food, or in what we are all apparently obsessed about, a glass of something.
Hollis started out in a synth-pop band called Talk Talk. They were good at what they did and had some hits. Not, to be honest, the music I was listening to in the 1980s. Then came Spirit of Eden which oscillated between ambience and jazz, loudness and almost silence, emotion and detachment. It was arranged, but seemed improvisatory, thrillingly haunting and immersive.
‘Haunting genius’: Mark Hollis did not allow his creativity to be restricted by dogma nor genre
Spirit and its even further out companion Laughing Stock moved beyond genre. You could identify elements – the way the cymbals set up a pulse which was not always followed, how the guitar then played across everything, switches from electronic noise to harmony, peaks which lasted too long, followed by abrupt silences. Music as collage. They were unsurpassed in modern music. Naturally, they hardly sold.
The band split up and seven years later Hollis resurfaced with a solo album. Here the space has widened, the music is almost becalmed, existing in space and tone. The creaks of a stool, a voice so close it is in your head. Woodwind and classical arrangements. At times things are barely there at all. The references shift again. Aligned to ECM or modern classical composers like Morton Feldman.
The lyrics are gnomic poems speaking of war, loss, wanderings and the search of and for a spirit. There’s something of Schubert’s Winterreise. ‘I’d like to make music that can exist outside the timeframe,’ he once said. Outwith time itself.
‘“Forget our fate”
The peddler sings
Set up to sell my soul.
I've lived a life for wealth to bring
And yet I'll gaze
At the colour of spring
Immerse in that one moment
Left in love with everything.’
[The Colour of Spring, 1998]
‘I wanted to make a record where you can’t hear when it has been made… I also… like the character and the realism of acoustic instruments… I adjusted the volume of the instruments, so the manner in which these instruments resonate are a part of the total sound. I looked for instruments who could grow above the limitations of a certain style like a clarinet, trumpet and flute.’
The limitations he spoke of are as much about technique and approach as physical. To be truly creative is to transcend boundaries and genres and the restrictions of dogma.
And that, reader, is the creative impulse. Taking something and making it greater, but not by adding things. Complexity isn’t necessarily about accumulation; it is more often about having the courage to strip elements away. It is all there. It is how he approached his music. It is how we can approach that liquid in the glass, or life itself. Quietly, immersed in the moment.
It’s My Life, Talk Talk (Live at Ahoy in Rotterdam, 1984):
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