There’s no problem categorising whisky flavour profiles, but have we been doing it the right way?
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
13 September 2017
Late night, slick pavements, walking past bags in doorways and orange peel littering the gutter. The scene shifts to peeling cucumber and making melon balls next to starched linen.
Shake the head. I can hear the creak of leather as I get off the bike next to an old-growth forest, filled with redwood and sandalwood, resin oozing from trunks, a distant camp fire and sage smoke lifting off from the hogans in the desert, the rustle of dry corn husks under my feet.
Open my eyes. I’m not on some lost Californian highway, but in London’s Somerset House, halfway through the hallucinatory experience in 10 acts that comprises Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent.
Each of the installations in this sense-expanding experience presents you with a different setting: white scarves tied to a bench, or an unmade bed reeking of last night’s lovemaking.
They are cues, or clues perhaps, which lead to a certain degree of auto-suggestion. It’s hard not to think of chainsaw oil, cut timber and campfires fires when you’re sitting on a log, but Lyn Harris’ Charcoal does exactly that even away from the installation.
The exhibition showcases how perfume is currently being driven by ‘experimental’ brands which are pushing what was a lucrative but safe luxury market in a new and radical direction.
Perfume, in this reading, is no longer about smelling good, or sexy, or elegant. Today’s scents are about telling a story, taking you on an olfactory journey.
Perfume installation: Antoine Lie’s Secretions Magnifiques
Some demonstrate a shift from the exotic to the explicitly erotic: Antoine Lie’s Secretions Magnifiques combines the aromas of semen, blood, sweat, saliva and breast milk.
Others seem more abstract: a white cube containing Geza Shoen’s Molecule 01 (made from a single molecule) conjures up a picture of weeping while reading a newly-printed book; my night-time city was Mark Buxton’s CDG2, the brief for which was ‘the smell of a swimming pool of ink’.
Then there are those which are olfactory dioramas of place: my desert highway is David Seth Moltz’s El Cosmico, while Harris’ Charcoal is inspired by her Scottish grandfather. I’d willingly wear either of those every day.
All of this is bound up in the belief that for perfume to remain relevant it has to change its frame of reference and be experiential, not simply aromatically complex. We demand stories. We can now wear them on our skin, like scented, molecular tattoos.
Olfactory diorama: Mark Buxton’s CGD2 has notes of ‘night-time city’
There has been an equally dramatic shift in the way in which perfumers, rather than being the person behind the curtain, are now the focal point; and also how these new scents are open about the science behind their creation.
Yes, these are synthetic molecules, they say, but look at how they are used creatively and artistically. The ‘disruption' caused by the arrival of these new scents isn’t making perfume more luxurious. By incorporating the wonders of the apparently mundane, it is making it real.
In the accompanying catalogue, perfume writer/consultant Lizzie Ostrom has written one of those essays which should be mandatory reading for anyone involved in the making, selling or drinking of whisky – and not just because she uses the drink as an example.
‘Perfume is becoming less like fashion and more like food and drink,’ she writes. ‘…We are being invited to pay attention when we smell our scents, just as we might pay attention while tasting a whisky.’ You don’t just wear a scent, the argument goes – you are a participant in it.
It’s ironic, then, that as the perfume industry moves away from an over-reliance on packaging and image towards this idea of experience, whisky is moving in the opposite direction.
One reason for perfume’s shift is a rejection of the old school belief that because aroma was so difficult to talk about, the only way to describe (and sell) a perfume was through its look. It was about surface, not content. Now, it would seem, there is a realisation that you can engage with people by talking about aroma, function, and the creative process.
Visitors were encouraged to smell the perfumes, then write down their impressions. The responses were fascinating to read. Because no-one was trained in the language of perfumery, they weren’t constrained by orthodoxy.
No top, middle, or base notes, there was precious little ‘sillage’, and no-one seemed concerned with ‘dry down’. In its place were impressions, jokes, doodles, likes and dislikes. Honest responses.
All of this made me wonder about the formulaic way we talk about whisky. If the flavour wheel has been turned on its head, does the tasting note also need a reappraisal? Nose, palate, finish, this, then this, then this… Now, repeat. Yes, there are advantages in having an agreed method, but are our responses not also constrained by its formulaic nature?
Being able to see the difference between a ‘fruity’, a ‘fragrant’, and a ‘smoky’ whisky gives people confidence, but what comes next? Dare to try something more radical? Can the tasting note not be about what this whisky speaks of at this precise moment, can it not tell a story of place, or of memory? Seen this way, and tasting becomes a phenomenological experience, not an analytical one.
The exhibition also made me wonder whether you can put a story within a blend? Should we think of ‘wearing’ whisky as well as drinking it? Perhaps that form of disruption and freeing of language can help to put you in a different creative space as a whisky maker and consumer.
Re-reading Ostrom’s and co-curator Claire Catterall’s introductions, I started to replace ‘perfume’ with ‘whisky’. Catterall’s essay then read as follows: ‘It is precisely whisky’s position as an object of material culture that makes it compelling.
‘Whisky appeals to us on many levels, not just the abstract or artistic. It signifies who we are and what we aspire to, where we come from and where we want to go, and of our time and place in the world.’
Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent runs until 17 September.
30 August 2017
Hard to believe that it’s been a decade. Not simply because time appears to speed up as you age, but because it is as if he is still there. Even now, I pause and think, ‘what would Michael do?’ The reply is immediate, delivered with lugubrious Yorkshire tones. ‘Avoid cliché.’ I see him, at his desk, looking over his specs at me, a quizzical, amused light in his eyes. A look that still contained a warning. Michael might have taught me about whisky, but more importantly he taught me about writing.
I first came across him on television as The Beer Hunter, a series on the infant Channel 4, where he toured the breweries of Europe discovering beers which none of us had heard of. It seemed a dream job. As importantly, in those days when wine was still seen as being beyond our social reach, he showed that the humblest drink – the one we supped in sticky-floored boozers – had history, heritage and an array of flavours every bit as fascinating and complex.
Legendary writer: Michael Jackson helped elevate whisky’s status
When, years later, I had to do a wheat beer feature for the paper I was working on, I had the brilliant idea of doing a panel tasting. I knew little about the subject. [Michael raises an eyebrow]. OK, I knew nothing about the subject, so could deflect my ignorance by hosting and hopefully learning at the same time. I asked him because he was famous, never thinking he’d turn up. Of course he did. He talked, and tasted. We all listened and learned. Our friendship started at that point.
I remember visits to the Dickensian chaos of his office where you negotiated your way to the desk, through shattered columns of ancient press releases, magazines, and quite probably old rugby league programmes. He seemed to be deliberately building his legacy physically around him. [Another look. I know, Michael. My room is in much the same state].
There were the trips to Scotland and Japan. On my first overnight to Tokyo, he charmed the stewardess – what a way he had with the ladies – to get an upgrade because ‘I need to plug in my laptop. I’m a writer.’ On arrival, his first words to me were: ‘Japanese vending machines are amazing. You can get beer from them.’ Another look, that gentle grin. I hurried off. Returned and picked up his extra bags, or tried to. ‘Books, buddy. Never trust your publisher to send them, or send enough.’ Bag carrier to Michael Jackson. That was something for the CV.
The extra books made perfect sense. He was famous by then. The boy from Huddersfield, who had started on the local paper, worked on The Daily Herald and then founded Campaign, had not just made his name by being the first serious writer about beer but had also by then helped elevate whisky – single malt, especially – from an oddity consumed by landed gentry and obscure Scottish poets, into a drink with a new following.
Would there be a single malt category without his work? Undoubtedly yes. Would it have evolved in the same way? Probably not. His words helped to craft the way in which this new phenomenon – single malt, small batch Bourbon, Japanese whisky – was appreciated, talked about... and therefore sold.
Funny, isn’t it, that the decade since his death has seen the biggest changes globally that whisky has ever encountered, while ‘whisky writing’ has become, if not a career, then something which is commonplace [‘Ahead of the curve, buddy’] even if hardly any of the new generation will have heard of him, or read his works. [He smiles. Shrugs]
Although he always dismissed himself as a hack [‘We’re all hacks. Don’t forget it. It’s the story which matters’] his prose was remarkable. Clear, concise, wearing its knowledge lightly, yet capable of eloquence and a profundity rare in this subject. Here’s the opening paragraph from his 1987 book, The World Guide to Whisky:
‘Some spirits are timorous, others feel the need for disguise, but whisky is bold and proud. There are spirits of such aimless material origin that they must be distilled to the point of breathlessness: driven by a colourless, tasteless submission that passes in the West for vodka. They are for drinkers who suffer from Fear of Flavour, an affliction of our times… In its nobility, its profundity, its bigness, its complexity, whisky of either spelling is a pleasure meant for men and women who enjoy drink, and probably food.’
I like that ‘probably food’. Makes me smile. The rest? It should be enough to make people want to read more, and writers to either give up, or perhaps try that little bit harder. He was the best because he was a writer and wrote with a journalist’s eye for detail – and an understanding that he would never know everything.
‘You’ve been here before, Michael,’ said one distillery manager to him when we were visiting. ‘Why are you taking notes?’
‘Because you always learn something new,’ Michael replied, decades into his work.
He was seriously ill for the last few years of his life, but never stopped writing. If anything, he seemed to be liberated from the treadmill, the hack work. The result was a remarkable flaring of pieces about his early days for Slow Food, and a witty farewell in Whisky Advocate, explaining the different ‘Michaels’ who emerged, depending on the symptoms and what drugs he was on at the time. Read them, read it all, if you can find it.
He was my mentor. More importantly he was my friend.
[He looks at me again. ‘This is getting maudlin. Let’s just talk about jazz’].
OK… Coltrane or Dexter Gordon? You first.
30 August 2017
I’ve had a slightly strange relationship with flavour wheels. Obviously they make sense, otherwise they wouldn’t be so widely used. I use them myself, albeit carefully. The research paper which gave us the current Scotch whisky flavour wheel remains a go-to for me when I’m trying to get a fix on not just what aromas are there, but where they come from.
When I’m out and about teaching, I get folk to look at the standard Scotch wheel while I (try to) explain how it works, from the bullseye of cardinal aromas in the centre and the subdivisions of aroma/flavour in each outward ring, to the creative space of your own memories which exists in the white space beyond. Then I ask them to put it away, as having a flavour wheel next to you when you are tasting is too much of a temptation. You can’t help glancing at it, but the moment you do, the words on it inveigle their way into your brain – driving you towards a potentially inaccurate and less personal analysis.
So, a flavour wheel is useful before a tasting, and certainly after, and as a way of showing whisky’s diversity of flavour, it remains invaluable. But while it is a handy tool, it is not one (it’s fair to say) which has been front of mind.
Until, that is, I had the distinct honour to sit recently on a panel with Dr Don Livermore, master blender at Canada’s Corby distillery; and my old buddy the Canadian whisky guru Davin de Kergommeaux.
The class was a fascinating exploration of the flavour profiles of the different grains and distillation processes at Dr Don’s distillery. He did all of the heavy lifting, while Davin and I chipped in with tasting notes for all of the new makes.
Central to it was Dr Don’s new Canadian whisky flavour wheel. ‘I’d looked at the old one for years and always wondered what wasn’t quite right about it,’ he explained. ‘Then I realised, the issue is that it has flavour at the centre. From a blender’s perspective, that’s not the starting point. What if, I wondered, you put the three drivers of flavour – grain, yeast, and wood – there instead and then look at what flavours they produce?’
So, he did – and it makes sense. Now you can see what yeast adds (fruity, floral, soapy, sulphur), what wood contributes (cask notes, ‘finish’ notes) or what each grain type can give. This being Canada, the range is wider than is (currently) used in Scotland. All of these building blocks are further subdivided and then, to please geeks such as myself, the outermost ring is a breakdown of which chemical compound each of these is made from. Finally, he then uses the flavour wheel to make graphic fingerprints of each of his new makes or blends.
For me, it has opened up a new understanding of the complexities of whisky – and is a beautifully simple explanation of what a distiller and/or blender has to play with. While giving a more scientific analysis, it remains focused on flavour, which it strikes me to have been the theme for this holiday season as far as I’m concerned.
Cataloguing how flavours arise is a way of easing ourselves away from the (over)reliance on regionality. The two are hard to reconcile, y’see. The drinker who has started with Glenlivet or Glenfiddich may well feel confident to then try something else from Speyside and wander unwittingly into the meaty power of Mortlach. Likewise, the lover of smoky Islay might be bemused by the unpeated Bruichladdich, or vice versa. The drinker exploring the Highlands (and how amorphous is that ‘region’?) will wonder why Glenmorangie isn’t like Dalmore, or Aberfeldy isn’t the same at Ben Nevis, if they are ostensibly from the same area. You get my drift.
Dr Don’s fingerprints are one way to show not only where flavour comes from, but the variety which exists within the possibilities. The Single Malt Flavour Map [full disclosure: I’m still involved in its management] does the same. Both demonstrate how individuality is key.
We can’t however expect everyone to have a flavour wheel (or map) to hand when they walk into a shop or bar. If we are to shift thinking away from region to flavour, then we also need whisky lists to be organised in terms of flavour or style rather than where the distillery is located (it would also allow blends to be included, by the way). Wines have been arranged in this fashion for years, so why not whisky? The wheel and map are the starting point for this new(er) recategorisation.
I’m writing this during a brief sojourn in London when, in need of wine, I discovered the truly excellent Theatre of Wine. For a second or two, it was hard to work out how the wines were arranged. There wasn’t the normal division into countries, internal regions, and price. Instead the world’s wines sat next to each other. It seemed that the higher up the shelves you went, the more expensive things became, which made sense. Then it became apparent. All the light reds were in one column, medium bodied in the next, etc. The same applied to whites. It worked a treat, throwing new wines, styles, and countries at me (and I might have passed over the Georgian red if it had been hidden away in an ‘others’ section). In some ways it’s an approach akin to that taken by London whisky bar Black Rock, but not by many other bars or retailers.
Wheels, maps, lists and shelves arranged by flavour help to communicate diversity. Because consumers understand flavour as a concept, this gives them confidence, which in turn makes them relax. And when that happens, they enjoy exploring. Simple, really.
23 August 2017
After my recent musings about usquebaugh, some helpful soul wrote in, pointing out that such a drink couldn’t be called ‘whisky’ under the Scotch Whisky Act. Well, duh… They also added obligingly that ‘...if it were labelled “usquebaugh”, then it would be banned under reg. 6(2): “A person must not label, package, sell, advertise or promote any drink in any other way that creates a likelihood of confusion on the part of the public as to whether the drink is Scotch Whisky”.’
Well, I’d say that this was open to interpretation. As they themselves admitted, Dewar’s Honey was out there, as was J&B’s equivalent (quite why they called it Urban Honey, rather than J&Bee is beyond me), so a precedent has been set even if, as my mystery correspondent said, ‘certain elements of the industry (and the SWA) were very unhappy about that one.’ Stir in a brand such as Compass Box Orangerie and you can see that Scotch-based flavoured spirits are out there already.
Floral scent: Unlike Scotch whisky, usquebaugh traditionally featured local botanicals
I could of course fall back on history and point out (again) that usquebaugh never tried to pass itself off as ‘whisky’, but was regarded as a separate style of drink for about 400 years. Creating new usquebaughs, a clever Edinburgh lawyer could argue, is simply a continuation of an old, established, craft.
Also, most of these usquebaughs were ‘dulcified’ – sweetened either with sugar for the high-class variants, or more commonly, honey. In other words, they were liqueur-like. Drambuie started life as an usquebaugh and no-one seems to be moaning about its existence. So, should anyone want to explore the botanical angle, I believe that there are ways around this apparent legislative block.
Will anyone do it? Who knows? One distiller called my extravagant notions ‘provocative’ (I think in a positive way) though I figured they were just logical and grounded in whisky heritage. While it would be interesting to see a new generation of usquebaughs appearing, if they don’t it won’t be because producers are scared of innovation.
The Scotch industry isn’t naive, and while innovation and contrivance often go hand-in-hand, and clumsy appropriation of other spirits’ clothes does take place, that doesn’t mean that Scotch cannot learn and adapt to a changing market. Indeed, I would argue that to survive and prosper that it has to – as long as it does not lose its sense of identity.
The idea that there is nothing going on in terms of new product development in whisky is fantasy. There are experiments underway which would make jaws drop in astonishment. Not all will make it to market, but questions about ‘what is Scotch, and what else can it be?’ are being asked constantly. Boundaries are being pushed in ways which we haven’t seen for years.
Cereal question: Could more types of grain be used in Scotch?
Moving away from usquebaugh for the moment, as last year’s series on Scotch whisky regulations outlined, there are many flex points within the regulations where new flavours and characters could be introduced. Could you smoke barley over a wood fire for example? What would a heather-smoked whisky be like?
Scotch is currently made from barley, or corn, or wheat, but what of what of other cereals – some of which were used in Scotland in the past – which are being used successfully by other whisky makers around the world?
If the reaction to modest proposals such as these is, ‘we can’t envisage doing that because it is possibly against the rules’, it is pretty much an admission of defeat from the outset. Rules – or to be more precise the interpretation of these rules – are open to debate and challenge. Accepting the need for change is why rules and regulations are always in a state of slow, steady adjustment. Whisky today doesn’t operate under exactly the same legislation as it did in the 1990s, never mind the 1920s.
Asking what can Scotch become shouldn’t be interpreted as a cry for mass disobedience, but as a continuation of this natural process of incremental change. This world is full of flavour possibilities. It is also fluid.
16 August 2017
‘When my ancestors were determined of a set purpose to be merie, they used a kind of aquavite, void of all spice, and onelie consisting of such herbs and roots as grew in their own gardens.'
Hector Boece's words, written in 1526, swam up from memory. I quickly refocused. Botswana Dave was still talking: ‘…but don’t get this one, hemlock, confused with this one, wild carrot. Hemlock will kill you. Wild carrot won’t.’ Handy to know.
We were on a nature walk at the RSPB Gruinart reserve on Islay. There were few birds around, so Dave, like any good guide, had switched to flora, including a diversion into the world of lichen and fungi when we came across trees draped in lungwort, before we returned to mugwort, pineapple weed, gorse flower and meadowsweet, and others, many of which go into The Botanist gin, produced by Bruichladdich.
Scotland’s west coast is hoaching with gins these days. The Botanist led the way, but in the past few months, Islay has been joined by gins distilled on Jura (Lussa), Kintyre (Beinn an Tuirc), and Harris (er… Harris). Colonsay has plans to make its gin on the island, as does Tiree.
All make a big play about using local botanicals. The Botanist uses 22 from Islay, Harris has sugar kelp; Icelandic moss and sheep sorrel are in Beinn an Tuirc’s botanical recipe, while Lussa uses ground elder, honeysuckle, rosehip, bog myrtle, sea lettuce and Scots pine among others.
Floral flavours: Is there a place in whisky for the larder of the machair?
Gin, the world’s first global spirit in terms of ingredients, is now becoming increasingly terroir-fixated. It’s no longer sufficient to say your gin comes from a place, it has to somehow taste of that place as well.
This is all good news, when it works. Gin is a fiendishly difficult spirit to get right. Each botanical has to be there for a reason. There’s no point in making a gin with an added botanical which you then can’t notice, or one where the unusual botanical has been dialled up to such an extent that the gin is unbalanced. That said, this aspect of terroir suits gin perfectly.
Why then did Boece’s words keep nagging away at me as I stravaiged up the west coast from island to island, finding a gin at every corner? Could whisky play in this area as well?
He shows that a Scottish-distilled spirit – probably made from cereal – was flavoured from the word go. It became known as usquebaugh, and it and ‘usky' co-existed for centuries, the former flavoured, the latter a straight distillate (which in turn was usually drunk as a punch or toddy).
The ‘herbs and roots as grew in their own garden’ would have included hyssop, marjoram, lavender fennel, hyssop, lemon balm, sweet marjoram, sage, rue, wormwood, horehound, lovage and pennyroyal. The hills would have provided wild thyme, rosemary, rowan berry, and heather, maybe in the form of honey. These early usquebaughs were as much distillates of place as the whiskies.
On Colonsay, I picked up a reprint of a 1903 book by Murdoch McNeill on the flora of the island. Lurking there was an entry for ‘heath vetch, aka bitter-vetch [Lathyrus montanus]… which was used for flavouring whisky’. The dried and roasted vetch tubers have a slight anise flavour and were also used as a hangover cure, a way to offset drunkenness, and as an appetite suppressant. Hebridean coca! I’ve ordered some seeds.
Tiree beach: With plenty of space and time for some ‘extravagant thinking’
I’m writing this on Tiree. Outside, the machair is filled with buttercup and red clover, knapweed, birds foot trefoil, ragged robin, tormentil, tansy, wild thyme and harebell. Its beaches are a larder of different seaweeds. Little has changed since Boece’s day. It’s all out there still. From this perspective there is an argument that whisky can play in this field as confidently as gin.
Whisky already has the remarkable ability to somehow distil what surrounds it. Is it not possible, then, to extend this property to reflect terroir by using the flora of the place, either in terms of new usquebaughs, home flavouring, or in bartending? After all, Thomas Pennant wrote in 1772: ‘The people of the Hebrides extract an acid for [whisky] punch from the berries of the mountain ash [rowan].’
The west coast does this to you. The wide skies, the open seas, the wind bringing the sweet-smelling machair hissing through the marram grass. The Scottish poet Kenneth White calls it ‘extravagant thinking’, but what is whisky if not a drink which welcomes that?
09 August 2017
‘It’s at its best like this.’ The glasses were raised at Clàs Uig. Perhaps in memory of the audacious German U-boat commander who slid into its waters to steal sheep, maybe just to the landscape, or to the wildlife we’d seen, to the waves, or just for being there and alive at this moment.
I hadn’t been deliberately depriving myself of whisky, but neither had I actively sought it out. Maybe that’s the nature of a holiday – you do the things you don’t normally get the chance to – so for me it’s rambles rather than drambles.
Clàs Uig: Dave Broom raises a glass to 'U-boat Bay', Islay
‘You’re here… on Islay… on holiday?’ say some when I meet them in the Co-op, the pub, or the ferry. ‘A working holiday?’ And they smile slightly and look at my wife and daughter as if to say, ‘Poor you – what a bastard he must be, dragging you round distilleries when you’re meant to be relaxing’.
But it’s true, we come here because we can switch off and not work (he said, writing this piece while they sleep, but the relentless nature of the web dictates against not remaining silent for too long).
Anyway, the glasses were raised. It seemed saltier, more attuned to the environment, the slow slither of seaweed mirroring the gentle viscimetry taking place in the glass. A hint of the moorland, a bracing gasp as if, on that first sip, you were immersing yourself in the waters of the bay. As thick as the sodden peat bog, as gentle as the curve of the seal on the rocks. Salt on the lips, an encapsulation of place.
The day after, we headed north through the islands of the sea, then onwards to Tiree, birds careening in our wake. Shearwaters – those enigmatic, wave-dancing acrobats, in the Sound of Islay the week before. If gannets take issue with the water, punching holes in its surface, shearwaters and fulmars caress it, using the updrafts lifting off the crests to help them in their endless loop of the oceans. There is no battle here, rather a fusion of mind, intuition and understanding.
For a second, it seemed as if my mind had pulled them into being. I’d been reading Adam Nicolson’s The Seabird’s Cry and had just finished the chapter on shearwaters. As I put the book down, there they were.
Shearwaters are sea wanderers, cousins to albatrosses and fulmars. It’s long been wondered how they navigate themselves on their pelagic roamings, how they can find their way home to their chicks, or to food. Recent research has given a surprising answer. With larger than normal olfactory systems compared to other birds, these members of the tube-nose family achieve the seemingly miraculous by their sense of smell.
Prof. Nancy Devitt of UC Davis had long believed this to be the case but could never find the clincher to her theory until, in conversation with another scientist working in a different discipline, the topic of dimethylsulfoniopropionate – DMSP to its friends – arose. As it does.
It is emitted by dying phytoplankton and smells, Devitt realised, of newly-opened oysters. DMSP means phytoplankton has been eaten by krill, and the krill is being eaten by larger fish. The tube-noses, drifting above the waves, pick up the aroma of DMSP clouds at levels of 1 part in 10 billion and use them to find their food source.
For them, it is the smell of home. The birds flying up the Sound were impregnated in it; their chicks, cocooned in their burrows, would smell little but for the first weeks of their lives. An aroma lesson: ‘this smell means comfort and a full belly, seek it out’. It operates, albeit in a more intense way, in the same fashion as our own olfactory memories which are triggered when we smell a glass of whisky and the childhood memory – a snack, a sweetie on the way back from school, our grandmother’s house – snaps into focus. Our first navigations around the world are embedded in smell memory.
It would appear that aroma doesn’t simply show the shearwaters and their relatives where food is, but plays the vital element in how they navigate. Shearwater research by Prof Anna Gagliardo posits that different parts of the ocean have distinctive smells. What to us is ‘sea smell’ is in fact complex and multifaceted – each part as identifiable as a rose is from an orange. Aromas guide them, warn them, act as markers. A landscape which to our eyes is hard to read, whose only constant is that its features are forever in flux, is to a shearwater a tapestry of aroma, with each thread of scent redolent with meaning. Some tugging them home, others suggesting danger.
Briny minerals: The aroma of Islay whisky is often reminiscent of the Hebridean seaWe can get a sniff of that when we stand on the shoreline, or on the deck of a boat, maybe with a glass of Islay whisky. That briny smell, the minerality is also the aroma of those shucked oysters and scallops. For a second, we are like the birds. As they dip their wing tips into the sea, so we raise the glass to our noses. The sea doesn’t smell like the sea, but of the elements within it – the death pulses of phytoplankton and algae, seaweed pheromones and much more. And the same elements are detectable in the glass.
That whisky smells best here because it’s where that fusing of liquid and place is at its strongest – thanks partly to emotion, but also a literal (or littoral) link to place. It’s also there, ready to be drawn out, when we sit at home or in bars thousands of miles away across the oceans. A filament of aroma, bringing us back home.
12 July 2017
‘What is the piece of technology you would like to see removed from your discipline?’ It’s fair to say none of us were expecting that as an opening question. While panel discussions are rarely as benign as a post-match Wimbledon press conference, this one was a doozie. ‘Dave,’ said host Angela Clutton, ‘perhaps you could start?’ A tip to anyone planning on sitting on a panel soon – never be seated next to the host.
It’s hard to think what to get rid of in distillation. I mean, without the equipment you can’t, er, distil. After what seemed an unseemly delay I put chill-filtration units into Room 101 for daring to remove mouthfeel.
#LoveBorough: The market has bounced back in defiant fashion from the events of 3 June
Catriona Felstead MW of Berry Bros & Rudd went for the spinning cone which reduces alcohol levels in wine, but ‘removes its soul’. Wish I’d thought of that line. Dan Tapper from the Beak Brewery went for filtration – hey, a theme! and old mucker Tony Conigliaro of The Drink Factory went for bad cocktail books.
We were all on stage at the latest of the excellent Borough Talks, held at London’s Borough Market to talk about the state of play in our respective branches of the drinks industry: wine, beer, cocktails and spirits; and also to give advice on how to start a career.
I’m always slightly amused by this last one as I didn’t exactly plan a career – maybe a background in improvised music finally paid off. Listen, ask why, never think you are an expert, and pass on the information humbly was what my careers advice came to.
That there was consensus was the most rewarding element of the evening. Do the hard yards, get stuck in, work in retail, listen and learn… we all agreed.
Tony summed up how the drinks trade is evolving when he said: ‘To create chaos, you need a lot of order. The more ordered we have become, the more creative we've been.’
Any move forward has to be disruptive, but in order for that to happen you have to have a structure; there’s no use just flinging every idea at the wall and seeing what sticks. That’s a waste of time, energy… and money.
His conclusions mirrored Felstead’s talk on minimum intervention winemaking in what used to be called the New World. This involves having the guts to step back and allowing the wine to make itself, which takes enormous skill, faith... and money. It’s like a musician understanding silence (that improv training again).
Tapper picked up the theme. His is an intriguing model. He’s a nomadic brewer who moves around the country, borrowing tank space: I envisage him descending on wires, Mission Impossible-style, into a brewery at night, pockets bulging with hops, yeast under his balaclava.
He acknowledges that some of the beers he makes won’t make money, but those are the ones which have helped establish his style: he mentioned a porter being aged in Bolney Estate wine casks, or another made with raspberries foraged around the outskirts of Leeds. Create the personality, focus on provenance and quality.
On the panel (l to r): Angela Clutton, Dave Broom, Catriona Felstead MW, Dan Tapper and Tony Conigliaro
If the same questions had been asked 10 years ago, the answers would have been very different. There would have been little consensus. Instead the four arms of the trade would have looked with mild amusement on the activities of the others. There was little dialogue, no co-operation and precious little consensus. Now shared themes exist and are welcomed and acted upon.
I’d seen some of Felstead’s colleagues the week before at the Imbibe Live trade show. In the old days there was an invisible line. On one side sommeliers sipped, on the other bartenders caroused.
That barrier has gone. On the Berry’s/Fields, Morris & Verdin stand there was whisky, gin and rum as well as Lustau’s Sherries and vermouth – the last two being the hot trends in bartending. There is now no separation, no ghettoisation of the drinks industry. We are in it together and have common goals.
That this manifested itself at Borough Market was appropriate. I started my writing life opposite the market, drank in its pubs early in the morning and watched the site transform into one of the world’s great food centres – produce from around the world next to the best of artisanal British, be that meat, fish, cheese or drink.
Borough is a celebration of the local and the international, of the diversity of food cultures alive in Britain, a community to browse and graze in and, with every mouthful or sip, you see connections and learn that little bit more about how the world should be – which is what we do when we take a sip of a new whisky, or wine, or beer, or Sherry.
A community, in other words, and one which remained resilient after the hideous events of 3 June. London didn’t reel, the traders reopened the market and the place got on with doing what it does so effectively, showing how the world can come together. #LoveBorough.
05 July 2017
The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted a couple of changes to our tasting section this week. Firstly, it now rejoices under the title of ‘Whisky Reviews’; secondly, we have made significant changes to our scoring system
Essentially, we have moved from a scoring system which ran from 0 to 10, to one which runs from 0 to 100 (though it starts at 50). So, instead of having a 10-point scale which, thanks to the use of decimal points, became a 100-point scale, we now have a 100-point scale which is effectively a 50-point scale. As someone with dyscalculia this is not an easy concept to grasp but, as even I have managed to get my head around it, I hope that you will be able to as well.
Question of taste: The words remain more important than the numbers, says Dave Broom
Personally speaking, I would have preferred a star system to be used, one in which whiskies would have been placed in bands of excellence. It seems to work for hotels, restaurants, films, theatre and even the malign Tripadvisor.
This, I will always believe, allows readers an indication of quality, rather than then obsessing over what the difference might be between a score of 83 rather than 82, but it’s not the system which governs alcohol, apparently, so numbers it had to be.
Why then, if we already had numbers, did we have to change how they were utilised? In order for scores to be brought into some sort of alignment with other media (though not all use a 100-point scale, many do). This, it is believed, will allow you, gentle reader, to more easily compare and contrast between the same whisky tasted by different people on different sites.
Again, personally I’d have thought that reading what was written about the whisky, rather than what it scored, would have given more accurate information, but you might as well have belt and braces. There is a psychological reason as well. One hundred points just seems better than 10. A score of 92 is far more meaningful than 9.2. Apparently.
‘But Dave,’ some of you might be saying at this point, ‘it isn’t really 100 points, but 50.’ This is not only in line with other grading systems, but considerably better than some which only run from 80 and which, in my opinion, artificially inflate the ‘worth’ of the whisky being assessed.
If your bottom score is actually the same as most readers’ idea of excellence, then not only does the taster have little room for manoeuvre, but the score is inaccurate. Any scoring system needs to have sufficient breadth for the tasters – and the reader – to be able to discriminate between one whisky and another. So, a 50-point scale it is.
I would hope, as a whisky lover, that most of the drams sitting on my table would be 70 and above. There’s no excuse for faulty or poor whiskies these days (though, if they do appear, they’ll be marked as such).
If a whisky gets a 70, then it’s still a decent dram, just not one whose balance is as good as one which scores 75 and above… and so on. Hopefully having 50 points to play with will not only allow you to differentiate between the whiskies tasted, but also give you reassurance that the lower-scoring whiskies are well worth trying.
As the key shows, it’s easier to look at our new system as being split into five or six bands, with tiny amounts of fine tuning within each band. A bit like a star system, in other words.
Inevitably, our scores will differ from those on other sites or magazines, but I’d like to think that the overall impression will be the same. Comparing our scores with those on, say, Whiskyfun (which you all should read) will give an idea of how the whisky falls into another band of shared – and, more than likely, agreed – opinion.
That opinion is contained in the words, which are infinitely more important than the numbers. When I taste, I’m constantly thinking about how the whisky fits into the three main criteria: complexity, balance and character. The words are my objective opinion of how well these are delivered.
When I’m tasting, I’m looking for the positive points and whether they outweigh any negatives; how persistent is the dram’s flavour, how does it develop over time and on the palate; how complex is its aroma; does it take you on a journey; how could it be consumed?
Only then does the score come into play. What band does it sit in; are there subtle differences between whiskies of similar character? The score is the full-stop at the end of the process. It doesn’t lead or dictate it. For me, it’s almost an afterthought.
If numbers were the most important element in assessment, there would be no need for any words. A score would be sufficient. The reasoning behind the numbers is what is important. It allows a conversation to take place, analysis to be shown, opinion to be offered.
You might not agree with the score I give, but with the words to hand at least you know why I gave it. Then, hopefully, you can see the logic at work to the extent that the score given becomes irrelevant.
Clinging to numbers means narrowing your appreciation of whisky. Reading the words increases it. So read the words, my dears, please read them.
28 June 2017
I’d read the text before, but seeing it painted across an entire wall brought the significance of the words into sharper focus.
‘One Theoricus wrote a proper treatise of Aqua Vitae, wherein he prayseth it to the ninth degrée. He destiguisheth thrée sortes therof, simplex, composita, and Perfectissima. He declareth the simples and ingrediences thereto belongyng. He wisheth it to be taken as well before meate as after.
‘It dryeth vp the breakyng out of handes, and killeth the fleshe wormes, if you wash your handes therewith.
‘It skoureth all skurse and skaldes from the head, beyng therewith daily washte before meales.
‘Beyng moderately taken, sayth he, it sloeth age, it strengtheneth youth, it helpeth digestion, it cutteth fleume, it abandoneth melancholy, it relisheth the hart, it lighteneth the mynd, it quickeneth the spirites, it cureth the hydropsie, it healeth the strangury, it poũceth the stone, it expelleth grauell, it puffeth away all Ventositie, it kepeth and preferueth the hed from whirlyng, the eyes from dazelyng, the tongue from lispyng, the mouth frõ mafflyng, the téeth frõ chatteryng, the throte from ratling, the weasan from stieflyng, the stomacke from wambling, the harte from swellyng, the belly from wirtchyng, the guts from rumblyng, the handes from shiuering, the smowes from shrinkyng, the veynes frõ crumpling, the bones from akyng, the marraw from soakyng.
‘Vlstadius also ascribeth thereto a singuler prayse, and would haue it to burne beyng kindled, which he taketh to be a token to know the goodnesse therof. And truly it is a soueraigne liquour, if it be orderly taken.’
History lessons: In the 16th century, aqua vitae was seen as a miracle cure
This appears in an account of Ireland in Holinshed’s Chronicles, printed in 1577. Who Theoricus was is a mystery, but that mattereth not (enough of the Old English – Ed).
Its appearance on the wall came, appropriately enough, while I was wandering around the almost completed Lindores Abbey distillery (of which much more in a few weeks). History nuzzles up to you in that part of Fife – ancient trade routes, royal palaces, battles, breweries, beehives and, undoubtedly, distillation. What struck home when being confronted with the text again is the multifaceted way in which people used spirits.
Is there anything to learn from this, 500 years on? I’m sure today’s distillers would baulk at ever suggesting that alcohol would stop ageing and strengthen youth. They’d probably take issue with any notion that alcohol, even if taken in moderation (how modern the two authors are), could possibly make you happier, wittier and generally more intelligent.
Not that the Irish in the 16th century appeared to heed any suggestion of sensible drinking. Later in the section, Holinshed reports that they devour flesh:
‘Without bread, and that halfe raw: the rest boyleth in their stomackes with Aqua Vitae, which they swill in after such a surfet by quartes & pottels.’
The Irish, it would seem, had already built a reputation. ‘I will rather trust…an Irishman with my aqua-vitae bottle… than my wife with herself,’ wrote Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor a few years later. The absence of any mention of distillation in the Chronicles in England and Scotland infers that it had become an Irish speciality.
But I digress. What the account shows is how aqua vitae (be it grain- or grape-based) was the cure-all, the universal panacea, the miracle drug. Today, there is no suggestion of whisky having a similarly multifaceted aspect. It’s rarely used as a medicine, though a Hot Toddy still works miracles in my experience, and compared to its early, miraculous manifestation, is a simple social lubricant.
Holinshed’s Chronicles: An extract of text is displayed at Lindores distillery
It struck me, on reading the extract, how the wonder of whisky, its magical nature, is being forgotten. We rarely dwell on its transportive qualities, which magically summon up place, people and season when it is taken in exactly the right (and moderate) quantities. Even the manner of its drinking has been narrowed.
Familiarity, while maybe not breeding contempt, has reduced whisky to a drink whose boundaries are understood and tacitly accepted. This, in turn, drives how it should be drunk, and when it should be drunk. The field of vision has narrowed and the opportunities are, as a result, missed.
Although Scotch cocktails are now an accepted part of the whisky world, they are still restricted. As bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana said to me recently, to ‘vanilla, or smoke’? You can be creative, but only up to a certain point.
Whether we are bartender or drinker, we need to somehow tap into the open-eyed wonder and joy of these early texts, when all the world was green and all possibilities seemed to not only be open, but the logical approach to take.
Or perhaps I’m just mafflyng. I’ll let you know after one more draught.
13 June 2017
Unlike Theresa May (I told you, no politics! – Ed), I’m all for debate. I've been struck, however, by how polarised what passes for debate in Scotch has become. You could, if you were of a philosophical bent, blame Aristotle for bequeathing this ‘either/or’ logic to the western world, a manner of thinking which, in whisky, manifests itself as: blends or malts, independent bottlers or brand owners, big companies or small, condensers or worms, smoke or no smoke.
Preferred pour: What you like may not be someone else’s choice of dram, but that doesn’t make them wrong
Call it binary thinking, call it logocentrism, but this reductionist approach boils down to: ‘You are either wholly on my side or you are against me.’ There is no grey area, no room for, well, debate, especially when the voices are loud.
The drinker feels compelled to choose between one or the other, and once that decision has been made the rejected option (blends, condensers, big companies, for example) is either ignored or, in the more extreme circumstances, condemned. In this way of thinking, whisky is comprised of mutually exclusive camps.
As soon as those lines get drawn, there is no space left for nuance, or accepting that both options are valid. We may prefer one over the other, but that is significantly different to saying that the one we haven’t chosen is wrong.
We have acted in a specific way at a point in time, but may swing back in the future. So I drink a blend, then a smoky malt, I buy an independent bottling, and then a brand, I buy one dram from a small distiller, and then one from a major, have a cocktail, and then something neat. That is how whisky works.
It is a spirit of nuance, one where aromas and flavours shift and change in the glass; it pulls your memories one way and then another. It can be a guided missile aimed directly at your pleasure zone, or something contemplative, which needs to be teased out gently. It is layered and therefore contradictory – in other words, it’s complex.
That quality, along with character and balance, are the foundations of assessing quality. The very nature of balance also rejects the dualistic approach. Every dry element has to be balanced by sweet, for example. If this principle is whisky’s heartbeat, then surely we can extend that approach outwards and look at ways in which we stop thinking in such a reductionist fashion?
I was chatting about this over a drink with a friend, when he said: ‘You know what? The word I hate the most at the moment [he has an ever-shifting list of pet hates] is “standard”. What’s “standard” about a single malt? What aspect of its being can ever be defined as “standard”?’
Change of heart: It’s not uncommon – or wrong – to switch from neat whisky to cocktails, and back again
It’s a sound point. In the dark ages when I started to write about booze, whisky was divided into two camps: ‘standard’ and ‘deluxe’. In simple terms, ‘standards’ were blends without an age statement, while those with one (usually 12 years old) were ‘deluxe’. Standard was also shorthand for ‘cheap’.
To be honest, the only people who ever used these terms were those in marketing – and journalists. No-one today walks into a bar and asks for a ‘deluxe’, ‘super-premium’ or ‘luxury’ whisky. They do, however, still see the term ‘standard’, by which they mean ordinary, or ubiquitous. Its deployment is done in a disparaging fashion, it says: ‘It is beneath me.’
Glenfiddich 12-year-old, The Glenlivet 12, Glenmorangie 10, Talisker 10, Laphroaig 10 are considered ‘standard bottlings’ – but how can this possibly be true? By its nature, single malt is anything but standard, so why call it that? Perhaps it is because when people explore the malt realm, the most popular bottlings are not considered worthy of the consideration of the serious drinker.
They may have started with the biggest sellers, but have moved on. Our very human desire for fresh stimulation, when exacerbated by an aggressive consumerist culture, makes it easy for us to dismiss our starting-points as youthful folly. It’s another example of binary thinking.
I’ve said it many times and will never stop repeating it: revisit these whiskies. Be prepared to be amazed at their quality – and often absurdly low prices. Doing so might just be a starting-point to begin to dismantle this binary world.
- New whisky reviews: Batch 126
- Record-breaking Dalmore sells for £114,000
- Aldi launches Glen Marnoch 29 Year Old
- Why ‘lost’ whiskies should never be blended
- Whiskyfair Takao 2017, Taiwan
- Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost launches
- Daftmill set to release first whisky
- Matching whisky with Indian food
- Does whisky change in an unopened bottle?
- Secret Santa whisky gifts for any budget
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Features 14 July 2016
Dave Broom endeavours to make sense of the factors affecting how we nose and taste whisky.
Latest news 25 April 2017
The new packaging aims to highlight each blended whisky’s ‘craft credentials’.