Does Scotch single malt’s absence from a leading bar show speak volumes about cocktail snobbery?
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
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):
19 February 2019
As we headed to Yamazaki last week, my trusty companion could barely contain his excitement. Not just at finally visiting the place, but about what (in his mind) would be the treasures on offer in the distillery shop. Plans were afoot for buying a case full of exclusives, and a haul of Hibikis.
I tried to calm him down as gently as I could, but nothing I said would dent his belief that this would be the mother lode. He had a yen for Yamazaki, you could say. Then he arrived. The whisky offering was, er, scant. There was a better selection in the bottle shops in Kyoto – and their shelves were pretty much empty.
The best bet for finding old whiskies in Japan these days would involve heading into the countryside and hoping to find the Japanese equivalent of a ‘mom and pop’ store. Alternatively, whisky lovers are now haunting estate sales in the hope that there might be a collection up for sale.
The stock shortage shows little signs of easing in the short term. The liquid is dwindling, and what’s left is being managed as best it can. Last year, Suntory announced a further cull of brands, including a large size of its (and Japan’s) top-selling brand Kakubin, while Nikka is about to follow suit, with its Nikka 12 being replaced by Tailored and, more worryingly, a ‘temporary suspension’ of its Coffey Malt and Grain. The third major brand, Kirin Gotemba, is about to drop its Fujisanroku Tarujuku 50˚. The cupboard, it would seem, is bare.
New era: Yamazaki may have been the first, but today Japan boasts 23 operational distilleries
At the start of the millennium, Japanese whisky was the newest, brightest star in whisky’s constellation. Now, within 20 years, it seems to have imploded.
It was with this in mind that we pushed open the door of Zoetrope in Tokyo. Established by Horigami-san a decade ago in Shinjuku, with the intention of specialising in ‘Western-style Japanese-distilled spirits’, this is where you go to take the pulse of the industry. We began chatting about what was new, what had gone.
‘There’s this…’ he said, putting two small bottles in front of me. Both were from Kanosuke distillery in Kagoshima Prefecture, which opened last year. One, New Pot, was a limited release of new make spirit; the second, New Born, an eight-month-old aged in American oak ex-shochu casks (the beachfront distillery is owned by shochu producer Komasa Jyoza). Rather good they were too – the New Born especially shows real promise.
Then there followed new releases from Mars Tsunuki (also in Kagoshima), while on the bar top stood bottles from Hokkaido’s excellent (and smoky) Akkeshi.
The comments of one senior exec earlier in the week came back to me. ‘We have a lot of whisky,’ he had said, ‘it’s just that it’s not ready yet.’
Rather than dwell on what has gone, maybe it is time to look at what is on the way. Japan now has 23 operational whisky distilleries – most small, nearly all new.
The past year has seen bottled statements of intent from the multifunctional Shizuoka distillery (where the Karuizawa stills now nestle), Nagahama, Akasa and the crowd-funded Wakatsuru Saburomaru.
While there’s still plenty of imported whisky (Scotch, but increasingly Canadian) being blended or simply relabelled as ‘Japanese whisky’, and the practise of relabelling aged/coloured rice shochu as ‘whisky’ continues, there does seem to be the start of a rebalancing.
Even the obscure Matsui Shuzo (where a considerable amount of ersatz ‘Japanese’ whisky came from) appears to have turned over a new leaf and is releasing what seems to be 100% Japanese-distilled wares.
New spirit: Kanosuke distillery opened in Kagoshima Prefecture in 2018
Is Japanese whisky rebooting itself? Maybe come 2024 – the centenary of the first whisky distillation taking place – we will see Japanese whisky 3.0 emerge (2.0 was the radical shift in approach after the bulk-oriented low-strength days of the 1960s/70s whisky boom).
By then, the landscape will have changed dramatically. The newest players will have mature examples while, if all plans are approved, there will be more distilleries coming into production.
We will have a second distillery at Chichibu, while Kirin’s Gotemba expansion, which will see capacity increased by 20%, will have been running for three years. The current increase in production (and capacity) at the other established distilleries will by then have resulted in some easing of stock restrictions.
Maybe a reboot isn’t the right term. Japanese whisky has always reflected the concept of kaizen (continual incremental improvement). This is just the latest manifestation of that approach.
The question is: what will the rest of the whisky world be like by then? Japan is hardly alone in building new distilleries; the memories of the old days will have gone and a new set of consumers will have emerged.
However, the latest stage in Japanese whisky’s evolution isn’t as simple as waiting for stock to mature. It means looking at what a future market might want, what other countries are producing, finding points of difference, while still reinforcing Japanese identity.
Nothing is certain, nothing is guaranteed. There are many more stars in the constellation. Japan won’t return as the new kid on the block, but will have to fight its way back. Its plans for the future start now.
06 February 2019
Over many years of taking tasting sessions, I’ve begun to appreciate the format’s ability to unlock people’s personalities. Everything you have ever smelled is locked away in your memory; when an aroma leaps into focus, it comes with a context attached which reveals something about you to everyone else in the room.
I remember a very quiet woman who found it hard to articulate what she was smelling – we’ve all been there – suddenly shouting ‘amyl nitrate!’ as her first public tasting note. To be fair, I didn’t push her as to why she knew what poppers smelled like (if only because it might have shown that I did…).
Anyway, tasting in public, or with friends, becomes a little like a therapy session. We dredge up aromas which tell us – and the company – about where we are from, and what we like and dislike. Sharing it is good. Knowing your comfort zone and aversions is the only way in which you can start to navigate whisky and, who knows, maybe it helps you in other ways. Pour a dram, lie down on the couch, and tell me about yourself. I’m listening.
Having a regular column is in some ways similar. It too allows you to work out some issues.
Individual appeal: A whisky’s aroma is often linked to a person's memories and experiences (Photo: Jen Steele Photography)
I come to this having finished tasting and then writing the next two weeks’ tasting notes (I hasten to add everything was spat out) and, as this is the day after, there’s no vestigial alcohol adding to my irritability.
What is inflamed is (or was) my palate, as yet another cask-strength whisky seared its way down my oesophagus. It’s something which has bugged me for months, years maybe, and for some reason has bubbled to the top of the pile of things to grumble about. I’m allowed to. I’m old.
Don’t get me wrong. I see the attraction of cask strength (whatever it means). Whisky in its naked condition, no adulteration, no buggering about. Alcohol carries flavour, after all. Whiskies at 43% or 46% tend to have more depth than those bottled at 40%. That ideological purity does, on occasion, need to be tempered by common sense – namely, can you drink the bloody stuff without wincing?
One of my maxims is that whisky is about pleasure, not about pain. If all you care about is the latter, then, well we are back to whisky revealing darker psychological secrets. Pop back on to the couch and tell me about your mother.
Just add water, you say? I do as a matter of course, for the simple reason that it opens the whisky up and also reveals positives and negatives such as astringency or inactivity. That raw heat is coming from spirit which hasn’t been mellowed by air or wood. It is there because cask or time haven’t worked… yet.
Adding water might cut the heat, but in the worst examples it doesn’t. It’s still there, nagging away at the back of the palate. The water exposes the whisky, confirming what the neat tasting suggested: it’s not balanced. Reducing bottling strength wouldn’t have worked either, because that balance doesn’t exist.
Some high-strength whiskies will mellow and improve with some water, but that is because they have an inherent balance and complexity. Water opens up what the alcohol has obscured when it’s tasted neat. You cannot, however, open up something which isn’t there.
So, the question is, why bottle it? I know that one person’s ‘vibrancy’ can be another’s ‘immaturity’, but rushing to bottling just because you have the cask makes little commercial sense. We are inundated with whisky, be it Scotch or from the rest of the world.
The result is that the quality bar has been (or should have been) set higher. The days of bottling whatever came along have surely gone. Now there are plenty of quality alternatives.
Shaky foundations: Is ‘innovation’ used to mask mediocre or immature whisky?
Immature? Hang on to it, blend it – that vibrancy can be useful in a vatting. Oh, and don’t think that a quick dunk into an active cask for a short period of finishing will sort it out. It won’t. You’ll just get an immature whisky with wine on top of it. That’s not what finishing is meant to be about.
The lofty principles revolved around looking carefully at the distillery character of a mature spirit and then using a short time in an active cask to spin the flavours in a new and harmonious direction, adding complexity which complemented and, perhaps, subtly contrasted with the original. It’s not a way of covering up – and yet it still happens.
Neither should finishing be seen as innovative. It might have been in the 1990s (or earlier), but we’ve moved on. And don’t fob me off with starting in ex-Sherry then finishing in ex-Bourbon. That’s not innovation, that’s desperation.
Although innovation is the most misused word in Scotch, it is needed. Things must always move forward, while being cognisant of the past (in fact, with a keen eye on what might have been the norm decades ago, which could be revived and reinterpreted). It can take years for innovation to pay off – Glenmo’s yeast work proves that.
Balance, complexity, character. The three-legged stool, the foundation, the three words that should always be thrumming away at the back of the mind. If they’re not there, then go back, rework, rethink and blend, because there’s always a new opportunity.
In a world which will soon be awash with whisky, the standard has to be higher. We, the drinkers, deserve it.
Good. Can I get off the couch now?
25 January 2019
Into the warehouse, enveloped by the time-infused smell of dunnage, all bung cloth, damp earth and whisky-steeped wood. Someone should bottle it. (©DB Unlikely Ideas 2019). Hands clamped to ice-cold glasses, the aromas reluctant to move, grumpy at being disturbed after 72 years of slumber.
It’s pale, paler than you expect – a good thing for a whisky of this age. Less oak, more oxygen. It flickers into life (see my official tasting notes to find out how), revealing how the years have not just been about slow absorption, but also a steady peeling away, so that concentration and opening are revealed as part of the same thing. The Lalique decanter skims the cask end, its gentle flow a dramatic contrast to the skyscraper thrusts of the rest of the series.
It was A Moment. No question about that. I know that this is the only time I’ll taste it. Sniff gently and wet the lips. I’ve noticed that time seems to stop for a second when I taste a spirit of this age, whether it’s Black Bowmore, some pre-phylloxera Cognac, or this Macallan, the oldest whisky released by the distillery. There’s a pause, a mental gasp, as the mind gets to grips not just with the flavours, but with all which has happened since the cask was filled.
Time capsule: Macallan 72 Year Old in Lalique – The Genesis Decanter is representative of another era
Moon landings, wars, summers of love, new ways of communication, changes in climate. This was made the same year Dolly Parton, Sly Stallone, Syd Barrett and, er, Donald Trump were born.
They put you in a different place, these whiskies. Even if they don’t work, even if they are too astringent and tannic, they speak to you, of men you will never meet, a time you have never seen; messages in bottles which have only now reached a distant shore. You know you are blessed to be in this job at this moment.
The tasting was the culmination of a day which had started with Highland cows posing as if in some Landseer painting, a smirr over the Spey as we go into the fishing hut for drams and warmth.
It had been a chance to get my head around the new Macallan and the way it flows across the estate from the river, to the cows and barley on the farm beside the hummocks of the new distillery, then rising up to the earth-brown warehouses. Water, to earth, to air. It’s a self-contained world, a Macallan world, or rather a world created by Macallan, culminating in a distillery which looks, and sometimes behaves, more like a modern art gallery: the Scottish equivalent of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, but with the equipment still left in. I’m inside it now, glass in hand, still inhaling, the whisky now starting to open in the warmth. What would the guys have made of all of this?
What were they thinking in 1946 as the distillery sputtered back into life, still with barley rations, still using peat? Optimistic, or stunned by conflict? Was the stillman thinking of being home or on the Front when he was making the cut; did the mashman see fallen friends when the tun was being filled?
Changing landscape: Those that worked at Macallan in the 1940s wouldn’t recognise the distillery today
What was in the mind of the warehouseman as he filled the casks, sending them off to blenders and merchants, to be opened who knows when? Family, love, the morning dram? It’s unlikely to be what might happen in seven decades time. But in a world in the process of renewal there were some constants: the barley would be sown, the salmon would run and whisky would be made. Distilling as an attempt to regain normality.
Reality crashes back in as the conversation restarts. There’s 600 decanters we’re told. Each will cost US$60,000.
We might never get used to prices like that, but they are becoming more familiar, part of whisky’s evolution, the next pool in the river, the next leap of faith (or hope). I can never quite be inured to the fact that a bottle can cost twice the average yearly wage, the same price as a car, or a luxury watch.
I try to rationalise it via the latter. I can appreciate the craft in its construction, but the time is the same whether you are looking at a Swatch, phone, computer clock or a Patek Philippe. A fine watch doesn’t qualify you for better time. I do, however, understand why they are collectible and beautiful pieces of functional art. You want to spend US$60,000 on a watch? Go ahead. Knock yourself out.
Why then is there this niggle about whisky playing in the same realm? It isn’t simply that nothing is worth that, because these decanters will sell, proving some people clearly think they are.
Is it because whisky is something I care about, because, once, I could afford pretty much all of it and now resent that some is (way) beyond my reach? Could it be because it’s evidence of whisky getting a bit uppity? That last one’s a very Scottish reaction. There’s a saying here, ‘I kent his faither’ (translation: ‘I knew his father’, meaning the father was better, yet made no fuss about it).
Saying that, however, also suggests that whisky shouldn’t exist in this domain, a peasant with his mucky boots, sitting at a table in a three-Michelin star restaurant. Why shouldn’t it? Bugger that. Bring me the tasting menu, thank you garçon. There’s your beginner’s guide to the contradictory nature of the Scottish psyche.
Spey fishing: Broom finds life’s most valuable moments aren’t always anchored in luxury
In other words, I’m conflicted. Not resentful, but not wholly accepting. Maybe I can’t get my head around it because it is impossible to assess a whisky at this price in a normal way. Can you ever say anything is worth US$60,000 if you’ve never had that amount of money to spend? Strangely, it’s easier to assess whiskies at £3,000 than it is when they are 10 or 20 times that amount. This exists in its own bubble. 72 years, 400 litres in total, Lalique, amazing packaging. Why not US$60,000?
And yet, when I look back at the day, it’s not just that moment of time stopping then scrolling backwards as a remarkable liquid touched my lips; it’s also standing by the Spey, a dram of 12-year-old, talking about fishing with the ghillie.
The river flows, changes, yet stays a constant. You need that in whisky, that anchor to place and people. You might have a 72-year-old, but you need the 12 even more. I’ve sat at the top table and loved it. I’m back at the river, with mud on my boots, and am happier there.
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