Impassioned words in favour of using whisky in food from our resident expert, Martine Nouet.
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24 August 2016
It’s my own fault, of course. I’ve rambled on for ages about how whisky (anywhere in the world) has links with culture and place, which run deeper than the surface gloss of brand. So now I’ve been asked, politely, to prove it.
Sōetsu Yanagi: Philosopher and founder of Japanese ‘folk craft’ movement mingei
This has led me down some pretty interesting rabbit holes of enquiry, looking at how certain cultures ‘read’ the idea of quality and beauty; the logic being that if whisky is a cultural product, then its creation has parallels with other areas of craftsmanship (don’t get me started on the whole ‘craft’ issue… well, not this week anyway).
It’s a vast topic which bifurcates into various other realms, such as the manner in which these crafted objects can be appreciated for their quality which, again, provides us with some salient points regarding how we assess a whisky.
One of the key texts was Sōetsu Yanagi’s The Unknown Craftsman. Yanagi was a Japanese philosopher and the founder of the Japanese ‘folk craft’ movement (mingei) in the 1920s, which brought a new focus on the quality and beauty of simple, honest objects made by craftsmen working in a centuries-old tradition.
Yanagi argued that ‘seeing is a born facility, knowledge is acquired’, and that intuition is more important than clinical application of theory. Often our spontaneous response – that tug of appreciation led by the eyes and heart – is overwhelmed by ‘the owner with the foot-rule [who] is immediately busy with a dozen questions as to age, authenticity, previous ownership, technique and the like’. In other words, appreciation is easily blurred by an analytical approach.
He doesn’t dispute that the questions over provenance are important and should be asked. Rather they should be used ‘only if they lead to better appreciation of the object’.
We know what is good. ‘The ancients did not follow the judgements of others, they did not love a piece because it was old, they just looked at it directly [with] unclouded, intuitive perception.’
I couldn’t agree more. The key when tasting whisky – there’s some on the table behind me as I write – is to look at each glass honestly, openly and without any prejudice. The age (if given) is a guide to assess the interaction between cask and spirit, the distillery name is a clue as to the character from that place, but elements like these are always in the background.
Ultimately, the liquid is the liquid; the only thing which matters is how you react to it. For all the analytics, at some point you have to say, it speaks to me… or it doesn’t. Shelve prejudice; see it honestly and with open senses.
As Yanagi wrote: ‘Put aside the desire to judge immediately, acquire the habit of just looking. Do not treat the object as [one] for the intellect. Be ready to perceive passively without interposing yourself.’
Okakura Kakuzō: Author of The Book of Tea
His urging was hardly new. In his 1906 treatise, The Book of Tea, Okakura Kakuzō wrote how ‘a Chinese critic complained many centuries ago [that] “people criticise a picture by their ear”’. In other words, they listen to critics, they follow fashion and they shelve their own judgements because others who are allegedly better-versed in the subject have decreed what is good… and bad.
If this is to be the case, then doesn’t it make things slightly awkward for a whisky writer? After all, we live in an era where the foot-rule of scores rules, and where age, distillery name and era all seem to matter more than the liquid.
Don’t get me wrong, we still need critics, but those of us who read and use them – be it on art, music, theatre, food or whisky – have to ultimately judge the object with our own senses. As Kakuzō wrote: ‘We classify too much, and enjoy too little.’
Read the words, not the numbers; take advice, but trust your palates and intuition – and enjoy.
17 August 2016
While writing this, I’m ensconced in a farmhouse close to Arcos de la Frontera which is, conveniently enough, a mere 30 minutes from the delights of Jerez. This means that, for purely professional reasons, much Sherry is being consumed.
The Nomad bodega: Bridging the gap between Sherry and Scotch
It’s been too long since I was in Jerez. I was here on a frequent basis during my wine writing days and for a couple of spirits-related visits, but then the trips seemed to dry up. Hey, these things happen. It didn’t mean I stopped drinking Sherry.
It was a time when bodegas were closing, and the Sherry industry was caught in seemingly terminal decline. The producers maintained their passion and belief in quality, but the world seemed to have gone deaf to their appeals.
It was also a salutary lesson on the lack of influence of writers. Every year we would write articles on how versatile and remarkable Sherry (or Port, or German wine) was, and every year all these sectors would lose more cases.
And now? Bartenders are in love with Sherry, chefs and sommeliers praise its ability to partner food and, more importantly, a new generation of drinkers is discovering its complex delights. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Sherry’s symbiotic relationship with Scotch runs deep, and yet it’s long struck me that the two industries have never quite understood each other fully.
Yes, there is the Sherry cask, but there is considerably more to discover about what that actually is, and how the whisky industry ended up with the type of casks it now uses. Whisky lovers who love Sherried whisky have quite often never tried Sherry. There is a huge opportunity for closer links and joint efforts.
Maybe things are changing. What was scheduled to be a two-hour trip around González Byass’ bodega with the firm’s charming ambassador Alvaro Platos ended up being in excess of four hours as we tasted, talked and shared.
The visit included a look at the Nomad bodega that houses a blend made by Richard Paterson of Whyte & Mackay, which was married in oloroso casks in Scotland, then shipped to Jerez for a second period of finishing in PX. It’s not legally Scotch (obviously) but it is a drink which forms another bridge between Scotland and Jerez.
Hybrid whiskies are becoming more common and, while some don’t work because the impulse is a contrived one, Nomad does because it is a genuine collaboration between winemaker and whisky blender. More on that later.
Take your time: Dave Broom enjoyed a four-hour tour of Sherry producer González Byass
Talking of collaborations, I’ve just been told that the recent whisky rancio talk has been given the Golden Spirit Award as the top-rated seminar at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail. It, too, was a joint effort – Ryan Chetiyawardana’s genius with flavour and ease of explanation about bartending skills and philosophy; and the extraordinary ability of restaurant Noma’s Arielle Johnson to explain microbiology in a way that all could understand.
We had thought that we might be able to entice 60 geeks into a small room. Instead, we sold more than 200 tickets. I think that shows how deep the desire for knowledge about Scotch is, and in turn how to use that information to make ever greater drinks.
It demonstrated the links which could exist between cutting-edge food science, blending and bartending, and how that could then be applied in practical ways to enthuse even more people about whisky’s flavours.
None of it would have been possible without the backing of Ewan Morgan, the national director of the Masters of Whisky programme, who saw the opportunities within what was a pretty arcane area and gave us access to hugely expensive blends to prove our points – the moment when Chetiyawardana and I poured Johnnie Walker Blue Label and King George V into giant orange buckets will live with me forever. He, and Diageo's Dr Nick Morgan, also helped us tap the brains of Maureen Robinson and Keith Law at Carsebridge.
It all showed how powerful education can be and why brand-focused activity can only be one aspect of a wider engagement with a new whisky-loving community. It was, it strikes me now, in line with what the Masters of Whisky programme was all about.
And now, if you don’t mind, the internet is being turned off. There’s a cold copita with my name on it.
09 August 2016
To say that the news of the axing of the Masters of Whisky programme came as a shock would be an understatement. I’ve had the privilege to work with most of the ambassadors, either here in the UK or in the US, and know how dedicated and talented they are in teaching people – be they consumers or trade – about the ways of whisky.
I know they will all get jobs, but that isn’t the point. The issue here is the rejection on Diageo’s part of a proven educational model. No matter how it is dressed up, there has been a strategic shift away from education, to delivering sales-oriented ‘experiences’ – a very different thing.
The initiative unlocked the multifarious secrets of whisky. That lock is now rusted, opportunities sealed up, jobs lost, and disillusionment rife. The diminishing of the importance of education removes everything special about Scotch (and, by extension, all whiskies and premium spirits).
It rejects the importance of people, place, provenance and pride, and replaces them all with one word – profit. It is a decision that says: ‘Actually, we don’t care how it is made, where it is made, or who makes it, as long as it sells.’
It says: ‘We are in the business solely of shifting boxes, and what these boxes contain doesn’t matter hugely, as long as they deliver profit quickly.’ It is a short-term approach which sits uneasily within Scotch.
There is a profound irony that the people who are paying the salaries and pensions of the people who make decisions such as this are the very folk who care deeply about the product, who work in distilleries and blending labs, and are out there talking and teaching, keeping the narrative evolving and fresh.
The rusted lock: Diageo’s Masters of Whisky programme opened up opportunities for education within the whisky world
Ambassadors such as the Masters talk to the people in bars and stores, who then, enthused by the story, pass on the knowledge to those of you who walk up to the counter and ask for a recommendation.
In other words, there is a chain of people involved, all of whom drive interest in – and passion for – the product. And you know what? Ultimately, the boxes sell because the Masters have built a network of fresh ambassadors. They just might not sell as quickly as a careerist executive wants them to.
In this world of reductive thinking, everything’s (and everyone’s) worth can only be measured numerically, a spreadsheet realm which blankets the messy, fascinating reality of life. This sales-oriented approach might work in the world of washing powder or biscuits, but it cannot be one which should prevail in whisky – or any drink.
It is also counter-intuitive. Scotch is facing challenges from other whisky styles, and other spirits. These, when viewed in the right way, offer Scotch huge new opportunities. It does, however, have to work harder to show consumers, bartenders and retailers why it matters, what makes it different and compelling. In other words, it needs to educate.
Diageo’s competitors must be delighted that such highly trained ambassadors are now available. Having gleaned the wider trade’s reaction to the decision, there is dismay because of the impact it will have on the category. The Masters of Whisky (like any ambassadors) weren’t just talking about Diageo brands; they were helping to build a category and were best-placed because of training – and because of their number and geographical reach – to deliver.
As the biggest player in the whisky category, there is also a moral responsibility on Diageo to take the lead on this. By turning its back on the programme, the firm is rejecting a category-building strategy at the precise time it is so badly needed – and Scotch is all the poorer for it.
The spin is that they are continuing to educate – just in a different way, with luxury experiences replacing the previous approach. The experiences might be fun – look at the balloons, listen to the cane rapping on the ground, eat the jelly, marvel at the dancers, sip the whisky – but it is no more than a tawdry facade.
There is no depth, no room for discussion, no – in a word – education. Instead, there is a show whose aims disappear into air like scented dry ice.
By reducing a whisky to ciphers, you miss the point, eliminate (or ignore) the questions, and stem the dialogue. The message becomes didactic and simplified. A successful mentoring/ambassadorial initiative does exactly the opposite. It enriches and deepens, and builds resonance over time.
I was angry when I heard the news. Now, I’m saddened because a firm which I know is staffed by people who do care deeply and profoundly about its whiskies has had this new approach foisted upon it.
I’m bewildered as to why a programme which the drinks industry in the US regards as the best in class has been scrapped, and its highly-trained members cast aside; while the callous nature of the manner in which Gregor Cattanach was told of his sacking two days after the death of his father – the man who effectively set up the scheme – will always be remembered as an unforgivably shameful act.
Whisky is long-term; it is complex, frustrating, captivating and contradictory. It takes time to understand it, it takes time and patience to explain and engage people into its weird vagaries. It takes shoe leather, knowledge and empathy.
This is what the Masters of Whisky had. All of that has been cast aside for short-term gain, and you know what? I don’t understand it.
20 July 2016
Long-haul flights, while tedious, do at least allow some time for contemplation. On the latest, still musing on the insights which Yumi Yoshikawa gave me, my mind turned to Scotchwhisky.com, nearly 10 months on from launch. Where are we? Getting there. We’re happy with the positive feedback that has come our way while, more importantly, we have all taken on board any constructive suggestions – because it’s only by listening to those that we improve.
While I was never fooled into thinking we could please everyone all the time, what has surprised me is the amount of intemperate rage that is out there. I wrote once in a different place about how the debate around whisky has become coarsened. Sadly, nothing has altered since. We are now in the fairly remarkable position of having passionate whisky lovers and passionate whisky makers hating each other while both loving the spirit, even if that love – as Yumi pointed out – is often expressed in slightly peculiar ways.
Positions on any number of issues have become entrenched: the growth of NAS, the very existence of blends, pricing, the alleged deterioration of whisky quality – with neither side being willing to engage in reasoned debate with the other.
Small gift: Scotchwhisky.com gave away miniature bottles at its official launch during the 2015 Whisky Show in London
Oh, you want my opinion on the matter? Ok, in order...
NAS: Necessary and an opportunity for creativity. I’ve no problem with it per se as long as the new NAS expressions are as good as, or preferably better than, those they are replacing. It’s about quality. It’s always about quality.
Pricing: Yes, there are prices at the top end which baffle me. But never forget there are fantastic whiskies at affordable levels at entry and the middle ground, where many prices have barely shifted for a decade. It’s all about the quality:price ratio.
Blends: Catch yourself on. The industry is built on blends and the greatest represent the height of whisky making craftsmanship. Quality, again.
Whiskies of the old days were better: I bet some people in the ’70s said the whiskies from the ’50s were greater than the ones they were drinking. There are extraordinary old drams, but there are also some dreadful ones. Equally, there are some extraordinary drams being made today, while there are others I’d rather pass on. Guess what? It’s about quality.
Is that fence-sitting? A cop-out? I’d prefer to call it nuanced. Whatever term you prefer, it is where a site such as this has to be. It’s occasionally an uncomfortable place to be, as we will be criticised from both sides (often at the same time), but our shoulders are broad.
It is important to try to present news and analysis in a fair and unbiased fashion. Our opinions (in From The Editors) are personal, but also hopefully cogently argued. I’m happy if you disagree – my colleagues disagree with me on some points – but what won’t happen is any watering down of what we believe to be the right things to discuss, write about and debate.
We love this spirit and want to celebrate it in all its forms. We want to talk to the people who make it, serve it, teach about it and drink it. We want to show how whisky is bigger than a product or a share price; a manifestation of a culture in all of its glorious complexities and contradictions. We want more people to learn how to enjoy it.
That does not mean, however, that we will avoid asking the tough questions – though some in the industry would prefer us not to – while, hopefully, always being cognisant of the wider picture, history and context. Not writing about some of the issues surrounding Scotch would be a derogation of our duty.
Having a blinkered view of the realities of the world is what brought about the Scotch whisky crash of the late ’70s and early ’80s, from which the industry has only recently fully recovered. This means that it is absurd to think everything in the world of whisky is perfect, just as it is absurd to suggest we get things right all the time on this site.
This might irritate those who would prefer to keep things in the world of PR fluff, but we will continue to write about all aspects of whisky in an even-handed manner. Sometimes that might place us in a different position to the industry. Sometimes we might be on the wrong side of whisky maniacs.
Should that happen, we’d expect there to be a grown up debate – there is always space here for considered (but not intemperate) opinion. Maybe in some small way we can get both sides to talk in an adult fashion.
We all believe in whisky. Sometimes we all need to remember that.
07 July 2016
The texts started coming in from my wife when I was in Japan. ‘We’re moving to Scotland… or Ireland.' My daughter, who I had always considered a paragon of innocence, was demonstrating a remarkable mastery of Anglo-Saxon demotic with her Instagram posts. Brexit was a reality. My Japanese friends expressed amazement.
The next day, the country’s press contained interviews with industrialists, all of whom were saying they would have to consider whether to close their UK operations and move them to Europe. (Irony alert no.1: included in this were Hitachi and Nissan, both based in Sunderland, which voted Leave).
For light relief, on the flight back, I watched The Revenant. A man mauled, betrayed, left for dead trying to find a path through a new, strange and hostile landscape. No matter where you looked, there was Brexit.
What will happen? The blithe suggestion that we simply become like Norway or Switzerland is unlikely. This would necessitate that Britain would still have to pay into the EU budget and accept freedom of movement. As the Brexit campaign was rooted in the quasi-racist allegation that immigrants were stealing ‘our jobs’, you can imagine what the political repercussions of such a move might be. (Irony alert no.2: Switzerland and Norway have higher per capita levels of immigrants than the rest of the EU).
Keep calm and sail on: meandering the rocky waters post-Brexit has turned into an ironic up-stream battleAll of the EU laws which have become UK laws will have to be unravelled. Treaties will need to be renegotiated. In a perceptive piece in the London Review of Books, Sionaidh Douglas-Scott wrote: ‘Parliament will have to vote in favour of all of this, which cannot be taken for granted. There will be huge gaps in the law, because much EU law is, in the legal jargon, directly effective, which means if the treaties no longer apply, the law no longer applies. So in many important areas…the UK will have to formulate its own replacements very quickly.’
Can Britain even start to disentangle EU law from the British legal system and simultaneously renegotiate every free trade deal? No. It’s accepted that we have insufficient negotiators. The people who told us not to listen to experts now need… experts (that’s irony alert no.3 folks).
As we have been part of the EU for 40 years, we didn’t need a huge number of specialists to work on trade deals. Meanwhile (irony alert no.4), the Government’s brilliant austerity programme has cut departments to the bone so there will be insufficient civil servants to administer all of the revised regulations (nice work Gideon).
What then might this mean for Scotch? The major firms came out for Remain, as did the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), which has been its diplomatic self since the result was announced. ‘Keep calm and sail on,’ is the message even if we are heading towards the rapids like Hugh Glass in The Revenant.
Remember, it is the EU that has helped to recently ease tariff levels and, in recent times, negotiate trade agreements for Scotch with South Korea, Vietnam and Colombia. There are ongoing negotiations with many others, including India and China. All of that will now be handed to the (non-existent) UK mediators and civil servants.
Nicola Sturgeon could be in a strong political position if she plays her post-Brexit cards right
As a result of Brexit, Scotch could be looking at higher tariffs being imposed across the EU and conceivably will have to renegotiate all others. As a piece in the FT from 22 April underlined, Britain will now have to negotiate with the EU to allow goods (such as Scotch) into Europe tariff-free, (aka the Turkish option). As the article pointed out, while Britain might want this option, there is no guarantee the rest of the EU will agree. It concluded: ‘Via the EU, Britain currently has favourable terms with at least 60 nations. These would have to be revisited.’ All of this could impact negatively on Scotch’s global presence.
What does it mean for Scotland as a whole? The only politician I can see who is emerging from the current chaos with a clear-headed strategy is Nicola Sturgeon, who has everything to gain if she handles the situation carefully. As Douglas-Scott points out: ‘In order for EU law to cease to apply domestically, provisions in the devolution statutes, such as the Scotland Act 1998, will have to be repealed to remove the requirement that these legislatures comply with EU law.
‘But the Sewel Convention states that devolved legislatures must give their consent to the repeal, and Nicola Sturgeon has made clear this will not be forthcoming.’
Could this be a bargaining chip for Sturgeon either to start negotiations to ensure Scotland (and conceivably Northern Ireland) stay in the EU, while England leaves (aka the reverse Greenland option), or to push for a second independence referendum? Perhaps. What is clear is that Brexit has further frayed the ties that bind together what is now laughably called the United Kingdom.
Scotland, it strikes me, by voting remain has already taken a huge stride down the road to full independence, while remaining within the EU. Should another referendum take place, expect the £4bn raised by the whisky industry to play a more prominent role. The ‘Scotland’s oil’ gambit has faltered. ’Scotland’s whisky’ however, has a tempting ring to it.
The Scotch whisky industry voted for Remain in both referendums. It won one. Now that momentum appears to be swinging behind Scottish independence within Europe, the industry needs to reconsider its options – and future.
Most commentators agree that all of this will take time, but that is the very thing we don’t have.
All the while, the roar of the rapids gets louder.
22 June 2016
So there I was driving through Chichibu with Yumi Yoshikawa, as you do. We’d been round the distillery (she’s its brand ambassador) and were heading for what was to prove a wild and entertaining evening with the team at the town’s top whisky bar, Te Airigh [aka Terry’s Bar].
The discussion had drifted from mizunara to Craigellachie’s Highlander Inn (where she had worked), country life, the differences between Scotland and rural Japan, and then somehow landed on how there is a branch of whisky connoisseurs who seem to hate the spirit.
They’re the ones who, in chat rooms and at whisky shows, steer the conversation to how things were always better in the old days, who hate every new release especially if it doesn’t have an age statement on it, resent grain, lauter tuns, steam coils, and shell and tube condensers. Whisky would be better if it were made by noble Highland heroes in bothies hidden in the heather. Until that happens it will continue to be driven ever closer to the edge of a precipice by unscrupulous large distillers (there’s a scale of approval in this mindset which works in inverse proportion to the size of the producer – those who set themselves up as 21st century Highland Heroes in the Heather are safe from scorn).
I worry about them, and on occasion have mused why if whisky is so bad they don’t move to rum, or Cognac, or Armagnac. Not that I want them to go away – every bottle of Scotch sold is a good thing. I do wonder where the rage comes from, however.
I finished my rant. Then Yumi said: ‘Maybe people who care passionately about whisky express it in the same way as you do with a lover: you want them to be perfect, ideal, to fit your own idea of what they should be and reflect your love of them. Because they don’t always meet your expectations you complain about them, but it’s only because you love them.’
Love knows no boundaries when it comes to whisky
It made perfect sense. In any case, am I any different with my rants about the need for a wider range of yeasts and worries about direct fire being taken out of some distilleries leading to a loss of character? (The latter is top of mind as I’m currently in a country where direct fire has been reinstalled in distilleries because it gives character). I wasn’t giving up though.
‘Surely though, love can also be possessive and jealous? You know, “I want you to myself and no-one else can get you. I am the only one who can understand you.” It starts out as a love story and ends up with a bunny in a pot.’
Passion is one thing and is something we all have for this spirit, but passion can easily tip over into antagonism. The solution, surely, is tolerance. There is, as the Persuaders once sang, a thin line between love and hate and the latter is never surely the solution to any debate.
I’m with Yumi, but I’m keeping a weather eye on what’s cooking in the kitchen.
14 June 2016
‘Glenfiddich single malt: made in Italy.’ Can you imagine that on a label? If you can, then can you also envisage the stooshie that would ensue?
Just before lawyers start sharpening their quills and calculating their fees, this has not happened. Neither will it happen. It won’t, because Scotch is one of the most tightly regulated spirits in the world. It has controls and laws covering everything from production to labelling.
Some firms may occasionally chafe against the limits of these rules, but they are there for a good reason – such as stopping people making ‘Glenfiddich’ anywhere other than in Scotland.
It sounds an absurd notion that an internationally recognised brand would have its name stolen by another firm, which then placed it on one of its own bottles. I mean to say, old boy, there’re things called trademarks. It’s just not done to steal another chap’s rights in this fashion. To which I say: welcome to the happy world of rum.
Just two weeks ago, Bacardi announced the US-wide distribution of a brand called ‘Havana Club’, but made in Puerto Rico. Yes, I know. Havana is in Cuba. What’s more, Havana Club is a trademarked Cuban rum brand. Even the US recognises this. Bacardi, however, doesn’t accept this state of affairs.
The launch of Puerto Rican ‘Havana Club’ is the firm’s latest attempt to ensure that Cuban rum cannot enter the United States and has more to do with spite and a fear of the erosion of brand share than it has of upholding any noble legal position.
Rum do: Bacardi’s Havana Club is produced in Puerto Rico
A Scotch whisky site isn’t the place to enter into the intricacies of the long-running case – which is making various lawyers very rich – but it is evidence of how important strong regulations are in protecting brand rights.
The current argument in rum – which has acquired the same heat as NAS in Scotch – is over sugar addition. In some countries adding sugar is banned, in others it is legal. Neither is there an upper limit on how much sugar can be added – as there is with cachaça or Cognac – or whether it should be declared on the label.
Those who add sugar (and other additives such as vanilla and citrus) say it isn’t illegal, and anyway it has been common practice for centuries (which is true). Those who are against it say it fools drinkers into thinking rum is sweet, covers up immaturity and erodes distillery and national rum character. Can you imagine a similar debate in Scotch? No. Because the sugar issue wouldn’t arise.
Rum has another issue, this time over age statements. In some countries – Cuba and Puerto Rico, for example – the new distillate has to spend a minimum amount of time in cask before it can be called rum. In others it’s rum as soon as it appears in the spirit safe.
In some countries – Cuba, the English- and French-speaking Caribbean – the age declared on the label is defined by the youngest component in the blend. In others, where solera aging is practised, an average age is calculated. Some firms simply put a number on the bottle. Result: confusion. Again, could this happen in Scotch? No.
Most rum producers agree that tighter regulations are needed and look at Scotch with a certain degree of envy, but it is difficult to achieve consensus as rum is already governed by various and occasionally conflicting national regulations. It is unlikely that global regulations could ever be applied.
The result is that a major part of rum education involves trying to explain all of these differing ways of making the product and cutting a clear path through the confusion – before you can even start talking about the spirit in a balanced, generic fashion.
So for those who rail against Scotch’s rules – be careful what you wish for.
24 May 2016
‘There’s a slow food festival in the Burren next weekend.’ Leslie Williams was giving me the hard sell. ‘You should come…’ The last night of talk at Ballymaloe followed the same pattern as always when gently lubricated friends sit round the table. You don’t want things to end… a few more days are needed to finish conversations and deepen relationships. Time runs away from our plotting and scheming.
His idea was a good one – stopping off at the festival, then hiring a boat and bobbing under the Cliffs of Moher eating the Burren Smokehouse’s wild salmon and sipping whiskey. It might have been the wonderful, and rare, Alicante wine he was dosing me with, but for more than a second I swithered.
Islay was calling though, and I had to get there as quickly as I could, which turned out to be not as quickly as you might imagine. Drive to Cork, train to Dublin, bus to Dublin airport… and a wait. Things did take a turn for the better when I asked for a Bloody Mary at the bar and got two. Maybe it’s the accent – and you can take that whatever way you wish.
In any case, I slept all the way from Dublin to Glasgow. As I sat waiting for FlyBe to consult their Bumper Book of Excuses and choose one to apply to the inevitable delay to the Islay flight, I mused that with a bit more planning I could have grazed my way up the Wild Atlantic Way trail to Ballycastle, then get a RIB across to Islay. Next year.
It would have been appropriate. The sea was the great roadway of the past, carrying wisdom, goods, warfare and the gospel. Islay’s place names are a mix of Norse and Gaelic, evidence of the meeting of sea-faring cultures from the north and south.
Distilling could have nipped across from Ballycastle to Islay with the Macbeathas at the start of the 14th century. Islay is not remote, or isolated, but a crossroads, a fulcrum in terms of geography, politics and knowledge.
When I finally reached Port Ellen, I looked down the street to where the red ‘T’ of the Ardview shone in the gloaming like a blood stain, beckoning me. I like the Ardview: it’s one of those old west coast pubs which seems to be part boat, a place of creaking wood and hidden rooms, its windows battened down, sheltering the drinking crew from the storms of life raging outside. The door to the lounge bar is painted shut as if to say: ‘This is a public place.’
Final destination: The pink-and-blue dawn at a revitalised Port Ellen
Big Margaret’s curry house has been transformed into the very smart SeaSalt Bistro. Soon there was a clattering midden of scallop shells beside me. All for a minuscule price, with free hairdressing advice thrown in.
Men in kilts wander past – a sure sign of overseas visitors. The bar of the Islay Hotel is bouncing with music as drams are drunk and elbows are bent again and again, the fumes of peat wreathing themselves around the room. Port Ellen, after years of decline, is alive once more.
Now it’s morning. The loch is calm, a pink-and-blue dawn as housemartins and jackdaws fuss about the eaves. In a few hours I’ll wander along the road to Laphroaig and then up to Lagavulin, where I’ve been promised some unusual cocktails.
23 May 2016
There is a noted phenomenon in the world of food and drink called ‘The Ballymaloe Trickle-Down Effect’. A thought, or philosophy, or technique starts at Ballymaloe House Hotel and Cookery School in Co Cork and slowly permeates culture in Ireland, then globally.
Every year, when the skies are cornflower blue and the feeling of potentiality is bursting from the ground, Ballymaloe hosts a Litfest of Food & Wine, to which the migratory birds of the culinary and libatory world flock in order to discuss and debate.
It’s a place which links people, creates connections. On Saturday night, for example, the talk was of psychobiotics and kimchi, kefir, the Viagra-like potential of nettles, and olive oil production on Lesbos. The conversations drifted from wine to gin to stovies, all underpinned by a belief in provenance, diversity, tradition, modernisation and a fierce love of the local. Is whisky part of this? Damned right it is.
Yesterday afternoon I spent an hour co-presenting a class with Kevin O’Gorman, Irish Distillers’ master of maturation (yes, that is his job title). We were talking wood, oak type, flavour, mechanisms and the effects on single pot still whiskeys.
He and the team had done the heavy lifting, I just rambled on about the drams. Give me a Redbreast and I’m happy. It was the last whiskey, though, which opened up a new world.
IDL’s Midleton Dair Ghaelach is finished in Irish oak casks. It’s more than that, however. It’s the product of a six-year programme which covered sourcing, coopering, maturation and then releasing a whiskey which not only named the type of oak used, but which forest it came from, and which specific tree was used.
Oak is central to Ireland. Dair (oak) was the seventh letter of the Ogham alphabet, it gives us Derry and Kildare (church of the oak), it formed the sacred groves of old, and it gave timber for ships, houses and palaces.
The only reasons why distillers in Ireland and Scotland use second-hand casks is because the native forests were clear-cut. If they had been managed, then the whiskies would have been significantly different.
From tiny acorns: Could anyone in Scotch emulate Irish Distillers’ innovation?
The first issue faced by Kevin and his colleague Ger Buckley (Ireland’s number one cooper), therefore, was finding the oak. Ireland has the second smallest coverage of forest in Europe – a mere 10%, only 1% of which is native woodland. Although there is a reforestation programme under way, there’s not a lot of mature oak about.
Certainly a dramatic change from the days, Kevin claimed, when it was said that a monkey could swing its way from Kinsale to Derry without touching the ground. I’m still not quite sure what’s more surprising: the extent of the forest, or the fact that there were once Irish monkeys.
They sourced 10 trees from Ballaghtobin Estate in Co Kilkenny which, followed by Ger, were coopered into hogsheads in Spain, given a medium toast, then returned to Ireland to be filled with a blend of three types of American oak-matured pot still whiskey for a 10-month period of finishing. The casks from each tree were kept separate.
The first batch were all Quercus robur, but Ireland’s terroir makes this wider-grained, with more tannin, higher extract and a different flavour profile. They have subsequently felled, or identified, Quercus petraea and Quercus cerris (aka Turkey oak) from other forests.
Traceability, provenance – and different flavour profiles. Forget single estate, we’re now in the realm of single tree. Only Buffalo Trace has gone further in terms of wood research, I suspect.
The result? A whiskey with pot still’s unctuous nature, but a completely new flavour profile – there’s added roasted nuts and spices and a heavy chestnut honey element, allied to blackcurrant, clove and dried soft fruit. A whiskey which makes your knees tremble.
So, once again, the Irish have got there first. I know Glengoyne did a Scottish oak years ago, but not to this level of forensic detail. Could Scotch do something similar to Dair Ghealach? Scotland’s forest is in a poor state, but not as low in terms of coverage as Ireland’s, and there is a target for 4,500ha of native species to be planted every year, helping to reforest 25% of the country by the middle of the century.
So in theory, yes, there could be a Scotch equivalent, adding further profound links between land and spirit. Irish Distillers is doing it, Japanese whisky-makers are managing the tiny amount of mizunara forests and are replanting to give it a sustainable future.
If Scotch is serious about provenance, it would be daft not to explore this area. From tiny acorns, ideas trickle down.
02 May 2016
There’s a mountain in my legs. For the past eight years, the Sunday of the Spirit of Speyside Festival has seen a walk up Ben Rinnes. On the summit there’s a toposcope attached to the trig point which points out all of the distilleries which you can see (memo to self, Ballindalloch and Dalmunach need to be added). It’s a chance to catch up with like-minded masochists and learn a little more about the area.
The Ben is a focal point; a triangular extrusion of pink granite among the folded hills whose flanks provide water for many distilleries. Distilleries emerge slowly as we head off. Allt-a-Bhainne on one side, then Glenallachie on the other, next The Glenlivet in the distance, and as the first saddle is reached we see Macallan, then Rothes and on to the coast.
On we tramp, seeing raven, curlew, grouse, and mountain hare. The talk is of old smuggling days and the slow repopulation of parts of forgotten glens. There’s snow too, a mighty drift near the top which has to be traversed before the wind-blasted summit is reached. We’ve lugged the giant quaich up [presented to Dave at the start of the festival – Ed] and pour in some drams, diluting them with snow.
Treat at the top: Alan Winchester pours a dram at the summit of Ben Rinnes
Beneath us is Speyside, bounded on one side by the white Cairngorm massif to the south-west, on the south-east by Bennachie and the Buck, and the Moray Firth grey to the north. Weather is flying in from the south-west, veils of rain falling on towns which slowly disappear: there goes Dufftown, Rothes, Craigellachie, Elgin, Archiestown. Then the clouds begin to break and one settlement is lit up. Sunshine on Keith.
The walk is followed by another tradition, a tasting in Edinvillie village hall where I choose drams from distilleries you can see from the top and try and make connections between them. We went back in time from Dalmunach via Glenallachie, then Glenrothes, Craigellachie, finishing with a double bill of hefty old-style whiskies: Macallan (Edition No.1) and Benrinnes. It told Speyside’s tale in reverse, of how its styles evolved and of the region’s diversity.
It is this reach which is both the region’s advantage and, to some extent, disadvantage. It is impossible to see everything, visit every distillery, attend every event at the festival. There’re 500 of them (probably more). Are there too many? Should there be a festival hub – Dufftown or Craigellachie? Is the festival’s growth limited to the number of beds available? All things that the organisers will address for 2017.
Keep up, Broom: The Glenlivet's Alan Winchester takes a solid lead
Thankfully, by this stage of proceedings stories of other events emerge as people bump into each other like dancers doing a Strip the Willow. The Copper Dog running out of beer at the stramash, barrel-rolling down the streets of Dufftown, a remarkable day-long Mortlach experience which ended up on the battlements of Drummuir Castle; and many more.
The airport is calling, however. There’s just time to slip into the Highlander Inn for a farewell pint. Tatsuya Minagawa pours me a wee deoch and doras of his latest bottling, Oishii Wisukii (delicious whisky), a 36-year-old blend. It is indeed oishii, a rich and elegantly mature unfolding of textures and rich fruits. A blend seems to be the right way to end.
There’s the team from Chichibu in the corner alongside some Germans. A party from Washington DC invite us to have dinner with them, there’s Dutch being spoken in one corner, Swedish in another, all linked by whisky’s remarkable ability to bind people together.
The spirit of Speyside indeed.
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