From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • The long road to Islay

    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.’

    Port Ellen at dawn

    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.

  • Ballymaloe and the provenance of oak

    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.

    Oak forests

    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.

  • Spirit of Speyside: The view from above

    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.

  • Spirit of Speyside: Tasting time

    01 May 2016

    ‘Tusitala’, the t-shirt said. It means ‘Teller of Tales’ in Samoan and was the name given to Robert Louis Stevenson when he moved there in his final years. It – the t-shirt, that is – was made by Elgin firm www.smadug.com, whose wares I heartily recommend for both design and quality (and yes, I did pay for the new garment).

    It seemed somehow appropriate, not that I am in any way comparing my wretched scribblings to RLS’s lofty prose. As my friend and mentor Nick Faith once told me: ‘Remember, dear boy, we deal in higher-level bullshit.’

    I bought it at The Glenlivet Open Day, a mini-festival within the festival, with local traders, drams, and the sma’ still puffing away outside. Behind the warehouses is a huge hole that can probably be seen from the moon. This will be the location for the new distillery which is being added to the site, bringing production up to around 20m litres.

    Over in Dufftown, there are new stills going into Glenfiddich, while on the hill opposite Aberlour, Macallan’s Hobbiton is being constructed. Speyside is witnessing the distilling equivalent of a nuclear arms race.

    Tusitala: Both Dave and Alan Winchester have earned the moniker 'Teller of Tales'

    The t-shirt really should have been worn by Alan Winchester, with whom I sat in the afternoon, occasionally prodding him with questions as he wove stories around the passing of time at The Glenlivet.

    Using drams from six decades as reference points, he spoke of old managers and owners, the adaptations in production techniques, casks, overseas travels and the importance of community, and how through all of these changes the character of the spirit had remained the same.

    ‘Fruity, floral, toffee,’ was repeated like a mantra through his talk, and was echoed in the six glasses in front of us. Expansion doesn’t mean loss of character. Or shouldn’t.

    ‘You know, Dave,’ he said as we sipped on the 1959, ‘we’re the old ones now.’ It’s true. We’ve been yarning with each other for decades now – and it probably felt like that for the audience, for which I apologise. Sort of.

    How times have changed, from days when whisky was hard to sell, to now, with gigantic building sites and a feeling of confidence as people of a new generation from around the world come to this nexus point of whisky-making to learn.

    ‘Time,’ as Dylan Thomas wrote, ‘passes. Listen. Time passes. Come closer now… Only you can hear and see, behind the eyes of the sleepers, the movements and countries and mazes and colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and wishes and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams. From where you are, you can hear their dreams.’

    Here, on Speyside, you can taste them as well. 

  • Spirit of Speyside: Caves and car parks

    30 April 2016

    ‘Do you know what that is?’ asks Mark Fresson, pointing at a strange, small green hill. I hazard a guess of an ancient burial mound. ‘Nope. That’s Imperial.’

    It seems churlish to point out to him that I am, sort of, correct. We’re standing in the stillhouse of Dalmunach distillery, Chivas Brothers’ new 10m lpa (litres of pure alcohol) plant on the banks of the Spey, a distillery which, it’s fair to say, is one of the most stunning of new builds. Mark was the architect.

    What could have been a shed by a river, a functional box containing whisky equipment, is instead a mix of soft curves and three long arms mimicking a sheaf of barley.

    The bowed front of the building is made out of reclaimed wood from Imperial’s washbacks, the massive stills – twice as big as Imperial’s but the same shape – commune in a circle in the massive, glass-framed stillhouse. The impression is of attention to detail, the need for aesthetics, as well as pipework and engineering in an industrial building.

    Manager Trevor Buckley pours a dram of the new make which has flowed down a copper waterfall into the receiver. It’s filled with blue fruits and grape skin, blackcurrant and hint of Ribena with a clean finish and just a drying touch of cereal.

    Outside, Imperial, that most unlucky of distilleries, slumbers under grass. In the evening, bats will flit above its tomb, snatching gnats from the air and, perhaps, returning to roost in the red-brick cave which Chivas Bros had to build to house them when their former home was demolished. That’s a first for me.

    Dalmunach’s hidden away, as is its neighbour, the mighty Dailuaine. They are blending malts, that term which is used, somewhat disparagingly, for whiskies which aren’t commonly bottled as single malts.

    That doesn’t mean their make is inferior. In fact, you could argue that one reason they are invisible distilleries is because their make is so highly prized. Speyside is hoaching with sites like these; its past has been built on quiet service.

    Dalmunach distillery

    Clean lines: Dalmunach’s design embraces aesthetics as well as practicality

    My next destination was a car park. Admittedly there was a marquee protecting me from the snell wind, but there was no hiding the fact that it was a car park. The Craigellachie Hotel’s car park to be precise.

    Inside, Cadenhead’s Mark Watt, all suited and booted, was sitting down with his guests to a food and whisky lunch. Out here, it was cold. Writer, know thy place.

    There was, however, central heating in the form of a bodega full of Sherried whiskies which my partner in crime Charlie MacLean and I chatted through for a couple of hours with a tentful of hardy souls huddled in heavy jackets.

    A couple of copitas of Sherry (a fino and oloroso) to start with and then into a conversation about wine influence, oak influence, refill, distillery character. We’d been bountifully supplied with cask samples by Bob Dalgarno of Macallan, and Brian Kinsman of Glenfiddich, including a Macallan PX cask, an opaque 9-year-old Glenfiddich from first fill, a gentle 21-year-old from a third fill butt, followed by Rothes ‘78 and a meaty treat of Benrinnes 21.

    There was more whisky than glasses, and I had one half-litre of Macallan to share – an astoundingly rich and complex nine-year-old from first fill.

    Part of the deal of winning the International Brand Ambassador title is you have to take the gigantic ceremonial quaich with you. No glasses, the need for one more dram, a giant quaich? Sorted. In it went and the sharing cup was passed around and drained, but with due reverence and appreciation.

    These were whiskies which would never see the light of day on their own, they were components, adding structure and framework to single malts or blends, the hidden engineering of a whisky, their architects the whisky makers, men and women who don’t need the bright lights of fame, but quietly serve.

    There was more to come, with a dash to Strathisla and a two-hour blind tasting on blending. Blind not because I’m a bastard (a term used somewhat regularly as the tasting progressed), but because that removes prejudice and allows you to discuss and understand how flavours exhibit themselves, and then how a blender could use them and fit them into his (or her) creation.

    Among our samples a peppy Tormore, all jazz hands and pineapple, a thick, banana cake Strathclyde and more: sherried Longmorn, a relaxed, mature Strathisla, smoky Glenlivet (I know, that was evil) and then a vatting of the malts which go into Chivas Regal 12, then Chivas 18 at cask strength.

    It was fun – well, I enjoyed it. The quaich was passed around again, now with a blend in it, elements quietly holding together to make a greater whole. It seemed very Speyside.

  • Spirit of Speyside: The Living Past

    29 April 2016

    It might not seem like it at times, but a certain degree of preparation goes into a masterclass. While a degree of improvisation is preferable – the roads less travelled are always more interesting than the main highways – a sort of structure does help.

    It also helps to have tasted the whiskies you are talking about. There’s improvisation and there’s sheer recklessness. Which is why at 9.30am I’m sitting in Strathisla with 10 drams in front of me. These are for two classes, one of which is blind, so don’t expect me to divulge what they are. They are all, however, great.

    Being at Strathisla also allows me to have a quick snoop around the Chivas Brothers Archive, run by the estimable Chris Brousseau. It is, sadly, only relatively recently that firms have realised how important the past is to their brands.

    Records at the Chivas Brothers Archive

    Living history: The industry is belatedly waking up to the importance of archives

    No matter what efforts are being made now, the fact remains that until the industry realised that the past is important, the meticulous written records were more often than not consigned to bonfires or landfill.

    We look at a wall of cabinets containing The Glenlivet’s past, one of a similar length for Longmorn. ‘Let me show you Scapa,’ says Chris. He pulls out one small, leather-bound book.

    ‘That’s it?’ I ask. ‘Yeah, but…’ and his eyes light up, ‘it’s the first book – there’s the date and time of the first filling.’ It’s not a lot, but it’s something.

    Chris shows me a letter from Charles Dickens praising Glenlivet, one from John Smith, Charles Doig’s original plans for distilleries, the legal document which enshrined The Glenlivet’s prefix.

    There’s bottles galore, some real, others fake… Anyone fancy a ‘Balentye’s’ from Casablanca? Archives are a vital role in combatting counterfeiting.

    ‘We’re running out of space,’ he says. This is good. That means there is a realisation of the importance of history. Archives – and archivists – are a forgotten but vital component in whisky’s future.

    Glenlivet bottles, Chivas Brothers Archive

    Bottles galore: Just a few of the items in the Chivas Brothers Archive

    Then it was time for the ‘light lunch’ proposed by my dear buddy Mr MacLean, over which we could discuss our Sherried whisky class. (You see? Preparation).

    ‘Light’ in MacLean’s lexicon can often tend to mean what other folks call ‘boozy’, but moderation was the watchword on this occasion, although in these days of the ‘just water for me’ culture, beer and wine might be seen as wildly excessive.

    Lunch was taken in the Copper Dog, the marvellous, stone-flagged pub in the basement of the newly refurbished Craigellachie Hotel. Upstairs, Lyndsey Gray and her team run the Quaich bar with its serried ranks of bottles rare and fascinating, cocktails and views over the Spey.

    The Craig’s revival has created a focal point for quality, like the village in which it sits, a hub. The Quaich Bar is no longer a hidden, small, dark green nook, accessible only to members of the Church of Drams, but open to all, bright and proud.

    It’s not alone. On a whim, Mr MacLean and I then decided to spend the rest of the afternoon stravaiging around the higher-end drinking establishments of Speyside (thankfully, we had a designated driver).

    First stop was the Dowans in Aberlour. It’s a hotel I’ve long loved though, like many of its kind, was always one where an eyebrow would be raised if you didn’t have a faithful hound with you when you checked in. A sporting place, stuffed with fishing rods and the smell of cordite and dog hair.

    Now it is transformed into a stylish, modern hotel, with a sleek silver-and-black cocktail bar and another, The Still, with a wall of whisky, a club and regular tastings.

    I didn’t ask if dogs were welcome. No longer do you enter through the back door, trailing mud. Now the entrance is at the front, giving you a sublime view over the river.

    We drifted on to the four-star Station Hotel in Rothes, another establishment which has been gutted and redesigned, and now boasts two bars – Toots as the public, and a main bar.

    There’s copper everywhere – you could make a sma’ still from the coasters alone – which is no surprise since it’s owned by the genial and humble Richard Forsyth. There’s another wall of whisky, but Dutch bar manager Bert Macor has smuggled in a fine selection of genever – which is where Charlie and I start.

    Bar, Station Hotel, Rothes

    Wall of whisky: The bar at the Station Hotel, Rothes

    Tourism is important to the region. Forty percent of the visitors to the 2015 Spirit of Speyside festival stayed for six nights, but it isn’t just for this time of year. People come all year round; distillers bring in guests.

    The issue for many years was a lack of bed space, a need for more hotels, restaurants and fine bars – quality, in other words. Offer all of that and people don’t come for a day trip, they stay, they spend, they sit and drink, and talk. These hotels are vital to a new, confident Speyside.

    In many ways, what they are doing is learning from the past, from people like Alexander Edward, the young tyro who built the Craigellachie Hotel (and most of the village, and a distillery or two).

    He saw the middle classes coming up by train to the Highlands and gave them a reason to stay by building a hotel. The new generation are doing the same. The past, you see, is always alive.

    Today, Mr MacLean and I are doing our Sherried whisky class featuring two Sherries and eight drams, then comes a blind tasting on blends, and finally I am being deposited on a (hopefully fictitious) desert island to choose some drams.

    For those of you up here already, a few of us are wandering up Ben Rinnes on Sunday morning. Meet at 10am on the Edinvillie road (Glenrinnes end).

    Now… breakfast. If I hurry, I can squeeze in a visit to Dalmunach.

  • Spirit of Speyside: opening night

    28 April 2016

    Over the years I’ve seen seaweed in stillhouses and been attacked by midges in them as well. This, though, was the first time I’d ever experienced snow being blown in.

    Sunbursts of daffodils shone out across the bleached hillsides, on which well-camouflaged, new-born lambs shivered. ‘Lambing snow’ they call it in these parts. You could tell who was local. They were the ones who raced into the stillhouse; we incomers dawdled, drinking it in.

    It was worth the slower pace. It’s not every day, after all, that you get a chance to see Auchroisk, that modernist sculpture of a distillery that is, for some reason, little talked-of. Rarer still for folk to stand in the stillhouse, sipping on cocktails, as the hiss of steam mingles with the conversation and we all inch closer together for warmth as the wintry wind blows up the kilts.

    Spirit of Speyside’s opening gala is a chance for a get-together, for a certain degree of scene-setting, the inhalation before the activities start.

    Deeper breaths than usual this year, with close on 500 different events being run and in excess of 26,000 visitors attending. Seventeen years in, this is no longer just a local celebration, but an event which, this year, could bring in £1.5m to the region.

    The evening is also a great place for gossip, the evening’s conversations underpinned by a steady stream of secrets – not that I can divulge anything… at the moment.

    Eyes were flitting about, trying to spot anyone from BenRiach to find out what was going on there and, while there was general surprise at the deal (and the amount paid (‘£100m more than I reckon it’s worth’ was repeated a few times), there were some canny souls who claimed they knew something was afoot – and who was next.

    Whisky and smiles at Spirit of Speyside

    Whisky and smiles: Friends old and new meet every year at the festival

    The guest speaker was Jim Naughtie, broadcaster, author and, as was pointed out on more than one occasion, a local loon. His talk touched on the hard-drinking days of old-time journalism, when bottles of whisky would be hidden in cornflake packets, and his early memories of ‘bottles filled with viscous liquids’, that were smuggled out of distilleries, then pulled out of back pockets at dances.

    It was a speech which touched on politics, while cleverly avoiding them, and framed by his roots in ‘this robust landscape, buttressed by granite’. 

    As he sat down, Capercaillie’s Charlie McKerron started on his last set of magical fiddle tunes, and bottles began to be passed around the room. Old buddies from around the world embraced, new friendships and introductions were made. Writers, hoteliers, barmen, operators, engineers, coppersmiths and managers mingling together.

    I met Sandy McIntyre, Tamdhu’s manager whose brother, I discovered, I went to primary school with. ‘There’s amazing connections everywhere you look,’ he mused.

    It summed up the evening: friendships rekindled, new promises made, and what seemed a disparate collection of frozen folk at the start of the night, leaving as one band, united by whisky.

    Now, inspired by Jim Naughtie’s tales, I am heading off to do a preliminary tasting for a blending class tomorrow, followed by ‘a light lunch’ with Charlie MacLean.

    Wish me luck.

  • Even snow can’t dampen Speyside’s spirit

    27 April 2016

    I’m sitting here in a state of confusion. The cistus is in flower in the garden, the bluebells are out and the birds are flitting about trying to pick up moss and twigs for nests – while avoiding my cat. The sun is shining out of a cobalt sky. It’s spring. I look away for a second and when I glance up again it’s snowing. Maybe the weather is mourning Prince in the most appropriate manner it can (come to think of it even the clouds look purple).

    According to the forecast, the meteorological grief is even greater in Scotland, with blizzards predicted for the next couple of days which should add a certain frisson to this year’s Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival especially as I plan to be standing on the top of Ben Rinnes on Sunday lunchtime. If you are in the vicinity watch out for details – and bring a dram (memo to self, repack that case and think again about the tiki get-up for the desert island drams night).

    But hey, the snow will just add to the magic of this celebration of the region and its whiskies. That’s the joy of the festival. You never quite know what is going to happen.

    The Blackening: Neither snow or soot could spoil Speyside's annual festivalOver the years we’ve seen wild ceilidhs in Fochabers [town motto: too whit to whoo, tae Fochabers wi’ you!], and a room of baffled drammers trying to dance to Ziggy Campbell’s Moonhop disco; malt barns have become venues, warehouses turned into elegant restaurants; distilleries normally out of bounds to casual visitors fling their doors open. The public can wield hammers on the shop floor of the Speyside Cooperage, drambling tours of distilleries are organised – and descend quickly into chaos, and the pubs are filled with the languages of the world as glasses are clinked and drams are shared.

    The fact that you are unsure of what is about to happen seems appropriate. Speyside isn’t one thing, but many. Its whiskies cannot be easily categorised, rather they occupy every niche of the flavour spectrum. Speyside is light, but also heavy, it is floral, but fruity, it can be smoky or free of peat. Speyside grows barley, it malts and coopers, and smiths copper. Its landscape ranges from the wilds of Glen Livet to the foggy mosses, and the Moray shoreline. How then can its whiskies be identikit? This week therefore is a chance to celebrate diversity, and to rejoice in confusion. I’ll see you there.

  • The flipping culture of cult whiskies

    20 April 2016

    How does a whisky become a cult? It’s a thought which sprang to mind when I was tasting this year’s release of Yamazaki Sherry Cask. Why this whisky? Or rather, why this whisky which isn’t the same whisky which did become a cult? Once cult status has been achieved, is it held in perpetuity? Once a cult, always a cult – as I’m sure I overhead someone muttering in a Glasgow bar one night.

    Anyway, to get back to the question in hand, cult status is linked to scarcity. It can be granted to a whisky thanks to a (often belated) realisation that it is in finite supply – Port Ellen, Brora, Karuizawa. It can be a limited edition whisky where demand always outstrips supply: Ardbeg limited editions, Bowmore Devil’s Casks, and Yamazaki Sherry Cask.

    In both scenarios, it produces a reaction akin to mass hysteria. ‘I haven’t tried it, but I have to have it because people are talking about it.’ It’s drams as Pokémon cards, limited edition trainers, or handbags.

    If the cult has momentum, critical faculties also disappear. Possession of the sacred object is all that matters. The liquid (in this case) is meaningless. The fact that it might only be of average quality is irrelevant. It’s whisky as fetish.

    Yamasaki Sherry Cask

    Object of desire: Feverish interest greeted the release of the 2016 Yamazaki Sherry Cask

    This might seem an enviable position for a producer. In actuality, it can be a nightmare, particularly when it comes to distribution. Who gets it? How many do they get? What’s the price? The same dilemma is then passed down to retailers, who have to deal fairly with cult members, knowing that it will be impossible to satisfy them all.

    How, then, to be even-handed with what is an inevitably tiny allocation? Two retailers had an interesting response with the Yamazaki. ‘The issue is how you appear fair and not make more people than necessary angry, because that anger is there,’ says Arthur Motley, buyer at Royal Mile Whiskies.

    ‘A man gives an award to a whisky, so the distiller decides to increase its price. People get angry. The retailer doesn’t know how many they’ll get or what the price will be, so people get angry with us. We get a small allocation and can’t sell a bottle to everyone who wants one. People get angry. We’re living in new times.’

    How, then, to be even-handed in selling the stock? ‘We could alert our most loyal customers and pre-sell the allocation, but that isn’t an option as you’ll be criticised for selling to an inner circle. Or  we could sell on a first come, first served basis with one bottle per customer, which is what we did. We Tweeted that it had arrived and it went in seconds.’

    That still leaves the fact that many (most?) whisky lovers will never try the dram. Is there any way to spread the love? Master of Malt devised A Cunning Plan for its six-bottle allocation of Yamazaki. Four were bottled as 3cl miniatures and sold in a lottery, which in theory meant 93 folk got to try it – maybe more if they were happy to share a glass. One went for auction, with all profit above the retail price going to charity.

    The last full bottle went to a lottery, sporting a back label saying: ‘I hereby swear not to sell this bottle – but to drink it with my chums. May my taste-buds and olfactory bulb shrivel and die if I should break my word.’

    How likely is that? We all know that these bottles are now as often bought to flip, not drink. That possession of the sacred object is no longer the main driver within the world of cult. Profit is.

    In Royal Mile’s case, someone had tried to cheat the system and ordered two bottles, meaning that there was one left over. ‘Everyone believed when it was released it would resell for £800 to £1,000,’ says Motley. ‘The individual then makes more profit that we or the distiller makes. So we were faced with this issue – do we sell this spare bottle, put it into auction, or do we effectively give it away? Which is what we did.’

    The bottle was sold to Edinburgh bar Bramble for £180 (0% profit) and the bar then sold 25ml drams at £6.43 (0% profit). It sold out in 10 hours (search #breakevenbottle on Twitter to see the video). Again, more people were able to try it, which gives this whisky lover a warm, fuzzy feeling.

    But is it up to retailers to try to subvert the flipping culture? ‘How do you judge whether a customer is someone who wants to buy for a collection, or is going to drink it, or who wants to flip it?’ asks Motley, somewhat rhetorically. ‘If they do flip it, is that less valid? Is it even our business?’

    Here, though, is the dark side of the cult business. Suntory knew that there would be huge demand for this bottle, so the company raised the price, to around (gasp!) £200 retail.

    It also raised the spec of the whisky, so that the liquid was commensurate with the price being asked. That is to be applauded. Then you look at auction sites and see it selling for £2,000.

    Now, I ask you, seeing this, what price do you think Suntory will charge next year and, if it is a four-figure sum, can you blame them?

    The industry gets criticised for greed. Ask yourself. Who is being greedy here?

  • Sleazy, Coil and Compass Box

    13 April 2016

    In the somewhat frantic atmosphere enveloping the most recent development in the transparency stooshie, I watched the embedded YouTube link of John Glaser addressing the nation.

    Now, while I watch YouTube relatively regularly, I can’t say I fully understand how the clips on the ‘now watch these’ menu which pops up at the end are selected. Maybe it’s your browsing history, or the site’s goblins are using some cunning algorithm to make a connection between what you’ve seen and something which initially seems completely unrelated – but maybe isn’t.

    Who knows? Actually, who cares? What matters in this case is what happened when the video finished, because it offered a link to an interview with the late Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson of Coil – which I’d guess might be the first time that these two gentlemen have ever been linked. One co-founded Throbbing Gristle and was noted for his interest in the occult, psychedelia and transgressive behaviour; the other blends whisky.

    I love Coil, deeply, so I watched it (though I didn’t tell the Editor, what with this being a fairly busy news day). What was integral to Coil, Sleazy said, was being true to the vision upon which their work was grounded, on its truths.

    Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson

    True to a vision: Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson of Coil

    The band, despite what some believed, were never simply provocative for the sake of it. Neither were they self-created ‘mavericks’ – an approach which is little more than marketing taking the tropes of the underground and diluting them for the mainstream. Beware the b(r)and which shouts: ‘Look how wacky I am!’

    It occurred to me that these insights can be applied to any endeavour – even whisky – as they concentrate on the importance of honesty and values.

    Listen closely and you can hear integrity in the music, just as you can taste it – or the lack of it – in a whisky. Values are more than logos and bottle shapes and paying lip-service to barely understood ‘heritage’. We’ve all encountered the weary taste of flaccid mediocrity as another barely-matured single cask flops on the tongue. We’ve tasted the dusty, hollowed-out corpses of formerly great brands reanimated to hit a price point.

    Equally, we’ve had our worlds made richer by the complexity of a compelling liquid – and that could be a standard blend or a bottling from the upper stratosphere. In other words, whisky connects with you in the same way as art or music: emotionally, viscerally. It only truly resonates, however, if it has integrity, is true to itself.

    I went back to work with some Coil as a soundtrack – which is what you should do as well:

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