From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Schrödinger’s whisky: the genuine fake

    04 April 2018

    It all started with cucumbers, or to be precise when I was doing a class with Bernard Lahousse from foodpairing.com on shared aromas between whisky and foods.

    Bernard is a scientist, and he and his colleagues on the site are continually researching how these shared aromatic molecules can widen the potential for different and fascinating combinations – who would have thought oysters and chocolate would go together, for example? The potential uses for chefs and bartenders are vast. 

    Anyhoo, during the talk, he pointed out that cucumber only smells of ‘cucumber’ when it is cut. In other words, a cucumber is a cucumber, but not a ‘cucumber’ until there is an intervention. It exists in two worlds simultaneously.

    ‘So, it’s Schrödinger’s vegetable if you like?’ I asked. He looked at me in the way that scientists often do when I blunder into their world. ‘Well, not exactly...’ he started.

    ‘I know, because Schrödinger’s conundrum was to do with waves and quantum physics, but you know it boils down to the fact that there’s this cat in a steel box with a Geiger counter, a vial of poison, a hammer and a radioactive substance, all of which will at some point kill the cat, but as you won’t know if the cat’s dead or not until you open the box, it’s both alive and dead at the same time. Like, er, the cucumber,’ I finished. He gave me a look.  

    I thought that the only possible whisky connection with the cat was through this tenuous link until, suspiciously close to April Fool’s Day, I was alerted to a potential fake by a concerned reader.

    Highland Park 1977

    Real thing?: The bottle may not be entirely genuine, but what’s inside it?

    He was concerned about a single cask bottling of Highland Park 1977 which had won the 2003 Scottish Field Merchants’ Challenge, and which had appeared on scotchwhiskyauctions.com.

    I checked the label and compared it to the others which the house had sold, and it was certainly suspicious. The colour of the label was wrong, the printing was crude, it had a spelling mistake and there were no cut-outs on the back label allowing you to see the liquid. 

    So I got in touch with Tam Gardiner at Scotch Whisky Auctions and they withdrew it immediately pending investigation. All good and in line with what all auction houses should do. 

    Then Tam called. ‘I’ve been in touch with the vendor,’ he told me. ‘It turns out that this was bought at Royal Mile Whiskies’ auction, and he’s just put it up for sale with us.’

    Off I went again and, sure enough, in RMW’s archive there was the offending bottle, which had a hammer price of £735. This time, however, there was an explanation as to why the label was incorrect. Apparently, the bottle had been used for photographic purposes, and they couldn’t guarantee what was inside.

    I spoke to RMW’s auctioneer Dr Chris White, who explained that ‘a prototype label was created, which was designed to be as similar as possible to the final label; however, time pressures meant the label was printed on regular gloss paper, and applied to the bottle in order to get the photos done ASAP. 

    ‘The photographer says he wasn’t told at the time if the liquid inside the bottle is indeed the 1977 HP liquid or not. As such, we added a disclaimer to the product description before the bottle went live in our auction.’

    Highland Park 1977 label

    Poorly printed: At first glance, this 1977 Highland Park bottle looks like a clumsy fake

    So no-one has done anything wrong. In fact, you could say that RMW’s openness is laudable. Sadly, Highland Park can’t confirm what is in the bottle either.  

    ‘We do occasionally mock up bottles for photography, but they are labelled “sample” on the base or the rear, and this obviously has not,’ said brand director Jason Craig.

    ‘This liquid might be the legit liquid bottled early, with a mock-up label for photography – but, regardless, it is not a real bottle. The liquid of course could be Famous Grouse with spirit caramel to darken it down to match the real liquid tint, and not formally labelled. It’s hard to provide a definitive answer.’

    While I really don’t think anyone from the original vendor onwards was trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes here, it does show the absurdity of the auction market that someone is willing to take a £735 punt on a bottle which they know might not be what the label says it is. What’s even more absurd is that they then flip it, assuming that they’ll make a profit! 

    So we have a Schrödinger’s bottle which is and isn’t Highland Park, which is and isn’t a fake. Come to think of it, even if it is the real Highland Park, it’s still a fake. Wonder what Schrödinger would have made of that? 

    Like his cat – or the smell of cucumbers – the truth can only be proved one way or another by intervention. Which maybe is the message to take from all of this. Whisky only gets its true value when it is destroyed – and you drink it.

  • Scores: the ‘sat nav’ of whisky appreciation

    28 March 2018

    I must confess that I pay very little attention to Twitter, much to the despair of the editor, who is a whizz at such methods of (apparent) interaction.

    When I do scan through the folks I follow, the words or retweets of Randall Grahm always give me pause for thought. Grahm is owner/winemaker at California’s Bonny Doon – an erudite, witty, enraged, questing intelligence.

    I’ve loved his wines for years, while his writings (assembled in the must-have Been Doon So Long) are a must-buy for those who are interested in deep musings on terroir, parodies and the surreal.

    Last week this tweet caught my eye: ‘Many of us live in two wine worlds,’ he wrote. ‘The world of attributed meaning (point scores) and the world of real meaning (actually distinctive, original and delicious wine with vinous life-force). We conflate these two worlds at our peril.’

    He was writing in response to a cheeky tweet from wine writer Jamie Goode congratulating him on ‘a Suckling 91’ (a score of 91/100 from wine critic James Suckling) for one of his wines. ‘I can’t keep track of all these scores,’ Goode added. ‘Is he using the 120-point scale yet?’

    It led to a philosophical diversion – this is Grahm, after all – on whether this duality applies to the wine world, or life in general. ‘Absolutely [the latter],’ said Grahm. ‘Virtually all of us (at least those who are conscious) have some version of these two worlds.’

    Intrigued, I dropped him a line. Do we need to exist in both of these worlds, I asked him? Is the world of attributed meaning necessary, or is our conception of quality being skewed because of its dominance?

    Numbers

    Numbers game: But is real meaning to be found in the score given to a particular whisky?

    He wrote back: ‘I think this duality exists in virtually every aspect of life. It often comes down to whether you work to please yourself or to please others. Truly great wine is certainly not appreciated by the general public; ‘successful’ wine has (too) obvious charms.’ Ahh, duality. Trips us up every time.

    The world of wine (especially in the US) has been in thrall to attributed meaning for many years, to the extent that it could be argued that winemakers are creating ‘successful’ (ie high-scoring – and profitable) wines, rather than relying on their own innate talent, or understanding what their location can give them.

    Whisky is not at this stage – yet – but the tension between the two worlds does exist within its confines. While I don’t want to be dragged into a discussion about the efficacy of numbers again (at least for the time being), Grahm’s comments made me wonder how we use them as a navigation aid.

    I grew up in a flat nav world: one of maps, AA guidebooks and doodles on bits of papers with wiggly streets and an occasional landmark (usually a pub) scratched onto it.

    Sat nav allows you to get to your destination by the quickest, most direct means. As someone who hates being late, I can see the advantage of this, but what happens outside the blue line? Sat nav obliterates the side streets, the country lanes, actively discourages you to get lost or rely on chance or intuition and make real discoveries. We march onwards, rather than stumble over things.

    Numbers are the sat nav of appreciation. The world of real meaning is to be found though being gently diverted from the blue line through the numbers. Instead of heading straight for number 90 Whisky Street, take a wander through the weeds on either side.

    Randall Grahm

    Wine wisdom: Randall Grahm believes that most of us live in two worlds of attributed and real meaning

    In Doon so Long, Grahm writes: ‘Wine criticism, despite its best intention, often seems to verge on trivialising the splendor of its subject matter.’ Does it? If it does, it is not deliberate.

    Most writers will always emphasise the importance of the words over the score. Language is slippery, words are a diversion compared to the blunt instrument of the score.

    Language’s vagueness and inability to wholly articulate meaning means it can be seen as a barrier, diverting the reader away from the task at hand; yet, for those of us who want to celebrate the world of real meaning, it is this diversion which is important because it opens up new connections, finds new ways to connect on a personal level.

    That whisky has a lower score? Sure, but the way in which it has been described intrigues me, I think it appeals to my palate, or mood.

    We don’t have time for all of this, we tell ourselves, although we often spend so much time trying to find the quick way that we could have taken the more rewarding, scenic route.

    Tangled by apps, we rely ever more heavily on the world of attributed meaning, to our detriment. Whoever controls the data controls the world – and how have we seen that play itself out in the past few weeks.

    I’m not saying that marking wine or whisky is as serious as undermining democracy, but the same underlying principle is there. In a data-based world we become slaves to the number, but whisky, wine, pleasure itself cannot be measured by ones and zeroes.

    It isn’t digital but analogue, existing in the real world with all of its messiness and perversity. It comes down to trusting our own palate, working out our own routes through the maze, speaking with guides and passers-by as we wander.

    Welcome to the world of real meaning.

  • Antipodean whisky’s new flavour map

    14 March 2018

    As I’m sure you’re all aware, one of the heights of Scottish cuisine is macaroni cheese. What CalMac ferry trip isn’t complete without a serving of it? How can anyone pass up on the chance to bite into a macaroni pie?

    The mac ‘n’ cheese waffle has taken this into a different dimension. The process is relatively straightforward. First, take some macaroni cheese. Put it in a waffle iron. Close said waffle iron.

    While waiting for it to become just sufficiently crunchy, if you are lucky, you might be allowed to climb on a ladder to fossick about for unusual drams among the mass of bottles on the upper shelves.

    I managed to find an old Signatory Clynelish, for example. Apologies for not recalling which specific vintage it was. It was already late, and there were other things on my mind. The mac ‘n’ cheese waffle, for one.

    Welcome to the world of Hats & Tatts in South Melbourne, where you can drink beer, listen to dodgy anthems and shoot pool – but also sip on great cocktails and chose from said wide and wild whisky selection. A dive bar, but done in an Aussie way.

    The day had been spent talking, tasting and listening to Australians talking about their maturing new whisky industry: its highs, its challenges and its opportunities.

    While there were plenty of opinions (as there should be), there was consensus that if Australia is to build on its early successes, it is time for producers to start producing in volume. An industry which has been built on the template of small still, small cask, single barrel releases needs to take that next step.

    Whisky glass Cardrona distillery

    Local colour: Cardrona in New Zealand is already developing its signature style of whisky

    Volume would give greater reach, consistency and cash flow. It would also, hopefully, bring costs and prices down. Making more affordable, characterful whisky is not a bad plan.

    It would also, conceivably, help to increase diversity within the styles being made, offering an alternative to the rich, wood-driven whiskies of the present by creating a consistent, distillate-driven spirit aged in larger casks – but one which is still identifiably Australian.

    Melbourne’s Starward knows this; one reason why it, for me, is leading the way. The same city’s Bakery Hill has it in terms of consistency, Sydney’s Archie Rose is showing huge potential, as are Black Gate in New South Wales and Adelaide’s Tin Shed, while the rye from Tassie’s Belgrove is something to behold.

    It’s not a simple task to find your identity. Even in Melbourne’s singular climatic conditions, it will still take four or five years before a balanced maturity emerges.

    Whisky cannot and should not be rushed. It is ready when it is ready. The key is finding that sweet spot where spirit and oak cease to be two sides of the coin and become one. 

    That, inevitably, means gaining a deeper understanding of your conditions. It is different making whisky in South Australia compared to Tasmania, different again in Victoria or Western Australia, or New South Wales.

    Climate, maturing temperature, cereals, yeast strains: all the diverse elements which impact on a whisky’s final character have to be appreciated, captured and then delivered in a consistent and characterful and compelling way. It’s the same for any whisky-making country – including Scotland.

    Charlie MacLean, Alex Bruce and I had arrived in Melbourne after a week in New Zealand, a trip which had culminated in a few days near Wanaka at the Cardrona distillery.

    Starward distillery still

    Melbourne’s pride: For Dave Broom, Starward is leading the charge for Australian whisky

    The conditions here are different again. The low rainfall, for example, and huge variations between summer and winter temperatures play a significant role in the creation of their emerging style but, though it only started production in 2015, that signature is emerging.

    It is different to the powerful estery fruit and spice of Starward, more restrained, cooler even, with a honeyed, sweet almond, fruit element in all of the casks we tried, be they (Spanish) Sherry butt, American barrel or, for me the most exciting, local Pinot Noir casks.

    The fact that both Starward and Cardrona are (or will be) examining refill as a way of giving a greater range of flavour options, as well as amplifying distillery character, shows a deeper thinking in terms of flavour development.

    Again, it’s about understanding your environment and working with it. Cardrona’s head distiller Sarah Elsom comes from a wine background – she knows yeasts, ferments and lactobacillus, and the way in which a spirit should do the same as a great wine and exhibit a sense of place.

    Her approach is different to that of David Vitale at Starward with his brewing background, but Cardrona isn’t in Port Melbourne, while Central Otago Pinot is very different to Australian red wine, or Apera (aka ‘Australian Sherry’) casks.

    Both distilleries make spirit (and whisky) appropriate for their location, in no small way thanks to the laser-guided vision of their founders: Vitale in Melbourne, Desiree Whitaker in Cardrona.

    They are doing the same things as other great distillers all around the world, but doing it differently, though never just for the sake of it. Diversity is key. Taking that recipe and making it appropriate to your context.

    Just like the macaroni pie and the mac ‘n’ cheese waffle.

  • Stop fetishising whisky of the past

    07 March 2018

    Top Shelf was the theme for the class, a title which was wholly justified as the drams were indeed rare and justifiably expensive. Banff and Caperdonich from Cadenhead’s 175th anniversary collection, two Port Ellens, an old Clynelish and Glenfarclas Fino Casks. You know, what most of us drink each weekend… There was even a wee freebie thrown in at the start in the shape of an old bottle of Bulloch Lade’s ‘Old Rarity’ which certainly lived up to its name.

    Neither Charlie MacLean (my compadre at the tasting) or I have come across such a rare aroma. ‘Tinned tomato juice that’s gone off’ was the Walrus of Whisky’s analysis. ‘Rotting vegetables in the bins behind a supermarket,’ I retorted. Like any whisky, it told a story. Filthy though it undoubtedly was, it also said do not expect every old bottle to be magnificent. When you buy at auction be prepared for the worst.

    It might have been an extreme example, but that Old Rarity also demonstrated how wrong it is to fall into the trap (as many have) of believing in some ‘Golden Age’ of whisky when everything was perfect. There were some amazing whiskies from the ‘60s and ‘70s for sure, but equally there was a lot of crap as well. 

    Rose-tinted specs: Was whisky really better in the old days, or is it all just hopeless romanticism?

    We can point to the use of different strains of barley giving their own character to these old whiskies, the wider use of brewers’ yeasts, direct fire, or worm tubs. All would have had an influence of the character made. Equally, much of that new make would have been put into knackered wood, or in ‘Sherry’ casks which had been dosed with paxarette. Some would end up being remarkable whiskies, others – to be frank – wouldn’t.

    There was no prelapsarian Golden Age. The issue is more subtle than that. After all, this is whisky we are talking about and as we should know by now there is no one simple, single answer. Rarity isn’t simply scarcity. It can also mean that the flavours and aromas are rare, unusual, fascinating. Rarity means that these are the exceptions, not the rule.

    Maybe I listen to too much Miles Davis and buy into the way in which he approached his music, constantly moving it forwards, never resting on one style, no matter how popular it was. Perhaps I have bought into the kaizen approach of Japanese craft, that belief in continual, incremental improvement. I believe in a constant, always changing momentum and know that no matter how much we fetishise the past, we cannot return. Life is impermanent.

    It is human to resist this. It is easier – and perhaps natural – that as we get older so we become increasingly nostalgic – music was better, so were movies, or cars; the summers were hotter and winters were always snowy. Just as our noses remind us of the scents of our childhood, so our view of the world is seen through a child’s eye.

    It is wrong to fetishise the past. Whisky has never been set in amber. The distillers of the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s were moving the art forward as well. They too probably thought that whisky was better in the old days, while at the same time improving on what their fathers and grandfathers had done.

    Evolving distillery: Bowmore’s looking to the past to influence its future releases, without stepping back in time

    This doesn’t mean rejecting the past. Rather, you understand it and see how it could influence the future. So the examination of yeast, or barley, or worms, or direct fire is correct. The debate over whether to take the hit on efficiency to achieve a different flavour is a valid and vital one. Only by doing this will whisky continue to evolve in an increasingly complex and demanding market.

    The questions have to be asked and the answers will be appropriate for tomorrow’s whiskies, just as the changes in production in the ‘60s were correct for the changing nature of the industry and the palates of the time. Tomorrow’s drinker is fascinated by provenance and richer flavours, and so the industry will (or should) respond to this change in ways which might see the past being mined. Just look at the way in which Suntory is using contemporary learnings to align tomorrow’s Bowmore with the flavours it produced in the 1960s and ‘70s.

    It isn’t however going back to the past or believing that whisky was better in those days. Whisky was different, just as it was different in the ‘50s, and the ‘40s, and all the way back to the 15th century.

    It is hopelessly naive to believe that there was a single point when every whisky produced was magnificent. It rained in summer, and snow didn’t always fall at Christmas. Move on.

  • Blended whisky’s world of flavour

    28 February 2018

    I don’t do puddings. As a rule, anyway. It’s not down to smug self-denial. Maybe unusually for a Scot, I just don’t have a particularly sweet tooth. Well… apart from Tunnock’s, which is different, isn’t it?

    But there are always exceptions. Like now. The wine glasses have been moved off the table, which is now covered by two large sheets of silver foil. The next thing there’s the sound of singing and clapping, and two of the chefs appear and start flinging dessert onto the table. Imagine if Jackson Pollock was a chef and used food instead of paint, and you’ll get an idea of the end result.

    It would be rude not to dig into the jams and berries, meringue, cake, cream, caramel, honey and fruits that have been smeared and splatted, drizzled and tossed everywhere.

    It’s hard to eat, because we’re all laughing so much at the absurdity of it, but laughter is a major element of Machneyuda, with its pumping music, stripped-back furnishings and young, hip, friendly staff.

    Its menu changes every day, depending on what is available in the neighbouring market and the chefs’ inclinations. By halfway through the dessert overload we’re beginning to flag and have to admit defeat. As we move on for a digestif, I wonder whether there’s a whisky cocktail that uses insulin as an ingredient.

    None of this was what I was expecting from Jerusalem, but one day into a quick trip to Israel had seen most of my preconceptions being as wildly deconstructed as the dessert.

    Zatar Mahane Yehuda market

    Sensory overload: The Mahane Yehuda market offers a bewildering array of flavours

    Much of that process had come through food. Israelis love to eat. Every course was accompanied by a phalanx of side dishes – just in case, a little extra, a crunch, a sprinkle, something to add another layer.

    The afternoon had been spent wandering around the ancient Mahane Yehuda market. Inside the shuk were young soldiers queuing for baklava, coffee stores and brew pubs; confused-looking pilgrims, the orthodox and the secular, backpackers and locals on their daily shop.

    Here resides ‘The King of Tahini’ and Berschowitz’s spice store. ‘I’ll grind anything for you,’ he says with a half-smile. I look at his piles of home-made za’atar. ‘Try it! Try it!’ One herbal and heady, with hyssop and oregano and who knows what else, the other brighter and spicier.

    I fill a bag with both, and more, and go back into the noise and the bustle of a market, the headiness of the spice shops mingling with whiffs of cheese and olive oil, coconuts and berries, honeyed pecans and balsamic infused with truffle. Senses deranged, in overload.

    My friend Dudi drags me off to have a snack. I mean, we hadn’t eaten for, oh, about two hours. He buys a brace of pitas, soft and pillowy, filled with densely-flavoured meat. ‘It’s all the bits of the chicken that usually get thrown away,’ he says helpfully. ‘Think of it as Jerusalem haggis.’

    Before dinner there’s still time to try freshly squeezed etrog and khat, and nibble on pieces of halva carved from vast sugared wheels.

    To find a culture, look to the food; and, to find that, go to the markets. Overload your senses and tune in. It seems exotic, but it’s only in recent times that food shopping in the UK has become a sanitised, sterile experience, where aromas are sealed in by layers of plastic.

    Dessert Machneyuda

    ‘Jackson Pollock’: Machneyuda’s chaotic dessert is a feast for all the senses

    I’m old enough to remember one of the last of Glasgow’s ‘Italian warehousemen’, Wilkies in Hyndland, where the smell of bacon and ham would mingle with oats, spices and fruits, bread, wines, teas and coffees; the same aromas which had been rising in stores the same as this all across Scotland for generations.

    It’s no surprise, then, that these were the people who were the first whisky blenders. Yes, they understood that blending gave volume, consistency and a character which would appeal to a local palate, and also the need to define themselves against their rivals and neighbours.

    It applied to tea or rum or coffee, or whisky. More importantly, they succeeded because they lived in this heady, sensory world. They understood flavour. That was the message I was giving to the bartenders competing in the Israeli heats of the Diageo World Class cocktail competition.

    As a species we are predisposed to blending: perfumes, cigars, drinks, musical instruments, people and food. The food culture in Israel should feed into the way in which they approach drinks, just as the way in which south-east Asian cuisine, with its understanding of balance between sweet, sour, heat, and acidity, can influence their developing cocktail culture.

    I’m there with World Class cocktailian Lauren Mote, who is also giving a session on her (amazing) Bittered Sling range. In it she talks of bitters as modifiers, about how their high levels of complexity come from a balance of individual ingredients working collectively rather than in isolation, and how their intensity changes a drink and gives it unity without dominating it.

    It’s exactly the same with a blended Scotch – all the elements pulling together – rather than pushing away from each other, which is the world of single malt.

    I know, I’m banging on about blends again. Well, there’s some things you just have to never stop saying. Like: try rum, or drink Riesling, or please give some Sherry a try – or find a market, and start to smell things again, allow your senses to be deranged.

  • Drinking whisky: the ultimate winter sport

    20 February 2018

    The Winter Olympics are on, which means that it’s time for many of us to suddenly take an interest in people sliding about, mostly at terrifying speed. ‘A novel enough way to commit suicide,’ as Sir Henry Rawlinson once commented.

    There seems more danger involved this year: even the previously balletic ice skating now has a move called the Death Spiral, which strikes me as something dreamt up for the film Blades of Glory rather than being an officially sanctioned move.

    The upshot of this is that I find myself seeking refuge in the calm of the curling rink – less violence, less fear of injury, fewer guns. It’s also a sport of which I have a minor knowledge.

    There was only one curling rink in Glasgow when I was growing up. At school, someone had realised that, if we formed a curling club, we’d be able to miss an afternoon’s lessons due to the length of time it took to get to Crossmyloof.

    We did it. For a while, anyway. And I loved it, finding curling a surprisingly subtle and precise game, tactically complex and far from being housework on ice.

    My memory is hazy, but I can’t remember us ever having regularly competitive matches – either other schools weren’t onto the ruse, or they weren’t capable of such devious thinking. Maybe that’s why the training sessions petered out, and ‘going curling’ became shorthand for popping out to the pub.

    At least we were following an ancient tradition. In the centuries before indoor municipal ice rinks, curling was an outdoor sport, ‘the roaring game’, played on frozen lochs and ponds – and no bonspiel would have been complete without copious amounts of whisky.

    There’s a recently discovered family connection as well. When at my cousin’s a couple of weeks back for the ritual haggis-slaughtering event, the talk turned to our great-grandfather Thomas Moffatt, who was the schoolmaster in the Perthshire village of Forgandenny in the late 19th century.

    Curling in 1886

    Over ice: Curling was once an outdoor sport – and liquid refreshment played a crucial part

    A book on the history of the village has recently been published, and the family have been poring over it to find references to a man by whose life we have always been intrigued. Though he kept diaries all his life, he has remained, somehow, elusive.

    My mother and her cousins always maintained that he was teetotal. I’ve long been unsure about that, given the amount of toddies he seemed to consume on a regular basis when meeting with his cronies in Perth.

    Anyway, the fact that Forgandenny would have been scented by the fumes from Stronachie distillery would surely have turned the most assiduous Rechabite into a lover of Scottish wine.

    The truth was finally revealed in a passage about the Forgandenny Curling Club:

    The evening was memorable for the formation of an old Curling Court, as was the custom after many toasts. Thomas Moffat [sic] became My Lord and Alexander Graham acted as his officer.

    ‘A drinking and fining game followed to raise money and the evening was so fast and furious that it became absolutely necessary to appoint an assistant officer in the person of Brother William Gourlay. The welcoming nature of the curling club members achieved some notoriety…’

    Though this may have shocked our parents, my cousins and I revelled in the notion that our ancestor was head of such a notoriously raucous association.

    Maybe there’s something in the genes. Another round of Talisker (no Stronachie was available) was poured to toast the old man, just as it would have been on the ice in those far-off days.

    It’s another example of how whisky enters every crevice of life and binds people together. Winter sports are associated with booze. Maybe not at the elite level – being half-cut on the half-pipe might not be ideal – but on a strictly amateur level there’s as much excitement about the après-ski as there is about the activity itself, and surely the best thing after a long day in cold temperatures is a dram.

    The joy with the Winter Olympics is that you don’t need to get yourself cold to begin with. Just pull on a woolly hat and have a dram while watching the highlights.

  • Don’t wholly trust an auctioneer’s expertise

    07 February 2018

    I keep telling people I only watch the BBC’s Bargain Hunt television programme because it’s broadcast at lunchtime, but recently I’ve found myself watching all sorts of antiques shows and now am putting in bids for unlikely things (a bust of Dante? A Georgian bureau/bookcase which I have no space for?), so I think you can say I’m hooked.

    And in case you think a Georgian bureau is a ludicrous expense, let me remind you that brown furniture is extremely cheap at the moment, and you’re better off buying an antique than trotting off to Ikea.

    From this viewpoint, I look at auction houses as being places staffed by decent people who assess, seek out provenance and who, in the heat of the auction, will encourage people to buy, but will always be honest and fair in their assessment of the true value of the object. You trust them.

    Which leads me, seamlessly, to the Malt Mill saga of last week. A whisky which no-one had ever seen before, ‘a unicorn whisky’ as the auction house called it, suddenly appears on the market.

    That in itself isn’t that unusual. Most of the ‘Italian Job’ fakes were whiskies which no-one had ever seen before, appearing in volumes which ought to have alerted people to their dubiety though, despite the warning cries of ‘gift horse’, ‘too good to be true’, ‘caveat emptor’ and ‘are you really sure about the five Vermeers in the attic?’, folks went ahead and snapped them up.

    Bargain hunting: Despite auctioneers’ best efforts, not all whisky sold at auction is guaranteed genuine

    What set Malt Mill apart from other whiskies which – how shall I put this? – skirted on the borders of the plausible, was the caveat which the auction house put on the lot:

    ‘As a disclaimer, we… must say that we have had our experts scrutinise this mystical little wonder, and it is impossible to comment either way as to whether it is what it says on the tin. This, of course, adds to the esoteric awe and contemplation associated with this lot. It is ultimately up to the bidders to set the tone!’

    In other words a polite way of saying: ‘Mebbe aye, mebbe naw, ‘sup to you.’ Or, in English [Thanks – Ed], we can’t prove it isn’t, so maybe it is; a stance which, it could be argued, doesn’t exactly err on the side of caution. Still, it was close enough for someone to shell out £3,400 for the miniature.

    The story of its purchase was intriguing, as it boiled down to: ‘A mate of mine bought it off someone in the pub,’ which is an interesting approach to provenance.

    Not wishing to cast aspersions on any licensed premises on Islay, but I think that most people who have frequented one of these drinking establishments have been offered something at some point. I know a man who was found in the ditch on the way home from one, moaning: ‘I bought a cow! I bought a cow!’ as the beast munched contentedly above him. At least it wasn’t a unicorn.

    I believe that people who buy at auction assume that the seller is honest. I believe this is the case because those people also believe that the auction house has run checks on the item to satisfy themselves that it is kosher. As buyers, you trust their expertise.

    I think we, naively, also believe that the auction house has a moral responsibility to run those necessary checks and balances to satisfy themselves (and the potential buyer) that what is being sold is, to their best belief, what it purports to be.

    In other words, we as potential buyers think that the houses have done more than just believing the man in the pub story and that they have experts on hand who can indicate that they have reservations about bottles.

    But read the small print. Here’s terms and conditions from a highly reputable auction house:

    X makes every effort to ensure that the Catalogue and description of the Lot are accurate, but X makes no warranty to that effect.

    ‘All Statements whether made verbally or in the Catalogue are statements of opinion only and neither X or its employees or agents will be responsible for the accuracy of any opinion given. Each Lot is sold by the Seller with any and all errors of description, faults and imperfections.

    Here are three different specialist whisky auction houses’ take on the same issue:

    In the event of a dispute arising over the provenance or authenticity of any Lot, if it cannot be proved beyond reasonable doubt to be genuine (and we shall be the sole judge as to authenticity and our decision shall be final) the Lot will be returned to the Seller and no monies will be due to either party. We reserve the right to refuse any item for auction, especially where there are questions regarding authenticity of the Lot.’

    Or:

    ‘All Listings will be prepared and submitted by the Company but will be based upon the information which you provide.’

    Or:

    ‘Should there be any doubt on the authenticity of an item, the onus is on the seller to prove it. In the event this cannot be done, the item will be returned at the full cost of the seller.’

    All say the same thing, but say it slightly differently. Some suggest they will check, others say it’s up to the seller, others that we’ll do our best but if we make a mistake it’s not our fault. This doesn’t just apply to high-profile bottles such as Malt Mill, but to every bottle of whisky that comes up at auction.

    An auctioneer’s job is difficult, at times almost impossible, so this isn’t a criticism of them. They are honest people. Rather, it is a warning to all of us who might be tempted to enter that market. Read the terms and conditions. Do your research into the whisky – and the house’s expertise.

    It’s your money, but I have to confess that someone saying: ‘Well, to be honest, we’re not sure but, what the hell, it’s up to you’ fills me with the same sense of security as I get from the guy in the pub selling me that ‘genuine’ Rolex.

    I’m worried about that bureau now. Does anyone know anything about Georgian furniture?

  • The road to Diageon Alley

    31 January 2018

    The reaction to Diageo’s alleged experiments with Scotch saw monocles dropping. Tequila cask-finished whisky? Where will the madness lead to? What’s next? Tartan whisky? Whisky aged in space? Whisky flavoured with blackberries (© N Boyd)?

    None of the Diageo ideas seemed particularly outrageous to me, given we live in a world where bottles of pea-flavoured water sell for £28 (more expensive than many single malts). To many they appeared to spring from the world of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley – which maybe should be renamed Diageon Alley.

    Just because they were thinking of them doesn’t mean that any would have seen the light of day. There’s less of pushing the envelope about the notions, more of being scribbled on the back of one. In fact it would be more surprising if a company of Diageo’s size wasn’t looking at new ways to think about Scotch – after all, this is how categories grow over time.

    Diagon Alley: Diageo’s ideas are like something from the world of Harry Potter

    Take the Tequila cask, for example. Would Sir Alexander Walker have used Tequila casks if Scotland had been an importer of the spirit in the 19th century? You bet he would, and the only reason that the cask wouldn’t be permitted today is because there is no evidence (as yet) that it was used in such a way in the past, thereby putting it outwith the tradition.

    The same, by the way, goes for Calvados which, for me, is as much of a shame. Imagine Caol Ila (which often has more than a whiff of mezcal about it) given a resting period in ex-Tequila casks, or Calvados casks adding a subtle fruit to a Scotch, increasing its complexity.

    But was that the actual reason for the Diageon Alley Task Force? According to the Wall Street Journal, the rationale was ‘to explore “whether potential regulatory, technical, legal or other barriers are constraining” Scotch’. It was less a failed attempt to foist outrageous new expressions of Scotch on an unsuspecting market and more of a kite-flying exercise.

    Diageo knew that the ideas would be slapped down by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), which then allowed it to reveal the true reason for the project: to see whether the SWA was ‘overreaching its remit’.

    That is far more interesting, as it suggests that the trade body’s biggest member is flexing its not inconsiderable muscle and suggesting that things need to change. After all, the second part of the Diageo response to the SWA’s decision apparently raised ‘the scope for reform’.

    Might that happen? There does seem to be a more nuanced air about some of the SWA’s pronouncements recently. In an interview last month, chief exec Karen Betts said she saw ‘more flexibility’ in how the regulations could be interpreted (and never forget the SWA interprets the law, not lays it down).

    As we have pointed out ad nauseam here, there is considerable flex within the regulations, to the extent that it might only be the interpretation which needs to be revised to allow a new flow of innovation.

    If the products of Diageon Alley have done their job and are now safely back into the NPD department of Gates’ Wizard Wheezes, could this new, more pragmatic attitude to the regulations see a sensible resolution to the ongoing debate over transparency? It’s my understanding that there is now a willingness at SWA HQ to discuss the intricacies of an issue which will not go away.

    The old SWA default setting of ‘no’ is being replaced by ‘let’s consider’ and, while the tradition will always remain a pillar of what helps to define Scotch, it should never be used as a blunt instrument to restrict thinking, or prevent whisky moving forward.

    As Japanese paper maker Eriko Horiki once told me: ‘Today’s tradition is the innovation of the past; today’s innovation is the tradition of the future.’ We always move forward. Maybe that path has now been made slightly easier to travel.

  • Barley’s new world of whisky flavour

    24 January 2018

    We had been sitting in the terminal, frantically trying to find alternative ways to get to Seattle as the ferry had docked with mechanical problems. It wasn’t looking good.

    The options seemed to be: wait until tomorrow and hope; catch a different ferry to Vancouver, then bus it to Seattle; or hire a car in Vancouver; or get the train. I was beginning to feel like I was stuck in a John Candy movie.

    Then the announcement came. ‘It’s ok, folks, we’ve had divers down and they found a log stuck in the engine. This has been removed and we are good to go.’

    Cue 300 people cheering. It was only once we were under way that we began thinking: ‘Log? Engine? Is this really safe?’ Not the ideal start to the trip, but we were, finally, on the move.

    The idea of things being unable to sail along smoothly seemed to echo what we had just left behind in Victoria, with the heavy-handed application of an absurd clause in the law. In fact, ways in which whisky’s potential flow was being stalled had become a theme during the past couple of weeks of my stravaiging in northern climes.

    The week before, in Norway, I’d discovered how distilleries were unable to sell their whisky in situ, but only at the state-controlled stores which, in remote locations, could be many hours away.

    Whisky makers are constantly working within a world of restrictions. In some cases, it can be positive. Understanding constraints and then enhancing what you have is a fundamental element of creativity, but there are also restrictions which have been imposed by mindset. That's what was now coming into focus a couple of days later when I sat with five glasses of new make in front of me.

    Westland barley new make

    Mind-blowing: Five new make samples, four barley varieties, one distillery

    The first had a rich, malty, roasted nuttiness with a clean, lightly floral taste; glass two smelled of tomato soup/fruity Italian tomato sugo, with added fat, dark fruits; the third was desert-dry, like corncobs, hay and beansprouts, with a taste of toasted sunflower seeds; the fourth light, sweet and malty; and the final glass floral and lifted, with a zingy, citric, apple flavour.

    Nothing that unusual in that, perhaps. Malt whisky is, after all, about singularity. Five distilleries, five different new makes is what you should expect. Single malt Scotch has been built upon distillers’ ability to manipulate the simple ingredients of barley, water and yeast into different shapes.

    It’s done by malting (if smoke is being added), mashing, fermentation, reflux, condensing and cut points (we’ll leave yeast out of this for the moment). Tiny tweaks which result in maximum impact.

    All of these, however, were from the same distillery, Seattle’s Westland. What’s more, the first two were distilled the same way, the remaining three another way.

    Their stark differences in flavour hadn’t started at the distillery, or in the maltings, but in the field. Four of the five were made from different barley varieties (numbers one and four were the same variety, the standard US malting variety Copeland, distilled two different ways).

    Of the others, that tomato soup one was the ancient variety Purple Obsidian; the parched desert one was Talisman; the zingy, lifted one was NZ (it was originally named Richard, and then Fritz, which I think were better). All were grown locally.

    Here you had one distillery creating a wider range of flavours, not through process, but varietal. Now imagine what other elements could be layered on top of that through roasts, smoke, yeast, distillation – and then oak. 

    My mind was blown. This was the concept of place, writ deep. Westland’s master distiller Matt Hofmann beamed. ‘You see? Amazing, isn’t it? Now imagine if this philosophy can be extended, and how these varieties could pick up different identities in different microclimates.’

    I’ve touched on creating flavour in the field before but, bar tasting bere barley distillate, it has been theoretical. Now, here the potential of a radically expanded palette of whisky flavours had been revealed.

    Matt Hofmann Westland distillery

    Holistic approach: A flavour-led philosophy can benefit all, says Matt Hofmann

    For it to work, however, a series of relationships has to be established. ‘All of these, bar Copland, were rejected by the system, but we knew we had to go for it,’ explained Hofmann. ‘If this idea of new varietals is to build momentum, though, you need partners to make it happen.’

    Thankfully there are like-minded individuals working in Washington State’s Skagit Valley. It is where cereal geneticist Stephen Jones established his Bread Lab, which trials thousands of potential new crops, all grown for flavour.

    The work done with barley is, in turn, giving local farmers the incentive to plant more profitable malting barley strains, rather than the feed barley which they traditionally planted as part of the rotation system to ensure healthy soil for their main crop – be that tulips or potatoes.

    There was an issue, however. Even if you could persuade the farmer to grow the varietal, it still had to be malted – and the systems used by the large maltings were set up to process varieties which germinate within a set time period. None of these varieties fitted those parameters – restrictions emerge once again.

    What, though, if you designed a maltings which was at the service of the varietal instead? Enter Skagit Valley Malting and the creation of a flexible process which can be tailored to the specific quirks of each varietal.

    Just as whisky production is an interlinked chain, here is a similar level of interdependence from soil to distillery. The restrictions, the ‘we can’t because’ mentality, has been broken and creativity can flow. As Hofmann said: ‘If we think solely how flavour can be expanded and improved and made more compelling through the entire process, then we all benefit.’ 

    Philosophically, creatively, this makes sense. Can it happen in Scotch? Of course it can. The restrictions there aren’t down to legislation, but to mindset and a compartmentalised approach to agriculture and food production which works against true, deep, interdependence.

    But we could easily see micro-malting, and different varieties being used, and a new stream of whisky start to flow. The log just needs to be pulled out of the engine.

  • Remembering Carl Reavey (1956-2018)

    09 January 2018

    Words. Never quite enough, are they? Language. It gets us so far and then it somehow… falters as you grasp for the right way to get some message across. You come across that phenomenon every day, when even the most articulate of people, the greatest orators, somehow fail to quite achieve what they intended. Language is slippery, allusive and elusive. Some feel it is what limits our world.

    That’s how this piece was always going to start. I was unsure of what to write in the dog days of the post-festive period when plans are being formulated and news seems scant. What new thing can be said about whisky on a week like this? Probably plenty so, as I’d engaged in some lengthy tasting sessions, I was going to try to worry away (again) at the notion of how we taste, and how communication is about so much more than just what is said, or written.

    Loving soul: Carl Reavey touched the lives of many, not just on Islay but in the wider whisky world (Photo: Carney James Turner)

    By concentrating on sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, we miss out body and mind. The way we look at the whisky in the glass should be no different to the way we look at anything in the world. It only makes sense if you fully engage with it and then communicate your feelings in whatever way seems fit. It can go beyond language.

    So those were the thoughts. Rambling perhaps, but again that’s what happens when you seem to have time on your hands. Then something happens to remind you that you don’t; that the elusive spirit in the glass, so transitory, is also a reflection of where we are: a metaphor for our condition.

    There’s a bitter irony to that realisation, because the final whisky I tried in that last session was Bruichladdich. Then came the news that my friend Carl Reavey had died. ‘My’ friend, as if it was only me. Carl was everyone’s friend.

    Hugely generous, enthusiastic, quizzical, the sort of person who seemed lit by some unreal energy, always eager to learn, and talk, and share. Someone who knew the meaning, the real meaning, of being human. Someone who could communicate not just in words, but in his actions, and with his whole, huge, loving soul.

    He did it about Bruichladdich, of course, but he was equally at home with birds, and bikes, and music, and farming, sea rowing, food. No topic seemed to be out-of-bounds when you talked to him. His life was a lesson in true communication. It was there in his deeds, not just his words. 

    The glass of his life seemed always to be the fullest, there for us to share. Now it is drained, but it is not empty. The memories remain, they float in air, in our senses, our thoughts, our hearts and hopefully in our actions.

    Farewell friend, and thank you. You have no idea how much you will be missed.

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