Could bartenders in the UK do a better job of advising and educating the curious customer?
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
25 December 2018
‘So what’s going to be new for whisky next year, Dave?’ Alice asked me the other day. Given I had a glass of Madeira in front of me (and the remnants of a rather toothsome Rhone) you might have thought I had already abnegated any rights to comment, but it was a valid enough question. As writers – which Alice also is – we are hardwired to be dissatisfied with the norm, junkies seeking the next thrill, clambering over each other to be the one to catch the next wave just before it forms.
‘I don’t know,’ I answered truthfully, ‘but maybe that isn’t a bad thing. Although there’s plenty going on in terms of flavour development, maybe it isn’t what’s next or new, but looking at what we have now and seeing how it will evolve.’
She gave me a rather old-fashioned look, clearly believing I was just prevaricating. I continued, ‘rather than looking for the new, perhaps it’s best to look at the occasion – where and when whisky’s being served, how it’s being drunk and by whom and then make whisky a part of people’s lives. That doesn’t need something new – we have Highballs, we have cocktails, we have the liquid. It’s the context that needs to be looked at.’ I had another gulp of Madeira.
Top spot: Whiskies vie for space on the floor-to-ceiling shelves at The Ben Nevis in Glasgow
Her question nagged away at me, and over the next few days I began to think back about where I’d been drinking over the year, not just the high-end bars which you probably think are the only places I haunt, but the pubs (or dives as our North American cousins quaintly call them) as well. Of being ankle-deep in discarded peanut shells in a pitch-black bar in Victoria, BC talking about music with Mike Nicolson, that impromptu singing session in Wanaka, the late-night craziness of Melbourne’s Hats & Tatts.
There was that late, late night when I was hunched over the bar clutching a Dewar’s and soda, rambling to the barkeep in New York’s Ear (which was once called the Bear before the B fell off the sign) as old-timey music played behind me, or hungover as hell the day after, sorting myself at McSorleys with fellow hacks, around a table full of beer mugs and cracker shards.
Or the summer spent filming in Scotland, which could also be considered a four-month pub crawl, that brought me back to Glasgow’s Old Toll, Laurieston, the Pot Still, Ben Nevis and Heraghty’s, as well as the afternoon calm of Edinburgh’s Kay’s. There were early morning drams in Bennet’s listening to the Furrow Collective singing temperance songs, or chatting about literature and music with Ian Rankin over drams and pints in The Abbotsford and the splendour of the Cafe Royal.
Way-back when: Edinburgh’s Cafe Royal offers grand interiors with a nod to its heritageAll places where time stopped and conversation flowed, usually at times of the day where people relax and open their minds and hearts. Whisky times. Or rather, times where whisky seems appropriate, where it can play a role. That’s the context.
The question is whether whisky is trying to play there. Is the whisky trade so obsessed with image and the top end that it’s missing the late-night spots, the quiet afternoon sessions, the places around the world where its drinkers, existing and potential, go to sing and laugh, cry and swear?
I think back to sitting on plastic chairs in African shebeens with a bottle in front of me, to whisky-fuelled Taiwanese karaoke bars, and Japanese izakaya with half pints of ice-cold Highballs, of lazy Susans spinning in China, to bottles and ice buckets in Tunisia, or drams in a hot tub in the Arctic. Whisky adapts itself to all of these. It’s a shape-shifter.
Widespread appeal: Victorian decor combined with over 150 whiskies makes Bennets in Edinburgh a cosy establishmentIt’s this malleability which is the key. Everywhere whisky has touched down it’s been absorbed in some way and adapted itself to fit, and yet it’s these occasions which are rarely mentioned. Rather than being something to learn from, they are ignored. Yet, they are the contexts which should be explored. It’s as if the industry has only chosen the choicest cut of meat and ignored the seething, reeking offal where true satisfaction resides.
It’s appropriate to talk about food because in all of these contexts whisky has become part of the food culture. What we eat tells a story about place and people, and so does drink. It too is an element in the poetry of our lives, yet you wonder if whisky has forgotten this, that in the desire to elevate its reputation its role, its function, its qualities, its evolution and its sheer democratic nature has been pushed to the side.
It’s time to learn from the dives and shebeens, the pubs, bothies and bars where whisky is quite simply enjoyed without pretension.
Have a splendid Christmas dear reader.
19 December 2018
On the road again to another gig. Another grey and blue dawn. Mountain tops above the clouds. Below, a vast grey city.
Yesterday it was Xiamen, before that Beijing, Fuzhou and Quanzhou; now it’s on to Guangzhou, with a trip to Dongguan because you might as well when you’re in the neighbourhood. Six cities, six days talking whisky all the way. I can do it.
Thinking of last night and the visit to the late-night noodle joint, which is naturally where you head after a 10-course meal and a nightcap or three. It’s a considerably healthier option than a kebab.
Our way in was blocked by a dog which had pulled a pair of pants from the washing line and was playing with them. We laughed. Thought little more about it. There were noodles to eat and, anyway, we hadn’t finished talking about other things, such as how does Scotch break into China in a meaningful way? It was the time of night when the big questions tend to emerge.
China is facing the same issues as any market. Who are the potential drinkers, where do they drink, what do they drink, how do they drink it, and how then can whisky align with them? Sounds simple.
Dog days: Scotch must disrupt the Chinese market for a meaningful impactI’m thinking about the dog. In fact, I’m obsessing about it. I have a tendency to look for metaphors and allegories everywhere. It’s one of the pressures of writing a column, or maybe the belief that, if everything is connected, then you can draw a line between any two points. The combination of jet lag, early mornings and late nights has resulted in a somewhat deranged state, so forgive me gentle reader (I always assume there’s only one of you) as I tease this one out.
Is the dog whisky? If so, what do the pants represent? Maybe the shock of a dog eating pants is like Scotch disrupting the baijiu-dominated Chinese market.
I think back to the last meal. Food and spirits are inextricably linked in China, but not the ‘whisky dinner’ contrivances of the West. Spirits are seen as the natural accompaniment to an occasion which is about bonding, networking, hosting, socialising and in this case, teaching in a light way about Scotch.
The number of courses and the continual toasting means that your glass is regularly drained (fear not reader, the measures are small and the consumption responsible, just don’t tell my doctor). No sooner is it emptied than it’s refilled and the toasting continues.
I start to think of the girls doing this as whisky angels, following me no matter where I am, silently topping me up. As my friend Jasmine pointed out, ‘angels don’t take whisky here, they give’.
What do they think of the laughter and rising volume of the conversation? They pass no comment, just open another bottle. Be careful with the angels, they control your destiny.
Given the central role of the meal in terms of socialising and the focus within the event on spirits, can Scotch subtly begin to promote itself as the ideal accompaniment, and shift the thinking from a bottle, to a bottle of a specific brand?
The dog chews on the pants on the doorstep of the noodle bar.
Angels’ share: Always on standby, armed with a never-ending supply of whisky
Maybe the dog is me and the pants are my confusion over this piece. Maybe it is Scotch, the pants are opportunity, and the noodle bar is China.
I put this to the angels. They stay silent.
Every conversation circles back to this question: how to move things forward? It floats above the cigar smoke, Negronis and the one last bottle of malt. The answer seems tantalisingly close, yet remains unresolved.
The dog worries away.
The strategy has been to build Scotch’s presence from the top down. Get a whisky seen as being rare, precious, collectable (and expensive) and its prestige will ripple down. The first element is working. There are Glenfarclas single casks galore, Macallan is betting heavily on the top end, Balvenie is building its rep, while Diageo is combining a prestige strategy with a countrywide, category-based education campaign [full disclosure: I help out on this campaign].
The dog’s still there, outside the noodle bar.
The angels say nothing. Top up my glass.
Maybe that’s one of the issues. Scotch is too busy gnawing away at the problem of how to get into the noodle bar, when the door is already open. Just walk in.
Perfect match: In China, spirits are seen as a natural accompaniment to a meal
The downside of the top-down strategy is that little has rippled down. Whisky is exclusive, thank you very much, but there is a gap between the top-end malts and entry-level expressions, which also manifests itself as a split between the well-off, usually older, drinker and the younger generation – the very people who need to start drinking Scotch.
The dog’s still there. The angels smile in an enigmatic way.
It’s not an either-or option, just two different conversations. Scotch needs to build volume and that won’t come from selling 20-year-old single malt. The work starts not just in restaurants but in bars, be they in Shanghai, Beijing or places like Xiamen’s Bumper Bar, where owner JoJo rocks out fantastic cocktails while also having SMWS and Compass Box front and centre.
Next door to the same city’s Fiddich Bar (classic cocktails and/or single malt a speciality), hidden behind the shelving of a convenience store, is a speakeasy. It’s rammed with potential whisky drinkers, but Scotch is nowhere to be seen. How do you get through that door? I ask the angels. They pass no comment, just quietly top up my glass.
I look round.
The dog has wandered off.
05 December 2018
I’m sitting there looking at the duck’s flipper on the plate in front of me. The first question buzzing in my brain is why? Judging by the reaction of my fellow diners, I’m on my own when it comes to considering the appendage a somewhat unusual addition to a dinner. After a week in China I thought I was inured to such arrivals, but every meal brings a new surprise.
‘Don’t ever ask what it is,’ old China hands have told me, ‘just eat it.’ But this is clearly a flipper and the question is still why? (although the supplementary how? is rapidly pushing it out of the way). Judging by my companions’ actions you just pick it up and bite.
Someone appears at my side. He’s holding a glass. Time for a toast. I stand up, we clink glasses and drain the whisky. I’m secretly hoping that he strikes up a conversation and the flipper will be whisked away and the next course set down. No chance. It’s still there.
I pick it up and bite. To be honest, there’s not much flavour, bar soy. The texture however is exactly what you expect. Chicken feet are crunchy. Duck flippers are… well… flippery. It’s a cultural thing.
Unique nose: Our perception of an aroma is based on our own personal experiences
Each of us interprets the world in different ways because our experiences are so varied. Upbringing, culture, preferences and aversions all impact how we read and speak about our experiences. Because of this, no two people will describe an aroma in the same way.
The downside of this is that trying to understand what someone means when they describe an aroma is akin to cracking a code. If we all say different things for the same smell — I smell a clean hamster cage in this glass, you smell porridge — then how can we reach some type of consensus, or understanding? We are both correct, but how do we understand what the other is saying?
One way is by creating an agreed terminology. My hamster cages and your bowl of porridge both mean ‘malty’. It’s a step in the right direction, while also reinforcing the point that you must trust your own nose.
Having this shared nomenclature is important, especially as we’re told that nosing a whisky is the most important element within ‘tasting’. Given this, there’s little surprise, then, that Richard Paterson’s conk is insured for US$1 million, just like Kim Kardashian’s arse (I apologise for the image this has created in your mind).
Sacred snifter: Dalmore master blender Richard Paterson's nose is allegedly insured for more than US$1 million
‘The nose knows’ makes sense if you are assessing a huge number of whiskies, but it’s a line which, I think, downplays the importance of the palate.
The same issues over language still apply in the mouth, because there we are dealing not just with smell but with taste, and specifically the fusing of those two senses into the thing we call flavour. There is however another sense which we overlook, that of touch.
A whisky doesn’t give all its secrets up at the same time. It develops and changes on the nose and in the mouth. What appears at the start of the tongue is different in the middle, and changes again at the end. There’s a journey, a narrative, and texture’s role in this is hugely significant — if underappreciated.
I’ve found out over the years that while smell is cultural (and therefore hard to translate), our sense of textures are shared. We will use different words to describe aroma and flavour, but we’ll agree about the whisky’s texture and the shape it makes in the mouth. It can be thin and sharp, or it can fatten in the middle of the tongue. It can whizz along, or slowly coat the mouth. We concur when smoke emerges, or at what point tannins grip.
If you ignore texture, you lose a significant element of the whisky’s story. Within texture lies a way to discover a common language. By thinking and talking about feel and shape, we can discuss more easily how things evolve on the palate.
That flipper now makes more sense. Asian cuisines always take texture into consideration. Foods are eaten not just because of their flavour, but because of complementary and opposing textures: soft, rigid, pliant, gluey and slippery. They are there to give the senses something else to think about, and to add to the overall balance of a meal. It’s the same in whisky. Being aware of feel and the way things change in shape, are both things we can share. Allow them to flow.
Now… back to the flipper.
21 November 2018
It’s the same every week. There’s work to be done. So, I pour them out, cover them, wait, and then get started. Don’t rush, take your time, don’t force it – trying to nail that elusive aroma that’s on the tip of your nose often ends up with you falling over from inhaling too many fumes. It’s never good to collapse during a tasting. Learned that the hard way. It’s a routine, but a pleasant one.
Yes there should ideally be silence and no intrusive aromas, sounds etc. providing you with a sensory blank slate for the tastes and flavours to emerge. Simple really. Why then is it so hard?
Why does it work some days and not others? Why do the aromas fly out and hit you when you go through the same ritual, at the same time of day. It seems like the same conditions – but of course the conditions have changed because you are not the same today as you were yesterday. So you do the best you can and work at it, steadily.
Zen approach: Focus, analyse, but simultaneously relax into ‘not tasting’ (Photo: Proof on Main)
Concentrate, focus, you bugger. Go through the flight, get the initial impressions, go back, and compare one whisky against the others. Then go back again and compare another against the rest, but in a different order. Repeat. Write it all down.
Then taste neat. Think about texture, taste again, now work out how the flavours emerge across the tongue, what’s the structure, is it balanced, what happens on the finish, what can you tell about wood, maturity or oxidation, what of the distillery character, the positives, and faults? There are so many permutations. What’s the story, what’s the whisky trying to tell you about itself? Concentrate. Focus. Write. Rest. Add water, repeat. Rest. Repeat.
It’s revealing, it is necessary, but it is unnatural. You find yourself thinking about the mechanics of tasting: form, structure, aromas, acidity, fruit, complexity, balance. Boxes to tick. It’s at times like this that I wonder whether all this talk of sensory evaluation and tasting techniques are just putting more barriers between the whisky and the drinker.
I have to be uncharacteristically methodical in this, but while I’m concentrating I also realise that I’m also stopping thinking about what I am experiencing and am thinking instead of what the next box on the ticklist of techniques has to be. I’m thinking about the ‘tasting’, and not the whisky.
Recently though, I’ve done the session, covered the glass, walked off, and returned later. There’ll be music on, as I sit down again and sip. I’m not thinking about ‘tasting’ anymore, but relaxing with a dram. And, you know what? New things emerge, hidden qualities appear. I’ve been so busy thinking about how to untie the knots and find the secrets that I’ve missed the heart. It’s not drinking, rather it’s ‘not tasting’ which, unsurprisingly perhaps, sounds somewhat Zen.
Hang on Dave, you say (and not unreasonably, as I said it to myself just a moment ago), isn’t that just drinking? Not really. Drinking is when the whisky is part, an important part, but nonetheless just a part, of a wider experience. During the drinking you may suddenly taste, but tasting isn’t the main purpose.
‘Not tasting’ happens when you’ve allowed the technique to slip into the background, leaving just you, and the whisky, and the moment. I suppose that the ultimate aim is to have the focus there, but simultaneously not worry about it and relax into ‘not tasting’. The analytical side is important, but never at the expense of the enjoyment. It’s there in front of you. Just be open and aware.
07 November 2018
As my friend, the recently departed Nick Faith, told me many times, ‘remember, dear boy, we deal in higher level bullshit. Higher level, always.’ I laughed the first time he told me; then wondered quite what he meant. Shouldn’t we, as writers, always be telling the truth and avoid bullshit? Maybe it was just said with a hefty dose of self-deprecation.
Nick, to the best of my knowledge, never dealt in the world of fantasy. His books on Cognac are masterpieces of accuracy, the same for his work on wine, or trains, but he balanced the facts within the frame of a good story. His writing was never dry. He was a master of self-deprecation though.
Nick had also mentored me during my time as a judge on spirits competitions. ‘Dear boy,’ he said to me on one memorable evening when I was the last to leave the building, ‘I just realised that we still have to do cream liqueurs and advocaat. Fancy giving me a hand?’ That’s why the rest had turned tail so quickly. I don’t believe that a drop of a cream liqueur has passed my lips since that day.
The Storyteller: Nick Faith always dealt in facts, framed within entertaining anecdotes
Along with other spiritous luminaries greater than I, we were part of an eccentric bunch of educators called Taste & Flavour, led by our ringmaster Mark Ridgwell. It was in those sessions of competitive judging – yes even of cream liqueurs – and listening to him holding forth on Cognac that I got to understand about the importance of balance and authenticity, but also about having a wryly cynical eye on the machinations of companies, and the importance of story-telling, because it is through the last that we make connections. That self-deprecation is important as well. No-one can be judge and jury on all spirits. Best to deflate any thoughts that that might be the case early on.
I began to realise that Nick’s ‘higher level’ didn’t mean being inaccurate, or deceptive, or plain wrong. That’s plain bullshit (and we’ve seen plenty of examples of that recently). Higher level was totally different. It meant to enter the world of story-telling, of making people laugh with you, at you, and engaging with them.
Working in this higher level means you can weave in the tall tales, the people, the heritage, the rootedness of it all because that is what people, I think at least, are interested in. Who are the best presenters in whisky? The ones who tell stories. Here’s a case in point.
Pillars of Islay: Jackie Thomson, Georgie Crawford and Lynne McEwan brought their island home to life through story
Recently, I had the honour of moderating (because I am moderate in all things – apart from excess) a class at The Whisky Show between Georgie Crawford of Lagavulin, Lynne McEwan of Bruichladdich, and Jackie Thomson of Ardbeg. They were, rightly, insistent that it was to be a relaxed conversation about Islay by women who, in Georgie’s words, ‘love the work we do, the place we do it, and the people we do it with’. It was agreed that any mention of ‘women in whisky’ would result in the questioner being ejected from the room.
The whiskies – which were amazing – became props on a wide-ranging, often hilarious, and also emotionally engaging and touching 90 minutes where Islay and its people took centre stage. They talked about each other’s drams, told tales and showed how community is at the heart of whisky. As a result, the drams shone with a new relevance.
Dealing solely with hard facts reduces whisky to a list of processes and chemical compounds. You can read the scientific papers on those (and I do) but it misses the point because whisky-making isn’t just about strike temperatures and seeding rates, grind ratios and speed of flow. While all of that is necessary to make the whisky, the same information is used to create something which communicates and connects on a different, higher, level. And that, I realise, is part of what Nick meant. Find what you enjoy at this moment. Raise a glass. Have faith.
31 October 2018
It was a summer’s day, many years ago. A beach bar in Brighton. Not the place you’d expect to try whisky. It was, I think, the first time I met Jim Beveridge. We were tasting Blue Label and the many meanings of the term ‘rarity’: age, scarcity, and flavour. As the afternoon progressed it was clear that Jim, in his quiet way, was gently nudging the conversation towards the last. Rarity of flavour is what intrigues the blender.
Fast forward to this month and the UK launch of Johnnie Walker Ghost & Rare Port Ellen Edition and Jim, being Jim, once again talked about rarity in terms of availability and flavour.
All of the discussion about the bottling steers the rarity issue towards the scarcity of the Port Ellen, but – for me at least – it’s the bed on which it sits which matters and that is all about the rarity of flavour given by the grains. The success of the blend wasn’t about dialing up Port Ellen, but seeing how the rare and unusual can be made to work together.
Rare synergy: It’s the way Port Ellen works in tandem with the grains in Ghost & Rare that makes it unique
Two of rarity’s other facets, availability and age, came into focus the night after (it was quite a week) with the unveiling of the Craigellachie 51 Year Old. Deciding to give away the oldest-ever expression of a distillery is an unlikely move by a major player working in today’s whisky world.
Most would have said, 51 years? Let’s sell 51 bottles at £51,000 each – and you know what, they would possibly have sold them all. That Dewar’s took the other path is stroke of strategic genius and one to be applauded.
Bizarrely, the previous evening Chivas Regal had launched its 50-year-old, all four bottles of it. I was busy in the Welsh Chapel with Walker, but my esteemed colleague Mr. Woodard made the trek to Old Trafford to catch the story (and chat with former footballer Denis Law). For him, it spoke of rarity in yet another way.
‘While Craigellachie 51 takes old and rare whisky to one end of the exclusivity spectrum, theoretically giving anyone – whatever their wealth or status – the chance to try it, Chivas 50 appears at first to embody a diametrically opposed philosophy,’ he said.
Short supply: Sandy Hyslop (left) and Denis Law stand with one of the four decanters of Chivas Regal 50 Year Old
‘This is rare whisky employed as marketing tool, released to mark 50 years since Matt Busby’s team triumphed in the 1968 European Cup final (four goals, four bottles) and to trumpet Chivas’ freshly-minted partnership with the club.
‘One bottle will reside permanently at Strathisla, while two of the others will be sold through auction and private sale, no doubt for mind-boggling sums.
‘But follow the money, and the destiny of the fourth and final bottle, and the picture changes. All proceeds go to charity – the Manchester United Foundation – and that fourth bottle will be given away, Craigellachie-style, to a Manchester United fan who has supported the club “through every high and low”.’
All three releases raise questions about how we gauge rarity. Should a whisky’s use of liquids, which are by their nature limited, be the justification of a higher price? A quick scan of other 50-year-old whiskies suggests that this is increasingly the case.
In this mad week Walker itself released 100 decanters of a 50-year-old blend retailing at US$25,000. Also this year we’ve seen Macallan launching 200 bottles of a 50-year-old at £25,000, roughly the same price area as Glenfiddich and Balvenie’s 50-year-olds, while Dalmore’s 50 is £50,000 (by the way, you can pick up Glenfarclas 50 for £1,850).
Rarity here has been imposed. These are market-driven releases. Because there is a perceived market for the ‘rare’, therefore we will supply. The restriction imposed by scarcity of stock has been reinforced by the high price. Most of these will never be opened, but will exist in display cabinets, or be flipped in auctions, not so much ghosts, but zombie whiskies doomed to a half-life.
Mass giveaway: Every drop of Craigellachie 51 will be given to whisky lovers, free of charge
But rarity also means uncommon and unusual. A rare whisky doesn’t have to be old, but carry within it a quality which sets it apart. That could be maturity, or cask, environment, technique, or some inexplicable quirk. Rarity in this reading has a sense of transcendence that goes beyond age. The greatest single casks – which by their nature are rare – have this quality, the greatest vattings and blends as well.
True rarity, I’d argue, comes through a layering of these elements. It’s more than just ‘an old whisky’ (and it’s fascinating to observe how Ghost & Rare’s lack of an age statement is never discussed), rather it’s the liquid which deepens the conversation (which is as it should be).
The Craig plays with rarity by challenging the norms. It is a remarkable whisky, and while it is unlikely to reshape other distillers’ thinking about how to handle their rare stocks, it suggests that there was a moment of clarity which saw that scarcity should not automatically mean restricting its availability.
Maybe, it says, sharing is better than hoarding. In their different ways, the two whiskies show the number of ways in which we can talk about, and enjoy, rarity.
17 October 2018
As I watched the landscape through the rain on my return from the Cheltenham Lit Fest (a worthwhile visit but, Jesus, the train companies do their utmost to make it almost impossible to get there and back easily, or comfortably), I thought back to the previous night’s post-gig drink at John Gordons, which is both a wine and spirit merchant, and a whisky bar with a cleverly chosen selection of 200 drams.
Looking at the shelves, it was clear that the range on show wasn’t just an exercise in box ticking, nor did it seem to be one where personal preferences had been allowed to dominate. It covered the basics well, but was eclectic enough for the whisky convert to discover new things.
It was the end of 10 days of talking for me. A few days previously, at the Berlin Bar Convent – where it seems as if every distiller and vermouth producer on the planet is vying for your attention – I’d been discussing ways in which bars could maximise their whisky range and help newcomers navigate their way through this most baffling of territories.
Heaven or hell?: A fully-stocked bar can be overwhelming for whisky novices (Photo: The Pot Still, Glasgow)
One way was to plot their range on a flavour map and see if all the points were covered. In my experience most bar owners, if left to their own devices, head towards smoke and sherry, not because that’s what sells, but because it’s what the owner or staff like to drink. This can be a good thing if it gets them promoting it, but on the other it’s bad news for the punter who doesn’t like peat or dried fruit. It’s that word balance once again.
I’d also used an image of the well-stuffed back bar and asked whether it filled people with excitement, or terror. What is nirvana for the whisky geek is hell for the newbie – and never forget that there are many more in the latter category.
Even as a paid-up whisky nerd when I’m presented with a gantry like that, the thrill at seeing the selection is tempered with fear. Is there something at the back which I’ve missed; where do I start, where and when do I stop? Choice can be overwhelming and off-putting as well as enticing.
I’d been looking out of the window at the forest. Pine, silver birch, ash, willow, whitebeam, the rest a mustard and green blur, too many to discern, so much information that I couldn’t see the trees for the wood.
It’s similar to the dilemma faced by bars around the world. Do you cram every inch of the available space, or work with its limitations and select the best, and most representative bottles – ones which will sell and not just gather dust? The customer’s eye flickers over the forest of labels, only settling on one of the shapes it identifies.
Does each added layer make the selection better, or is there a point when it brings about despair to drinker and owner alike? I’d asked the question to Frank Murphy at Glasgow’s Pot Still a few weeks earlier. ‘Everything must sell,’ he’d said. ‘We’ve only got so much space. I have to make the choice as to what we buy, what stays, and what goes.’
This is an issue for new producers the world over. If shelves are already full, then the only way you’re getting your whisky into people’s hands will be if it replaces something from an established distiller. They, in turn, cannot just approach new releases in the manner of a trigger-happy teenager spraying a road sign with shotgun pellets.
It isn’t as simple of too much choice, but how well the person behind the counter knows the stock and can guide the drinker into the wood. The task isn’t just about selecting the bottles; it is also about explaining (and justifying) the range in order to make things less terrifying for the customer.
That is why every town needs a place like John Gordons, or the Pot Still, Black Rock, Swift, or the Bow Bar (I could go on). It is why training is paramount, why finding new ways of cutting paths through whisky’s thickets is so vital.
26 September 2018
‘Why aren’t we told about this stuff?’ my walking companion asked. I’d been pointing out the rickle of stones and the lines of lazy beds the slanting sunlight was picking out among the heather. The stones would have been a small township, the lazybeds its occupants’ strips for cultivation, fertilised by seaweed dragged up from the bay where we’d landed, spread on piles.
I’d started to explain that the abandonment was unlikely to have been optional. We were on South Uist – north-east South Uist to be precise. Between 1841 and 1851 the island’s population was halved as its then landlord, John Gordon of Cluny, embarked on brutal clearances of the island, Benbecula, and Barra. His former tenants were forcibly shipped to Canada and left abandoned on the dockside.
‘It’s a forgotten history,’ he said, shaking his head as we head along the moor towards the lighthouse. ‘It needs to be told, it explains so much about how people spread over the world.’
Ancient foundations: This South Uist rock pool is lined with impenetrable Lewisian gneiss
Maybe wandering, whether by choice or enforced, is in Scottish bones. Over a week’s expedition we’d followed the whale-road from Orkney to Loch Ewe, Rum, and now the Uists (an attempt to reach St. Kilda having been nixed thanks to stormy weather). On board the ship I gave talks, wandering through whisky’s roots, flavours, styles often picking up on what information we’d gleaned in the morning hikes with the attendant geologists, historians, and naturalists.
A new picture of Scotland was beginning to form. One rooted in rock and migration. A year ago I wrote of shearwaters, now they were on the waves once more getting ready to head south. We travelled, picking up knowledge, fitting pieces into this new frame. The Clearances were now part of it.
On one side, over the Minch, were the hills of Skye, to the north the shattered landscape of the Hebrides. We sat next to one of the pools which stud the Uist landscape, its dark brown waters lit by flashes of cornflower blue.
I picked up a fist-sized lump of rock, gritty, zebra-striped, kibbled with crystals. Lewisian gneiss. It is old, and I mean old. 3,000 million years, which is so absurd a number it is impossible to compute. It is so ancient it contains no fossils, just the sparkles of those early minerals. I hold the roughness of unimaginable time in my hand, a rendering of liquefied rock from the earth’s heart, warped and buckled over eons.
As tectonic plates shifted, these rocks were heaved out of the planet’s belly to its surface to cool. They drifted across the globe as the continents continued their slow dance, starting close to where Antarctica is now, then settling into what is now Canada, before splitting off and fusing with what is now England. Odd that the emigrants took the same journey, but in reverse. Wandering rock, people, ship.
Distant beginnings: Looking out from South Uist across to the Isle of Skye
When the gneiss appears we have reached the basement. It is the bedrock, obdurate, unchanging, impermeable, and because of this, water cannot penetrate hence the pools, and the boggy ground. Gneiss flares red on geological maps, which is appropriate enough for these boggy, oxygen-starved conditions, and means that peat starts to build up, and peat means fuel, and fuel means home.
The thin soils were suitable only for some crops: kale, potatoes, bere barley or oats. Basic sustenance, and also the roots of what we call whisky.
All that’s left behind are the stones, the lines in the turf and the lost memories of the songs they sang and the drink they made. The scent of peat gone as they started their wanderings. The memories fragile, worn away. It’s perhaps too neat a metaphor.
We’ve caught up with Chris Edwards, the expedition’s geologist. I ask him if this scoured landscape is the result of erosion, is this is what was left behind after people, rock and soil had been removed?
‘We don’t know fully, but what we can say is that this landscape now is what it would have been like just after the ice left,’ he replies. ‘Isn’t that amazing? How things stay the same, and yet change.’ Time seems to compress, the houses rebuilt, smoke through the thatch, boats in the bay, crops in the field, the buzz of bees and, who knows, a wee sensation of spirit after the day’s work is done.
This is how it started. This is whisky’s bedrock.
12 September 2018
On receiving a press release announcing Chivas Brothers’ launch of Allt-a-Bhainne as a single malt, Dave Broom imagines a conversation with the agency behind the words…
You’re from where? Text100 PR agency? Nice to meet you. You’re releasing Allt-a-Bhainne? That’s good news. It’s always good to see a new OB being launched. It can’t be easy releasing a new product, especially one from a lesser-known distillery. You have to find some angle which will allow it to cut through, but the options are becoming increasingly limited. I understand the problem. Do tell me more about it.
I see. It’s here ‘to shake up the single malt category’. Well, there’s a bold statement. That’ll strike fear into those complacent old malts, with their tired old strategies. This’ll teach them. I’d love to see the faces of the owners of… I dunno… The Glenlivet when they see how wrong they’ve been. Oh… hang on.
You’re going to do this by pushing ‘conventional boundaries in a bid to attract a whole new generation of drinkers?’ Interesting. I thought one of the most exciting elements within Scotch was that there was a new generation of drinkers becoming interested in whisky, but let’s not get bogged down in that. Tell me what’s different about this new Allt-a-Bhainne.
Defying conventions?: Allt-a-Bhainne is touted as ‘shaking up the single malt’ category to ‘attract a whole new generation of drinkers?’
Your radical solution is ‘mixing the smokiness of peat with the fruity sweetness of the Speyside region in Scotland’. Glad you put in the Scotland bit. Accuracy. It’s important. Sorry, I interrupted, please do continue, I’m interested.
‘Convention said we shouldn’t mix peat with Speyside and that smokiness and sweetness wouldn’t work together.’ Really? Smoke and sweetness aren’t natural bedfellows? Have you run that statement past a blender? Still, it’s unconventional you say? I’m amazed that no-one has tried that before.
Oh… hang on, they have. Benromach uses peated malt, Glenfiddich runs peat every year, as does BenRiach. It’s been done at Glenglassaugh and Tomintoul as well, not to mention all the other Speyside whiskies which have a peated element in their malt as standard.
I got you wrong. You’re saying that the idea of this whisky challenging the norms is inspired by the fact that the distillery was built in 1975? You say it was ‘an era of punks, mods and breaking with convention’. Really? I always thought mods were more of ‘60s thing and the mod revival came a lot later than ’75. Punks? Well, sure, the Sex Pistols played their first gig that year. Supporting Johnny Bazooka. To 20 people. It lasted 15 minutes. Not really an era…
The biggest thing musically that year was The Bay City Rollers. It was a time of pomp rock, and judging by the charts, a love of the middle of the road. Max Bygraves and Telly Savalas had hits, for god’s sake.
Ugly distillery: Allt-a-Bhainne is described by its owner as being a place for ‘whisky-making, not picture taking’
1975 was the year when inflation reached 24%, the IRA was bombing Britain, the National Front was on the march, football hooliganism was rife, and Margaret Thatcher took over the Tory party. Yes, let’s celebrate that challenging of convention.
It’s actually to do with the actual distillery you say? It’s ‘truly a product of its time… liberated, open and original’. Again, I repeat: hooligans, rampant inflation, crises, conflict. A distillery which represented the late 1970s would have bin bags around the door, the occasional bomb blast, policemen racially profiling black youths, and crowds of unemployed youth from Dufftown asking for a job.
I see, the distillery itself challenges convention. ‘Those who have visited can testify that it’s a place for whisky-making, not picture-taking’ you say? So you mean it’s ugly and those which are beautiful to look at, like say… Strathisla… are not worthy of consideration because of all that surface gloss? Should tell its owner. Oh… hang on.
Anyway, let’s forget about the brutalist exterior and run inside (if you can. There’s no visitor centre or shop, that’s so… modern) and marvel at it being, what, wholly functional? Ah, that’s what you mean by ‘liberated, open and original’. I get it now. This is all an exercise in post-modern irony. You scamp.
Ultimately though what I really want to know about is the whisky. Why decide on this radical strategy of have a sweet smoky whisky? I see. ‘Peated malts are growing globally by 7.6% (CAGR 2012/2017 IWSR).’ So, it’s nothing to do with breaking convention. It’s a marketing exercise. Let me imagine the conversation.
‘Peated malt is popular. Do we have a distillery on Islay?’
‘No but we’ve made peated malt at Allt-a-Bhainne for years, so that our blenders have a peated component for our blends. Maybe we can use some of that.’
Wouldn’t you agree that sometimes the truth is more interesting than claiming that, ‘we followed our nose, distilled the whisky in the way we know and trust, and Allt-A-Bhainne is the result. It’s a match that might go against traditional Speyside conventions, but that’s something we’re not afraid to challenge.’
But if it’s not radical, if the whisky is aimed to appeal to everyone, isn’t representative of 1975, is made in what you seem to claim is an ugly, functional distillery that’s best not looked at, and is the product of a wise strategic decision to make smoky whisky for blends, then what is left?
The packaging you say? It ‘features strong, geometric shapes to create an energetic look that resonates with the 70s style of the Allt-A-Bhainne distillery on the label’ and ‘screams confidence in what’s inside’. So. Clear glass. Oh, and a wooden stopper that’s ‘a gesture towards the craftsmanship at the heart of the brand.’
Forgive me if I gesture in a slightly different manner.
05 September 2018
It’s the day when the weather finally broke. The grass is soaked by a continual drizzle, the sky one cloud which blurs the horizon, colour reduced to a palette of greys. Dreich and drubly indeed, and here we are, heading to the beach to see if we can find an abandoned pier. A curlew’s haunted cry seems magnified across the desolate flats.
The tides have slathered down a thick seam of textured, rippled mud along the channel which once carried the whisky. On the opposite side, the walls of the old distillery peek out from the trees and weeds, looking more like an abandoned prison. At the top of the channel are the warehouse buildings, cracked and teetering, slowly being sucked into the Forth.
Disappearing distillery: Kennetpans' legacy is literally sinking in the mud
Kennetpans was, for a period, the largest distillery in Scotland, one of the links in a chain across Clackmannanshire and Fife which made the Stein family and their Haig cousins the most powerful distillers of their time. Now it is reverting back to nature, slumping into total disrepair.
It was founded, some believe, in the early 18th century by Andrew Stein whose son, John, expanded it to its full size. One of his sons, also John, would eventually take over. Another, James, built an even larger plant nearby at Kilbagie, which was to outstrip Kennetpans in terms of size, and where, in 1826, his son Robert installed the first of his own design of column still.
For a time the Steins seemed to be able to turn the country to their needs: farmers grew grain to their requirements, James Watt supplied Kennetpans with the first of his steam engines, Scotland’s first railway linked the two distilleries, and the spirit from the two sites flooded out to the domestic market, and also across the border to England where it was rectified into gin. By the 1780s, the duty paid by the two distilleries was greater than all land tax collected annually in Scotland.
Then came a change in law setting a higher rate of tax for Scottish spirit and a banning of exports to England. Sequestration and bankruptcy followed, the effects of which rippled out across the Scottish economy. Although there would be a revival of the family’s fortunes, the Stein’s Scottish empire was on shifting ground.
John Jr. closed Kennetpans in 1825. By then, he had his sights on the growing potential of Irish whiskey and had invested in Dublin’s Marrowbone Lane distillery. There was a further connection between the two industries. John Stein’s daughter, Isabella, was married to a certain John Jameson, who had been trained at Kennetpans before being sent over to Dublin to manage and distil at his father’s Bow Street plant.
Kilbagie closed in 1860, and was turned into a manure factory. The world moved on. The Haigs grew in importance, the Steins slipped away, their distilleries taken over, closed, demolished. The fractured walls of Kennetpans are their memorial.
It’s a salutary lesson of the fragility of the industry, the nature of boom and bust, over-stretching, and the fickleness of the market. We wander around the site, reflecting on how easily things seem to collapse and be forgotten, the lessons not learned. Time does not wait, things disappear, names are forgotten.
That morning, at Lindores Abbey, I’d looked into what could have been a still pit uncovered during the excavations for the new distillery’s suds pond. Two teams of archaeologists have visited, one unsure about the pit’s use, the other more convinced that this could be a site of medieval distillation.
Historic find?: One of the potential still pits uncovered at Lindores Abbey
It’s not a smoking gun but could be a hugely important step, taking our understanding of whisky’s roots further back than ever before. The site is in a fragile state and needs to be made secure and watertight now, before there is irreparable loss of potentially vital evidence.
Lindores needs to be properly excavated to find out quite what is under the surface. It is too important for it to disappear into the mud. Equally, Kennetpans should be preserved in some way (Historic Scotland is currently trying to stabilise the remaining buildings) to show the origins of the modern industry and a forgotten part of whisky’s convoluted tale.
The curlew calls again over the echo and high whine of traffic on the bridge. Is this place just a palpable example of impermanence, is it hubris, are it and the Lindores’ pit examples of how casually we treat the past? Maybe all are true in some way. They are certainly reminders of how fragile it all is and how easy it is to be lost in the weeds, sucked into the estuary mud and downriver, lost forever.
Responsibility passes down the generations. We have little time.
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