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From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Whisky in the golden hour

    29 August 2018

    The golden hour, the period of transition between day and night when the earth seems to pause and hold its breath, readying itself for the changes that come with the hours of darkness. The last rays of sun sneak underneath the cloud layer gilding the hill on the other side of Finlaggan, transforming a haze of rain into a rainbow.

    At this moment, Rachel Newton gently plucks her harp’s strings and starts to sing, her notes gliding over the calmed loch. A song, Mo Thruaigh Leir Thu Ille Bhuidhe, about smuggling whisky from Ireland to Scotland in a boat ‘as watertight as a bottle of wine with a cork in it’. 

    We sit transfixed, conversation stilled, drams resting in our hands, occasionally drawn to lips. Boundaries seem to shift, the whisky becomes part of the music, the music part of the whisky.

    She’s singing in Gaelic, which few of us there understand, making the music about mood, the rhythm woozy like the currents dragging a boat over the swell (or a drunk weaving the width, as well as the length, of the road). Ille bhuidhe, she tells me later, means ‘blond-haired boy’, which refers to the whisky itself. 

    The best traditional music is simultaneously ancient and new, sufficiently malleable to be open to change and reinterpretation, alive with an energy that allows it to inspire new developments. It isn’t preserved, or anchored to an era. That would be like putting it onto a mortuary slab to be poked and prodded by musicologists.

    Rachel Newton

    Old and new: Traditional music from artists like Rachel Newton has life and energy

    Rather, it plays with time, altering it, stretching it, reminding you of its passing from the first version to now. It floats free of the linear, into this place, this moment, flooding out, touching hearts.

    Whisky is also about time. In every sip we take as Rachel plays, we taste the vestigial memories in the liquid of barley, distillery, peat, wood and air. 

    At its best it spins you back along the line of time, thinking of what has happened while it has been in the cask; to the world, to you, things lost, moments of joy, the bittersweet notion of time passing.

    This effect is about complexity. Those flavours emerge only over time. You taste the metamorphosis of simple ingredients: seed, wood, vegetation, air and how they have worked with, and against, each other, weaving and obscuring, revealing and dying, rising and changing. The greater the complexity, the more it makes you stop and think ‘this is special’.  

    It is a wholly emotional response. Yes, you can then spend time trying to find out why it is special, but really that’s missing the point. Surrender to the transfiguration.

    ‘But the whisky was incidental to this moment,’ you may say. ‘It was about the music.’ True enough, but many of the great whisky moments in life are not just about the bottle and the glass, but the people, the occasion; the lap of water on the hull of a boat, the dram at the top of the hill, in some late-night bar with friends.

    Rachel Newton

    Music and mood: Rachel Newton’s music, like great whisky, has the power to transport

    That is whisky at its best, doing its job, supporting rather than leading, quietly shifting conversations and softening hearts, almost invisibly helping to create the moment. The complexity makes you pause, take notice, then it widens into the rest of the moment.

    Music is transportive, it takes you into a different place. Your response is visceral, rather than intellectual. You could work out the chord structures and intervals and rhythmic progression, but it won’t tell you why there’s tears in our eyes, why we are smiling at each other, or someone is dancing spontaneously.

    Yes, you can sit, as I do on a daily basis, and look at the glasses in as sterile a place as I can manage, but even then I know in my heart that the whisky will only show itself fully when it is out in the world and whether, in small sips, it can help to create moments like this. 

    Our response to whisky is the same as to music. Equally, whisky making is a creative rather than technical act, so it needs to be viewed in the same way as the arts. It has the same effect as a piece of poetry, a line from a book, a film, or notes from voice and harp flying out over the water, into the golden light. 

    To hear more of Rachel’s music, check out her Bandcamp page.

  • Don’t sacrifice authenticity for innovation

    22 August 2018

    So there we were having dinner. Shellfish to be precise. It seemed the right time to reach for a bottle of Muscadet. Stay with me. It was from Chéreau-Carré (their Comte Leloup top be precise, available from the Wine Society), had some age, had spent some time sucking up depth and richness from lazing around on its lees and was wonderful. ‘Muscadet, all my troubles seemed so far away,’ I began to sing.

    Muscadet, eh? In a previous life in a previous century I used to sell wine and for a period Muscadet was the style to go for. Fresh, with racy mineral qualities, and clean acidity it was reliable, the bottle you’d choose for an aperitif, a picnic, a seafood dinner. Slowly the ox cart of popularity began to creak and rumble. As its popularity elided into ubiquity so the wine became thinner, meaner, pricier until we all moved away seduced by the allure of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or somesuch. Muscadet? So last year, then so last decade.

    Staying true: Whisky innovation shouldn’t have to mean radical shifts in a brand’s DNA

    It’s an example of how as a species we demand constant stimulation. We are by nature fickle, reluctant to stick with the same thing so that even if Muscadet had retained its overall quality we’d still have slowly drifted apart, leaving it like a half-recalled, once best friend from schooldays. 

    This is why producers have to find new ways of keeping their offer exciting. One of the roots of innovation is this need to keep things fresh, while retaining some identifying signature. It’s new, but simultaneously reassuring. That reassurance is important as it shows you, the drinker, that things have not moved so far that the elements which made you love the whisky/wine/beer in the first place have not been lost, they’ve just been moved forward gently.

    Which brings the recent Mortlach... er… retrenchment to light. It’s not often that a major firm puts its hands up and says, ‘OK, we screwed up,’ which is effectively what has happened. They tried, they overreached, they admitted they were wrong and went back to what made the whisky special in the first place. Better to be honest and suffer the inevitable, if short-term, cries of ‘Told you!’ than trying some ham-fisted misdirection. ‘New Mortlach? No, nothing’s changed.’ Sadly, no-one else seems to be following in their footsteps.

    Innovation is a tricky balancing act and one which can too easily tip into a blind panic where short term fixes take over. People like gin, but don’t like juniper? No bother, we’ll make it fruity…  and pink. They don’t like the taste of whisky? Fine, we’ll filter that nasty taste out. People like Tequila? OK, let’s make an agave/malt mashup (I’m not against using Tequila casks by the way if they add to quality and don’t overpower the character of the whisky).

    Honest mistake: Diageo relaunched its Mortlach range after admitting its previous series failed to hit the mark with fans

    Throwing ideas around in a blind panic is the equivalent of trying to play darts in a crowded pub while blindfolded and stoked up on a mix of Red Bull and Buckfast. Just because an idea is new doesn’t mean it is good. Often a tweak is required, rather than a radical shift.

    Equally, trying to be all things to all drinkers isn’t the answer. Rather, it shows a lack of confidence in the flavours which built your reputation in the first place. Single malt, as I’ve said on numerous occasions, is about individuality, the fact that this distillery makes something substantially different to its neighbour. These are the flavour boundaries along which you can play but, I’d argue, you cannot break. Sadly, too many malts are forgetting that.

    Sticking to the DNA of the whisky may seem boring, but it is substantially harder to quietly get better at what makes you special in the first place, finding the flavour links, the nuances and subtleties, rather than swinging from one extreme to the other on a fraying rope of credibility.

    And you know what? Sometimes making these small, incremental shifts works just as well. Monsieur Chéreau has looked at what his vineyard can give and how to maximise that expressiveness rather than rushing around trying to find a space for it on the next bandwagon leaving Nantes. He stuck to what he knew and continued to make it better. There’s a lesson there methinks.

  • Recalling Scotch’s usquebaugh roots

    15 August 2018

    We huddle in the tower around the wee copper still. Smoke rises, caught in the beams of sunlight. There’s a hissing from inside the pot, the neck is getting warmer, then steam starts to lift off the worm tub and the first drops begin to leak reluctantly out of the pipe into the flask. Claire Mackay dips her finger in it, grins and nods, James Donaldson does the same, then it’s my turn. Yes, the angelica is there.

    Claire is a historian and practitioner of herbal medicine; James is Bruichladdich’s professional forager. That morning we had wandered the coast, roadside and woods of Islay’s Rinns in search of herbs with which to distil this, our own usquebaugh.

    I won’t give you the exact recipe, only to say that the following were picked: angelica seed, wild thyme leaf and flower, bramble leaf, creeping thistle tops, meadowsweet flowers, hog seed and wood avens.

    Medical practice: Distilling wild, foraged herbs to create local usquebaugh

    While all had their medicinal properties, they also had their own compelling flavour: the heavy vanilla and amaretto of meadowsweet, the Seville orange-like bittersweet punch of hog seed, or the seductive apricot and honey of creeping thistle.

    It was our own recipe, but one which conceivably could have been made on Islay centuries ago. Distilled spirit started life as medicine, and all of the ingredients we had picked had their own properties.

    As James pointed out, Islay’s terroir means that it is home to some plants which might not be found on other islands – and vice versa – leading to the thought that as usquebaugh grew, each location would have begun to have its own specific character and specialisation.

    Could it be that when distillers eventually gave up flavouring their spirit, they still searched for ways to retain the aromas and flavours which had long set their own whisky apart? Impossible to answer, but an intriguing notion nonetheless.

    The moment of whisky’s history we were channelling came earlier than that. We were tapping into the period when the medical shifted into the social – probably around the end of the 15th century. After all, Hector Boece in his History of Scotland in 1526 wrote that when his ancestors were ‘of a set purpose to be merrie [sic]’ they used herbs to flavour their aquavitae.

    Local barley: Are usquebaugh’s flavours still apparent in Scotch whisky’s terroir?

    It would be another 100 years before whisky would become the preferred drink of the islands, thanks to the Statutes of Iona in 1609 which banned the sale and consumption of wine in that part of Scotland in order to curb excessive drinking. The populace then turned to distillation whenever they were of a set purpose… which was relatively frequently.

    We’re also honouring the links to the Beaton family (originally MacMeic-bethad/ MacBeth). They were doctors, possibly originally from Ireland who arrived, legend has it, on Islay in the 13th century as part of the entourage of Aine O’Cathain when she married Angus Og MacDonald, Lord of the Isles.

    For 400 years, the Beatons were hereditary physicians to the Scottish crown – from Robert the Bruce to James VI and I – and to the wider populace. They were doctors, surgeons and alchemists, translators of medical texts from Latin to Gaelic; upholders of an older botanical-based medical tradition at a time when the rest of the country followed a different path.

    Make a wish: The smooth stone turned by many a visitor to the Beaton’s Celtic cross

    Just as Gaelic song is the earliest source of information about whisky making and drinking, so the Beatons’ Gaelic texts are an overlooked resource of the early days of medicine and distillation – the roots of those usquebaughs and proto-whiskies.

    Later that afternoon, Claire and I head to Kilchoman Kirk. This was Beaton land, granted to the family for free in return for their services. In the graveyard stands a Celtic cross erected at some point in the 14th or 15th century by Thomas Beaton for his father Patrick, his mother, and his wife. On its pedestal are four depressions. The deepest is filled by a smooth stone worn into a pear shape by centuries of turning deiseil (with the sun) in order to grant wishes.

    We look across to Kilchoman distillery and over the fields of barley, growing for it and Bruichladdich, ripening after this perfect long, hot summer. Whisky making has moved a long way from the eye-smarting smoke and the smell of efficacious herbs rising from the new spirit, yet those aromas are still there in today’s whiskies, rooted in earth if you look hard enough. We’re so different and yet not so far removed.

  • Whisky, cliché and the real Scotland

    01 August 2018

    Avoid cliché. That’s what my mentor Michael Jackson told me. Probably more than once. It’s hard to do. Aren’t clichés just shopworn truths whose meaning has been diminished by careless handling over the years?

    It sprang to mind when we were stravaiging across the Highlands. Mountains? Tick. Heather coming into bloom? Tick. Hairy coos? Tick. All we needed was a red stag at bay looking into the middle distance, and our I-Spy Book of the Highlands would have been complete.

    Maybe the folks on the Lochs & Glens coach would be lucky enough to grab that one. There you have it. The clichés. But the mountains and heather and coos are real. Why, then, are we so irritated by them?

    It’s been buzzing about at the (very) back of my mind while I’m trying to relax on holiday, surrounded by birds – a hen harrier yesterday, which was a bit of treat – waves, wind, family, friends, music and books.

    There’s a lot of poetry, and it was a poem which brought the whole cliché thing back into focus once again, namely Robin Robertson’s Camera Obscura, which includes fictive diary extracts from the (real) pioneering photographer David Octavius Hill, who worked in Edinburgh in the 1840s.

    ‘The price we pay for railways, better roads & speedier mail,’ one extract goes, ‘is seeing our most able Artists & Scientists leave for London – their places taken by Thomas Cook travellers decked in tartan looking for “The Picturesque”. It is the end of an old song.’

    Robertson may have invented the diary, but the debate about how Scotland was being packaged and sold was real, even in those days. Here’s the dilemma: Scotland became popular thanks in part to the novels of Walter Scott, the poetry of Burns, the paintings of Landseer and the Royal approval of Victoria and Albert. 

    It was cleared, so there was more romantic space to gaze at without the inconvenience of people working in the foreground. The sheep and deer helped to reduce the number of trees ruining the view, making things more acceptably ‘wild’.

    Monarch of the Glen

    Stag at bay: Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen helped create a Scottish romantic stereotype

    Hill and his partner Robert Adamson created calotypes of not just Edinburgh’s great and good, but its overlooked: fishermen, oyster sellers, workers. They are early attempts to move away from easy stereotypes.

    Not that they appeared to succeed. By the end of the 19th century, Scotland was ‘North Britain’ (they even named a distillery that to reinforce the point), its music reduced to music hall caperings, its literature and art overtly sentimental.

    Or was it? At the start of the holiday, my daughter and I went along to the exhibition on Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow style at Kelvingrove – which showed how radical he and his colleagues were in terms of art, architecture and design at the turn of the 20th century. Anything but clichéd.

    Kelvingrove also has a new gallery dedicated to the Glasgow Boys, a loose collective of artists who worked together in the 1880s and whose work was anything but nostalgic or hackneyed.

    They painted in the open air, used workers and children as their models, aimed for realism, or at the other extreme created fantastical, gilded and mythical worlds. For a brief period, they were the most radical artists in Britain.

    They were pushing back, just as Hill and Adamson had done, and as the poet Hugh MacDiarmid would do from the 1920s onwards.

    ‘Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?
    Only as a patch of hillside might be a cliché corner
    To a fool who cries “nothing but heather!”… 
    How marvellously descriptive! And incomplete.’

    Scotland Small (1943)

    Fisher girls at Newhaven, Edinburgh 1843-7

    Edinburgh life: Fisher girls at Newhaven, captured by David Octavius Hill (c. 1843-7)

    MacDiarmid’s argument is not to ignore the heather, but to look more closely (which takes us back to Nan Shepherd) and realise that there is richness and complexity beneath the cliché.

    He and other writers of his generation – Aeneas MacDonald, Neil Gunn – also began to write about their love of whisky and use it as a symbol, or example, of identity, in their attempts to move away from the glib and sentimentalised idea of ‘Scotland’.

    For them, single malt represented the ‘real’ Scotland. It was linked closely to the land and the people rather than – heaven help us – the world of blends, which was only concerned with business, export and balance of trade. 

    Before anyone jumps on me, this is too partisan an outlook. You can see their point, though. Whisky had wrapped a plaid of late Victorian clichés around itself and sold the world Scotch-land.

    On one hand you could say this is where it all went wrong but, were it not for these simple signifiers, would Scotch be where it is today? 

    As I’ve said before, it’s strange that we still fulminate about whisky’s co-opting of tartan, coos and heather when the industry has long moved away from it. Why then does that perception linger?

    James Ballantine Dr George Bell David Octavius Hill at an Edinburgh ale house

    Edinburgh ale: David Octavius Hill (right), with James Ballantine and Dr George Bell

    Perhaps we haven’t been clever enough to create a richer alternative, which is why now, when there are huge opportunities to talk about whisky (and its role in Scottish culture), it is once again being reduced and simplified to lists and ‘10 things you need to know’ – the online equivalent of an out-of-focus photo taken from the window seat of a Lochs & Glens coach speeding through Glenshee.

    ‘People don’t have the time,’ we are told. Well, you know, we do. We like films, and binge on box sets. We read books, we sit and have conversations. Yes, we need to find new ways to talk and explain and communicate, but that can’t be done through simplification to the point of inanity because, by doing that, you simply create a whole new set of clichés.

    The same battle fought by the writers and artists continues. Resist. Push back. Bring the real Scotland to life. Look into the heather, go to the fishing villages or mines, paint the clarty boots, the slums and the wild coast.

    Yes there are coos amongst the heather. Yes, people make shortbread. Don’t ignore it, but don’t ignore the fact that there is more.

  • Let experiences shape your palate

    25 July 2018

    It was about halfway up Ben Rinnes when we began to wonder whether it was such a smart idea to carry a drone, cameras, and sound equipment up a 2,759-foot (840 metre) mountain. My assertions that it wasn’t far now and it would definitely be worth it when we saw the vista from the summit were, I suspect, beginning to grate with my companions. The idea that we suffer for our art (in this case the forthcoming documentary The Amber Light) was beginning to pall.

    When the gradient eased a little I paused for a rest. In among the heather on the side of the track were strange bright orange nodules, golden mutant berries huddling low in the ground. I’ve been up the Ben many times, but had never spotted them before. I bent down and picked one. Potentially poisonous, but what the hell.

    I tentatively tasted it and the flavour flooded by palate: honey-sweet, slightly milky, gentle hints of apricot. I’d tasted a sweeter version before in Norway, albeit in a jar. Cloudberries. The more I looked, the more there were, nestling in the roots and tangle. We tasted them, grinning, amazed.

    Alpine fruit: The cloudberry grows in cool climates, and has a milky, honey-sweet flavour

    I reached into my pocket, pulled out a book and read:

    Each of the senses is a way in to what the mountain has to give. The palate can taste the wild berries, blaeberry, ‘wild free-born cranberry’ and, most subtle and sweet of all, the avern or cloudberry a name like a dream. The juicy gold globe melts against the tongue, but who can describe a flavour? The tongue cannot give it back. One must find the berries, golden-ripe, to know their taste.

    That was Nan Shepherd, writing in her remarkable account of the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain. It’s been a touchstone since I discovered a copy in a second-hand bookshop in Ballater. This book – written in 1944, but not published until 1977 – is about her engagement with the mountains. Rather than having an obsessive drive for the summit, she takes her time, stravaiging into their hidden depths, experiencing the place with all of her senses.

    It’s a passage which I use on a semi-regular basis in talks – and also as a reminder to myself about how vital it is to stay engaged with the world. After all, if you cannot write and talk about a taste unless you have experienced it, the more you do taste, the more you tune in to the world and, by extension, the liquid.

    I’d read the passage to Alan Winchester [master distiller of The Glenlivet, who was recently awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Spirits Challenge] the day before as we’d walked to the abandoned Scalan seminary, discussing how astonishing it was that here in the wilds of the Braes of Glenlivet in the 18th century, were people discussing theology in Latin while growing their food, cultivating the land, milling, brewing and, who knows, maybe even distilling, all the while wondering when this, the only place in Scotland where priests could be trained, would be raided. A place of contemplation and yet of rebellion; a locale for rebels and anti-establishment thinking, a home for dreamers.

    Elevated perspective: Scaling Ben Rinnes gives Broom an opportunity to reflect on how experiences shape us

    We’d been talking of the importance of place, and how smells can help root you in a landscape. ‘I don’t get why people think of Scotland as being dark and grim,’ Alan had said. ‘You go walking and the landscape is lit up with colours and scents. For me it’s the smell of home.’

    Nan has her own take:

    So with the scents. All the aromatic and heady fragrances – pine and birch, bog myrtle, the spicy juniper, heather and the honey-sweet orchis, and the clean smell of wild thyme – mean nothing at all in words. They are there, to be smelled.

    I first read this with a sense of dismay because it appears to open up a potential issue with writing tasting notes. Can they really mean nothing? After all, you can point to an object, get people to share a sound, compare a touch, but taste and smell are internalised and personal. Is it a pointless exercise trying to get people to understand what you are experiencing?

    It’s another reason why I return to the passage regularly. What she means, I believe, is that to truly understand the world you have to experience it fully: immerse yourself in it totally: see it, touch it, hear its sounds, and taste and smell everything. Log the sensations away, use them as aids to navigation, allow them to bring you deeper into the world of experience.

    And what of the whisky makers of the Braes? I’d asked Alan. Could they have been influenced by the smells around them: the heather honey, the herbs, the grass? ‘I think it’s inevitable,’ he’d answered.

    The landscape is a living one. Engage with it, allow its sensations to fill you, let the cloudberries, fresh and wild, melt on the tongue, never to be forgotten.

  • Pentimento: peeling away whisky’s layers

    11 July 2018

    Jon Hassell, creator of ‘Fourth World’ music (a mix of electronics, trumpet, minimalism, jazz and ethnic sounds), has released a new album called Listening To Pictures: (Pentimento Volume One).

    Any new work by him is something to be welcomed – his music has the ability to create strange, sometimes eerie, sometimes calming dream states, summoning up impossible places; it is a soundtrack to dreams. 

    Recently, as part of a beginners’ guide to his works, he talked about his approach to the new piece in an interview for the excellent music website The Quietus.

    It started, rightly enough, with an explanation of that strange-looking Italian word, pentimento which, for those of us who are not art historians, is probably not a term we will have encountered in our daily lives.

    It’s a term used in art, referring to any marks, brush strokes, or images of earlier workings which reappear in a picture and are then used as elements in the final composition.

    ‘I started seeing (or was that hearing?) the music we were working on in the studio in terms of that definition,’ says Hassell in the interview. ‘Seeing it in terms of a painting, with layers and touch-ups and start-overs, with new layers that get erased in places that let the underlying pattern come to the top and be seen (or heard).

    ‘Most of the world is listening to music in terms of forward flow – based on where the music is “going” and “what comes next”. 

    ‘But there's another angle: vertical listening is about listening to “what's happening now” – letting your inner ears scan up and down the sonic spectrum, asking what kind of “shapes” you’re seeing, then noticing how that picture morphs as the music moves through time.’

    Jon Hassell

    Vertical listening: Jon Hassell’s music challenges us to hear it in the moment

    The mention of shapes piqued my interest because, for me, shape is the first clue in trying to tease out a whisky’s secrets. Is it round like a ball, or angular? Does it narrow to a point at the back of the tongue, or start in that way, expanding at the finish? Does it ripple, or it is angular? Does it touch the top of the mouth or skim along like some kind of stealth bomber? 

    I then like to taste in tiny sips, taking some on to the tip of the tongue and seeing what flavours are there; then another, this time holding it in the middle of the tongue; then another for the back-palate and the finish; then a final, larger sip, flooding the mouth to get the full impression. 

    It’s the best way (for me at least) to see how flavours arise and then disappear, and to pick up characters which otherwise may have remained hidden – a way of seeing the complete picture. Then, like Hassell’s music, you begin to see the layers within the whisky as it reveals its heart. 

    Pentimento can sometimes only emerge after time as the paint begins to thin, revealing what lies beneath. This is exactly the same as what happens in a cask: the loss, the absorption, the integration and the angel’s share: the way in which time and air, spirit and oak move in strange accords, shifting in emphasis, flowing, covering, obscuring and revealing. Those angels work in mysterious ways. 

    Rancio is a good example of this process: the precursors for those enigmatic flavours of tropical fruits and wax, slowly forming and concentrating over time, waiting for the lighter aromas to dissolve into air, finally unveiling themselves. Layers accrue over time, but some also disappear.

    They are there to be noticed when we sip the whisky, just as they are there in the cask as the spirit matures. Hassell’s way of listening is also our way of tasting – not just horizontally: ‘what’s next?’ – but vertically as well.

    Where does that place us? Right in the moment once again, observing what is happening at each point; observing the moment each flavour appears, allowing them to intrigue and thrill, helping you peel back the layers and see what is there: the original intent of the distiller, the influence of the cask, the caress of air, the taste of time.

    Thanks Jon.

  • Every distillery must be unique

    04 July 2018

    It might be the heat, it might be age, but some things just seem to make me somewhat tetchy at the moment. The latest was a press release [no names – I may be irritated, but I’m not going to go down the name and shame route] which claimed that a certain distillery was, ‘one of the most unique in Scotland’.

    Let’s pause for a second and figure out what (if anything) this phrase means. Part of the tetchiness is ingrained. My first editor had a profound hatred of the world ‘unique’ and it was banned from our pages. ‘Everything is unique,’ he would point out in a rare moment of Zen-like clarity. ‘It is absurd to emphasise this point. Bad English!’ and out would come the red pencil. It’s a rule which has stuck with me.

    Anyway, I think we can agree that the whole premise of single malt whisky is that each distillery makes a spirit which is (careful now, Dave, Ed) singular and representative of that place alone, i.e. (and sorry, Peter) it is unique to that place.

    ‘Unique’ regime: Individual approaches to processes such as fermentation are part of what sets distilleries apart

    ‘Most unique’ is a tautology. If something is already unique then it can’t be more unique than anything else because of the whole notion of it being unique in the first place. The logic twists even further when you consider the phrase, ‘one of the most unique’. This infers that there are some distilleries which are more unique than others – a cadre of the uber-unique. This is where it gets even more convoluted.

    Saying this suggests that there are other distilleries – one would expect from the term ‘one of the most’ that this refers to the majority of them – which are somehow less unique. If this is true, then the notion that single malt is built on a foundation of individuality has come crashing down.

    My initial exasperated response was that this was simply (another) example of bad English being used in a press release, but the more I looked at it the more I began to wonder whether the writer might have placed a coded message within what appears initially to be a jumble of words held together by tortuous logic.

    It was a topic which seemed to repeat itself throughout the recent World Whisky Forum when speaker after speaker, no matter the size of their production, said in some way diversity is key, risk is vital, moving forward is what matters.

    In other words, what keeps whisky alive, no matter where it is in the world, is a constant, rigorous, examination of what makes each distillery or blend different from its fellows.

    Why this consensus? Why now? I’d suggest that there is a reaction against an industry which has for too long worshipped at the altar of efficiency. Getting more alcohol for your bucks is one thing, but is that a price worth paying if it strips away your individuality leaving us with a sleek, highly efficient industry with a homogenised product?

    The shift can come in any number of ways: from efficiencies in mashing, from using the same barley variety, or the same yeast; it could come from cutting the ferment times to increase throughput, or using the same shape and size of still and then running them the same way, or through a heavy reliance on the blunt instrument of new wood (or small casks). If everyone in the world makes the same decisions then where is the individuality?

    Is the convergence happening? In some places I think it is. Elsewhere, I think that distillers have seen why they have to ensure that their product is substantially different to the existing ones with a 200-year head start. In these cases they are heading out into new (or old, adapted) areas.

    Whisky is fragile. Each distillery’s character is built upon a set of interrelated occurrences which are in fine balance. The subtle equilibrium which holds the whole edifice together can easily be shattered if one of those elements changes. Distilleries therefore succeed or fail because of their ability to keep this balance in place.

    Whisky is a drink which is growing globally because of its diversity. That must always be its abiding principle. Everyone must be unique.

  • Don’t forget about the tour guides

    20 June 2018

    In my folly, I once hosted a tour around Ardbeg. Among others, the party contained my mother, then 80, who had never been round a distillery before, my brother-in-law who was interested in whisky, my sister-in-law who doesn’t drink, and my (then) young niece who was more interested in trying to put a Mars bar into the mash tun than listen to her stupid uncle.

    It was nothing compared to what most tour guides have to cope with on a daily basis, but it was instructive as it showed me how hard it is to pitch a tour to suit all levels of interest.

    It means being geeky enough to satisfy the whisky lover, but not so far out there that you put off the newbie; it means having a talent to field ‘stupid’ questions, and trying to enthuse people who, let’s face it, are often only there because their partner/ parent likes whisky, or who only came along to the distillery because it was raining. Aye, being a tour guide is not an easy gig.

    People pleasers: Tour guides must have the ability to tailor their presentations to all manner of visitor

    So, the news that distilleries have invested over £500m in creating ‘world-class tourism experiences’ is welcome evidence of how whisky firms are no longer seeing the visitor centre as a place to sell shortbread and drams, but as part of their whole brand strategy.

    That’s all great, but with that shift in focus comes a greater responsibility on the part of the owner to also invest in the people who are on the front line. If the number of tour guides outstrips the number of operators, so the balance shifts.

    As a distiller or brand owner you have to ensure that the front of house staff are aware of every part of the process. They need to know when to engage the big guns of geekery and when to keep it light; they must have the ability to read a group of strangers and know which ones are only there because of the weather and which are a whisky club.

    There is more to the job than being taught a script, it means being trained to think on your feet and being able to tell the truth and not some marketing guff created by agencies who have never stepped in the distillery, or faced the challenging demands of a tour group.

    It is all very well saying that these days the visitor experience should operate on an emotional level, but the stroppy whisky geeks who want to berate you over your company’s approach to NAS will not be assuaged by your New Age vibes about ‘being’ and ‘feeling’ – they want answers and they want facts, just as the members of the coach party want to know where the toilet is.

    This is a difficult and complex job and if the visitor centre is being upgraded so should the training. It is all very well investing millions in the look, but the whole experience falls flat if, in the desire to equip the distillery with all manner of bells and whistles, the brand owner forgets to pay attention to the staff and the complex job they have to do.

    Distillery managers and brand ambassadors have superstar status. So should the folk who take the tours, and investment in their training should be uppermost. You can’t have a superstar chef in the kitchen but untrained front of house staff running the restaurant.

    It’s not just spending more money on better facilities, or amazing merch, or distillery bottlings, it is about investing in people and training to ensure that they know the history, the process (inside out) and where the flavour in the final whisky comes from. They are the real brand ambassadors.

  • Embracing imperfection

    06 June 2018

    There’s a dark, graffitied stair leading into the bowels of the building. Heavy German techno is playing. In the smoke- and incense-filled chamber there’s a ballerina on stage, dwarfed by an image of her – mid-leap, graceful, perfect, doing the sort of thing that 99.99% of us wouldn’t even attempt; but ballet dancers are super-human. 

    Then the next slide comes up. It points out all the mistakes she was making in the move; wrist wrong, foot not turned out, hips not squared off, knee should be hyper-extended (which I always thought was something to be avoided, and which reduces footballers to squealing messes but, as I said, ballerinas are hardcore). 

    Our image of the perfect was a mass of (self)-criticism. The ballerina, Shelby Williams, speaks of the striving for perfection, and the despair which overcame her when she analysed how imperfect she felt compared to her standards and, more personally, her classmates’ abilities.

    ‘I felt inferior,’ she says. ‘I saw in my reflection in the studio mirror how perfect they were and how imperfect I was… and I cried.’

    It is not what you might expect when turning up to what is ostensibly a drinks event, but then again the annual P(our) symposium is all about widening our understanding of what the ‘drinks’ or ‘bar’ industry is about.

    Established by Monica Berg, Alex Kratena, Simone Caporale and other industry luminaries, P(our) is devoted to widening the thinking of what bartending is and can be.

    The symposium is one manifestation of this, an interdisciplinary platform where distiller and sake-maker, crop scientist, architect, gastrophysicist, writer, chef and ballerina can offer up their thoughts. 

    Ballerina Shelby Williams

    Super-human: But Shelby Williams’ flaws made her despair (Photo: Shelby Williams)

    This year’s theme was perfection and, interestingly, all of the speakers (full disclosure, I was one) chose to speak instead about the various manifestations of imperfection – and why we should embrace it.

    We are surrounded by images of what is deemed to be ‘perfect’. There is an ideal which we should always strive for, be that in ballet or drinks. And yet, surely, perfection is impossible.

    It suggests something which is fixed, yet the world is in a constant state of flux. Because things are impermanent, nothing can be said to be perfect.

    A falling leaf, a piece of tarnished metal, a battered suitcase or raggedy pointe shoes have beauty because, in their imperfection, they speak of time and the process of change.

    When Williams realised that she was being ‘almost smothered by my own ambition’, she created an alter-ego on Instagram showing the world everything she did wrong in a self-deprecating way.

    She discovered that in accepting that perfection wasn’t possible, ‘you fall in love with the process and the striving, and not the result’. There’s echoes here in whisky-making.

    Are they trying to make the perfect whisky? Or even the perfect example of a single distillery? If there was perfection, then what would be the point of releasing different age statement, or finishes, or blends?

    That little touch of sulphur might add lift, that hint of silage might add a quirky extra layer of intrigue; and, while the filthiness of funk or over-intense esters might be considered flaws, elements which get in the way of purity, they are often what make a whisky exciting… and, weirdly, perfect for the moment – and it’s the moment which is important for us as drinkers.  

    Ballerina Shelby Williams

    Self-criticism: Williams learned to accept the perfection is impossible (Photo: Shelby Williams)

    The drink which you have in front of you is changing. Its vapours are rising and changing, some flying off, others emerging late. You may have added water or ice. The whisky changes from one sip to another. The light in the room, the comment of a fellow drinker, a smell from the kitchen, the level of the liquid in the glass (or bottle) all impact on the moment. 

    All you can do is be focused and enjoy it because it is your drink. The distiller may have made it, but they would be wrong to say that their whisky is complete or perfect, because the whisky is only complete when you taste it. You are the final piece in its life.

    The same applies to tasting notes. I hope that the ones I write are as honest and fair as I can make them, but ultimately they are my notes, the images in my mind are my images, my response is personal, just as yours is – and I am not perfect. 

    It is arrogant to believe otherwise, and that you can possibly set yourself up as an arbiter of taste, a writer of scripture who should never be challenged. As Williams says in her conclusion: ‘You can’t latch onto other people’s ideas of perfection. I am an imperfect person in a world of perfection… and it doesn’t bother me.’ 

    Imperfection makes you human.

  • The importance of being modest

    30 May 2018

    When was the last time you paused and thought about what malt whisky is made of? I know that, like good children at primary school, we can all recite by rote: ‘Water, barley, yeast’ (with the teacher’s pet at the front of the class adding, correctly: ‘And oak, Miss’), but when was the last time you actually paused to think about what you just said? 

    A cereal, a fungus and an omnipresent liquid; oh, and a tree. As a recipe, it’s startlingly simple. In fact, you might think it is an unprepossessing combination.

    Seeing it laid out like that reminds me of the story of the person asking for directions to a town in Ireland. ‘Well, I wouldn’t start from here’ being the considered response. A wise one too, I hasten to add. 

    It seems barely possible that ingredients as basic as these can combine to produce a palatable drink. What is even more miraculous is how they interact to produce a myriad of flavours which ensnare us with their complexities. There is mystery at the heart of it all. 

    Yes, distillers have their part to play – this is not spontaneous (even if some might just test that theory out) – but what they do is nudge and cajole, control and guide, rather than force.

    There’s no gussying up – no acidification or tannin addition, no chaptalisation or spinning cones. Despite the industrial-looking equipment, whisky-making is a natural process. 

    The secret is unlocking potential, allowing the flavours to rise and develop. It is an art of concentration and selection, of interplay and balancing.

    The end result is a spirit which can speak to the soul like no other, a distillation of place, time and people, and it all comes from such humble beginnings. 

    Whisky, for all its boldness of flavour and attack is, at heart, modest. That in turn means that its makers have to have a respect for the ingredients. There is no place to hide when you are dealing with the original trio. 

    Glencairn whisky glass

    Simplicity itself: All of us making a living from whisky are servants of the spirit 

    The same term, ‘humble’, is also the word which which springs to mind whenever you encounter anyone engaged in whisky’s production: from malting to distilling, coppersmithing to coopering, and blending.

    As a nation, we Scots tend to be self-effacing (we talk ourselves down rather than up), and whisky people take this to the Nth degree. They are modest, lacking in arrogance or ego when it comes to what they produce.

    They go about it quietly, letting the spirit speak. ‘It is a team effort’ … ‘I just helped it along’ … ‘It’s the whisky that’s important’ … ‘It’s quite good’ (the last © David Stewart MBE). They serve the spirit.

    It’s a lesson worth remembering when we pick up a glass. The moments of maximum enjoyment of whisky, for me at least, are also the simplest ones.

    Not fancy dinners or gilded palaces of sin, no lights and lasers, but friends, glasses, a bottle and talk. Little has changed in that scenario since whisky’s earliest days. 

    The same applies to selling, talking or writing about it as well. Those of us fortunate enough to make our livings in this way need to always be aware that we are at the service of the whisky.

    We can make it fun, crack jokes, play with it (in fact, I’d say all are essential), but we all need to remember that all we are doing is simply passing information along. 

    People come to our shop or bar or class, or read our writing, not because it is us, but because they want to learn about whisky. 

    As soon as we think we are more important than the story, the moment when ego takes over, then that simple aim is lost. We are servants of the spirit as well. We are all learning as well, sitting quietly at the feet of the people who know more than we do, asking why and then passing it on in a way which entertains and informs, but focuses on the whisky itself.

    We all have to remain humble.

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