The third expression of The Balvenie Tun 1509 is being released in global markets this July.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
04 January 2016
When walking through Washington DC recently, I passed a tobacconist, door open, enticing scents drifting into the street. I don’t smoke, bar the odd cigar, though even that has slowed considerably. My buddy Nick, who works for part of the year in Cuba, says cigars only really satisfy in tropical or sub-tropical climes. I know what he means. There is something about smoking a cigar in Cuba which cannot be recreated when you take the same stogie and flare it up in cooler Britain.
It’s one reason why I rarely ventured into Burkitt’s, the old-style tobacconist at the top of my road which sells loose tobacco, cigars, snuff, and accoutrements. I may not have been a regular, but I always admired it for being resolutely old-style, for standing up for the societally reviled, for proudly stating, ‘Dammit, this stuff is good. It speaks of quality and aroma and flavour, it has heritage and resonance. You might not smoke, Mr Passerby, but there are people who appreciate all of this. I am a tobacconist and proud of it. I’m not selling 20 Woodbine, I am part of an ancient mongering tradition.’
Quite how it kept going I know not. Given the walking sticks for sale in the window, I suspect its clientele was ageing. Every time I passed it I felt both pride and a slight shame for not buying something I wouldn’t use just to keep the Burkitts' of the world trading.
And now it’s changed. Not, amazingly, into a coffee shop of which there are 16 within a 1.5-mile radius. There’s probably more, coffee shops are springing up like distilleries. Quite how people have the time to drink all of that coffee I know not, but that’s a different rant.
Anyway, driving past Burkitt’s one day, I could have sworn there were bottles of whisky in the window. You develop that skill of bottle spotting after years in this game. I recall with a strange sense of pride, curdled with disappointment that the bottle of Rare Malt briefly glimpsed in Tom Ford’s A Single Man couldn’t have existed in the 1960s setting. I felt like writing to Mr Ford. He should know. He should, I bristled, have known.
Anyway, like a tracker finding a chameleon by torchlight from the front of a speeding jeep I’m tuned into whisky bottle shape. I knew that, even at 20mph [this is Brighton after all] in the dark and the rain that what I’d spotted out of the corner of my eye was a bottle of Douglas Laing's Rock Oyster. The passing of a proud old tobacconist would be sad, but having a whisky shop at the top of the road would assuage the pain.
A couple of days later, the wife reported that my father-in-law needed some shaving soap for Christmas. Trumper’s of course. Even though I bear beard these days, I revere the shaving products of that fine establishment. I made a note to pop in on my next journey to London. ‘No need,’ she replies, ‘we can get it at the top of the road.’
Logically enough, I presumed this to mean that yet another barber’s has opened – they are as plentiful as… well… coffee shops. She stops the rant mid-flow. ‘It’s not a barber’s. Burkitt’s sell it.’
Brighton & Hove's humble Burkitt's has transformed into Havana House, stocking everything today's modern gentleman needs.
What was a tobacconist has mutated into what can only be described as a gentleman’s emporium, part of a five-strong chain of such establishments called Havana House. There’s still cigars, there’s tobacco, there’s Cuban coffee (of course there is), there’s whisky, there’s a smoking room – though of course you can’t drink there because that would then make them a bar meaning you couldn’t smoke. I’m already planning an afternoon retreat. It’s all very St.James’s. It’s very… whisky.
I know what you are about to say. ‘Hang on Dave, haven’t you always ranted about getting rid of the rules that have consigned whisky to a world of gentlemen’s clubs, after-dinner drams, and cigar smoke? Of how we need to make whisky modern and relevant?’ Well, yes, and I still do.
This topic came up, in a reverse kind of way, when I was having an email conversation with a rum blogger recently. ‘Should rum stop playing up the fun angle,’ he wrote, ‘and start becoming serious?’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘As soon as Scotch stopped being fun it went into a precipitous decline in mature markets. Ironically, at the same time, it started to grow in Spain because there it was promoted as being fun.
‘Fun is good, fun is what you want. What rum needs to do is retain the fun but also show that it can play at the connoisseur level.’
Whisky needs to find the fun once more. It needs to find new drinkers, new ways of talking, it needs to stop being wholly masculine and the preserve of gentlemen’s clubs, but at the same time there is nothing wrong with retaining what seems to be timeless. What I want is a widening of whisky’s world. Burkitt’s is one way among what should be many. It should be welcomed.
23 December 2015
Even though this is a season of excess, there are scant few people of my acquaintance who would contemplate drinking whisky all day. In any case, it would hardly be responsible on our part to suggest that anyone embarks on such a potentially reckless course. Why restrict your palate to one drink when there’s Sherry, Port, and Madeira to be had, when a Riesling is required, as are elegant red wines. Whisky, however, will feature at some stage, so here are a few situations into which it might fit.
What dram would you, uh we mean Santa, like with his mince pie this year?
The mince pie and carrot is a no-brainer. What to put in Santa’s glass however needs care and consideration. It’s cold up there, so he needs something warming and substantial, as well as a drink which might help dislodge the soot. The act of leaving gifts for Santa is both a thank you and one of hospitality, therefore that means it’s time to break out the mi casa es tu casa dram.
At the moment at chez Broom it will either be the thick flowery/fruity depths of Craigellachie 13-year-old, the potent Sherried richness of Tamdhu Batch Strength, or, and this is what my hand is hovering over, Ben Nevis 10-year-old. I rediscovered this mighty, old-fashioned dram when moving office recently. Big, oily, meaty. That’ll sort him out.
Gifting and Surprising
A bottle of homemade sloe gin for your friends is a lovely gift (and much better than some oil flavoured with your manky herbs), but flavoured whisky has an equally long heritage, though it is one which died out at the end of the 19th century. It is high time, I believe, that it is revived.
I’ve just decanted a Highland Cordial made with Cutty Sark, whitecurrants, lemon, ginger, and sugar which will serve as a potential boost to a Champagne cocktail or sipped on its own. The same goes for a Cherry Whisky: cherries, mace, peppercorns, nutmeg, sugar, macerated in a base of Dewar’s White Label. It’s an awesome drink which can be substituted for the cherry brandy in a Blood & Sand or drunk on its own.
I know it’s a bit late to do it for this year – that Highland Cordial was steeping for over a year – so consider this as advice for Christmas 2016.
A punch that's easy to ladle into guests' glasses will keep you at the centre of the party and score all-important hosting points.
The last thing you want to be doing at a party is continually rushing into the kitchen, opening bottles, mixing drinks, as you try to satisfy all of your friends’ little peccadillos. The first rule of a successful gathering is don’t give the buggers a choice. It’s your house. So… make a punch. Everyone will, I promise, be happy.
Whisky Punch was always served warm in Scotland, a tradition which the Irish have wisely retained. Every pub there will have a kettle to hand to make you a hot whiskey at this time of the year. That is served individually, while this will make a bowl’s worth.
Muddle strips of peel from one lemon in 56g of Demerara sugar. Leave to rest for an hour, then muddle once more. Now add 240ml of boiling water to the mix and stir. Add one bottle of a substantial blend like Great King Street Glasgow Blend. Pour on 1.1 litres of boiling water, or to taste. Keep warm. If you wish to, add a clove or two and cinnamon stick.
For something bolder, make a 19th century classic: Spread Eagle Punch, for which you will need the peel of 2 lemons, 112g Demerara sugar, 2.8 litres of boiling water, I bottle of rye and 1 bottle of Bowmore 12-year-old. Proceed as for the Whisky Punch above though drink with slightly more caution.
Drinking whisky through a meal is a tough ask and one which, I must confess, I weary of. I’ve come to the realisation that I just need wine, or beer in the middle and whisky is at its best at the start and the end of the meal – and is the best match of all with cheese.
For soft cheeses, Glenmorangie 10-year-old’s mix of vanilla and passion fruit notes work a treat. Cheddar though needs a whisky which will balance its acidity. For me, that means Linkwood 12-year-old, whose apple blossom notes make this a remarkable match. Glen Grant 10-year-old would also work well.
Stilton needs a little more depth, so try Balvenie Portwood (actually any Balvenie will do), Glenrothes Vintage Reserve, or any mature Longmorn; while a strong blue cheese like Roquefort has to be met head on with Lagavulin 16. All of this makes the cheese board both exciting and potentially dangerous.
I know you love your family and friends, but let’s face it, once they have left you need one last drink with which to celebrate a job well done – and the blessed silence. This is the time for something slower and more substantial. At ours the go-to is Highland Park 18 year old, though the heftier end of Glenfarclas’s or Glendronach’s range also work a treat. Might do them all. Depends on the mother-in-law.
Boxing Day Dram
Don’t get me wrong. I like Christmas Day, but I much prefer Boxing Day. It’s when everyone seems to finally enjoy each other’s company. Plus it’s a chance to get outdoors and show off some of the new presents. The dram for the Boxing Day walk (or football match), therefore needs to be a portable one, which means hipflask action (you did ask Santa for one… didn’t you?).
It’s now that peaty whiskies come into their own. There’s just something about smoke and the open air that is just right. Any quality smoky dram will do, but this year I’ll be pouring in nips of one of those high-strength, sweet and smoky Octomores that have astounded me this year.
09 December 2015
In the way of these things, a recent discussion with our historian Mr Iain Russell started with Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, moved to a Marxist theory of football and, inevitably, ended in a discussion on how Denis McQuade’s play reflected Hegelian dialectics. It was a slow day at the office.
Now, I know it is unlikely, but it is possible that some of you might have never heard of the finest winger ever to play for Partick Thistle. In fact, some of you might never even have heard of Partick Thistle. It so happens that Mr Russell and I are lifelong Jags fans, which accounts for a lot, so let me bring you up to speed.
The Jags are Glasgow’s alternative football team. That means both an alternative to the Old Firm and, some would say, an alternative to football. I wouldn’t disagree. We are known as the Great Unpredictables. This season we also have the world’s scariest mascot, Kingsley, designed for us by Turner Prize award winner David Shrigley. Of course Shrigley is a fan. What other team would he support?
Definitely not Lisa Simpson: Kingsley the Partick Thistle mascot and stuff of children's nightmares
All Jags followers know that a glorious victory against a top side will inevitably be followed by a shambolic defeat, but we soon learn that an acceptance of this is a great lesson for life. I can only imagine how tedious it is to always expect your side to win and when defeat eventually comes how crushing it is to your soul. At this point I could mention Chelsea’s current form as evidence, but I wouldn’t be so cruel.
Back to the point. Denis McQuade was the most unpredictable of the Unpredictables. He was training to become a priest when he decided to become a footballer, though he also took a joint degree in French and maths at the same time. He was an oddity, a 6-foot winger who shambled up and down the pitch creating havoc among his opponents and to his own teammates in equal measure.
The Madness (as he was nicknamed) would beat an entire team on his own then fall over his own feet in front of an open goal. When he got the ball, the crowd held its breath in anticipation of either an amazing dribble down the wing, or an act of pure farce. While you never quite knew what would happen, you were guaranteed that it would be spectacular.
Speaking in an excellent interview for The Scotsman, he opined: “I operated on the basis that if I didn’t know what I was going to do with the ball, the opposition would have had no bloody idea.” Neither did we on the terraces, which is why we loved him. He was one of us – moments of brilliance shining out among the general shambles of a life. Denis McQuade was the existential footballer (and yes, only a Jags fan would write such a pretentious line).
The McQuade factor can be – indeed should be – applied to most things in life. Approaching life in a satnav fashion is boring. It is only when we turn the TomTom off and get lost that things become interesting. That is when you find new things, new people, new experiences. Getting from A to B is boring unless you go via U and P and J on the way.
It’s how ‘The Madness’ approached his football and is how we all need to approach our whisky. Unpredictability is that single cask, it’s a distillery not doing what you expect it to do; it’s that wild punt that you take. It is the weird, the unlikely.
As soon as whisky becomes predictable then it becomes little more than a safe commodity. You pick up the glass and know what the end result is going to be. That reassurance is fine at some times, but to really appreciate whisky, you need to miss the open goal, laugh, then do the equivalent of bending the ball in from the ‘Firhill for Thrills, Johnstone’s For Rolls’ sign.
Just like The Madness would.
27 November 2015
It’s easy to live in a whisky bubble. Come to think of it, that might be quite pleasant. Anyway, I mean the result of being obsessively enamoured by one particular spirit can mean that the controversies facing other spirits pass you by. In fact, every category has its issues which exercise producers and consumers. In rum, it’s sugar.
Hang on, you might say, isn’t rum made from sugar? Indeed it is, but it’s the addition of sugar before bottling which is currently the rum world’s hottest topic. It’s their equivalent of NAS.
Adding a little sugar to rum has been common practice since the 19th century. Today, however, the level of sugar being added is tipping many brands into pseudo-liqueur territory.
There are some in rum who want sugar addition banned, others who declare ‘sugar-free’ on labels and supporting publicity; some are open about how much is being added, in response to a growing lobby calling for – what’s the word? – transparency. Now, where have I heard that before?
Anyway, the other day I was chatting about this and other rummy things with Bruce Perry, MD of Marussia Beverages UK. ‘The thing is, Dave,’ he said, ‘I am worried about the damage sugar addition will do to rum in the long term.
‘Think of German wine,’ he continued, warming to his theme. ‘What was the most popular style of the 1970s and ‘80s? Liebfraumilch. Then people realised they were just drinking sweetened wine and stopped. When they did that, they didn’t say: “I don’t like Lieb,” they said: “I don’t like German wine.”
‘Look at what that’s done to the German wine category in the UK. You can’t find wines from one of the world’s great wine-producing countries. That’s what worries me. People will click about sugar in rum one day, and all of the category will be tainted.’
Cane mutiny: Do increasing sugar levels pose risks for rum – and whisky?
It’s hard to disagree that sugar addition is a short-term fix. Rum’s current rise is being driven primarily by sweetened-up styles. Sugar blunts alcohol, while also seeming to enhance flavours. It makes a drink ‘acceptable’ and ‘easy’. Conversely, it also masks, deceives and, ultimately, bores.
It’s happening in rum and with flavoured vodkas, while Sherry, like German wine, has been tainted by an association with sweetness – in its case, pale cream and cream. Many of today’s slick, sweet, XO Cognacs bear little resemblance to the same brands’ expressions a decade ago.
Thank the lord that whisky hasn’t gone down that route. Er, think again.
What are the US and Canadian flavoured whiskies but sweetened-up base spirit, while Scotch is being accused of creeping ‘Bourbonisation’, with brands offering up more vanilla and sugars in an attempt to appeal to ‘the new consumer’.
Is there anything new in this? After all, didn’t the shared genius of Tommy Dewar, James Buchanan, Berry Bros & Rudd, Sam Bronfman and others lie in understanding in how people’s palates had changed in Edwardian or post-Prohibition times, then making blends to suit – and, in doing so – helping blended whisky become the pre-eminent aged spirit in the world?
What’s different, then, with changing the taste profile to suit today’s consumer? Because those 20th-century changes were made within a Scotch framework. They showed different facets of a defined Scotch character. Yes, they were new, but they were clearly Scotch, not Irish, Bourbon, Canadian whisky… or rum.
That is in danger of being lost in today’s rush to feed consumers’ desire for sugar and, in doing so, it compromises character and integrity.
By crudely dialling up sweetness, you homogenise the flavours, meaning that there is very little difference between sugared whiskies, no matter where they come from. Delivering a sugar fix isn’t a wise long-term strategy – just look at Liebfraumilch.
23 November 2015
In which we move the ‘transparency’ debate forward.
Before we start, a quick clarification. This issue has never been about castigating the SWA, which does a sterling and complex job. It was abiding by the rules which it drew up, having been instructed to do so by its members, who in turn approved them.
It’s easy to apportion blame in incidents like this. In fact, in this case no-one is to blame. A situation has arisen which was unforeseen a few years back. The question now is: how should it be addressed?
Neither was the writing of an open letter an attempt to cajole firms into taking a position. It was to try to ascertain what the feeling in the whisky distilling community was on the issue. It was asking whether the law as it stands is overly restrictive and, if it is, whether it can be altered to permit a greater degree of openness.
Nor, incidentally, should we be dragged down blind alleys to debate the business practices of various firms involved in the wider discussion. Quite how that has become part of the issue smacks of some of the darker elements of spin doctor’s art, though somewhat crudely applied.
And so to the responses. No-one who replied said transparency was a bad idea, so there’s a positive. Some said openly that the current legislation should be looked at to see if there was the possibility of an option to disclose.
Others replied saying that they were following the SWA’s opinion. That’s ok as well, because the SWA’s ‘line’ on this is (and I paraphrase): ‘As the law stands, this level of disclosure is not allowed, but if our members instruct us to look at whether we can change the law to permit it, then we will.’
I’ll also take this ‘we are happy with the SWA’s opinion’ response in a positive fashion as it opens the door to the possibility of there being a debate.
Perhaps some firms want partial transparency along the lines of: here are the principles behind our NAS whiskies, but we can’t tell you precise details. No problem with that being part of the debate.
Some firms might like to go further, but no-one is suggesting that transparency should be mandatory. That would be impossible as the recipe for most blends, for example, cannot be revealed because a) that recipe is confidential/commercially sensitive; and b) it will change in order to achieve consistency.
As soon as it becomes compulsory to declare openly the percentages of each whisky used, then the recipe is fixed and any deviation from it would mean that blender has effectively broken the law. Quite rightly, no-one would vote for that.
In fact, the question we are still posing is: should there be an option to be able to disclose in some way – perhaps through publicity material rather than on the label – what the constituent parts of a whisky are?
This is a complex issue and, while it would be ideal for the debate to be conducted in a public forum, I can see how the discussions over some of the minutiae would best take place in what used to be smoke-filled rooms.
Should there be a willingness to debate it fully – or partially – in public, we would be happy to moderate or provide a platform for all sides of the argument to be explored.
It is, of course, entirely possible that some discussions on this are already under way. We don’t know. The nature of smoke-filled rooms is that they are opaque. An indication of whether the process is happening might be useful, however.
Not alone: Compass Box is by no means the only distiller to be open about its whiskies
Insights from the manner in which the Scotch Whisky Regulations have been reviewed in the past – and an understanding of how the same process operates in Cognac – lead me to believe that it would be surprising if there weren’t already regular discussions on fine-tuning the laws. In other words, I’d like to think there is a willingness to examine this issue.
What has been lost in all of this is why so many firms (not, remember, just one) were open about the contents of some of their whiskies. Education. Specifically, education about NAS whiskies.
I still maintain that transparency can be an important aid in explaining what the principles are behind NAS whiskies, whose emergence has become an increasingly toxic topic. Saying: ‘Look, folks, this is what we do and this is why we do it’ would surely help to lance that particular boil.
Unless Scotch finds a way of addressing the issues surrounding NAS, it will continue to lose credibility. Is transparency the solution? I don’t know, but maybe we should be talking openly about whether it could be part of one.
It is naive to think that the castigation of NAS will go away. The two issues are linked. Let’s talk.
12 November 2015
On a book promo trip to the US recently I, amazingly, had some free time in Washington DC, so my wonderful minder Liz recommended we head to the Freer Museum to see Whistler’s Peacock Room.
Charles Freer, for those of you who don’t already know, was an American who made his fortune building railway cars (or, I suspect, getting other people to do so) and who then invested heavily in Asian art, eventually donating his collection to the nation and building a museum in which it could be housed. A good guy.
The Peacock Room is the museum’s big draw. It was commissioned in 1876 by the Liverpool shipping magnate Frederick Leyland as a dining room in which he could display his collection of blue-and-white Chinese porcelain.
Leyland, who had already commissioned Whistler to paint portraits of his family, hired the artist to decorate the room – and then went away on business. Fatal mistake.
In his patron’s absence, Whistler created an opulent chamber in blue, green and gold. It’s gilded, the ceiling is made of oxidised brass, every surface is patterned, the shutters carry pictures of golden peacocks.
The artist then presented Leyland with a bill for 2,000 guineas (about £50,000 in today’s money). Leyland baulked at the sum, paid £1,000 and bankrupted Whistler.
Before the bankruptcy hearing, Whistler finished the room with a painting of two peacocks: one aggressive, the other wounded. Silver coins litter the ground. He called it Art and Money. The Story of the Room.
In 1904, Freer, another of Whistler’s patrons, bought the room, and installed it in his home in Detroit to display his collection of ceramics, which is what we see in the museum today.
Opulent: Whistler's Peacock Room (Photo: Freer Gallery of Art)
It’s wider-ranging than Leyland’s, more subtle and thoughtfully assembled. It’s a proper collection, juxtaposing large and small, humble and grand – the pieces chosen not just for beauty, but for the tone of their glaze, their flaws.
The room makes more sense with the Freer ceramics. Freer got Whistler, he got Asian art. Leyland, you feel, didn’t. He acquired and displayed.
The room is extraordinary – a remarkable achievement – but eventually becomes claustrophobic, so I headed to an exhibit of artworks by the 17th-century Chinese artist Bada Shanren – prince, Zen monk, artist and, some say, madman. My kind of guy.
The pieces were simple, almost abstract, filled with allusion, their often huge blank spaces as important as what was filled in.
I mused, as one should in a museum, about how little has changed. Rich collectors are still asking the same of artists – except it’s now ‘give me something to go with the sofa’.
Names are more important than quality, the pieces no more than eye candy. Whistler’s analogy of the peacocks still holds true.
The Peacock Room had seemed strangely familiar. Now I knew why – it was like a bar with the ceramics as bottles. Leyland’s collection was the type of bar where all the bottles are behind glass, Freer’s chosen because of the pleasure they gave.
Woe betide us if whisky ever gets into the situation where it is only the rich who can commission bottles and the producers (the artisans) oblige. Could it happen? It already is.
I then thought of how I still preferred the space of the paintings, the room to breathe, contemplate and enjoy, away from the clutter, noise and the sounds of peacocks squabbling.
That holds true for whisky as well.
06 November 2015
‘It was a bad score. He only gave it 6+.’ This was a post by someone on a blog regarding my scores for the recent Balvenie DCS whiskies.
I knew it would happen. It’s the trouble with scores – they trip you up. They are also so all-pervasive that we are beginning to organise our lives around them without perhaps realising what they signify.
Only once that filtering system has taken place do any of us bother to then read the words. I’m as bad as anyone. Get Mojo and Uncut, scan the scores and then read. Who has the disposable income to take a punt on a three-star album?
If, however, we take the time to read first, then a more accurate picture emerges. That restaurant/hotel has lost a couple of stars because there’s someone lurking in the comments section who clearly has a grudge.
‘They didn’t make my child a pizza.’
‘We went to this sushi restaurant, but my partner doesn’t like fish.’
‘The view of Torquay from my hotel bedroom window wasn’t good enough.’
I even read one review of the Lofoten Islands which advised people not to go because the midnight sun didn’t perform a perfect V in the sky. Result? The score went down.
And so back to our own scoring system. It was peer pressure which made us impose one in the first place – everyone else scores so we should as well. We might not like the reductive nature of scores, but it’s now the norm.
We have, however, decided to use a proper 10-point scale: ie one that starts at zero and goes up to 10. The scale is outlined on our Tasting Notes Explained page, to which each note is linked – but does everyone read it? Of course not, because we understand the nature of numbers.
Or so we think.
There are some 10-point scales which start at 6. They then can be broken down into decimal points, making a 40-point scale. There are 100-point scales which only start at 80, which makes them 20-point scales.
Equally, there are no 20-point scales which start at zero – most people who use them start them at 10 and then get around that issue by giving half-points, creating a warped 20-point scale.
Still with me?
Lies, damned lies...: Scoring systems can be fiendishly complicated
So, we said ‘enough of this’, and started at nought and moved up in decimal points to 10, which I suppose makes this both a 10-point and a 100-point scale. Then again, it is possible for a whisky to score zero (and, indeed, 10.0), making it technically a 101-point scale. Never say we don’t give you better value at Scotchwhisky.com.
As I said, we knew the questions would come. Our 6 is another’s 7.9, someone’s 3 stars, another’s 15, someone else’s 80. No wonder people are confused.
Why then, you might ask, are we further muddying the waters? Because if we have to use bloody numbers, then we felt we should use them properly.
If you are judging from 0-10 and a whisky is average in quality, then it should logically be given 5 points. If it’s above average, then it gets 6. Seems sensible? Good. So 6 is not a bad score, it means this is a good dram, one that we’d be happy to buy.
I appreciate that there will be teething problems as people get used to the new scoring system. The solution to this potential confusion is to READ THE WORDS. They give the reasons for the score.
Now… what’s on the tasting table this week?
03 November 2015
The spirit of old East Berlin had clearly possessed me. The audience looked… confused. That isn’t all that unusual. My talks are planned in terms of overall theme, what needs to be said, what drinks will help support this framework (and stop people getting too bored), but quite how I get from A to Z is… well… fluid, which seems appropriate.
This particular one at Berlin Bar Convent was on a history of gin in seven drinks, each one a waypoint in the spirit’s evolution. I was extemporising on genever’s success from the 17th century onwards, and how it had come about directly as a result of pressure on distillers to make a non-wine-based spirit for the local bourgeoisie, whose supplies of wine and brandy had been cut off thanks to the Eighty Years’ War.
‘Actually,’ I continued, ‘gin’s story is one of class warfare.’ This is when the faces began to look puzzled.
I plunged on regardless, outlining a theory (which was forming in my head as I spoke) that, whenever gin was the drink of the proletariat (judging by the faces, a term not heard in East Berlin since 1989), it had a toxic reputation.
Only when it became acceptable to the middle classes, acquired bourgeois acceptability, if you like, would it become popular. The spirit’s history and popularity swings between these two poles.
I stand by this theory, by the way – Gin Craze? Working class. Old Tom? Working class. London Dry? Middle class. Martini and G&T? Middle class.
Gin Lane: the craze immortalised by Hogarth was a working-class phenomenon
There’s even a class element with regard to gin’s collapse in the 1980s, when it was identified as being stuffy, boring, old-fashioned – and irredeemably middle class, the drink of ladies of a certain age, and chaps who wore pink trousers on the weekend. Its current renaissance has been driven by a widening of its appeal to all-new, younger, drinkers.
Could Scotch whisky’s story be told in a similar way? I don’t think so. Yes, Scotch’s initial boost came when toddies, then whisky and soda became acceptably middle-class drinks in London, but the difference between Scotch and gin was that the former always transcended class boundaries.
When growing up, I could go into the Rogano (Glasgow’s great classic bar) and see someone having a dram. I could go across the road to the Horseshoe and see a working class guy having the same.
I would see the G&Ts and Martinis being drunk at the former, but never at the latter. Scotch’s long-term success was based on its ability to appeal to all classes. Its decline in the ‘80s wasn’t driven by class, but by a lack of fashionability.
It has been this appeal to a wider demographic internationally which has been one of Scotch whisky’s greatest assets. It was aspirational at all levels – a standard blend was as much of a treat for the working-class drinker as a deluxe whisky was for the rich.
That is why the current narrowing of focus by many firms is so worrying. Scotch is not just a drink for the elite, for speculators, for ‘celebrities’, it has succeeded because it is the people’s spirit.
Concentrating on one stratum of society is ultimately counter-productive. Just look at gin.
29 October 2015
It used to happen every month, then every fortnight. Soon it was every week. Now it seems like it is every day that the topic of No Age Statement (NAS) whiskies inveigles its way into conversation. I’m fully expecting my wonderful and long-suffering postie, Rose, to stand on the doorstep tomorrow and say: ‘Dave, what is it with all these NAS whiskies?’
My line has remained the same. Nothing inherently wrong, difference between age and maturity, allows whisky makers a freer rein, necessity at time of stock squeeze/excessive demand.
With one caveat: as long as the whiskies replacing (or accompanying) the existing age statement expressions are as good as or better than the products they are replacing/joining, and that producers educate consumers and trade as to what their rationale is.
An integral part of that education, I’d argue, is being transparent. It’s not just a matter of what’s going on, but what’s going in. After all, what’s to hide? If the whiskies being used include young and old, then why not tell us the age and the cask type?
That then opens out the (much needed) discussion of the difference between age (a number) and maturity (a character).
It allows distillers to talk about wood programmes and cask influence, it demonstrates the fundamentals of blending.
It explains whisky to a consumer who wants to have whisky explained. It helps detoxify the debate.
Now it would appear that telling consumers everything about what is in a bottle is, in fact, illegal. The latest disagreement between the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and Compass Box (it’s never the other way around) is surely the most ridiculous one yet.
Transparency: but the openness of John Glaser and Compass Box is also illegal
The SWA does sterling work and, in this case, all it has done is to act on behalf of one of its members (though wouldn’t you love to know who complained, and why?). In addition, its hands appear to be tied thanks to an EU law originally drafted in 1989.
The SWA is following the letter of the law, and all the firm that complained is doing is hiding behind the SWA.
The question here is twofold. Can the law be changed? Is there a willingness on the part of the SWA (or its members) to push for that change in the law? I’m no Edinburgh lawyer, but I seem to recall that only a few years ago the SWA did just that, around labelling.
The reason? The old descriptors were confusing to the consumer. They were, in other words, lacking in clarity, and so the law was changed. Saying: ‘I know it’s wrong, but I’m afraid it’s the law,’ is not a credible defence.
It might be that derogation from EU law is more problematic than changing a UK law which then becomes EU law. Derogation, however, means ‘an exemption from or relaxing of [my italics] a rule or law’.
Is there then a possibility that this clause can be relaxed to permit the option of an open declaration of the composition of a blended product in the case of Scotch whisky? The SWA is a lobbying organisation. Is this worth lobbying for?
If one of the body’s members asked for this possibility to be explored, would the SWA act? History has shown that if there is sufficient demand from its members for change the SWA can change.
So here’s a question. Which of the members of the SWA doesn’t agree with there being an option to declare fully the make-up of an NAS whisky – and why?
22 October 2015
Maybe it has something to do with hotels. In the excellent book The Beechwood Airship Interviews, Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers tells author Dan Richards how he likes to write in hotels because they are neutral spaces with none of the distractions of home life. Not even a kettle (Stop it with the kettles – Ed).
Wire’s theory certainly seemed to be proven when I made my way down to the lobby of the hip place in which I stayed recently. There in the gloom – gloom is so 2015 – was an ocean of floating white apples.
Death pallor faces. Grey light chiaroscuro. The ticking of nails on keys. Peck, pick, gaze downwards. The regular hiss of the espresso machine. In the café, the same scene was repeated. Silence. Gloom. Pick. Peck.
It wasn’t just there, it’s everywhere. Every social space has been taken over by screen zombies. The only faint flicker of a smile appears when they come across an image of a cute kitten. Where, I wondered, has happiness gone? Where is the joy?
What, even, is joy? The dictionary defines it as ‘a feeling of great pleasure and happiness’. In whisky terms, joy for me is the feeling of tasting the dram which signifies the end of work.
It might be in a bar or pub, it could be at home, it might be neat, with water, or in a highball. Joy is in the combination of liquid and moment and psychological state. Joy is being human. In this case, it is about gaining pleasure from whisky.
Here’s the question, though. These days, are you allowed to say that having a drink makes you happy? I suspect not. Happiness infers that the drink has altered your state. Saying whisky makes you happy contravenes a code, written or unwritten.
How much further?: in modern life, joy is a precious – and rare – commodity
A general – but also deliberately detached – sense of joy is possibly as close as you are allowed to go towards happiness before the lawyers come and get you. In this world, the liquid doesn’t provide the joy – some abstract notion about a brand does.
That’s not a criticism. I’m, er, joyful that there is someone out there trying to get round the restrictions and say, in a subtle way, that whisky can make you smile.
The question is, looking at the screen zombies, where is the joy? It’s not in front of you. It’s in the streets, it’s in company, it’s in the Apple-free irises of other people, it is in conversing and sharing.
The irony that you will be reading this on a screen is not lost on me, by the way. Walk away, switch off. Go outside, even if it is raining, and breathe.
Pour yourself a dram. Better still, pour whoever is next to you one as well. Whisky – taken in moderation – makes you happy. If we can’t say that in advertising, we have to find new ways of communicating that message. Maybe talking might help?
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- Scapa launches first peated whisky
- Young whisky releases to increase
- New whisky tasting notes: Batch 61
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- Don’t turn your nose up at ‘standard’ Scotch
Latest news 03 October 2015
Tell us what you think of Scotchwhisky.com and you could win a bottle of Balvenie Tun 1509.
Latest news 01 December 2015
The Scotch Whisky Action Fund will spend a further £300,000 to help fight misuse in Scotland.
New Whiskies 24 June 2016
New whiskies this week include Balvenie Tun 1509, Glen Moray Sherry Cask, Highland Park and Jura.