A visit to Cognac reminds Richard Woodard that ‘single’ malts aren’t quite what they seem.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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)
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?
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.
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