From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • 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.

  • The heart and the head

    23 May 2018

    We start our whisky life with a moment of sudden clarity, when the whisky speaks to us directly. We may have drunk whisky – maybe even this brand – before, perhaps regularly, but this time it is somehow different.

    The dram need not be special in terms of rarity, or price, or being the ‘best’ that a range offers. Rather, the combination of the situation, the people and our mood triggers a wholly emotional response. This thing called whisky becomes something greater than just the liquid. The gateway swings open. Our heart has spoken. 

    This came to mind during a six-day tour of China, taking in Guangzhou, Xiaman, Shantou, Shenzhen and (now) Beijing. Living out of the case (albeit in rather swish hotels), talking to bloggers, bartenders, retailers and punters about the juice.

    All the folk were in some way associated with the Diageo Whisky Academy (DWA), an astonishingly bold initiative on the part of the distiller to try to teach as many people in China about whisky as possible.

    In the few months since its launch, more than 4,000 folks have entered its three-tier certification scheme. Some will be content with the grounding given by Level 1. By the time that those who are really smitten reach Level 3, they are fully-fledged whisky warriors. It is a category-building programme – competitor brands are given equal status – the like of which I’ve not encountered before.

    Whisky tasting Diageo Whisky Academy China

    Engaging the brain: We are insatiable in our desire for whisky information, says Dave Broom

    Anyway, I was on stage, about to start a flavour-led run-through of production, when I had second thoughts. The students had read the books and done the classes. They knew their wort from their washbacks, their cut points from their condensers, the differences between oak types – all the stuff that, these days, comes with being a whisky lover. 

    This is how we all progress. We start with the heart but, once the door is open, our head takes over. That moment of revelation is quickly followed by a mass of questions: how is it made, what is that flavour and why is it there, what goes on at that part of a distillery, why does that distillery do this and its neighbour do that? Names, figures and statistics; books, websites and talks. We become insatiable in our desire for information. 

    It is a natural response and it is a good one. The fact that whisky shows are growing in number, that courses like DWA are prospering, that a website like exists, is proof of how much interest there is. All of it is essential if whisky is to build and grow (and if all that juice which is about to flood onto the market is to be sold). 

    Whisky bar China

    And now for pleasure: When heart and head work together, whisky can be truly joyous

    The downside of this is that we can forget what made us turn to whisky in the first place – that moment when our heart spoke. Shunryu Suzuki once wrote: ‘If your mind is empty, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.’

    Too true. The intellectual clutter gets in the way of the honest response to the glass. We all need to get back to that beginner’s mind. So that’s what I spoke about.

    In some schools of karate, when you achieve the top grading you are given the same white belt of the beginner. It says: you know this intuitively, you are not using your mind any more, but responding naturally and openly to what is in front of you.

    It’s the same with whisky. We can make whisky as complicated as we want, but should never forget that it is a really simple proposition: a drink made from humble ingredients which hopefully speaks to your heart as well as your head. 

    Later that night, at Shenzhen’s new go-to bar Whisky Life, I watched Hidetsugu Ueno (the legendary bartender from Tokyo’s Bar High Five) effortlessly creating great drinks (his new creation, Queen Mary, a mix of Singleton of Glen Ord 12 Year Old, Pimm’s and Suze, is a delight) for the same people who had been at the classes listening attentively.

    The music was up, the lights low, the laughter loud, the whisky flowing. After the head-focused afternoon, it was time for the heart to take over again. When both work together, it is marvellous to behold.

  • Life beyond the whisky bubble

    16 May 2018

    It’s a funny sensation when an atmosphere becomes tangible and you feed off others’ energy: the mood is palpably tense, or anticipatory, or enthused and excited.

    In some ways that’s been what those of us who lived through whisky’s Bad Old Days™ have experienced. Assembled in sheds and halls around the world, we clustered together nervously and, slowly, more and more excitedly. 

    I’ve seen the Tokyo International Bar Show (or TIBS as it’s more commonly known) morph from being an add-on to Whisky Live into a stand-alone event. This year it took the next step into being one of the best of its kind.

    At about 3pm on Sunday, you couldn’t move for people tasting, talking, laughing, listening. The buzz was unlike any other similar event. People were (shock) enjoying themselves. 

    Old friends from when it was a whisky-only event were still there, but the balance between whisky and other spirits has been addressed. This is a showcase for all spirits, giving lessons on how to navigate, work with and celebrate an entire category. 

    There was a hefty Scotch presence – exclusive bottlings from Glenfarclas and Bruichladdich, strong representation from many single malts – but there were as many gins (Japanese and imported), and some rum (Diplomatico’s new range of single still distillates a highlight). 

    Japanese whisky, inevitably, had a strong showing. In one corner you had Chichibu unveiling a nine-year-old rum cask, or the ultra-limited bottling aged in casks with new Mizunara heads (one of the more exciting Japanese whisky experiments I’ve tasted since… well… since the same firm’s IPA casks).

    Shelves of whisky in Kyoto

    Nothing to see: Japan’s whisky shortage has led to the withdrawal of Hibiki 17-year-old

    You had Suntory with its Essence limited-edition range, again highlighting its experimental areas, while Gotemba had brought along a cask of its heavy grain. But that was it. A Japanese bar show with a relatively low representation of its own whiskies. No great surprise there. 

    Walking the streets of Kyoto the day after the show, I pop into a bottle shop just to see what’s on offer. Force of habit, I suppose, because I know what the answer will be. The Scotch shelves are full, but the Japanese whisky section is decimated. The talk at the show was of Hibiki 17 being withdrawn because of lack of stock. This is the reality.  

    If there is a dearth of better-known brands, however, there are unfamiliar names in the devastated fixture – whiskies purportedly from Japan, but containing not a drop of Japanese distilled whisky in them. Blends of Scotch and Canadian bottled here, and, because of the lax (or non-existent) legal framework around Japanese whisky, able to be sold and exported as something which they are not. 

    It’s deeply concerning, at this time of rising global interest in Japanese whisky, that its image may become fatally corrupted because of these new arrivals. Legislation is badly needed. The good news is that a working party on regulations is meeting and hopefully we’ll see a set of rules in place by 2020. There will be more on this soon.

    In the meantime, the show also demonstrated what was happening on the ground. As well as the single malts, Scotch blends are pushing hard at the still buoyant Highball category, seeing potential stock-related issues on the part of their Japanese competitors.

    Matrix of flavour: TIBS attendees were there to explore a range of spirits – not just whisky

    There were free samples of White Horse Highballs being handed out (and the 12-year-old to taste), while the Walker stand wasn’t a blinged-up journey into Blue, but loudly proclaimed about the ‘Johnnie Highball’. Blended Scotch knows what it has to do. 

    Wandering around the stands (or, to be more precise, trying to fight through the happy boozers), you got the feeling of a modern, coherent industry realising that all spirits are now on the same plane, and that consumers are as happy drinking Ki No Bi gin as a single malt, or a rum cocktail as much as a whisky Highball.

    That press of people in the Sunday afternoon was mostly comprised of bartenders and owners on their day off, there to enjoy themselves, but also learn and suss out what is next. 

    We live in a whisky bubble; we think of it as being the most important spirit in the world. Because we love, we are protective and loyal, but the reality is that whisky is not alone, it doesn’t have a self-given right to consider itself superior. 

    In the minds of those who are serving and drinking, it is just one other element within a matrix of flavour that we all play in. 

    Yes, whisky is in a stronger position than it was in the Bad Old Days™ when the bartenders were specialists and the attendees were the geeks who helped save a category, but the world has moved on and we ignore that fact at our peril.

    Today we browse our way through a wider world. And celebrate it.

  • Whisky is finally lightening up

    09 May 2018

    What I’ve noticed over the years is the way in which the Spirit of Speyside festival has matured, undoubtedly slightly better than I have. Every iteration has seen a tweak or two and, in more recent times, there’s been a greater willingness to take chances and anticipate what people might want, rather than sticking to the same formula (or formulae).

    It struck me that this year was the most radical yet, something which struck home at the opening dinner. This event is hosted by a different distiller each year – this time it was Benromach’s turn. Every year, each distillery manages to somehow put on a grand event in a space not intended for grand events, such as a warehouse. This year, the Benromach team decided to put up a massive marquee instead.

    It’s always hard to put your finger on exactly why an event like this works. The food, the company, the speeches, the pace, all affect the mood of the space. This year I reckon it was all of those, plus the lighting. Bear with me.The event started in daylight, and finished at 11pm, but the lighting level stayed the same allowing everyone to see each other. So what? Well, I’ve noticed that in dimly-lit occasions, tables end up becoming islands of people talking to each other. Keep the lights up (but not blazing) and a collective experience is created.

    Come together: The festival’s closing nights at Craigellachie Hotel's Dogfest reflected the collective experience of Benromach’s opening (Photo: Till Britze)

    This feeling was replicated throughout the festival’s duration. The advantage of holding the festival over a bank holiday weekend is that it allows locals to attend events. This year their numbers seemed to be higher, giving more of a community feel and balancing the huge number of incomers from around the world. Perhaps that helped give events a different, lighter and more relaxed feel. Perhaps whisky has embraced the fact that there is more to a festival than just a tasting or a masterclass. These days they are just part of an ever more complex mix.

    Once again teamed up with the Craigellachie Hotel, which meant that I hardly made it through its portals for the duration – twice across the road to the Highlander Inn, and once to the beach. Right enough, most of the festival seemed to come to the Craig at some point for the fun and games.

    Whisky? Fun? Yes, it does seem to be happening, though there are some who still moan about there being too much of it and not enough ‘serious whisky talk’. You can’t win ‘em all. The fact is that this year the hotel hosted the second Battle of the Villages blind tasting which featured amazing drams and record levels of insults being flung by both teams, a film and whisky quiz, and a night of cocktails with Pulp Fiction on a giant screen. It was during the last of these that I got into one of those detailed (and serious) chats about whisky which always occurs at some stage during a festival. I enjoy geeking out, even if having Uma Thurman being given an adrenaline shot over my shoulder was not necessarily the usual setting for such a discourse.

    ‘I’m not sure about all of this mixing,’ my questioner said at one point, looking around the room. A minute later he was sipping happily on a $5 Shake. That’s how it happens. Whisky breaks free and reaches new drinkers, or converts older ones. We should all now be confident enough to discard the rules – our whisky dinner this year featured mock turtle soup which had to be eaten with a knife and fork and a trifle that had to be tackled with a steak knife. Norms are challenged, as they should be. Whisky needs to extend its remit and reach as many people in as many ways as possible to show it is for all occasions.

    Sharing spirit: Georgie Bell, global malts ambassador for Dewar’s, shares several bottles of whisky with the crowds at Craigellachie Beach

    At my trip to the beach this idea took a surprising turn. The bottle of Craigellachie 51-year-old (inevitably) lasted about five minutes. No surprise there. Everyone there realised that it would be the only chance to try a dram which none of us would ever be able to afford – it would probably retail for the same price as a Merc.

    It turns out however that Dewar’s has decided not to bottle the 50 bottles worth that was left in the cask, but use the liquid (which is utterly delicious by the way) in tastings instead. It’s a bold move to share the rare, which should be applauded – and copied.

    After that interlude it was back for Dogfest, then a blur of more tastings, and blending sessions. It worked. My personal thanks to the quite incredible team at the hotel, led by the amazing Lyndsey Gray, all of whom who were working 13+ hour shifts without complaint.

    They all deserve huge credit for turning what was once a sad, staid, old hotel around and making its elegant rooms a perfectly natural fit for Tarantino films, cocktail bars, a music festival and disco without damaging its image as a home of whisky. That, my friends, is what 21st century Scotch is about.

  • The eternal quest for balance

    02 May 2018

    The manatee conversation had taken place at New York’s Japan Society, a remarkable institution, founded in 1907, which promotes and explains Japanese culture – if you are in the city, do go and see what’s happening.

    As well as running a season of films shot by Kazuo Miyagawa, one of Japan’s greatest cinematographers (he shot The Spider TattooBallad of OrinYojimbo and Rashomon, for goodness’ sake – all of which you should watch), there was an exhibition of rare works by the artist Hasegawa Tōhaku (1539-1610).

    There were some which were lustrous, gilded landscapes of waterfalls and trees obscured by golden clouds, each with moments of abstraction and distorted reality, but the works which made the greatest impact on me were the large ink screens (byōbu), including the masterpiece Pine Trees (Shōrin-zu-byōbu), painted at the end of the 16th century, which has been designated national treasure status in Japan.

    Pine Trees by Hasegawa Tohaku

    Space to think: A visitor meditates in front of a reproduction of Pine Trees in New York (Photo: Japan Society Gallery)

    The greatest ink paintings have what in the West seems like a recklessly daring use of blank space, but is in fact an exquisite balance between space and forms which can be delineated by a single brushstroke, and where entire screens can be left almost blank: in one of Pine Trees’ screens there’s the mere suggestion of a mountain peak in the top corner. The trees hang in mist. 

    Yes, the more you look, the more you seem to discern other shapes: ghostly trees, a shrouded, retreating forest, maybe the same trees in the future. The imagination begins to fill in the space, which is the point. These are works of meditation.

    They also seemed to chime with what came from that manatee talk, that first revelation of whisky – the flash of inspiration seen through the mist.

    The blank space is called ‘Ma’ in Japanese. It is as much part of the landscape as what is painted, it’s more what isn’t there, or rather it is there and you are aware of it existing, even if it is not portrayed. Your gaze fills in the gaps. The effect is of a landscape in movement: the mist moves, the trees reveal themselves and then hide. 

    Pine Trees Hasegawa Tohaku left screen

    Less is more: Ghostly forms and blank space on the left-hand screen of Tōhaku’s Pine Trees

    What it boils down to is a willingness to show restraint, a quality which is shared with Japanese whisky, where the notion of humbleness, modesty and lack of showiness (shibui) is a guiding principle. Less is more. 

    You could argue that, at times, Scotch seems too eager to please. Rather than letting things rest and be as they are, every crevice is filled, even overstuffed (here's another layer of flavour from a different wood, a different finish). 

    Equally, there are those whiskies which, on first acquaintance, seem to mimic the pale washes of ink perfectly. Light in colour, wispy in flavour, they might carry just a suggestion of fruit, or play up the peat. They aren’t, however, the same. In them the blank spaces aren’t part of the whole, they are simply blank. 

    The apparently empty spaces in these ink paintings are part of the whole, they give balance to what is painted, and balance is one leg of the three-legged stool which underpins any whisky’s quality – the other two, in case you’re interested, are complexity and character. A whisky can be bold (those golden clouds), or it can whisper like the pines, but it must always have balance.

    Pine Trees Hasegawa Tohaku right screen

    Perfectly poised: Fine whiskies, like the right-hand screen of Tōhaku’s work, have balance

    The space in the painting opens your mind to possibilities, encourages you to sit and think, and imagination is a field in which to play. It is the same, surely, with whisky. The taster, like the viewer, must have a space to meditate in, there has to be an openness so that you can fill in the gaps with your own memories and interpretations. 

    Not doing so is like looking at Pine Trees with a critic’s analysis being bellowed at you, telling you what it ‘means’. So with whisky. Comment is good, but it can only guide. You must trust yourself and allow your senses to get lost in the work, fill in the spaces, be they in ink, or drink.

    A Giant Leap: The Transformation of Hasegawa Tōhaku is at the Japan Society Gallery in New York until Sunday, 6 May.

  • Whisky’s moments of revelation

    25 April 2018

    The manatee wasn’t expected. In fact, this was the first time, for me at least, that the two words ‘manatee’ and ‘whisky’ had appeared in the same sentence. But there it was – and it sure wasn’t going to leave without explanation. 

    We all have our first moment of whisky revelation tucked away somewhere. It’s the moment when whisky first leaps into your consciousness as being more than just a thing to be consumed, and becomes a compelling experience requiring close and dedicated attention – the ‘first kiss’ moment if you like.

    My epiphany, which I’ve mentioned before, came with Talisker while driving (or rather, in a car with someone else driving) in the far north-west of Scotland en route to a ceilidh in Ullapool. The manatee was Pablo’s.

    Manatee magic: Whisky epiphanies can come from the most unlikely of places (Photo: Keith Ramos)

    ‘I was working in an aquatic research centre in Mexico,’ he started. ‘One day we got a call from an aquarium in Japan. They told us that their manatee had died and wondered whether it would be possible for us to send them one.’

    I reckon that this counts as a pretty unusual occurrence. I mean, to the best of my knowledge, there’s not a whole load of manatees out there just waiting for a new home. 

    ‘Anyway,’ he continued, ‘we found them one [quite how he didn’t say, but I’m sure it was above board] and worked out how to send it to Japan.’ I pictured in my mind a manatee sitting in JAL Business Class contentedly munching on seaweed and sipping Champagne (I’m not sure if manatees like Champagne, so apologies to any marine biologists out there).

    Pablo was still speaking. ‘I had to go out separately to ensure that everything was ok. When I arrived, the head of the project gave me a bottle of Japanese whisky by way of thanks. I hadn’t really tried whisky. It changed me.’ 

    ‘But the manatee?’ I asked. He looked surprised, expecting me to me more interested in the whisky side of the tale. ‘I think it was ok,’ he said. Stupid me. I don’t suppose they have much time to send postcards, what with the endless Champagne and seaweed parties.

    The evening had been filled with similar whisky epiphany chats: the thank-you gift, the dram bought by a parent or friend. The scales had fallen from our eyes in different ways, but the result was that we were all now in a similar place. The fact that you are (maybe) reading this, is evidence that this has happened to you at some stage. 

    It would be fascinating to discover what process causes these moments of revelation – what has to be in alignment for whisky to suddenly speak to you. Perhaps it’s the occasion, season, company, some mysterious manner in which the aromas and flavours resonate with your memories. 

    Revelatory dram: What creates those moments when whisky suddenly speaks to us?

    It could be the moment when prejudice falls away, or that the vestigial hangover left from teenage over-indulgence finally lifts, or the culmination of a long period of laudable perseverance to try to find the right whisky for your palate.

    Who knows? Maybe the god of whisky (or one of those lushes of angels who float around above distilleries) simply looks down and says: ‘Right. Now.’ (Out of interest, I wonder if anyone has any thoughts as to what ratio of angels there are to volume of whisky maturing on one site? Messages to my secretary, A Manatee, Okinawa, but don’t expect a quick reply.)

    That thrill is what we need to retain and work on as our explorations of whisky continue and we are sucked down various rabbit holes concerning the intricacies of production or history. 

    That moment of clarity can be seen as an atavistic response to a situation – an unprompted, direct, intense reaction between you and the liquid. An emotional response such as this is not something which can be learned from books; there is no analysis of phenols at work here, no concerns over what the mashing temperature is, whether the wort is clear or cloudy, how long the ferment may be, and the flow rate of distillation. It is simply about what is in the glass at this moment and how it is speaking to us emotionally. 

    The geeky stuff may deepen our fascination with whisky, but it should never obscure the fact that this is a drink which we have now fallen in love with. If we are lucky, we then emerge from that rabbit hole of geekdom and obsession into a world remarkably similar to the one revealed to us at that first moment of clarity.

    Us, liquid, glass. Don’t let your manatee swim away. 

  • The evolution of the whisky landscape

    18 April 2018

    The familiar flight can fill you with excitement, or a feeling of ‘oh no, not again’. Thankfully, the latter never occurs whenever I head to Aberdeen, though this time the sense of anticipation was different. It could have been partly because, in its infinite wisdom, easyjet has decided that there should only now be two flights a day from Gatwick, morning and evening. With the former leaving at 06.20, it means a 03.15 wakeup.

    I reckon that’s what put my brain in a funny place. Maybe still half asleep (or awake, it was hard to tell) I went into a fugue-like state where I seemed to be simultaneously experiencing all the previous versions of the same flight, each of the hopes and thoughts, the smells and feelings of all of the trips for this particular venture – a training course which I’ve taught on for the past 15 (I think) years.

    I’ve seen the road to Ballater in all seasons: the slow creep of blue-skied springs leading to the greens of spring; long, low-lit umber and golden autumns, the white and grey of snowed-in winter; of the wind-twisted coils of ancient pines, and darting red squirrels, pathways of crow feathers, a river at peace or in spate; and at road-end a cupboard filled with rarities and good company.

    Whisky landscape: Ballater in the springtime from the River Dee (Photo: Nigel Corby)

    Returning is always good. Every time we try a whisky it is for the first time. It is reassuring and simultaneously challenging, there is comfort in the familiar and a chance to reassess the beliefs of the past and bring new thoughts forward for discussion. The aims of the course – a deep-dive into malt’s intricacies in order to enthuse people and give them new ways to talk about it – remain the same, but the delivery alters.

    Now there’s less talk about the (once) bright new world of the whisky dinner, and more about occasion and how to drink. It’s not odd today to discuss cocktails, while everyone has heard about umami. In general, the folk on the course seem more comfortable with the idea of whisky. Engaged is one way of putting it. The same; but different. A return, but also a progression.

    Those changes also come through in where we drink. The old watering holes (hole being the operative word) of Speyside’s The Pole, the Allargue Arms on the Lecht, both gone, Blairgowrie’s Stormont Arms no longer en route. As whisky changes, so Scotland does, albeit slowly. New layers are being laid down.

    That said, there are still too many hotels and bars who believe that ‘Highland hospitality’ means the smell of damp tweed and even wetter dogs, where the dust of ages settles on top of the breaded haddock and age-toughened venison, and where ‘an extensive selection of whiskies’ means five lonely bottles on the back bar and a clueless bartender who hasn’t been trained to realise that many of the tourists who are arriving in increasing numbers are there to, er, taste whisky.

    Inverness was like that until relatively recently. No longer, thanks to The Malt Room. A nook which at first glance looks Japanese in its stripped-back decor, and groaning shelves. Japanese restraint in terms of service is not evident however, which is A Good Thing. That wouldn’t be an ideal fit for Inversneckie. This is a bar where whisky is enthused over, a place for opinions and bottles (or drams) on the table being talked over. If you’re heading north I urge you to go, or to Drumnadrochit’s Fiddlers, or Rothes’ Station Hotel, or the embarrassment of riches in Craigellachie, or Elgin’s Drouthy Cobbler. The fact that as I write I’m thinking, ‘and Skye’s Eilean Iarmain, or Sligachan, or Portree’s Merchant…’ shows how things have shifted.

    The way whisky has been served and talked about has shifted almost imperceptibly in recent years. One day it was bartenders saying, ‘Whisky? Haven’t a clue, pal, I drink vodka’, to, ‘have you tried this? It’s amazing.’

    This in some ways is also a return. In the best whisky pubs across the Highlands and Islands you see glimpses of how it all started, of people, and communities coming together over the local drink, laughing and discussing, singing and enjoying. Layers upon layers.


The editors


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