The ‘Whisky Baron’ overcame ill-health to create some of Scotch’s most successful blends.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
27 November 2015
It’s easy to live in a whisky bubble. Come to think of it, that might be quite pleasant. Anyway, I mean the result of being obsessively enamoured by one particular spirit can mean that the controversies facing other spirits pass you by. In fact, every category has its issues which exercise producers and consumers. In rum, it’s sugar.
Hang on, you might say, isn’t rum made from sugar? Indeed it is, but it’s the addition of sugar before bottling which is currently the rum world’s hottest topic. It’s their equivalent of NAS.
Adding a little sugar to rum has been common practice since the 19th century. Today, however, the level of sugar being added is tipping many brands into pseudo-liqueur territory.
There are some in rum who want sugar addition banned, others who declare ‘sugar-free’ on labels and supporting publicity; some are open about how much is being added, in response to a growing lobby calling for – what’s the word? – transparency. Now, where have I heard that before?
Anyway, the other day I was chatting about this and other rummy things with Bruce Perry, MD of Marussia Beverages UK. ‘The thing is, Dave,’ he said, ‘I am worried about the damage sugar addition will do to rum in the long term.
‘Think of German wine,’ he continued, warming to his theme. ‘What was the most popular style of the 1970s and ‘80s? Liebfraumilch. Then people realised they were just drinking sweetened wine and stopped. When they did that, they didn’t say: “I don’t like Lieb,” they said: “I don’t like German wine.”
‘Look at what that’s done to the German wine category in the UK. You can’t find wines from one of the world’s great wine-producing countries. That’s what worries me. People will click about sugar in rum one day, and all of the category will be tainted.’
Cane mutiny: Do increasing sugar levels pose risks for rum – and whisky?
It’s hard to disagree that sugar addition is a short-term fix. Rum’s current rise is being driven primarily by sweetened-up styles. Sugar blunts alcohol, while also seeming to enhance flavours. It makes a drink ‘acceptable’ and ‘easy’. Conversely, it also masks, deceives and, ultimately, bores.
It’s happening in rum and with flavoured vodkas, while Sherry, like German wine, has been tainted by an association with sweetness – in its case, pale cream and cream. Many of today’s slick, sweet, XO Cognacs bear little resemblance to the same brands’ expressions a decade ago.
Thank the lord that whisky hasn’t gone down that route. Er, think again.
What are the US and Canadian flavoured whiskies but sweetened-up base spirit, while Scotch is being accused of creeping ‘Bourbonisation’, with brands offering up more vanilla and sugars in an attempt to appeal to ‘the new consumer’.
Is there anything new in this? After all, didn’t the shared genius of Tommy Dewar, James Buchanan, Berry Bros & Rudd, Sam Bronfman and others lie in understanding in how people’s palates had changed in Edwardian or post-Prohibition times, then making blends to suit – and, in doing so – helping blended whisky become the pre-eminent aged spirit in the world?
What’s different, then, with changing the taste profile to suit today’s consumer? Because those 20th-century changes were made within a Scotch framework. They showed different facets of a defined Scotch character. Yes, they were new, but they were clearly Scotch, not Irish, Bourbon, Canadian whisky… or rum.
That is in danger of being lost in today’s rush to feed consumers’ desire for sugar and, in doing so, it compromises character and integrity.
By crudely dialling up sweetness, you homogenise the flavours, meaning that there is very little difference between sugared whiskies, no matter where they come from. Delivering a sugar fix isn’t a wise long-term strategy – just look at Liebfraumilch.
23 November 2015
In which we move the ‘transparency’ debate forward.
Before we start, a quick clarification. This issue has never been about castigating the SWA, which does a sterling and complex job. It was abiding by the rules which it drew up, having been instructed to do so by its members, who in turn approved them.
It’s easy to apportion blame in incidents like this. In fact, in this case no-one is to blame. A situation has arisen which was unforeseen a few years back. The question now is: how should it be addressed?
Neither was the writing of an open letter an attempt to cajole firms into taking a position. It was to try to ascertain what the feeling in the whisky distilling community was on the issue. It was asking whether the law as it stands is overly restrictive and, if it is, whether it can be altered to permit a greater degree of openness.
Nor, incidentally, should we be dragged down blind alleys to debate the business practices of various firms involved in the wider discussion. Quite how that has become part of the issue smacks of some of the darker elements of spin doctor’s art, though somewhat crudely applied.
And so to the responses. No-one who replied said transparency was a bad idea, so there’s a positive. Some said openly that the current legislation should be looked at to see if there was the possibility of an option to disclose.
Others replied saying that they were following the SWA’s opinion. That’s ok as well, because the SWA’s ‘line’ on this is (and I paraphrase): ‘As the law stands, this level of disclosure is not allowed, but if our members instruct us to look at whether we can change the law to permit it, then we will.’
I’ll also take this ‘we are happy with the SWA’s opinion’ response in a positive fashion as it opens the door to the possibility of there being a debate.
Perhaps some firms want partial transparency along the lines of: here are the principles behind our NAS whiskies, but we can’t tell you precise details. No problem with that being part of the debate.
Some firms might like to go further, but no-one is suggesting that transparency should be mandatory. That would be impossible as the recipe for most blends, for example, cannot be revealed because a) that recipe is confidential/commercially sensitive; and b) it will change in order to achieve consistency.
As soon as it becomes compulsory to declare openly the percentages of each whisky used, then the recipe is fixed and any deviation from it would mean that blender has effectively broken the law. Quite rightly, no-one would vote for that.
In fact, the question we are still posing is: should there be an option to be able to disclose in some way – perhaps through publicity material rather than on the label – what the constituent parts of a whisky are?
This is a complex issue and, while it would be ideal for the debate to be conducted in a public forum, I can see how the discussions over some of the minutiae would best take place in what used to be smoke-filled rooms.
Should there be a willingness to debate it fully – or partially – in public, we would be happy to moderate or provide a platform for all sides of the argument to be explored.
It is, of course, entirely possible that some discussions on this are already under way. We don’t know. The nature of smoke-filled rooms is that they are opaque. An indication of whether the process is happening might be useful, however.
Not alone: Compass Box is by no means the only distiller to be open about its whiskies
Insights from the manner in which the Scotch Whisky Regulations have been reviewed in the past – and an understanding of how the same process operates in Cognac – lead me to believe that it would be surprising if there weren’t already regular discussions on fine-tuning the laws. In other words, I’d like to think there is a willingness to examine this issue.
What has been lost in all of this is why so many firms (not, remember, just one) were open about the contents of some of their whiskies. Education. Specifically, education about NAS whiskies.
I still maintain that transparency can be an important aid in explaining what the principles are behind NAS whiskies, whose emergence has become an increasingly toxic topic. Saying: ‘Look, folks, this is what we do and this is why we do it’ would surely help to lance that particular boil.
Unless Scotch finds a way of addressing the issues surrounding NAS, it will continue to lose credibility. Is transparency the solution? I don’t know, but maybe we should be talking openly about whether it could be part of one.
It is naive to think that the castigation of NAS will go away. The two issues are linked. Let’s talk.
12 November 2015
On a book promo trip to the US recently I, amazingly, had some free time in Washington DC, so my wonderful minder Liz recommended we head to the Freer Museum to see Whistler’s Peacock Room.
Charles Freer, for those of you who don’t already know, was an American who made his fortune building railway cars (or, I suspect, getting other people to do so) and who then invested heavily in Asian art, eventually donating his collection to the nation and building a museum in which it could be housed. A good guy.
The Peacock Room is the museum’s big draw. It was commissioned in 1876 by the Liverpool shipping magnate Frederick Leyland as a dining room in which he could display his collection of blue-and-white Chinese porcelain.
Leyland, who had already commissioned Whistler to paint portraits of his family, hired the artist to decorate the room – and then went away on business. Fatal mistake.
In his patron’s absence, Whistler created an opulent chamber in blue, green and gold. It’s gilded, the ceiling is made of oxidised brass, every surface is patterned, the shutters carry pictures of golden peacocks.
The artist then presented Leyland with a bill for 2,000 guineas (about £50,000 in today’s money). Leyland baulked at the sum, paid £1,000 and bankrupted Whistler.
Before the bankruptcy hearing, Whistler finished the room with a painting of two peacocks: one aggressive, the other wounded. Silver coins litter the ground. He called it Art and Money. The Story of the Room.
In 1904, Freer, another of Whistler’s patrons, bought the room, and installed it in his home in Detroit to display his collection of ceramics, which is what we see in the museum today.
Opulent: Whistler's Peacock Room (Photo: Freer Gallery of Art)
It’s wider-ranging than Leyland’s, more subtle and thoughtfully assembled. It’s a proper collection, juxtaposing large and small, humble and grand – the pieces chosen not just for beauty, but for the tone of their glaze, their flaws.
The room makes more sense with the Freer ceramics. Freer got Whistler, he got Asian art. Leyland, you feel, didn’t. He acquired and displayed.
The room is extraordinary – a remarkable achievement – but eventually becomes claustrophobic, so I headed to an exhibit of artworks by the 17th-century Chinese artist Bada Shanren – prince, Zen monk, artist and, some say, madman. My kind of guy.
The pieces were simple, almost abstract, filled with allusion, their often huge blank spaces as important as what was filled in.
I mused, as one should in a museum, about how little has changed. Rich collectors are still asking the same of artists – except it’s now ‘give me something to go with the sofa’.
Names are more important than quality, the pieces no more than eye candy. Whistler’s analogy of the peacocks still holds true.
The Peacock Room had seemed strangely familiar. Now I knew why – it was like a bar with the ceramics as bottles. Leyland’s collection was the type of bar where all the bottles are behind glass, Freer’s chosen because of the pleasure they gave.
Woe betide us if whisky ever gets into the situation where it is only the rich who can commission bottles and the producers (the artisans) oblige. Could it happen? It already is.
I then thought of how I still preferred the space of the paintings, the room to breathe, contemplate and enjoy, away from the clutter, noise and the sounds of peacocks squabbling.
That holds true for whisky as well.
06 November 2015
‘It was a bad score. He only gave it 6+.’ This was a post by someone on a blog regarding my scores for the recent Balvenie DCS whiskies.
I knew it would happen. It’s the trouble with scores – they trip you up. They are also so all-pervasive that we are beginning to organise our lives around them without perhaps realising what they signify.
Only once that filtering system has taken place do any of us bother to then read the words. I’m as bad as anyone. Get Mojo and Uncut, scan the scores and then read. Who has the disposable income to take a punt on a three-star album?
If, however, we take the time to read first, then a more accurate picture emerges. That restaurant/hotel has lost a couple of stars because there’s someone lurking in the comments section who clearly has a grudge.
‘They didn’t make my child a pizza.’
‘We went to this sushi restaurant, but my partner doesn’t like fish.’
‘The view of Torquay from my hotel bedroom window wasn’t good enough.’
I even read one review of the Lofoten Islands which advised people not to go because the midnight sun didn’t perform a perfect V in the sky. Result? The score went down.
And so back to our own scoring system. It was peer pressure which made us impose one in the first place – everyone else scores so we should as well. We might not like the reductive nature of scores, but it’s now the norm.
We have, however, decided to use a proper 10-point scale: ie one that starts at zero and goes up to 10. The scale is outlined on our Tasting Notes Explained page, to which each note is linked – but does everyone read it? Of course not, because we understand the nature of numbers.
Or so we think.
There are some 10-point scales which start at 6. They then can be broken down into decimal points, making a 40-point scale. There are 100-point scales which only start at 80, which makes them 20-point scales.
Equally, there are no 20-point scales which start at zero – most people who use them start them at 10 and then get around that issue by giving half-points, creating a warped 20-point scale.
Still with me?
Lies, damned lies...: Scoring systems can be fiendishly complicated
So, we said ‘enough of this’, and started at nought and moved up in decimal points to 10, which I suppose makes this both a 10-point and a 100-point scale. Then again, it is possible for a whisky to score zero (and, indeed, 10.0), making it technically a 101-point scale. Never say we don’t give you better value at Scotchwhisky.com.
As I said, we knew the questions would come. Our 6 is another’s 7.9, someone’s 3 stars, another’s 15, someone else’s 80. No wonder people are confused.
Why then, you might ask, are we further muddying the waters? Because if we have to use bloody numbers, then we felt we should use them properly.
If you are judging from 0-10 and a whisky is average in quality, then it should logically be given 5 points. If it’s above average, then it gets 6. Seems sensible? Good. So 6 is not a bad score, it means this is a good dram, one that we’d be happy to buy.
I appreciate that there will be teething problems as people get used to the new scoring system. The solution to this potential confusion is to READ THE WORDS. They give the reasons for the score.
Now… what’s on the tasting table this week?
03 November 2015
The spirit of old East Berlin had clearly possessed me. The audience looked… confused. That isn’t all that unusual. My talks are planned in terms of overall theme, what needs to be said, what drinks will help support this framework (and stop people getting too bored), but quite how I get from A to Z is… well… fluid, which seems appropriate.
This particular one at Berlin Bar Convent was on a history of gin in seven drinks, each one a waypoint in the spirit’s evolution. I was extemporising on genever’s success from the 17th century onwards, and how it had come about directly as a result of pressure on distillers to make a non-wine-based spirit for the local bourgeoisie, whose supplies of wine and brandy had been cut off thanks to the Eighty Years’ War.
‘Actually,’ I continued, ‘gin’s story is one of class warfare.’ This is when the faces began to look puzzled.
I plunged on regardless, outlining a theory (which was forming in my head as I spoke) that, whenever gin was the drink of the proletariat (judging by the faces, a term not heard in East Berlin since 1989), it had a toxic reputation.
Only when it became acceptable to the middle classes, acquired bourgeois acceptability, if you like, would it become popular. The spirit’s history and popularity swings between these two poles.
I stand by this theory, by the way – Gin Craze? Working class. Old Tom? Working class. London Dry? Middle class. Martini and G&T? Middle class.
Gin Lane: the craze immortalised by Hogarth was a working-class phenomenon
There’s even a class element with regard to gin’s collapse in the 1980s, when it was identified as being stuffy, boring, old-fashioned – and irredeemably middle class, the drink of ladies of a certain age, and chaps who wore pink trousers on the weekend. Its current renaissance has been driven by a widening of its appeal to all-new, younger, drinkers.
Could Scotch whisky’s story be told in a similar way? I don’t think so. Yes, Scotch’s initial boost came when toddies, then whisky and soda became acceptably middle-class drinks in London, but the difference between Scotch and gin was that the former always transcended class boundaries.
When growing up, I could go into the Rogano (Glasgow’s great classic bar) and see someone having a dram. I could go across the road to the Horseshoe and see a working class guy having the same.
I would see the G&Ts and Martinis being drunk at the former, but never at the latter. Scotch’s long-term success was based on its ability to appeal to all classes. Its decline in the ‘80s wasn’t driven by class, but by a lack of fashionability.
It has been this appeal to a wider demographic internationally which has been one of Scotch whisky’s greatest assets. It was aspirational at all levels – a standard blend was as much of a treat for the working-class drinker as a deluxe whisky was for the rich.
That is why the current narrowing of focus by many firms is so worrying. Scotch is not just a drink for the elite, for speculators, for ‘celebrities’, it has succeeded because it is the people’s spirit.
Concentrating on one stratum of society is ultimately counter-productive. Just look at gin.
29 October 2015
It used to happen every month, then every fortnight. Soon it was every week. Now it seems like it is every day that the topic of No Age Statement (NAS) whiskies inveigles its way into conversation. I’m fully expecting my wonderful and long-suffering postie, Rose, to stand on the doorstep tomorrow and say: ‘Dave, what is it with all these NAS whiskies?’
My line has remained the same. Nothing inherently wrong, difference between age and maturity, allows whisky makers a freer rein, necessity at time of stock squeeze/excessive demand.
With one caveat: as long as the whiskies replacing (or accompanying) the existing age statement expressions are as good as or better than the products they are replacing/joining, and that producers educate consumers and trade as to what their rationale is.
An integral part of that education, I’d argue, is being transparent. It’s not just a matter of what’s going on, but what’s going in. After all, what’s to hide? If the whiskies being used include young and old, then why not tell us the age and the cask type?
That then opens out the (much needed) discussion of the difference between age (a number) and maturity (a character).
It allows distillers to talk about wood programmes and cask influence, it demonstrates the fundamentals of blending.
It explains whisky to a consumer who wants to have whisky explained. It helps detoxify the debate.
Now it would appear that telling consumers everything about what is in a bottle is, in fact, illegal. The latest disagreement between the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and Compass Box (it’s never the other way around) is surely the most ridiculous one yet.
Transparency: but the openness of John Glaser and Compass Box is also illegal
The SWA does sterling work and, in this case, all it has done is to act on behalf of one of its members (though wouldn’t you love to know who complained, and why?). In addition, its hands appear to be tied thanks to an EU law originally drafted in 1989.
The SWA is following the letter of the law, and all the firm that complained is doing is hiding behind the SWA.
The question here is twofold. Can the law be changed? Is there a willingness on the part of the SWA (or its members) to push for that change in the law? I’m no Edinburgh lawyer, but I seem to recall that only a few years ago the SWA did just that, around labelling.
The reason? The old descriptors were confusing to the consumer. They were, in other words, lacking in clarity, and so the law was changed. Saying: ‘I know it’s wrong, but I’m afraid it’s the law,’ is not a credible defence.
It might be that derogation from EU law is more problematic than changing a UK law which then becomes EU law. Derogation, however, means ‘an exemption from or relaxing of [my italics] a rule or law’.
Is there then a possibility that this clause can be relaxed to permit the option of an open declaration of the composition of a blended product in the case of Scotch whisky? The SWA is a lobbying organisation. Is this worth lobbying for?
If one of the body’s members asked for this possibility to be explored, would the SWA act? History has shown that if there is sufficient demand from its members for change the SWA can change.
So here’s a question. Which of the members of the SWA doesn’t agree with there being an option to declare fully the make-up of an NAS whisky – and why?
22 October 2015
Maybe it has something to do with hotels. In the excellent book The Beechwood Airship Interviews, Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers tells author Dan Richards how he likes to write in hotels because they are neutral spaces with none of the distractions of home life. Not even a kettle (Stop it with the kettles – Ed).
Wire’s theory certainly seemed to be proven when I made my way down to the lobby of the hip place in which I stayed recently. There in the gloom – gloom is so 2015 – was an ocean of floating white apples.
Death pallor faces. Grey light chiaroscuro. The ticking of nails on keys. Peck, pick, gaze downwards. The regular hiss of the espresso machine. In the café, the same scene was repeated. Silence. Gloom. Pick. Peck.
It wasn’t just there, it’s everywhere. Every social space has been taken over by screen zombies. The only faint flicker of a smile appears when they come across an image of a cute kitten. Where, I wondered, has happiness gone? Where is the joy?
What, even, is joy? The dictionary defines it as ‘a feeling of great pleasure and happiness’. In whisky terms, joy for me is the feeling of tasting the dram which signifies the end of work.
It might be in a bar or pub, it could be at home, it might be neat, with water, or in a highball. Joy is in the combination of liquid and moment and psychological state. Joy is being human. In this case, it is about gaining pleasure from whisky.
Here’s the question, though. These days, are you allowed to say that having a drink makes you happy? I suspect not. Happiness infers that the drink has altered your state. Saying whisky makes you happy contravenes a code, written or unwritten.
How much further?: in modern life, joy is a precious – and rare – commodity
A general – but also deliberately detached – sense of joy is possibly as close as you are allowed to go towards happiness before the lawyers come and get you. In this world, the liquid doesn’t provide the joy – some abstract notion about a brand does.
That’s not a criticism. I’m, er, joyful that there is someone out there trying to get round the restrictions and say, in a subtle way, that whisky can make you smile.
The question is, looking at the screen zombies, where is the joy? It’s not in front of you. It’s in the streets, it’s in company, it’s in the Apple-free irises of other people, it is in conversing and sharing.
The irony that you will be reading this on a screen is not lost on me, by the way. Walk away, switch off. Go outside, even if it is raining, and breathe.
Pour yourself a dram. Better still, pour whoever is next to you one as well. Whisky – taken in moderation – makes you happy. If we can’t say that in advertising, we have to find new ways of communicating that message. Maybe talking might help?
15 October 2015
The guitar on the wall was unnecessary. It’s not that I want to moan. Perhaps it’s because I spend a considerable part of my life in hotels that I’ve become (over-)sensitive to their design.
Take the other weekend. Between Friday and Monday I was residing in an achingly hip one in Shoreditch, where my room was stuffed with suitably ironic touches. A pencil sharpener attached to the wall? Yes, of course I used it.
It has to be said that the room was rather lovely and tried to make you feel as if you were, if not at home, then a guest at someone else’s, perhaps the new hipster mate you ran into at Callooh Callay the night before and who had offered you a bed when you realised you'd missed the last train home (does that sort of thing still happen?).
Anyway, I felt comfortable – which is what hotels are about. Apart from the guitar, perhaps.
I mean, the last thing you want in a hotel is everyone serenading themselves, or trying to impress their partner with Smoke on the Water or, even worse, seeing that guitar as a symbol of their inadequacy.
‘Oh, can you play?’
‘Er... well… no.’
End of budding relationship.
Still, there was a kettle. I need a kettle. I get grumpy without my tea (and I mean my tea). It also had an iron. I get grumpy if there isn’t one of those either. Iron over guitar every time. Kettle over iron. It’s the way I roll.
The guitar was an example of how hotel designers over-think rooms. There was the central London hotel which had an electric guitar – and amp – in the room (double inadequacy, double irritation as Smoke on the Water echoes from 50 bedrooms).
There was, however, no kettle. Or iron, come to think of it. Maybe the thinking was that no-one who plays an electric guitar would ever need to have a pressed shirt… or a hot drink. I’m sure Robert Fripp would.
There was another east London establishment which had a hot water bottle on the bed. A lovely, quirky thought that made me feel all fuzzy.
There was, however, no kettle, meaning the only way you could try and force hot water into the bottle was via the espresso machine in the corridor.
Of course there was an espresso machine in the corridor! Hipsters don’t drink tea. The result was that I was insanely grumpy.
Impeccably turned-out: the neatly ironed Mr Fripp (Photo: Sean Coon)
Over-thinking might not be the worst aspect of modern life, but it is symptomatic of the way in which ‘irony’ (which in this case is, for once, truly ironic as there are so few irons) has replaced any form of deeper thinking.
The surface is all, the instant, unthinking reaction is all that matters. There is no need to sit down and make a cup of tea and think. All that matters is the sheen, the glance, the smirk, then you move on.
Design has got in the way of function and the core essence of the room – a place to rest – is forgotten or overlooked. Such is it with brands.
Maybe I’m just an awkward customer. Perhaps I just need to get out less.
02 October 2015
Welcome, friends, to what we want to be the first stop for any whisky lover on the internet. That word ‘any’ is important. Geeks can get their fill here, but so can newcomers – and it is this breadth of remit which will make the site prosper.
Whisky is simple, but it is deep. A website such as this therefore needs to be able to offer information which appeals to and satisfies all readers – those who want to plunge in, as well as those who are happy paddling in the shallows. Hey, I live by the sea, it’s the best metaphor I could come up with.
If you want in-depth distillery, brand or company information, you will find it here. That in itself is an amazing resource and we believe our Whiskypedia is the most comprehensive database in existence.
If you want to know what that new whisky is like, we will have the review as soon as it is released. If you want to know the thinking behind the big decisions, we will be asking the awkward questions to the executives who make those decisions.
We will make you laugh (we hope), we will be authoritative, critical, stroppy, contentious, obsessive, passionate, amusing and celebratory. That’s what whisky is all about, isn’t it?
Whisky is also about people, and they will be the heartbeat of the site – not only the amazing writers we have from around the world (whisky is, after all, global); but also the people who are often hidden from view, those forgotten heroes from the past and the present, the keepers of the flame.
It is also our belief that whisky doesn’t just sit apart from daily life. It springs from a culture and a landscape, it reflects the interests of the drinker, so we will write about the things which people who like whisky also like, but which aren’t whisky.
That means talking to other like-minded craftspeople, artists and artisans to make this a place where whisky becomes part of the world.
We are excited by the possibilities. We hope you are too.
25 September 2015
I’m just back from Japan, where the whisky category appears to have been given another boost in sales.
The highball craze may have slowed slightly, but continues to bring new drinkers into whisky – even if not all of them know that a ‘Highball’ is a whisky drink. Bridging that gap remains an important task.
The category’s biggest kick has been given by Massan, the daily morning soap opera on the life of Masataka Taketsuru, which ran from September 2014 until March this year.
Yes, a whisky-related soap. Neighbours with drams. It has, seemingly, so captured the imagination of the public that it has directly boosted sales. Could that happen here? I doubt it.
Massan could even be a further factor in the ongoing squeeze on stock, one topic which was aired at a panel discussion I chaired with four Japanese chief blenders: Shinji Fukuyo (Suntory), Tadashi Sakuma (Nikka), Ichiro Akuto (Venture Whisky/Chichibu) and Jota Tanaka (Kirin/Gotemba).
It used to be that the companies were as reluctant to share a stage as they were to share their whiskies. Things have changed. They laughed with each other, nodded in agreement, complimented each other.
It’s a reflection of the new openness which exists within the Japanese industry. What would once have been considered secrets are now freely shared.
Maybe it is confidence that their competitors won’t steal techniques, that they now realise that the Suntory way is different to that of Nikka, or Kirin, or Chichibu.
One of the questions was whether they thought Japan could be behind the ball when equilibrium between stock and demand returned.
‘No,’ was the polite answer, ‘because [and I paraphrase] we continue to innovate, believe that quality is paramount, and want to further define and fine-tune what it is to be a Japanese whisky.’
More specifics emerged in a further discussion with Fukoyo which looked at Suntory’s new ‘The Chita’ grain.
‘We had always made three styles of grain at Chita,’ he explained, ‘but the grain whiskies we use for the blends couldn’t be the same as we needed for a single grain. It was… boring.’
I’ve tasted the Chita grains and they’re not… but I suppose that also proves a point.
So, he has used the three styles of grain, but aged in a mix of woods including ex-wine casks, and new (fresh) European oak casks.
What is our whisky?: Hakushu’s small grain plant is unafraid of experimentation
Fukoyo then went on to outline what was happening at the small grain plant at Hakushu where he has overseen runs of malted barley, wheat and rye, and all at different strengths.
‘We always distilled to 94%,’ he said. ‘Then we asked why and realised it was because that’s what the Scots did.
‘So now we are distilling at different strengths, using those different grains, mashbills and woods to see what Japanese grain whisky could be.’
This willingness to ask: ‘What is our whisky?’ is also seen in the creation of Irish Distillers’ new experimental distillery at Midleton, which initially will be looking at 19th century recipes.
The reason? They exist, they have been forgotten, they could shed light on Irish whiskey, they could help widen the category.
It all seems so... sensible. Now, I know that there are wild things being trialled in Scotland, but so far there is no evidence of any of it appearing. Keeping these developments behind the curtains simply reinforces the (incorrect) belief that Scotch’s template is fixed.
Neither Suntory nor IDL is exactly small. Both are asking, openly: ‘Where do we go now? What else can we learn?’
Realising that they couldn’t run experimental batches through their existing plants because the batches would be too large, they simply built smaller sites.
Hopefully the Scottish distillers working on similar schemes will show what they have been working on, but – and here my impatient journalist’s brain takes over – how will they commercialise these small batches?
Split an existing (small) distillery’s production schedule? Build a small site to run them through? Buy a ‘craft’ distiller and use it as their experimental arm – the model taken by the big American brewers?
As it stands, there are other whisky categories that seem to be more nimble, and are able to see opportunities. They are the ones who come across as wanting to move whisky ever onwards without losing their identity.
It makes Scotch seem as if it is being left behind. Time, I suspect, to throw open those curtains.
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