Thousands of people contribute to Scotch whisky’s success, not just an elite few.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
09 February 2016
‘You do know, don’t you, Dave…?’ When anyone starts a sentence like that, you can expect them to quickly follow up with evidence that you don’t know at all and that they are, in this case, your intellectual superior. Think of it as passive aggressive jousting. ‘You’ll never guess what I’ve found out’ is so much friendlier.
There is little you can do in this situation as they are going to tell you anyway. If you are aware of their (not very) remarkable revelation, you have two option: disagree with them, or provide extra information which trumps their rather basic understanding of the topic, a course which is fraught with danger as their passive aggression is immediately forgotten and you end up looking like a smug, know-it-all bastard, which obviously you don’t want.
In this case, I accepted that my ignorance was once again being exposed by their intellect. ‘You do know,’ they continued, ‘that after an hour’s lecture people only will remember four or five facts?’
Now, I didn’t. So interested was I in this remarkable fact, that I (almost) forgave him his approach to the subject. He continued, at some length, as to why. The fact that I can’t remember anything more than this opening gambit proves it must be correct. Our brains are sieves.
Four or five things? Can this be true? Well, as they say, 75% of statistics are made up, so it might not be. Let’s, however, assume that it is. This is a statistic which, if true, should cause any whisky speaker/educator/ambassador or ‘master’ to wake up at 3am in a cold sweat.
‘What did he just say?’ … ‘Absolutely no idea.’
Most masterclasses last for an hour – sometimes 90 minutes. They have been carefully crafted to include half a dozen drams, detailed information, pictures, all sewn together by the passion of the presenter.
Imagine, all of that effort… wasted. You might as well sit the victims down with four drams, say five things and pack them off. Or think about what might work better.
For example, an excessive reliance on numbers doesn’t work. All that the listener will remember is that a number was used, and pluck one at random from their fuzzy memory. This is particularly important to people who, like me, have dyscalculia and failed their Maths ‘O’ Level twice.
Talk of flavour, rather than in scientific formulae. You might be interested in the precise angle of a lyne arm, but I can bet that 98% of most people won’t be. The 2% who are will ask you, fear not. Most people are interested in who makes it, where it is made, what it tastes like and where those flavours come from.
The professionals know this already, but it also applies to any bartender selling a dram, or when you explain whisky to your newbie friend.
Our passion for the cratur can easily lead to us turning people off whisky because of the complex information we dump on them. Whisky is there to be enjoyed in a relaxed way, so relax when you tell your friends about it. As Louis Armstrong sang: ‘We have all the time in the world.’
Oh, and please don’t start a sentence with: ‘You do know, don’t you…’
14 January 2016
Ahhh… the start of a new year. Exciting, huh? Time to enter into the ritual of promising to yourself (and anyone within hearing distance) that this year will be different and better and brighter than the last. You will, finally, act on these life-changing decisions you have been talking about (to anyone within hearing distance) for the past decade. Or is that just me?
To be honest, my New Year resolution was the same as usual this year, namely not to make a resolution. It doesn’t, however, stop me from having hopes for 2016. The personal ones will stay personal, but those for whisky? Well I’m happy to share them with you. Big of me, huh?
Let’s have new images: The remarkable, unsolicited Johnnie Walker ad made by a pair of German students for £90k said more in 90 seconds than the homoerotic smugness of the 11-minute Jude Law shoot for Blue Label. It will be reshot. If it isn’t, someone should be. Shot, that is.
I want shivers in my whisky ads. I want them to hit me in the gut and make me cry, or laugh. The Laphroaig Opinions Welcome ads do the latter brilliantly.
This campaign shows a profound understanding of Scotch and what it can mean. It has been thought through and, as a result, it makes the viewer respond. In other words, it has substance rather than just surface. Let 2016 bring more of this, please, from everyone.
Always chasing the wrong car: Whisky isn’t for everyone. It is strong, difficult, bold; it has a flavour or flavours (and more of them in a minute) that some people don’t like. Good. It is not vodka. It isn’t Bourbon either, despite the best attempts of various firms to convince us otherwise.
Yes, it can be mixed; yes, it can be lengthened; but ultimately Scotch is its own beast. That means that some consumers therefore will always be outwith its orbit. It cannot be all things to all people.
Fearing a prolonged downturn, however, has seen firms changing the product radically to try and lasso this new audience. This over-stretches Scotch’s credibility, and dilutes its message. A short-term approach to a long-term industry will never work.
This doesn’t mean firms should hunker down in the Scotch bunker and hope for the storm to pass. Instead, 2016 should be the year where Scotch rediscovers the reasons why people buy it. A year of returning to basic principles.
'My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go,' wrote Robert Burns. Scotch whisky should also always be distinctly Scottish, no matter where it finds itself.
The return of flavour: Consumers buy that second bottle of a whisky because they like the taste. While advertising might make them think about Scotch, it is taste of the liquid which makes them Scotch lovers.
That means talking about flavour should be front and centre of any communication and education. Here’s hoping 2016 sees a return to that understanding.
The return of blends: ‘Hello! Anybody out there? Remember me? Remember the 90% of Scotch that’s sold around the world? Hello? The category that keeps distilleries open? Don’t wish to upset your love of malt, but it’s cold out here and I need some love as well.’
Blends have become the workers upon whose backs the glorious single malts are carried. Well, enough.
Let 2016 be the year where blends fight back. They are fascinating, and flexible; they are the product of amazing creativity, they have history, yet they are never talked about with any of the same reverence or detail that is applied to malts.
It’s not one or the other, it’s both, and the stories and the ways of telling are different. This is an opportunity.
Creative NAS thinking: NAS isn’t going away, so consumers have to live with that fact. Distillers should see this as an opportunity for creativity, a chance to educate about casks and blending, an opportunity to make phenomenal whiskies which are better than those they are replacing, or supporting.
If you cannot convince people of the positives of NAS through quality, then the issues facing Scotch become infinitely harder to overcome. Selling them solely on image will not work. Here’s hoping 2016 sees distillers not just making better NAS, but explaining what they are doing, and why.
Transparency: People want to know the details of their food, or wine, or whisky not because they are suspicious, but because they are interested. If they don’t get that information, however, then the suspicions take over.
It’s an issue which needs to be dealt with sensibly, but it needs to be addressed. Maybe 2016 will see it happening.
12 January 2016
It was one of my Perth cousins who played it to me first. Can’t remember how old I was. Young, but old enough, just finding my own way in music the way you do – recommendations, sitting at people’s feet, listening, plucking up the courage to say: ‘I don’t like it.’
Not that I disliked Abbey Road. I loved it. It intrigued; you didn’t know what was coming next, how long the song would be. Some went on forever, it seemed, put you in a trance; others flashed by like thoughts.
I got a copy, my own copy, an entry point. Played it obsessively, as you do when you only have four LPs and a clutch of singles. One day I’ll tell you what the rest were – I’m not embarrassed.
Abbey Road: the now iconic album cover has been replicated by thousands of fans visiting the namesake London studios.
To be honest, I’ve never been a Beatles obsessive. I left them behind soon after that purchase. I grind my teeth when they appear on the covers of Mojo and Uncut yet again.
‘I can take them or leave them,’ I say if the subject ever comes up. ‘Yes, I see their genius, I know how they were groundbreakers, but they didn’t have the swagger of the Stones, the wild vision of Dylan or Brian Wilson. Yes, there were great moments, but weren’t The Beatles just an Irish showband wanting to please, rather than taking risks?’
Neither do I buy into the reverence afforded to Sergeant Pepper; it’s always been Abbey Road for me. It’s their most fully realised album, the most richly layered, the one where they worked out how to use the studio as an instrument.
It’s as near to perfection as they got. If I didn’t like it, then why would I go to London for an evening, and sit around drinking whisky, listening to it? I could do that at home.
I was in London because I was listening to Abbey Road… in Abbey Road.
I say that to people, I say it to my 19-year-old niece and she goes: ‘I hate you.’
Abbey Road. In Abbey Road.
The idea is, let’s face it, stone cold genius. People. A room with a great hi-fi, a classic album (on vinyl), and you have a few drams.
I realise that I know all the words, the breaks, the arrangements. We mouth words and bass lines to each other, play along with Ringo. It takes me back to those nights in attic rooms and bedsits when you are finding your path in music, when you were discussing, passing on, learning. It takes me back to Perth and the memory of that beloved cousin, now gone.
Except now I’m not just in a room, I’m in the room where it was made. Those pianos were on it, that’s the mike that Lennon sang into, there’s the old mixing desk. I become the fanboy, grin as I shiver.
To some musicians this studio might just be a place of work, but I doubt it. This is a space that brings joy, a space that creates. There’s something about this room that goes beyond acoustics, that draws from the patina of sound that’s been laid down on the walls.
Some rooms just have it, in the same way as distilleries have it. There’s a whisky link, but this isn’t a night for connections being forced upon you. They come, they rise, you muse on them for a second, and move on. Sitting. Listening. Sipping.
Whisky and vinyl: is there a greater pairing?
That lack of agenda was what made it work. At no point were there ever attempts to draw parallels: ‘The choral section in Because is like the soaring stills in the Glenrothes stillhouse; the rich bass line on Come Together is like the depth given by Sherry casks; making an NAS whisky is like George Martin mixing, or the flow of Side 2’s medley; the energy of young whisky used here reflects the playfulness of Octopus’ Garden.’
Many brands would have. The ‘Rothes guys didn’t. In this world of complicated, overthought marketing projects, that is bold.
No, this was a simple idea, perfectly executed. This album is a classic; we think these drams are a match in quality. Sit back, relax and enjoy Abbey Road.
In Abbey Road.
Sometimes in this life you are just blessed.
04 January 2016
When walking through Washington DC recently, I passed a tobacconist, door open, enticing scents drifting into the street. I don’t smoke, bar the odd cigar, though even that has slowed considerably. My buddy Nick, who works for part of the year in Cuba, says cigars only really satisfy in tropical or sub-tropical climes. I know what he means. There is something about smoking a cigar in Cuba which cannot be recreated when you take the same stogie and flare it up in cooler Britain.
It’s one reason why I rarely ventured into Burkitt’s, the old-style tobacconist at the top of my road which sells loose tobacco, cigars, snuff, and accoutrements. I may not have been a regular, but I always admired it for being resolutely old-style, for standing up for the societally reviled, for proudly stating, ‘Dammit, this stuff is good. It speaks of quality and aroma and flavour, it has heritage and resonance. You might not smoke, Mr Passerby, but there are people who appreciate all of this. I am a tobacconist and proud of it. I’m not selling 20 Woodbine, I am part of an ancient mongering tradition.’
Quite how it kept going I know not. Given the walking sticks for sale in the window, I suspect its clientele was ageing. Every time I passed it I felt both pride and a slight shame for not buying something I wouldn’t use just to keep the Burkitts' of the world trading.
And now it’s changed. Not, amazingly, into a coffee shop of which there are 16 within a 1.5-mile radius. There’s probably more, coffee shops are springing up like distilleries. Quite how people have the time to drink all of that coffee I know not, but that’s a different rant.
Anyway, driving past Burkitt’s one day, I could have sworn there were bottles of whisky in the window. You develop that skill of bottle spotting after years in this game. I recall with a strange sense of pride, curdled with disappointment that the bottle of Rare Malt briefly glimpsed in Tom Ford’s A Single Man couldn’t have existed in the 1960s setting. I felt like writing to Mr Ford. He should know. He should, I bristled, have known.
Anyway, like a tracker finding a chameleon by torchlight from the front of a speeding jeep I’m tuned into whisky bottle shape. I knew that, even at 20mph [this is Brighton after all] in the dark and the rain that what I’d spotted out of the corner of my eye was a bottle of Douglas Laing's Rock Oyster. The passing of a proud old tobacconist would be sad, but having a whisky shop at the top of the road would assuage the pain.
A couple of days later, the wife reported that my father-in-law needed some shaving soap for Christmas. Trumper’s of course. Even though I bear beard these days, I revere the shaving products of that fine establishment. I made a note to pop in on my next journey to London. ‘No need,’ she replies, ‘we can get it at the top of the road.’
Logically enough, I presumed this to mean that yet another barber’s has opened – they are as plentiful as… well… coffee shops. She stops the rant mid-flow. ‘It’s not a barber’s. Burkitt’s sell it.’
Brighton & Hove's humble Burkitt's has transformed into Havana House, stocking everything today's modern gentleman needs.
What was a tobacconist has mutated into what can only be described as a gentleman’s emporium, part of a five-strong chain of such establishments called Havana House. There’s still cigars, there’s tobacco, there’s Cuban coffee (of course there is), there’s whisky, there’s a smoking room – though of course you can’t drink there because that would then make them a bar meaning you couldn’t smoke. I’m already planning an afternoon retreat. It’s all very St.James’s. It’s very… whisky.
I know what you are about to say. ‘Hang on Dave, haven’t you always ranted about getting rid of the rules that have consigned whisky to a world of gentlemen’s clubs, after-dinner drams, and cigar smoke? Of how we need to make whisky modern and relevant?’ Well, yes, and I still do.
This topic came up, in a reverse kind of way, when I was having an email conversation with a rum blogger recently. ‘Should rum stop playing up the fun angle,’ he wrote, ‘and start becoming serious?’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘As soon as Scotch stopped being fun it went into a precipitous decline in mature markets. Ironically, at the same time, it started to grow in Spain because there it was promoted as being fun.
‘Fun is good, fun is what you want. What rum needs to do is retain the fun but also show that it can play at the connoisseur level.’
Whisky needs to find the fun once more. It needs to find new drinkers, new ways of talking, it needs to stop being wholly masculine and the preserve of gentlemen’s clubs, but at the same time there is nothing wrong with retaining what seems to be timeless. What I want is a widening of whisky’s world. Burkitt’s is one way among what should be many. It should be welcomed.
23 December 2015
Even though this is a season of excess, there are scant few people of my acquaintance who would contemplate drinking whisky all day. In any case, it would hardly be responsible on our part to suggest that anyone embarks on such a potentially reckless course. Why restrict your palate to one drink when there’s Sherry, Port, and Madeira to be had, when a Riesling is required, as are elegant red wines. Whisky, however, will feature at some stage, so here are a few situations into which it might fit.
What dram would you, uh we mean Santa, like with his mince pie this year?
The mince pie and carrot is a no-brainer. What to put in Santa’s glass however needs care and consideration. It’s cold up there, so he needs something warming and substantial, as well as a drink which might help dislodge the soot. The act of leaving gifts for Santa is both a thank you and one of hospitality, therefore that means it’s time to break out the mi casa es tu casa dram.
At the moment at chez Broom it will either be the thick flowery/fruity depths of Craigellachie 13-year-old, the potent Sherried richness of Tamdhu Batch Strength, or, and this is what my hand is hovering over, Ben Nevis 10-year-old. I rediscovered this mighty, old-fashioned dram when moving office recently. Big, oily, meaty. That’ll sort him out.
Gifting and Surprising
A bottle of homemade sloe gin for your friends is a lovely gift (and much better than some oil flavoured with your manky herbs), but flavoured whisky has an equally long heritage, though it is one which died out at the end of the 19th century. It is high time, I believe, that it is revived.
I’ve just decanted a Highland Cordial made with Cutty Sark, whitecurrants, lemon, ginger, and sugar which will serve as a potential boost to a Champagne cocktail or sipped on its own. The same goes for a Cherry Whisky: cherries, mace, peppercorns, nutmeg, sugar, macerated in a base of Dewar’s White Label. It’s an awesome drink which can be substituted for the cherry brandy in a Blood & Sand or drunk on its own.
I know it’s a bit late to do it for this year – that Highland Cordial was steeping for over a year – so consider this as advice for Christmas 2016.
A punch that's easy to ladle into guests' glasses will keep you at the centre of the party and score all-important hosting points.
The last thing you want to be doing at a party is continually rushing into the kitchen, opening bottles, mixing drinks, as you try to satisfy all of your friends’ little peccadillos. The first rule of a successful gathering is don’t give the buggers a choice. It’s your house. So… make a punch. Everyone will, I promise, be happy.
Whisky Punch was always served warm in Scotland, a tradition which the Irish have wisely retained. Every pub there will have a kettle to hand to make you a hot whiskey at this time of the year. That is served individually, while this will make a bowl’s worth.
Muddle strips of peel from one lemon in 56g of Demerara sugar. Leave to rest for an hour, then muddle once more. Now add 240ml of boiling water to the mix and stir. Add one bottle of a substantial blend like Great King Street Glasgow Blend. Pour on 1.1 litres of boiling water, or to taste. Keep warm. If you wish to, add a clove or two and cinnamon stick.
For something bolder, make a 19th century classic: Spread Eagle Punch, for which you will need the peel of 2 lemons, 112g Demerara sugar, 2.8 litres of boiling water, I bottle of rye and 1 bottle of Bowmore 12-year-old. Proceed as for the Whisky Punch above though drink with slightly more caution.
Drinking whisky through a meal is a tough ask and one which, I must confess, I weary of. I’ve come to the realisation that I just need wine, or beer in the middle and whisky is at its best at the start and the end of the meal – and is the best match of all with cheese.
For soft cheeses, Glenmorangie 10-year-old’s mix of vanilla and passion fruit notes work a treat. Cheddar though needs a whisky which will balance its acidity. For me, that means Linkwood 12-year-old, whose apple blossom notes make this a remarkable match. Glen Grant 10-year-old would also work well.
Stilton needs a little more depth, so try Balvenie Portwood (actually any Balvenie will do), Glenrothes Vintage Reserve, or any mature Longmorn; while a strong blue cheese like Roquefort has to be met head on with Lagavulin 16. All of this makes the cheese board both exciting and potentially dangerous.
I know you love your family and friends, but let’s face it, once they have left you need one last drink with which to celebrate a job well done – and the blessed silence. This is the time for something slower and more substantial. At ours the go-to is Highland Park 18 year old, though the heftier end of Glenfarclas’s or Glendronach’s range also work a treat. Might do them all. Depends on the mother-in-law.
Boxing Day Dram
Don’t get me wrong. I like Christmas Day, but I much prefer Boxing Day. It’s when everyone seems to finally enjoy each other’s company. Plus it’s a chance to get outdoors and show off some of the new presents. The dram for the Boxing Day walk (or football match), therefore needs to be a portable one, which means hipflask action (you did ask Santa for one… didn’t you?).
It’s now that peaty whiskies come into their own. There’s just something about smoke and the open air that is just right. Any quality smoky dram will do, but this year I’ll be pouring in nips of one of those high-strength, sweet and smoky Octomores that have astounded me this year.
09 December 2015
In the way of these things, a recent discussion with our historian Mr Iain Russell started with Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, moved to a Marxist theory of football and, inevitably, ended in a discussion on how Denis McQuade’s play reflected Hegelian dialectics. It was a slow day at the office.
Now, I know it is unlikely, but it is possible that some of you might have never heard of the finest winger ever to play for Partick Thistle. In fact, some of you might never even have heard of Partick Thistle. It so happens that Mr Russell and I are lifelong Jags fans, which accounts for a lot, so let me bring you up to speed.
The Jags are Glasgow’s alternative football team. That means both an alternative to the Old Firm and, some would say, an alternative to football. I wouldn’t disagree. We are known as the Great Unpredictables. This season we also have the world’s scariest mascot, Kingsley, designed for us by Turner Prize award winner David Shrigley. Of course Shrigley is a fan. What other team would he support?
Definitely not Lisa Simpson: Kingsley the Partick Thistle mascot and stuff of children's nightmares
All Jags followers know that a glorious victory against a top side will inevitably be followed by a shambolic defeat, but we soon learn that an acceptance of this is a great lesson for life. I can only imagine how tedious it is to always expect your side to win and when defeat eventually comes how crushing it is to your soul. At this point I could mention Chelsea’s current form as evidence, but I wouldn’t be so cruel.
Back to the point. Denis McQuade was the most unpredictable of the Unpredictables. He was training to become a priest when he decided to become a footballer, though he also took a joint degree in French and maths at the same time. He was an oddity, a 6-foot winger who shambled up and down the pitch creating havoc among his opponents and to his own teammates in equal measure.
The Madness (as he was nicknamed) would beat an entire team on his own then fall over his own feet in front of an open goal. When he got the ball, the crowd held its breath in anticipation of either an amazing dribble down the wing, or an act of pure farce. While you never quite knew what would happen, you were guaranteed that it would be spectacular.
Speaking in an excellent interview for The Scotsman, he opined: “I operated on the basis that if I didn’t know what I was going to do with the ball, the opposition would have had no bloody idea.” Neither did we on the terraces, which is why we loved him. He was one of us – moments of brilliance shining out among the general shambles of a life. Denis McQuade was the existential footballer (and yes, only a Jags fan would write such a pretentious line).
The McQuade factor can be – indeed should be – applied to most things in life. Approaching life in a satnav fashion is boring. It is only when we turn the TomTom off and get lost that things become interesting. That is when you find new things, new people, new experiences. Getting from A to B is boring unless you go via U and P and J on the way.
It’s how ‘The Madness’ approached his football and is how we all need to approach our whisky. Unpredictability is that single cask, it’s a distillery not doing what you expect it to do; it’s that wild punt that you take. It is the weird, the unlikely.
As soon as whisky becomes predictable then it becomes little more than a safe commodity. You pick up the glass and know what the end result is going to be. That reassurance is fine at some times, but to really appreciate whisky, you need to miss the open goal, laugh, then do the equivalent of bending the ball in from the ‘Firhill for Thrills, Johnstone’s For Rolls’ sign.
Just like The Madness would.
27 November 2015
It’s easy to live in a whisky bubble. Come to think of it, that might be quite pleasant. Anyway, I mean the result of being obsessively enamoured by one particular spirit can mean that the controversies facing other spirits pass you by. In fact, every category has its issues which exercise producers and consumers. In rum, it’s sugar.
Hang on, you might say, isn’t rum made from sugar? Indeed it is, but it’s the addition of sugar before bottling which is currently the rum world’s hottest topic. It’s their equivalent of NAS.
Adding a little sugar to rum has been common practice since the 19th century. Today, however, the level of sugar being added is tipping many brands into pseudo-liqueur territory.
There are some in rum who want sugar addition banned, others who declare ‘sugar-free’ on labels and supporting publicity; some are open about how much is being added, in response to a growing lobby calling for – what’s the word? – transparency. Now, where have I heard that before?
Anyway, the other day I was chatting about this and other rummy things with Bruce Perry, MD of Marussia Beverages UK. ‘The thing is, Dave,’ he said, ‘I am worried about the damage sugar addition will do to rum in the long term.
‘Think of German wine,’ he continued, warming to his theme. ‘What was the most popular style of the 1970s and ‘80s? Liebfraumilch. Then people realised they were just drinking sweetened wine and stopped. When they did that, they didn’t say: “I don’t like Lieb,” they said: “I don’t like German wine.”
‘Look at what that’s done to the German wine category in the UK. You can’t find wines from one of the world’s great wine-producing countries. That’s what worries me. People will click about sugar in rum one day, and all of the category will be tainted.’
Cane mutiny: Do increasing sugar levels pose risks for rum – and whisky?
It’s hard to disagree that sugar addition is a short-term fix. Rum’s current rise is being driven primarily by sweetened-up styles. Sugar blunts alcohol, while also seeming to enhance flavours. It makes a drink ‘acceptable’ and ‘easy’. Conversely, it also masks, deceives and, ultimately, bores.
It’s happening in rum and with flavoured vodkas, while Sherry, like German wine, has been tainted by an association with sweetness – in its case, pale cream and cream. Many of today’s slick, sweet, XO Cognacs bear little resemblance to the same brands’ expressions a decade ago.
Thank the lord that whisky hasn’t gone down that route. Er, think again.
What are the US and Canadian flavoured whiskies but sweetened-up base spirit, while Scotch is being accused of creeping ‘Bourbonisation’, with brands offering up more vanilla and sugars in an attempt to appeal to ‘the new consumer’.
Is there anything new in this? After all, didn’t the shared genius of Tommy Dewar, James Buchanan, Berry Bros & Rudd, Sam Bronfman and others lie in understanding in how people’s palates had changed in Edwardian or post-Prohibition times, then making blends to suit – and, in doing so – helping blended whisky become the pre-eminent aged spirit in the world?
What’s different, then, with changing the taste profile to suit today’s consumer? Because those 20th-century changes were made within a Scotch framework. They showed different facets of a defined Scotch character. Yes, they were new, but they were clearly Scotch, not Irish, Bourbon, Canadian whisky… or rum.
That is in danger of being lost in today’s rush to feed consumers’ desire for sugar and, in doing so, it compromises character and integrity.
By crudely dialling up sweetness, you homogenise the flavours, meaning that there is very little difference between sugared whiskies, no matter where they come from. Delivering a sugar fix isn’t a wise long-term strategy – just look at Liebfraumilch.
23 November 2015
In which we move the ‘transparency’ debate forward.
Before we start, a quick clarification. This issue has never been about castigating the SWA, which does a sterling and complex job. It was abiding by the rules which it drew up, having been instructed to do so by its members, who in turn approved them.
It’s easy to apportion blame in incidents like this. In fact, in this case no-one is to blame. A situation has arisen which was unforeseen a few years back. The question now is: how should it be addressed?
Neither was the writing of an open letter an attempt to cajole firms into taking a position. It was to try to ascertain what the feeling in the whisky distilling community was on the issue. It was asking whether the law as it stands is overly restrictive and, if it is, whether it can be altered to permit a greater degree of openness.
Nor, incidentally, should we be dragged down blind alleys to debate the business practices of various firms involved in the wider discussion. Quite how that has become part of the issue smacks of some of the darker elements of spin doctor’s art, though somewhat crudely applied.
And so to the responses. No-one who replied said transparency was a bad idea, so there’s a positive. Some said openly that the current legislation should be looked at to see if there was the possibility of an option to disclose.
Others replied saying that they were following the SWA’s opinion. That’s ok as well, because the SWA’s ‘line’ on this is (and I paraphrase): ‘As the law stands, this level of disclosure is not allowed, but if our members instruct us to look at whether we can change the law to permit it, then we will.’
I’ll also take this ‘we are happy with the SWA’s opinion’ response in a positive fashion as it opens the door to the possibility of there being a debate.
Perhaps some firms want partial transparency along the lines of: here are the principles behind our NAS whiskies, but we can’t tell you precise details. No problem with that being part of the debate.
Some firms might like to go further, but no-one is suggesting that transparency should be mandatory. That would be impossible as the recipe for most blends, for example, cannot be revealed because a) that recipe is confidential/commercially sensitive; and b) it will change in order to achieve consistency.
As soon as it becomes compulsory to declare openly the percentages of each whisky used, then the recipe is fixed and any deviation from it would mean that blender has effectively broken the law. Quite rightly, no-one would vote for that.
In fact, the question we are still posing is: should there be an option to be able to disclose in some way – perhaps through publicity material rather than on the label – what the constituent parts of a whisky are?
This is a complex issue and, while it would be ideal for the debate to be conducted in a public forum, I can see how the discussions over some of the minutiae would best take place in what used to be smoke-filled rooms.
Should there be a willingness to debate it fully – or partially – in public, we would be happy to moderate or provide a platform for all sides of the argument to be explored.
It is, of course, entirely possible that some discussions on this are already under way. We don’t know. The nature of smoke-filled rooms is that they are opaque. An indication of whether the process is happening might be useful, however.
Not alone: Compass Box is by no means the only distiller to be open about its whiskies
Insights from the manner in which the Scotch Whisky Regulations have been reviewed in the past – and an understanding of how the same process operates in Cognac – lead me to believe that it would be surprising if there weren’t already regular discussions on fine-tuning the laws. In other words, I’d like to think there is a willingness to examine this issue.
What has been lost in all of this is why so many firms (not, remember, just one) were open about the contents of some of their whiskies. Education. Specifically, education about NAS whiskies.
I still maintain that transparency can be an important aid in explaining what the principles are behind NAS whiskies, whose emergence has become an increasingly toxic topic. Saying: ‘Look, folks, this is what we do and this is why we do it’ would surely help to lance that particular boil.
Unless Scotch finds a way of addressing the issues surrounding NAS, it will continue to lose credibility. Is transparency the solution? I don’t know, but maybe we should be talking openly about whether it could be part of one.
It is naive to think that the castigation of NAS will go away. The two issues are linked. Let’s talk.
12 November 2015
On a book promo trip to the US recently I, amazingly, had some free time in Washington DC, so my wonderful minder Liz recommended we head to the Freer Museum to see Whistler’s Peacock Room.
Charles Freer, for those of you who don’t already know, was an American who made his fortune building railway cars (or, I suspect, getting other people to do so) and who then invested heavily in Asian art, eventually donating his collection to the nation and building a museum in which it could be housed. A good guy.
The Peacock Room is the museum’s big draw. It was commissioned in 1876 by the Liverpool shipping magnate Frederick Leyland as a dining room in which he could display his collection of blue-and-white Chinese porcelain.
Leyland, who had already commissioned Whistler to paint portraits of his family, hired the artist to decorate the room – and then went away on business. Fatal mistake.
In his patron’s absence, Whistler created an opulent chamber in blue, green and gold. It’s gilded, the ceiling is made of oxidised brass, every surface is patterned, the shutters carry pictures of golden peacocks.
The artist then presented Leyland with a bill for 2,000 guineas (about £50,000 in today’s money). Leyland baulked at the sum, paid £1,000 and bankrupted Whistler.
Before the bankruptcy hearing, Whistler finished the room with a painting of two peacocks: one aggressive, the other wounded. Silver coins litter the ground. He called it Art and Money. The Story of the Room.
In 1904, Freer, another of Whistler’s patrons, bought the room, and installed it in his home in Detroit to display his collection of ceramics, which is what we see in the museum today.
Opulent: Whistler's Peacock Room (Photo: Freer Gallery of Art)
It’s wider-ranging than Leyland’s, more subtle and thoughtfully assembled. It’s a proper collection, juxtaposing large and small, humble and grand – the pieces chosen not just for beauty, but for the tone of their glaze, their flaws.
The room makes more sense with the Freer ceramics. Freer got Whistler, he got Asian art. Leyland, you feel, didn’t. He acquired and displayed.
The room is extraordinary – a remarkable achievement – but eventually becomes claustrophobic, so I headed to an exhibit of artworks by the 17th-century Chinese artist Bada Shanren – prince, Zen monk, artist and, some say, madman. My kind of guy.
The pieces were simple, almost abstract, filled with allusion, their often huge blank spaces as important as what was filled in.
I mused, as one should in a museum, about how little has changed. Rich collectors are still asking the same of artists – except it’s now ‘give me something to go with the sofa’.
Names are more important than quality, the pieces no more than eye candy. Whistler’s analogy of the peacocks still holds true.
The Peacock Room had seemed strangely familiar. Now I knew why – it was like a bar with the ceramics as bottles. Leyland’s collection was the type of bar where all the bottles are behind glass, Freer’s chosen because of the pleasure they gave.
Woe betide us if whisky ever gets into the situation where it is only the rich who can commission bottles and the producers (the artisans) oblige. Could it happen? It already is.
I then thought of how I still preferred the space of the paintings, the room to breathe, contemplate and enjoy, away from the clutter, noise and the sounds of peacocks squabbling.
That holds true for whisky as well.
06 November 2015
‘It was a bad score. He only gave it 6+.’ This was a post by someone on a blog regarding my scores for the recent Balvenie DCS whiskies.
I knew it would happen. It’s the trouble with scores – they trip you up. They are also so all-pervasive that we are beginning to organise our lives around them without perhaps realising what they signify.
Only once that filtering system has taken place do any of us bother to then read the words. I’m as bad as anyone. Get Mojo and Uncut, scan the scores and then read. Who has the disposable income to take a punt on a three-star album?
If, however, we take the time to read first, then a more accurate picture emerges. That restaurant/hotel has lost a couple of stars because there’s someone lurking in the comments section who clearly has a grudge.
‘They didn’t make my child a pizza.’
‘We went to this sushi restaurant, but my partner doesn’t like fish.’
‘The view of Torquay from my hotel bedroom window wasn’t good enough.’
I even read one review of the Lofoten Islands which advised people not to go because the midnight sun didn’t perform a perfect V in the sky. Result? The score went down.
And so back to our own scoring system. It was peer pressure which made us impose one in the first place – everyone else scores so we should as well. We might not like the reductive nature of scores, but it’s now the norm.
We have, however, decided to use a proper 10-point scale: ie one that starts at zero and goes up to 10. The scale is outlined on our Tasting Notes Explained page, to which each note is linked – but does everyone read it? Of course not, because we understand the nature of numbers.
Or so we think.
There are some 10-point scales which start at 6. They then can be broken down into decimal points, making a 40-point scale. There are 100-point scales which only start at 80, which makes them 20-point scales.
Equally, there are no 20-point scales which start at zero – most people who use them start them at 10 and then get around that issue by giving half-points, creating a warped 20-point scale.
Still with me?
Lies, damned lies...: Scoring systems can be fiendishly complicated
So, we said ‘enough of this’, and started at nought and moved up in decimal points to 10, which I suppose makes this both a 10-point and a 100-point scale. Then again, it is possible for a whisky to score zero (and, indeed, 10.0), making it technically a 101-point scale. Never say we don’t give you better value at Scotchwhisky.com.
As I said, we knew the questions would come. Our 6 is another’s 7.9, someone’s 3 stars, another’s 15, someone else’s 80. No wonder people are confused.
Why then, you might ask, are we further muddying the waters? Because if we have to use bloody numbers, then we felt we should use them properly.
If you are judging from 0-10 and a whisky is average in quality, then it should logically be given 5 points. If it’s above average, then it gets 6. Seems sensible? Good. So 6 is not a bad score, it means this is a good dram, one that we’d be happy to buy.
I appreciate that there will be teething problems as people get used to the new scoring system. The solution to this potential confusion is to READ THE WORDS. They give the reasons for the score.
Now… what’s on the tasting table this week?
- Ardbeg: the resurrection
- Gartbreck ‘doomed’ thanks to land dispute
- New whisky tasting notes: Batch 100
- Condensers: how do they affect flavour?
- Ardbeg, ‘crap whisky’ and serendipity
- Balvenie Peated Triple Cask new to duty free
- Bowmore reveals Rachel Barrie’s replacement
- Old Pulteney to withdraw 17yo and 21yo
- Is Irish pot still the new single malt?
- Binary thinking won’t work in whisky
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