The Whisky Virgin wonders what the gold, silver and bronze awards adorning some bottles really mean.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
12 July 2017
‘What is the piece of technology you would like to see removed from your discipline?’ It’s fair to say none of us were expecting that as an opening question. While panel discussions are rarely as benign as a post-match Wimbledon press conference, this one was a doozie. ‘Dave,’ said host Angela Clutton, ‘perhaps you could start?’ A tip to anyone planning on sitting on a panel soon – never be seated next to the host.
It’s hard to think what to get rid of in distillation. I mean, without the equipment you can’t, er, distil. After what seemed an unseemly delay I put chill-filtration units into Room 101 for daring to remove mouthfeel.
#LoveBorough: The market has bounced back in defiant fashion from the events of 3 June
Catriona Felstead MW of Berry Bros & Rudd went for the spinning cone which reduces alcohol levels in wine, but ‘removes its soul’. Wish I’d thought of that line. Dan Tapper from the Beak Brewery went for filtration – hey, a theme! and old mucker Tony Conigliaro of The Drink Factory went for bad cocktail books.
We were all on stage at the latest of the excellent Borough Talks, held at London’s Borough Market to talk about the state of play in our respective branches of the drinks industry: wine, beer, cocktails and spirits; and also to give advice on how to start a career.
I’m always slightly amused by this last one as I didn’t exactly plan a career – maybe a background in improvised music finally paid off. Listen, ask why, never think you are an expert, and pass on the information humbly was what my careers advice came to.
That there was consensus was the most rewarding element of the evening. Do the hard yards, get stuck in, work in retail, listen and learn… we all agreed.
Tony summed up how the drinks trade is evolving when he said: ‘To create chaos, you need a lot of order. The more ordered we have become, the more creative we've been.’
Any move forward has to be disruptive, but in order for that to happen you have to have a structure; there’s no use just flinging every idea at the wall and seeing what sticks. That’s a waste of time, energy… and money.
His conclusions mirrored Felstead’s talk on minimum intervention winemaking in what used to be called the New World. This involves having the guts to step back and allowing the wine to make itself, which takes enormous skill, faith... and money. It’s like a musician understanding silence (that improv training again).
Tapper picked up the theme. His is an intriguing model. He’s a nomadic brewer who moves around the country, borrowing tank space: I envisage him descending on wires, Mission Impossible-style, into a brewery at night, pockets bulging with hops, yeast under his balaclava.
He acknowledges that some of the beers he makes won’t make money, but those are the ones which have helped establish his style: he mentioned a porter being aged in Bolney Estate wine casks, or another made with raspberries foraged around the outskirts of Leeds. Create the personality, focus on provenance and quality.
On the panel (l to r): Angela Clutton, Dave Broom, Catriona Felstead MW, Dan Tapper and Tony Conigliaro
If the same questions had been asked 10 years ago, the answers would have been very different. There would have been little consensus. Instead the four arms of the trade would have looked with mild amusement on the activities of the others. There was little dialogue, no co-operation and precious little consensus. Now shared themes exist and are welcomed and acted upon.
I’d seen some of Felstead’s colleagues the week before at the Imbibe Live trade show. In the old days there was an invisible line. On one side sommeliers sipped, on the other bartenders caroused.
That barrier has gone. On the Berry’s/Fields, Morris & Verdin stand there was whisky, gin and rum as well as Lustau’s Sherries and vermouth – the last two being the hot trends in bartending. There is now no separation, no ghettoisation of the drinks industry. We are in it together and have common goals.
That this manifested itself at Borough Market was appropriate. I started my writing life opposite the market, drank in its pubs early in the morning and watched the site transform into one of the world’s great food centres – produce from around the world next to the best of artisanal British, be that meat, fish, cheese or drink.
Borough is a celebration of the local and the international, of the diversity of food cultures alive in Britain, a community to browse and graze in and, with every mouthful or sip, you see connections and learn that little bit more about how the world should be – which is what we do when we take a sip of a new whisky, or wine, or beer, or Sherry.
A community, in other words, and one which remained resilient after the hideous events of 3 June. London didn’t reel, the traders reopened the market and the place got on with doing what it does so effectively, showing how the world can come together. #LoveBorough.
05 July 2017
The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted a couple of changes to our tasting section this week. Firstly, it now rejoices under the title of ‘Whisky Reviews’; secondly, we have made significant changes to our scoring system
Essentially, we have moved from a scoring system which ran from 0 to 10, to one which runs from 0 to 100 (though it starts at 50). So, instead of having a 10-point scale which, thanks to the use of decimal points, became a 100-point scale, we now have a 100-point scale which is effectively a 50-point scale. As someone with dyscalculia this is not an easy concept to grasp but, as even I have managed to get my head around it, I hope that you will be able to as well.
Question of taste: The words remain more important than the numbers, says Dave Broom
Personally speaking, I would have preferred a star system to be used, one in which whiskies would have been placed in bands of excellence. It seems to work for hotels, restaurants, films, theatre and even the malign Tripadvisor.
This, I will always believe, allows readers an indication of quality, rather than then obsessing over what the difference might be between a score of 83 rather than 82, but it’s not the system which governs alcohol, apparently, so numbers it had to be.
Why then, if we already had numbers, did we have to change how they were utilised? In order for scores to be brought into some sort of alignment with other media (though not all use a 100-point scale, many do). This, it is believed, will allow you, gentle reader, to more easily compare and contrast between the same whisky tasted by different people on different sites.
Again, personally I’d have thought that reading what was written about the whisky, rather than what it scored, would have given more accurate information, but you might as well have belt and braces. There is a psychological reason as well. One hundred points just seems better than 10. A score of 92 is far more meaningful than 9.2. Apparently.
‘But Dave,’ some of you might be saying at this point, ‘it isn’t really 100 points, but 50.’ This is not only in line with other grading systems, but considerably better than some which only run from 80 and which, in my opinion, artificially inflate the ‘worth’ of the whisky being assessed.
If your bottom score is actually the same as most readers’ idea of excellence, then not only does the taster have little room for manoeuvre, but the score is inaccurate. Any scoring system needs to have sufficient breadth for the tasters – and the reader – to be able to discriminate between one whisky and another. So, a 50-point scale it is.
I would hope, as a whisky lover, that most of the drams sitting on my table would be 70 and above. There’s no excuse for faulty or poor whiskies these days (though, if they do appear, they’ll be marked as such).
If a whisky gets a 70, then it’s still a decent dram, just not one whose balance is as good as one which scores 75 and above… and so on. Hopefully having 50 points to play with will not only allow you to differentiate between the whiskies tasted, but also give you reassurance that the lower-scoring whiskies are well worth trying.
As the key shows, it’s easier to look at our new system as being split into five or six bands, with tiny amounts of fine tuning within each band. A bit like a star system, in other words.
Inevitably, our scores will differ from those on other sites or magazines, but I’d like to think that the overall impression will be the same. Comparing our scores with those on, say, Whiskyfun (which you all should read) will give an idea of how the whisky falls into another band of shared – and, more than likely, agreed – opinion.
That opinion is contained in the words, which are infinitely more important than the numbers. When I taste, I’m constantly thinking about how the whisky fits into the three main criteria: complexity, balance and character. The words are my objective opinion of how well these are delivered.
When I’m tasting, I’m looking for the positive points and whether they outweigh any negatives; how persistent is the dram’s flavour, how does it develop over time and on the palate; how complex is its aroma; does it take you on a journey; how could it be consumed?
Only then does the score come into play. What band does it sit in; are there subtle differences between whiskies of similar character? The score is the full-stop at the end of the process. It doesn’t lead or dictate it. For me, it’s almost an afterthought.
If numbers were the most important element in assessment, there would be no need for any words. A score would be sufficient. The reasoning behind the numbers is what is important. It allows a conversation to take place, analysis to be shown, opinion to be offered.
You might not agree with the score I give, but with the words to hand at least you know why I gave it. Then, hopefully, you can see the logic at work to the extent that the score given becomes irrelevant.
Clinging to numbers means narrowing your appreciation of whisky. Reading the words increases it. So read the words, my dears, please read them.
28 June 2017
I’d read the text before, but seeing it painted across an entire wall brought the significance of the words into sharper focus.
‘One Theoricus wrote a proper treatise of Aqua Vitae, wherein he prayseth it to the ninth degrée. He destiguisheth thrée sortes therof, simplex, composita, and Perfectissima. He declareth the simples and ingrediences thereto belongyng. He wisheth it to be taken as well before meate as after.
‘It dryeth vp the breakyng out of handes, and killeth the fleshe wormes, if you wash your handes therewith.
‘It skoureth all skurse and skaldes from the head, beyng therewith daily washte before meales.
‘Beyng moderately taken, sayth he, it sloeth age, it strengtheneth youth, it helpeth digestion, it cutteth fleume, it abandoneth melancholy, it relisheth the hart, it lighteneth the mynd, it quickeneth the spirites, it cureth the hydropsie, it healeth the strangury, it poũceth the stone, it expelleth grauell, it puffeth away all Ventositie, it kepeth and preferueth the hed from whirlyng, the eyes from dazelyng, the tongue from lispyng, the mouth frõ mafflyng, the téeth frõ chatteryng, the throte from ratling, the weasan from stieflyng, the stomacke from wambling, the harte from swellyng, the belly from wirtchyng, the guts from rumblyng, the handes from shiuering, the smowes from shrinkyng, the veynes frõ crumpling, the bones from akyng, the marraw from soakyng.
‘Vlstadius also ascribeth thereto a singuler prayse, and would haue it to burne beyng kindled, which he taketh to be a token to know the goodnesse therof. And truly it is a soueraigne liquour, if it be orderly taken.’
History lessons: In the 16th century, aqua vitae was seen as a miracle cure
This appears in an account of Ireland in Holinshed’s Chronicles, printed in 1577. Who Theoricus was is a mystery, but that mattereth not (enough of the Old English – Ed).
Its appearance on the wall came, appropriately enough, while I was wandering around the almost completed Lindores Abbey distillery (of which much more in a few weeks). History nuzzles up to you in that part of Fife – ancient trade routes, royal palaces, battles, breweries, beehives and, undoubtedly, distillation. What struck home when being confronted with the text again is the multifaceted way in which people used spirits.
Is there anything to learn from this, 500 years on? I’m sure today’s distillers would baulk at ever suggesting that alcohol would stop ageing and strengthen youth. They’d probably take issue with any notion that alcohol, even if taken in moderation (how modern the two authors are), could possibly make you happier, wittier and generally more intelligent.
Not that the Irish in the 16th century appeared to heed any suggestion of sensible drinking. Later in the section, Holinshed reports that they devour flesh:
‘Without bread, and that halfe raw: the rest boyleth in their stomackes with Aqua Vitae, which they swill in after such a surfet by quartes & pottels.’
The Irish, it would seem, had already built a reputation. ‘I will rather trust…an Irishman with my aqua-vitae bottle… than my wife with herself,’ wrote Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor a few years later. The absence of any mention of distillation in the Chronicles in England and Scotland infers that it had become an Irish speciality.
But I digress. What the account shows is how aqua vitae (be it grain- or grape-based) was the cure-all, the universal panacea, the miracle drug. Today, there is no suggestion of whisky having a similarly multifaceted aspect. It’s rarely used as a medicine, though a Hot Toddy still works miracles in my experience, and compared to its early, miraculous manifestation, is a simple social lubricant.
Holinshed’s Chronicles: An extract of text is displayed at Lindores distillery
It struck me, on reading the extract, how the wonder of whisky, its magical nature, is being forgotten. We rarely dwell on its transportive qualities, which magically summon up place, people and season when it is taken in exactly the right (and moderate) quantities. Even the manner of its drinking has been narrowed.
Familiarity, while maybe not breeding contempt, has reduced whisky to a drink whose boundaries are understood and tacitly accepted. This, in turn, drives how it should be drunk, and when it should be drunk. The field of vision has narrowed and the opportunities are, as a result, missed.
Although Scotch cocktails are now an accepted part of the whisky world, they are still restricted. As bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana said to me recently, to ‘vanilla, or smoke’? You can be creative, but only up to a certain point.
Whether we are bartender or drinker, we need to somehow tap into the open-eyed wonder and joy of these early texts, when all the world was green and all possibilities seemed to not only be open, but the logical approach to take.
Or perhaps I’m just mafflyng. I’ll let you know after one more draught.
13 June 2017
Unlike Theresa May (I told you, no politics! – Ed), I’m all for debate. I've been struck, however, by how polarised what passes for debate in Scotch has become. You could, if you were of a philosophical bent, blame Aristotle for bequeathing this ‘either/or’ logic to the western world, a manner of thinking which, in whisky, manifests itself as: blends or malts, independent bottlers or brand owners, big companies or small, condensers or worms, smoke or no smoke.
Preferred pour: What you like may not be someone else’s choice of dram, but that doesn’t make them wrong
Call it binary thinking, call it logocentrism, but this reductionist approach boils down to: ‘You are either wholly on my side or you are against me.’ There is no grey area, no room for, well, debate, especially when the voices are loud.
The drinker feels compelled to choose between one or the other, and once that decision has been made the rejected option (blends, condensers, big companies, for example) is either ignored or, in the more extreme circumstances, condemned. In this way of thinking, whisky is comprised of mutually exclusive camps.
As soon as those lines get drawn, there is no space left for nuance, or accepting that both options are valid. We may prefer one over the other, but that is significantly different to saying that the one we haven’t chosen is wrong.
We have acted in a specific way at a point in time, but may swing back in the future. So I drink a blend, then a smoky malt, I buy an independent bottling, and then a brand, I buy one dram from a small distiller, and then one from a major, have a cocktail, and then something neat. That is how whisky works.
It is a spirit of nuance, one where aromas and flavours shift and change in the glass; it pulls your memories one way and then another. It can be a guided missile aimed directly at your pleasure zone, or something contemplative, which needs to be teased out gently. It is layered and therefore contradictory – in other words, it’s complex.
That quality, along with character and balance, are the foundations of assessing quality. The very nature of balance also rejects the dualistic approach. Every dry element has to be balanced by sweet, for example. If this principle is whisky’s heartbeat, then surely we can extend that approach outwards and look at ways in which we stop thinking in such a reductionist fashion?
I was chatting about this over a drink with a friend, when he said: ‘You know what? The word I hate the most at the moment [he has an ever-shifting list of pet hates] is “standard”. What’s “standard” about a single malt? What aspect of its being can ever be defined as “standard”?’
Change of heart: It’s not uncommon – or wrong – to switch from neat whisky to cocktails, and back again
It’s a sound point. In the dark ages when I started to write about booze, whisky was divided into two camps: ‘standard’ and ‘deluxe’. In simple terms, ‘standards’ were blends without an age statement, while those with one (usually 12 years old) were ‘deluxe’. Standard was also shorthand for ‘cheap’.
To be honest, the only people who ever used these terms were those in marketing – and journalists. No-one today walks into a bar and asks for a ‘deluxe’, ‘super-premium’ or ‘luxury’ whisky. They do, however, still see the term ‘standard’, by which they mean ordinary, or ubiquitous. Its deployment is done in a disparaging fashion, it says: ‘It is beneath me.’
Glenfiddich 12-year-old, The Glenlivet 12, Glenmorangie 10, Talisker 10, Laphroaig 10 are considered ‘standard bottlings’ – but how can this possibly be true? By its nature, single malt is anything but standard, so why call it that? Perhaps it is because when people explore the malt realm, the most popular bottlings are not considered worthy of the consideration of the serious drinker.
They may have started with the biggest sellers, but have moved on. Our very human desire for fresh stimulation, when exacerbated by an aggressive consumerist culture, makes it easy for us to dismiss our starting-points as youthful folly. It’s another example of binary thinking.
I’ve said it many times and will never stop repeating it: revisit these whiskies. Be prepared to be amazed at their quality – and often absurdly low prices. Doing so might just be a starting-point to begin to dismantle this binary world.
06 June 2017
1. Whisky drinkers are changing
A criticism levelled at the Fèis some years back was that it was becoming too much of a club. The same people would turn up every year and, as accommodation was limited, there was little room for newcomers. That appears to have changed significantly.
Not only are there more hotels, but the number of tents and camper vans made some pitches look like mini-Glastonburys. While it is always great to hook up with old friends, there is plenty of evidence that there is a new whisky drinker (younger, more women) out there, making the effort to get to Islay and that the Fèis is beginning to adapt to this shift in the demographic.
2. The transformation of the ‘whisky tasting’
There will always be space for the established format of a person talking about six (or seven) drams, but there was plenty of evidence that new possibilities are now being trialled. Having food with the whisky was pretty much standard; there were excellent street food stalls at every event, while Martine Nouet pushed things further with her pop-up restaurant.
There was whisky and music, the innovative Whisky 101 at Jura’s Tastival, and a greater presence of cocktails and Highballs – seeing the Smoky Cokey on draught was a personal thrill, while Alessandro Palazzi’s Negroni Torbato (Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition, Cynar and Aperol) is a potential new classic.
It showed a desire to engage with this new whisky community, and a willingness to see whisky as something which should be aligned with people’s wider lives. Innovative and, yes, fun.
Lagavulin views: As the sun sets on Fèis Ìle 2017, Dave Broom shares some nuggets of wisdom
Not the dolphins, which didn’t appear (as far as I know). The question was asked – inevitably online by someone who wasn’t there (and answered by people who weren’t there) – as to whether Fèis had lost its mojo and was now just an event for buying bottles.
Well, while there were queues – Bowmore won that battle, with Bruichladdich a close second – I didn’t spot any great obsessive collecting taking place. Perhaps the wise decision to have larger runs (Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, Laphroaig) has changed the mindset of the attendee.
Bowmore might think of having a maximum two bottles per person purchase, though. While the sight of auction vans cruising the roads looking for people willing to do an immediate flip was saddening, what I found was a willingness to share rare drams – not hoard them.
4. Whisky diffusion lines
As well as the usual T-shirts/polo shirts, fleeces, waterproofs and bunnets, the appearance of distillery-branded underpants seemed a somewhat quixotic decision – until plane-loads of folk without luggage arrived in need of such essentials, only to discover that Kilchoman was the sole place to buy underwear.
Is this the start of pants wars? Why only men’s? Is there an opportunity for the Lagavulin Ladies range, the Ardbeg Intimates? Laphroaig Foundations? Laddies and Ladies? (I’ve copyrighted all of these, by the way.)
It was also a lesson for those who hadn’t stayed on the island for a period of time, that what is considered commonplace on the mainland might not be quite as easily obtainable here. You need to plan in advance on Islay and to operate with a different mindset – and that goes as much for the whisky as for underwear.
5. Fèis Fringe?
There were so many events that sometimes it was hard to work out exactly what was going on and where. While the Fèis hasn’t become quite as crazy as Spirit of Speyside, the distances between events can be considerable (see number six); buses don’t run 24 hours a day, taxi fares are steep and designated drivers get understandably grumpy.
It would be good to get the fringe side (whether it’s ancillary distillery events or non-official happenings) quasi-organised with a central information point. If only there was a generic whisky website which might be able to help with that. If you know of one – oh, hang on…
6. Difficult decisions
There was considerable buzz around the arrival of Ardnahoe, with buses ferrying people to look at the site. What’s going to happen next year in terms of schedule, when the distillery is open? It would be logical for them to share the day with Bunnahabhain, though that’s by no means guaranteed, given the fact that Kilchoman and Jura – the two distilleries which are furthest away from each other (25 miles plus a ferry trip) – share their open days. It leaves people with an either/or decision. Surely Jura and Caol Ila makes more sense?
Global gathering: Festival-goers old and new, and from around the world, are welcome on Islay
7. Engaging with a deeper Islay
We had foraged cocktails – admittedly for gin (and, come to think of it, with The Botanist and now gins from Jura and Colonsay, who knows what next year might bring?) – but also walks and talks, which opened up the island.
The distilleries have long been running behind-the-scenes tours, giving visitors access to the parts of a distillery you don’t normally see – the opening of the maltings is a great example of this as well – but engaging with landscape, water and nature is a significant part of the development of Islay’s whiskies. If distilleries are now talking terroir, then they also need to find ways to show what it means. It seems to be happening.
8. Suited and booted
Adam Hannett rocks a three-piece suit. A strange thing to say? Well, generally speaking you're more likely to spot a corncrake than a suit on Islay – there’s no need on a working island for such formal apparel, but Adam’s light blue number had the ladies swooning, and nods of approval from (some) chaps in the audience.
The days of compulsory kilt-wearing are long gone. The suit says the guard has changed, we’re serious, smart players; and, while Islay might be remote, don’t treat us like ignorant islanders. We’re setting the rules.
9. Community engagement
Bruichladdich and Ardbeg are the big days in terms of locals being able to join in with the Fèis properly (they have to work during the week) but, as ever, Islay’s hospitality shone. I heard of stranded people getting lifts in police cars, while in every pub which I went into (all in the way of research) I saw locals chatting with incomers, sometimes to the latter’s surprise.
Advice would be offered, stories told, recommendations given, deep whisky talk entered into. If you want to get an idea of what the Fèis is really about, you can’t stay in your own little group, but get out there and chat. This is a community festival, after all.
10. Plan ahead…
…and have a Plan B in case of transport issues. Start it now. There’s only 51 weeks to go until the next one.
30 May 2017
The sleeper seemed to be a good idea. Overnight to Glasgow, first bus to Kennacraig and the ferry over to Islay in time for Lagavulin’s celebrations. What could go wrong? I turned down the idea of the lounge car (‘Get you!’ – Ed) in preference of turning down the sheets and getting some rest. I was asleep before we even left Euston, only briefly surfacing as we rolled and rocked gently through sleeping England on the way north.
Combined effort: It took a train, bus, ferry and 23 hours, but Broom finally made it to the Islay Festival
The sleep was deep. In fact, as I woke up at 5am it felt like the most restful night I’d had in ages. Then I realised we had stopped. There was the blurred, echoing sound of a station announcement. ‘Must be Glasgow Central,’ I thought, ‘we’re early.’ I went back to sleep, waking 90 minutes later to the sound of a tearful guard and a somewhat irate fellow passenger outside. ‘We’re in Preston?!’ he was saying.
‘I’m sorry,’ she was replying, ‘but the power lines are down. Nothing’s moving north or south.’ Two-and-a-half hours later we are boarding an emergency coach to take us the three-and-a-half hours north to Glasgow. I’ve missed the connections, but there are other buses, other ferries. I’m in a better position than the lady next to me who is heading to Iona via Glasgow, Oban and Tobermory. She’s giving a presentation at a conference. First thing the next day. We start to talk, as you do when adversity throws you together.
It’s funny how we unburden ourselves when the situation is right. You can sit next to the same person on a long-haul flight or train journey and not exchange a word. When an incident happens, however, all of that reserve goes out of the window and you form a group mentality which holds as long as the situation exists.
So, as well as the intricacies of the Scottish transport system, we talk of things we’d normally never reveal to strangers – family, exams, children, where we stay, our lives, dreams. She works for Kairos, a Christian organisation that lobbies actively for peace and reconciliation between Palestine and Israel.
We chat about building communities and understanding, and how Iona was founded on such principles – communal living, discussing, meditating, eating and working together to gain a greater understanding and opening up possibilities. It’s why there are so many places with the Kil- prefix in the west: cells of communities of monks finding their desert, places to contemplate and plan new possibilties.
England flattens out and leads into Scotland’s southern uplands, its hills festooned with wind farms. Maybe, I muse to my new friend, Nicola Sturgeon’s secret plan is to build so many of them that one day we undo the zip that binds us to England and we propel ourselves north-east to dock once more with Norway.
Caledonian Sleeper: The sleeper train seemed like a good idea… until the power lines came down
We part in Glasgow, steaming hot, people in flip-flops looking dazedly at the unfamiliar bright disc in the sky, and I wait for the bus to Kennacraig, a further three hours west – the land of dreamers.
There’s the usual stop at Inveraray for a ‘comfort break’ as my American friends coyly put it. For me, that means the comfort of Loch Fyne Whiskies, a quick purchase of the Living Cask Batch 4, a tasting of a truly excellent cask strength Laphroaig, and then it’s on the bus and onwards.
At Ardrishaig a quartet of ladies gets on, one talking loudly about dating and how hard it is these days. ‘Men just don’t chat you up any more,’ she complains. ‘It’s harder than ever to make friends.’ I’m not eavesdropping. I can hear this through the music on my headphones. There’s a sense of people falling apart.
On the ferry, it binds once more. The Whisky Exchange crew are there with an (over)-laden van, the ferry a buzz of excitement from visitors and returning Ileachs, the familiar, reassuring CalMac smell of macaroni cheese and chips mingles with the Caol Ila Highball next to me.
Tiredness is forgotten. It’s taken 23 hours to get here and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I’m home. On Islay. This festival is about whisky, for sure, but it is also about community – of the people making it and living here, and those who come to join them for this remarkable week.
24 May 2017
It’s not every day that you wake up, look out of your hotel window and see a rollercoaster opposite, and to the left a baseball stadium. There again, having a theme park, spa, stadium and hotel all together in the city centre seems a perfectly normal and rational thing for Tokyo. Things are done differently here.
The stadium’s conference centre was the venue for this year’s Tokyo International Bar Show (TIBS), which itself morphed out of Whisky Live six years ago to embrace a new, wider-ranging Japanese bar culture. The geek fest of the whisky years has receded significantly, replaced by a more egalitarian (and noisy) approach.
Nothing shows how far and how fast the Japanese bar scene is moving than the gin wars that broke out at the event. The Kyoto Distillery launched a limited edition Navy Strength KiNoBi and a new variant KiNoTea (with added – and crazily expensive – tea from Uji), while Nikka weighed in with its new Coffey Gin and Vodka, made at Miyagikyo. Not to be outdone, Suntory chose the event to launch its new gin, Roku.
KiNoBi gin: Kyoto Distillery launched a limited edition Navy Strength KiNoBi gin at the show
All are based on a mix of traditional botanicals with added Japanese elements: sansho pepper, red shiso, bamboo, hinoki, yuzu, kinome and gyokuro tea for KiNoBi. Coffey Gin combines a traditional botanical mix with distillates of sansho and a Japanese citrus mix of yuzu, kabishu, amanatsu (and apple); while Suntory adds sansho, yuzu, gyokuro, matcha, sakura leaf and blossom to its traditional base. When Hombo’s earthier WaBi (shell ginger, yuzu, gyukuro) is stirred in, you can see how Japanese gin has gone from nothing to a category – almost overnight.
The key to all of these is the use of those local botanicals – and with such a diverse range of citrus alone, not to mention herbs and tea, this is a gin-maker’s paradise. They are there to give the gins identity and set them apart from the standard London Dry base.
Japan is not alone. Northumberland’s Hepple uses botanicals grown on its estate – including juniper and Douglas fir, while the biosphere gin of Dyfi explores Welsh botanicals in a similar way to Norway’s Vidda, or the approach taken by California’s St George’s Terroir.
There was an echo of this thinking in the chat I moderated between three of Japan’s newer whisky distilleries: Chichibu, Mars Shinshu and White Oak. All of the distillers agreed that they were still looking for their character, itself an understanding of the long-term nature of whisky. While gins can be brought to market (relatively) quickly, whisky makers have to sit and wait to see how the work done at new make stage then matures.
Mars is looking at yeasts and roasts of barley; White Oak has completely re-evaluated its whisky making to try to make a lighter, and more gentle, style; while even Chichibu is still experimenting and focusing ever more heavily on the local: peat, barley – even wood – but, as brand ambassador Yumi Yoshikawa pointed out: ‘Only if it gives us quality. Local doesn’t automatically mean better.’
New spirits: Nikka’s new Coffey Gin and Vodka are made at Miyagikyo
This approach is echoed at newer builds such as Akkeshi on Hokkaido’s east coast, which aims to produce a 100% Akkeshi single malt whisky using local barley, peat and mizunara wood from local forests. Japanese barley is the ultimate aim for Shizuoka along with double, and partial triple, distillation. The climate is the main difference for Hombo’s new Tsunuki distillery in the southern city of Kagoshima, where the ambient temperature will have a significant impact on maturation. The local suddenly increases in its importance, but why is that unusual?
While using local botanicals may seem logical for gin, in reality this is a spirit which sprang from the spice trade and has always been internationalist in approach. Whisky, however, started as a localised spirit whose ties have been slowly loosened – or, perhaps, overlooked. Even those apparently rootless creations, blends, were originally crafted to suit the tastes of their respective markets – the Glasgow palate being very different (and, inevitably, superior) to those of Edinburgh or London.
Now those links with the immediate environment are being re-established. We are seeing it around the world and, while the ‘grain to glass’ tagline is often overused, there are indications that the shift is under way in Scotland as well. All single malt distilleries reflect their place – part of their individuality comes from how the template was devised hundreds of years ago, expertise, the availability of ingredients and their flavours, all the way down to the lactobacillus unique to that place. The local subtly guides character in the right direction.
Finding character is as much about listening to those whisperings as it is about imposing a formula. The local is not about copying, or trying to force the issue (such as using tiny casks again). It is about taking your time, looking, tasting, reading and listening. Without having this understanding, you will struggle in tomorrow’s whisky world.
03 May 2017
‘Try this.’ It’s upstairs in the Smuggler’s Cove. I’ve just finished rambling about rum and only broke into song once. Martin Cate clearly thinks I need a drink. I probably do. The liquid he gives me is funky, oily, weirdly resinous, pungent with the effects of age and dunder. It reeks of a wildness that you know spells danger and drags you ever further down a shady alley of depravity. We’ve all been there. It was bottled by Ellis & Co of London in 1936 and hails from Jamaica.
To explain, Smuggler’s Cove is the greatest rum bar I’ve been to. To enter it is to be absorbed into a darkened, jetsam-festooned cave (with added flotsam for balance). There’s an anchor above your head, a waterfall running down into the basement lagoon and shrines to masters of tiki past. Oh, there’s also close to 600 rums.
As I sit and chat with my new rum buddies, the bar is filling up. It’s 5pm. Clearly they like to start their drinking early in San Francisco. There’s vintage aloha shirts and work clothes. People sipping neat rum, punches and tiki drinks being mixed, a soundtrack of exotica.
Smuggler’s Cove: The bar stocks more than 600 different rums (photo: Kelly Puleio)
My friends are members of the Cove’s Rumbustion Society, all of whom have drunk a minimum of 100 rums (including some of Cate’s ‘Immortal’ bottlings). Some have topped the 400-rum mark. There are some who have gone 200 beyond that. Dedication. But not beyond the call of duty.
‘There’s something wrong with your hands.’ Cate’s back. ‘They seem to be empty. Name your poison.’ I drift across the Caribbean and go for agricole. ‘Vieux, or très vieux?’ I go for the former. No need to be greedy.
He reappears with two glasses. ‘You have two hands.’ If I keep up this pace, I’ll soon have four. One glass is a Dillon from the ’70s, the other a Neisson of similar vintage. If that’s vieux, who knows what très vieux means...?
The Dillon has a cool restraint to it, a tailored gent carrying a sword stick. The Neisson, on the other hand, starts off like a pungent denizen of the opium den he is walking past. It smells of earth and horse sweat, savoury and deep. In time, this flies off, like Sherlock Holmes throwing aside a grimy disguise. Rum does that to you. Below us the tiki drinks are still being rocked out. Someone is ordering his 608th rum.
Would I have got this from a whisky bar, I wonder. I mean, this is… fun. Here – and at all the great rum bars I’ve frequented – a balance has been struck between the geeks who sip on their rums and the outrageous concoctions being mixed. It allows everyone to feel welcome.
Whisky doesn’t do tiki. It would be absurd to reverse-engineer it into that space, but there is a lesson to be learned from places like this. One where passion and fun can combine contentedly. Where people learn as much as they want in a relaxed way.
The folks worshipping at the altar of tiki aren’t considered unsophisticated. They are part of the crew. They are here because they love rum – it’s just tonight that love is manifested in a different way to those who are taking their medicine neat. When was the last time you saw that in a whisky bar?
Whisky is getting better at talking about the primacy of flavour, but what of the fun? Any of us who have bellied up to the bar with a bottle or two know that it can be the spark which can ignite an evening, as well as the sinuous thread that pulls people together. There is fun within the bottle, but the spirit is released only when we forget what we have been told whisky should be. It’s like having a drink with a vicar, then discovering he’s a wizard with a pool cue.
The new whisky bars – think Black Rock or Swift – know the importance of fun as well as flavour, but to many the whisky bar is not a destination for enjoyment. Rather, it is a place for worship: bar as a church, not a club. If I was in a bar drinking a whisky from the ’30s or the ’70s I can pretty much guarantee that my neighbour wouldn’t be sipping on a Bobbie Burns or whisky punch. Y’see?
Rum is learning from whisky – single malt especially – but whisky can also learn from rum, and there’s no more important lesson than this.
25 April 2017
‘Whisky is for everyone’ is an easy line to throw into a conversation. It sits there alongside ‘it’s all about flavour’, ‘drink your whisky whatever way you want’, or ‘blends are as good as malts’ phrases, which drift ever downwards through repetition into cliché, paying lip disservice to their truths.
None of these phrases are wrong; they should act as the foundation of the way in which we all talk of, understand, and educate about whisky. They have to be more than words, though. They have to be backed up by deeds and belief.
The failure to act on them is why I wasn’t too surprised to read the account of a recent whisky show for ‘high rollers’. After all, the industry has been slowly, insidiously gravitating towards this grouping for a number of years. Perhaps the rest of us have tried to ignore it, or wished it might go away – or at least be balanced by a more open and welcoming attitude. That clearly hasn’t worked.
You cannot say: ‘Whisky is for everyone,’ if you corral it into an area which is only accessible for one grouping, and then praise them for being ‘an elite’.
Global spirit: Scotch whisky’s success is not down to an elite few
They already feel that they are the only ones worthy of this whisky because they have the money, the power and (it would seem) the right sort of genitals. You have just fed their already bloated sense of entitlement. They’re not interested, or passionate, or intrigued about whisky. It exists simply to further boost their egos. It is ‘theirs’ – ie it is not ours. That’s how elites operate.
‘Don’t get worked up Dave, it’s just a few rich guys.’ No. It’s more than that. If the universality of whisky is not key to education, then we have all failed. If its qualities aren’t actively demonstrated through talk, and action, laughter and fun, then this ‘elite’ will own the narrative, one which declares that ‘old is good’, ‘single malt is the best’, ‘price is a determinant of quality’, and ‘it is for us and not you’.
In their dreams they look down from their gated apartments at us and wave their tumblers. ‘You can aspire to this,’ they sneer, ‘but you can never afford it, or become one of us.’ It’s the Kardashianising of whisky. Scotch ceases to be a drink for everyone; it is an object for a specific group and it is tainted by association.
All of this runs counter to everything that Scotch should stand for. Whisky is democratic. It is a drink made from humble ingredients, which are elevated by way of skill, art, experience and intuition into a liquid that encapsulates place, mood, emotion and time. At its best, it speaks to your heart.
Throughout its history, Scotch has always managed to balance the seemingly contradictory notion that it is a drink of the farmer and the working class, and the drink of the gentleman in his club. It has done this because its message has never been: ‘I am a whisky drinker, therefore I am better than you.’ It is why it became a global spirit.
Reject elitism: Whisky is not a commodity reserved for rich men
There is an important difference to be drawn between Scotch as a signifier of success and becoming a drink for an ‘elite’. Everyone measures their personal success in different ways. Buying a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label, or Ballantine’s Finest is as much a reward for someone with little money as a rich person buying a bottle of King George V or Ballantine’s 30-year-old. Scotch succeeded because it never defined itself as a drink for a specific class, creed, or colour (sadly, it’s struggled to say it’s also for women, but that’s changing).
Now, however, we see brands, blenders, distillers forgetting that important point and positioning whisky as some form of lifestyle choice for this self-perpetuating, self-aggrandising clique.
Can you stop them drinking it? Of course not. That’s as absurd as their inferred argument that the rest of us are not worthy. What the whisky industry can do, however, is stop pandering to them, stop saying something to one group of people and something else to the rest of us.
‘How do you know when a politician is lying?’ goes the old joke. ‘When his lips move.’ If we cannot believe in what we are being told, if we suspect that brands themselves are looking down on the majority of existing and potential drinkers, then what hope is there? Whisky’s message must be consistent and egalitarian because it belongs to all of us.
Every year after this particular show, friends come up to me and say: ‘It’s hideous, but I hold my nose and attend… because… you know…’ Well, enough.
Have the courage to stand up for what you believe in.
12 April 2017
My window is open – and not just because the cat wants to go out. The sun isn’t just shining, but there’s some heat to it. It’s one of those spring days where things begin to pop.
It was even the same in Edinburgh last week. I shouldn’t really say ‘even Edinburgh’ as if the weather there is always rainy and dreich, but you never quite know what’s going to be flung at you there – warm sunshine or a switchblade of an east wind cleaving you in two.
Spring has sprung: Whisky can be adapted to all seasons, hot and cold
The change in weather usually acts as a cue for friends on Instagram to post images of lambs, daffodils and ice creams, and all that clichéd spring stuff. This year, though, I’ve noticed more glasses of pink wine being snapped, accompanied by the tag ‘first rosé of the year!’, as if you have to put pink wine away as soon as the leaves turn and the clocks go back. Quite why you can’t (or shouldn’t) drink rosé wine in winter I know not, but I can appreciate that sunshine seems to trigger a shift in people’s consciousness.
This would have made more sense in past times when our diet was fixed by the seasons. Spring represented a move away from the preserves, dried foods and roots of the winter and a new season of fresher, more vibrant flavours. Maybe that vestigial memory has been retained within us all.
I’m all for seasonal drinking – hey, I wrote four pieces about seasonal whisky last year – but there was something about these cries of ‘first rosé of the year!’ which nagged away at me and, no, it wasn’t the fact that people were enjoying themselves or that they were drinking pink wine – I love pink wine.
Rather, it was this underlying notion that, in this country at least, drinks are still rigidly compartmentalised. Each one has its correct place and time – and you can apply that to the class system if you wish. Accordingly, Champagne is for celebration, gin is for pre-dinner drinks, pink wine is to be consumed when the sun is out, but only between the spring and autumn equinoxes.
Where is Scotch whisky in this? The ‘Drambusters’ class at Tales on Tour raised this idea that whisky is fixed in terms of occasion, use, demographic and flavour (it’s only useful for adding smokiness to mixed drinks).
The time to crack open the Scotch, it would seem, runs in the opposite way to the time to open the first rosé. Whisky, still, is seen as a drink best-suited to the period between Samhain and Beltane, if you want to be all Celtic about it.
Whisky Highball: A simple, refreshing classic cocktail
‘Whisky: the drink of the dark,’ says many things; it speaks of indoors, of darkened rooms and firelight – it says neat. In fact, it says every image used in whisky advertising for many years. Yes, whisky plays in that field – and does it better than most drinks – but it can also play in the rest of the year.
The fact that this notion of Scotch as a year-round drink is still a tough sell to new consumers (in mature markets) shows how far we still have to go in terms of letting the light into those rooms, dragging people into the sunshine and pouring them a dram – but one with a different set of flavours, maybe at a different temperature, in a different glass, mixed with different ingredients. The conventions that seal Scotch up as the rosé is opened don’t need to be challenged, they need to be overturned.
Before consumers can be convinced, distillers have to be – and bartenders as well. It is time to make a concerted effort that says: ‘Lighten up guys.’ Look at occasion, flavour and serve; explore delicacy rather than heft, experiment with Highballs and, as the days lengthen, bring whisky with you out of the dark and into the light.
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