Day two of Tales throws up a heated whiskey debate, and a heavy metal bagpipes surprise.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
08 August 2015
‘You doing Tales?’ It’s a question which drops into every conversation in the bar industry from January onwards. The reply is usually in the positive and most often accompanied by a knowing smile. If you have done Tales before, then no more words are necessary.
For those who haven’t experienced the full madness of the event, it’s a bit like a Glastonbury for the spirits world – with all the attendant ecstasies, self-inflicted damage, lack of sleep, mass bonding sessions, but maybe more learnings.
To be more precise, Tales of the Cocktail takes place over four days every July in New Orleans – though each day seems like a month. In a good way. There are seminars – geeky, detailed, provocative, educational, instructive. There are tasting sessions, there are pop-up bars, there are enormous parties, there are dinners, there are inevitable late-night sessions where new friends are made and old acquaintances reconnected.
It’s networking in the nicest possible way. All in 100-degree heat and 200% humidity, in a city which has total disdain for sleep.
We veterans have it planned like a military campaign. Don’t overdo it. Plan dinner. Pack Berocca. Don’t be afraid of grabbing a power nap. Avoid late-night tattoo parlours. Realise that New Orleans will always win in hand-to-hand combat.
I get (slightly) better at it every year, but still return to the bosom of my family with a few more lines on the face, a sprinkle more grey hairs; broken, but elated.
Tales also presented an opportunity for Dave to pick up not one, but two Spirited Awards
It is also a chance to gauge the temperature of the bar trade globally: what’s hot, what’s cooling off, what are the trends? Take Scotch, for example. If reports are to be believed, this is a category in decline, a style of spirit that has had its day. Tales would suggest otherwise.
I got a hint of this the day before I landed in New Orleans, when I did a gig at the fantastic Reserve 101 whisky bar in Houston. The next day, I had breakfast with Ryan Roberts who runs Cullen’s – another top-end Houston Scotch bar.
At Tales, I ran into Leslie Ross, who is bar manager for the same city’s Treadsack bar group, and who sent across images and recipes for some of the Scotch-based cocktails she’s been working on.
A dying category? Not in Texas and not, if Tales is the measure, in the rest of the bar world.
When I started going to Tales, you’d be lucky to see a Scotch seminar. Distillers approached the event with a certain trepidation, unsure of how to engage with a world where vodka and (to a lesser extent in those days) gin ruled.
This year there were more Scotch seminars than ever – and they were all were sold out. The bar trade clearly wants to continue to learn.
Ryan Chetiyawardana and I talked of peat and smoke in drinks, Ian McLaren of Dewar’s led an incredible class on scientific research into bottle aging in spirits – something of real interest to Scotch lovers – which also touched on the degradation that takes place in the bottle through oxidation and exposure to light. Much more on this soon.
William Grant threw a massive party, but also celebrated Scotch in the guise of Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Monkey Shoulder. Edrington’s Cutty had events, while Beam Suntory showcased its entire whisky portfolio in its Julep House.
I tried to moderate the proceedings when six malt ambassadors hurled insults at each other in a mass blind tasting in front of 240 people – which culminated in Grant’s Lorne Cousins accompanying AC/DC’s Long Way to the Top on bagpipes.
Meanwhile, Diageo reprised its 2014 class on the difference between age and maturity, with a blind tasting which included Port Ellen and Brora.
Yes, there were other spirits – agave, gin, and a strong showing from Bourbon – but that’s only right. The point is that Scotch is, in Tales terms, on an equal footing. It gives us all something on which to build.
I returned shattered, but happy. Plans are already afoot for next year. Bigger, broader, deeper, more fun.
04 August 2015
In February, Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) CEO David Frost made a speech in which he voiced his concern about the impact of global politics on Scotch.
He spoke of the Russia/Ukraine conflict, of ‘poor economic management in the Eurozone, Argentina and Venezuela’, concluding that ‘it’s clear that we will have to work harder to keep exports growing in future years’.
He was right on all counts.
‘Work harder’: SWA CEO David Frost
In recent years, there has been a worryingly naive belief within the boardrooms of Scotch firms that that every market will grow at amazing rates and fall in love with Scotch.
Their sunny outlook was correct – for a while. When the opposite began to occur, it was time for Plan B.
The question is: what is it?
Some of the circumstances working against Scotch were unforeseen: the clampdown on corruption/corporate entertaining (are the two the same thing?) in China, economic sanctions imposed on Russia in the fall-out from the Ukraine conflict.
But it is a fact of life that no economy grows in a steadily upward direction, there will always be fluctuations, booms will inevitably be followed by slowdowns. The best you can hope for is that they will then plateau before the next boom starts up again.
The get out clause for Scotch has long been that, as one market begins to falter, resources can be put into another to take up the slack.
At the moment, however, the Scotch industry is still casting round for likely contenders to perform this role.
India? It is beginning to move in the right direction, but remains mired in tax issues and internal politics.
Africa likewise has massive potential, but remains politically volatile, while Japan is slipping back into a deflationary mode.
In terms of Scotch’s major markets, that leaves the US – and it is increasingly being targeted.
In March, Paul Ross, Edrington Americas CEO, admitted that the firm was ‘under-represented’ in the US and that it was now treating America ‘almost like an emerging market, to rebalance our global footprint’.
There are two things to be taken from this. First, why hadn’t Edrington noticed the US before? It’s quite big, after all. Second, this talk of an unbalanced global footprint suggests that there has been a slowdown – or that one is anticipated – elsewhere.
Don’t get me wrong. Targeting the US makes perfect sense for Scotch. The irony is that, while it is the spirit’s number one market in value terms, in the grand scheme of things Scotch under-performs in a market of its size and maturity.
The trouble is that the US market is also seeing a revival of interest in Bourbon, indications that Canadian whisky is stirring itself from its torpor, and the rise of small-scale local whiskey distillers.
Stir in Irish and Japanese and there’s a lot of liquid fighting for a share of the American whisky drinker’s pocket. In addition, if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, that consumer is used to cheap whisky and is virulently resistant to price hikes. So, while aiming for the US is the right thing to do, it won’t be straightforward.
At least the US economy is showing signs of life – whereas in Europe a wholly misguided obsession with ‘austerity’ rather than focusing on fiscal stimulus has caused economies to stagnate, resulting in the very people who you need to buy whisky being forced out of the market.
The outcome of austerity has wiped out most of Europe – especially the south – and the UK for Scotch.
Frost is right to be worried about geopolitical risk. With Scotch reliant on exports for 90% of its sales, the industry should be too.
31 July 2015
There is nothing sadder in whisky terms than a closed distillery. It is not just that a building has shut its doors, not just that a community has lost a focal point, but that a small and very precise point of difference in this complex world has been lost forever. Every sip which you take of a dram from one of the members of this club drives it closer to extinction.
Have you ever wondered, however, why they were closed on the first place? The standard response is that they were surplus to requirements in the 1980s when the industry got its calculations regarding supply and demand badly wrong (that would never happen again, would it?).
It’s the right answer, but it doesn’t actually answer the question – why were these specific distilleries chosen? What was the process which chose that one over its neighbour?
Size played its part. When the industry had to contract, it made more sense to concentrate production in larger plants than across a multiplicity of smaller ones. Sounds brutal? Believe me, it was – and was not a decision which was taken easily.
There is another reason, though, one which is rarely articulated. As a blender said to me once, sotto voce: ‘When it came down to it, the whisky wasn’t that great.’
Now I know this flies in the face of received wisdom that every single closed distillery was actually a precious gem, only culled by flinty-eyed accountants and heartless corporate types to try to maintain their share price, but what if there is something in this idea that the whisky didn’t pass muster?
Remember that the cull took place before a single malt category had formed. The make of each distillery was being assessed in terms of what was needed for blends. Some of these plants could have blossomed as single malts, were there an outlet, and had they been suitably set up in terms of maturation profile. I’d have loved it if Convalmore could have remained in production, for example.
Golden?: Brora distillery was closed down in 1983
Many of the whiskies from the 1980s cull are magnificent (and are among my top whiskies of all time) because they were filled into refill casks. The original intent was that these would be used, in blends, when young and fresh. There never was a plan to release them 30-odd years later.
What has happened in that period is relaxed maturation, where oxidation has played a more important role than oak – how many times have you had an overcooked example?
We, however, are guilty of approaching these whiskies with undue reverence. Our eyes go misty when the cork is pulled, our critical faculties disappear. It must be good – it’s from a cult distillery, there’s hardly anything left.
As well as the great relaxed examples, there are plenty where there has been no influence from the wood at all. There might be smoke, for example, but it barely covers the fact that the whisky is thin and lacking in complexity. Is that interesting aroma of baby sick a fault? It can’t be. In fact… it’s not there at all!
My advice? Taste with your mind open. Don’t be dragged into this assumption that not only are older whiskies automatically better, but those from closed distilleries are better again.
Life, and whisky, is far more complicated than that.
27 July 2015
It has to be said that William S Burroughs isn’t known as either a whisky lover (he preferred Tequila), or as a marketing guru, but when I came across this quote I couldn’t help but think of both.
‘Junk is the ultimate merchandise,’
wrote the great sage.
‘The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to the product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise, he degrades and simplifies the client.’
Great sage: William S Burroughs in 1977 (extreme right, with Carl Solomon, Patti Smith and Allen Ginsberg; photo: Marcelo Noah)
Now I also realise that it isn’t necessarily wise in these somewhat febrile times to appear to draw parallels between ‘junk’ and alcohol, so let it be clear from the outset that I’m not. I mean, it’s fairly obvious that Thomas de Quincey wasn’t talking about opium but whisky when he penned the following:
‘Happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat-pocket; portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint-bottle; and peace of mind could be sent down by the mail.’
It’s what is being outlined in Burroughs’ analysis that piqued my interest. It should be the case that anyone wishing to sell more whisky – and, my goodness, doesn’t everyone want to do that these days? – might simply wish to make their whisky better than the alternatives. In other words, to improve it. Is that happening?
We hear a lot about whiskies being more consistent these days than in the past, but that in itself only suggests that distillers have managed to successfully iron out issues which previously resulted in quality dropping on occasion. Aiming for consistency in an existing brand, while laudable, is one thing. Wishing to genuinely improve something is different. It should go hand-in-hand with creating consistency.
Is it being simplified? I wonder if it is. Those of you still reading this are dong so probably because you love whisky’s complexities, and this can be a fiendishly complicated spirit. At the same time, it is the over-emphasis on the arcane world that exists within whisky which puts many people off.
It’s like Game of Thrones. Only once you are fully committed can you understand what the hell is going on. It is tacitly understood that you need to make that extra effort. You are either in, or out. There is no middle ground.
That’s fine – it’s the way the modern world of TV operates. I like Boardwalk Empire, you don’t. Does the same apply to whisky, however? Is the lack of simplicity – in language, in education – potentially hampering its growth?
So, what of Burroughs’ second rule? Are we, as consumers, being degraded and simplified? In the latter case, maybe we are. The mass capture of data, the insidious growth of (anti-)social media and the number-crunching which goes with it have reduced us to ciphers.
We are ‘red’ or ‘blue’, grouped by likes and dislikes, targeted by algorithms – do you honestly think there is someone at Amazon who knows you well enough to suggest what you’ll like?
It’s the 21st century equivalent of astrology. It doesn’t allow for that thing called individuality, it denies the existence of free will – and that, my friends, degrades us all.
This new approach makes it easy – on paper at least – for brand owners to target effectively the right people with specific brands, but by simplifying consumers there is real danger that whisky itself loses its sense of difference.
It is choice which drives it, it is quirkiness, it is the weird unpredictability of a single cask, the fact that it, at its core, is not smooth and neutral, but a wondrously frustrating and enigmatic bundle of contradictions. It cannot afford to lose that.
Burroughs was a prophet, but prophecies do not always come true. They don’t… do they?
20 July 2015
Apparently there are now 3,200 craft brewers in the US (probably even more since I started writing that sentence). They define styles, lead – and create – trends.
They are well-organised, financially viable; they challenge the status quo and have in the past three decades changed the landscape of American beer, its flavour, image and consumption.
The same is happening in the UK, where there are now in excess of 800 breweries. The drinking of craft beer has moved from being the preserve of bearded men of a certain age to being that of… er… bearded men of a certain (but different) age – and, more hearteningly, women (but without the beards).
Initially dismissive of the changes in their industry, the major brewers in the US are now applying a new strategy with regard to craft brewers. They’re buying them.
Anheuser-Busch, for example, has bought four of its rivals since 2011 and has declared its intent to continue its programme.
The same process will, inevitably, be paralleled in the ‘craft’* whisky distilling movement. William Grant’s tie-up with Tuthilltown Spirits in New York was the first – but won’t be the last.
We’ve seen it happen for years with vodka, so why should whisky be any different?
Sign of the times: Tuthilltown’s Hudson Bourbon
The big guy provides capital, expertise, a distribution network and (if wise) acts in a hands-off fashion. It’s the distilling equivalent of Unilever’s ownership of Ben & Jerry’s.
There is another option, again taken by American brewers: the creation of a ‘diffusion’ line.
Think of it this way. The new, small whisky distiller has to be different in order to compete. They must innovate to cut through. The best of that new thinking will pique the interest of the majors.
It might be the trigger for investment in – or takeover of – the craft distillery, or it might just give them an idea for a diffusion range.
On the other hand, maybe the big boys don’t need some newcomer to show them how to make new styles of whisky. Have you ever considered that they might know it all already, but are just not telling?
Little birds land on my shoulder on occasion and tell me of some of the experiments and trials which are taking place in the majors’ distilleries and labs. Some are to assist in production efficiency, but others are genuinely innovative.
The question is: will they ever be commercialised? Indeed, can they? Is it possible to run a distillery on a stop/start regime with different yeasts, cereals, ferment times etc?
It has always been said that you can’t, but maybe you can. Perhaps the majors need to start thinking in a crafty way and set up divisions to sell their own ‘experimental’ whiskies.
Could it happen? I think it should.
* I consider all whisky makers to be craftsmen, no matter what their size.
17 July 2015
It's a slight exaggeration to say that Glasgow was built on whisky. It was built on steel and shipbuilding, tobacco and sugar, but whisky played a significant part in its Victorian prosperity. That legacy has been forgotten in recent years. Scotland’s whisky city? Elgin? Dufftown? Not Glasgow, surely.
Weegie whisky didn’t disappear, it just seemed to go underground. The fact that there has been an operational distillery in the Gorbals since 1927 has been pretty much forgotten. (It’s called Strathclyde, by the way.) The district’s previous plant, Adelphi, closed in 1907 and is now the site of Glasgow’s central mosque.
Strathclyde was the last. The smell of Sugar Puffs emanating from the Port Dundas grain distillery ceased in 2011 and a site which had once had contained three distilleries, including Dundashill, at one time the largest pot-still distillery in the world, closed forever.
The centre of the city was quieter too. From the mid-19th century, the brokers and blenders were located here. Firms such as Robertson & Baxter in West Nile Street, Greenlees Bros and Teacher’s in St Enoch Square, Wm Whitely, Ainslie & Heilbron and, largest of them all, the seven-acre Washington Street complex founded by W P Lowrie and subsequently taken over by James Buchanan. At its height it contained a cooperage, bonded warehouse (itself the largest in the world), blending labs, offices and bottling halls.
Return of the native: malt stocks mature in Glasgow again (Pic: Gavin D Smith)
I’m old enough to remember the Black & White dray horses which were stabled there and to have experienced the end of an era when I was drammed and lunched in the blenders’ fine wood-panelled offices, an era when little work tended to be done in the afternoon.
There are a few scattered remains in the city centre. Whyte & Mackay still clings on, the Laing brothers run their two operations, while Bowmore still has its bond in Springburn (though the days of being generously lunched there have now ended).
Whisky is still blended and bottled here, though. Dewar’s lies close to Parkhead, while Edrington dismantled and then reassembled the old R&B blending lab in its new blending and bottling hall in Great Western Road. Diageo bottles in Shieldhall, Chivas Bros further out in Kilmalid. For malt distilling, however, Auchentoshan was the closest thing to a Weegie distillery.
No longer. Now The Glasgow Distillery Co has opened in Hillington, close to the airport. In classic 21st century style, it kicked off by launching a gin, Makar, while stocks of malt are already being laid down and, in another modern practice, casks are being sold through a membership scheme.
It’s not alone – or won’t be for long. Dewar Rattray has plans for a distillery (somewhat confusingly called Glasgow Distillery) next to the river in Queen’s Dock, and I suspect it won’t be the last. Glaswegian whisky-making is back overground once more.
15 July 2015
I admit that the Scotch industry and Marxist theory aren’t often seen as natural bedfellows, but musing – which is, after all, what I do here – on quite where Scotch whisky is at the moment, my mind strayed to the writings of Italian communist Antonio Gramsci.
Bear with me.
Scotch has been the dominant player in the overall whisky (indeed brown spirit) category for almost a century. The reasons are many: economic, social, brilliant marketing, inherent quality … and more than a touch of good fortune.
Scotch rules. Therefore, when consumers think of whisky, they think of Scotch, it is their touchstone, their reference point. Other whiskies define themselves as being different to Scotch. That’s just the way the world is, so you best accept it. Scotch has, in other words, a hegemony.
But what of all these new whiskies which are appearing, the revived Irish and Bourbon industries, Japan and Canada? Surely things are not the same? ‘Exactly!’ say I (and Gramsci’s shade).
Marxism is based on the concept of a historical dialectic: that change will happen and society will, over time, become equal. For that to change, argued Gramsci, there must be a counter-hegemonic movement. That is what is happening now.
Counter-hegemonic movement: Antonio Gramsci
Scotch is facing not only emboldened rivals, but is being explicitly criticised by commentators in an unprecedented fashion: it’s too expensive, quality is dropping, it’s out of touch, it lacks innovation, NAS is ruining everything.
Whether any of this is true doesn’t concern us here. The fact that it is happening is what is important. No matter that Scotch’s rivals are facing the same pressures in regard to price and stock pressures, and coming up with the same solution; they are new. In the reductive nature of this discussion, they are not only different, but they are better, simply because they are not Scotch.
In other words, there is a counter-hegemonic coalition building and, according to Gramsci, the more people who flock to the causes and ideas of the opposition (ie buying bottles in preference to Scotch), then the more possible the revolution is. I’m not suggesting that there is a secret cabal of non-Scotch distillers plotting its downfall, but what is becoming clear is that Scotch is no longer calling all the shots.
We are therefore at the point in Gramscian thought of ‘the war of position’, of a fully-formed, alternative culture being created. People then begin to question the way things are (and have always been) and, providing the alternative is properly thought through, the switch from the old to the new is seamless. When that happens, he would say, the old order falls. If we’re not quite at that point in whisky, it is beginning. There is revolution in the air, comrades.
Does Scotch realise this? I’m not sure if it does. It has been used to dismissing other whiskies, not because of quality, but because of their size. Individual countries may not have the volumes needed to challenge Scotch, but collectively they do.
Is there a way out of this for Scotch? Yes, but first the industry needs to realise that the whisky world has changed. It needs to engage with a new consumer, understand their new mindset. It needs to look at narrative, and image. Failing to do so is, I’d argue, dangerous.
Gramsci told you.
08 July 2015
You might have read about the bottle of blended whisky found in a suitcase and which turned out to have been placed there by its original owner after the First World War. According to the official line, the whisky – The Croft Blend – was in the possession of one Corporal William Mill of the 3rd Volunteer Battalion of the King's Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB), who took it to the trenches in 1914 and brought it back unopened. He then stashed it in the case under his bed. The bottle passed through the family until one of them decided to sell it at auction. According to Peter Burns at Scotch Whisky Auctions: ‘It [was] truly a mystery.’ Damn right it was.
I’m not doubting provenance – there is no great fake scandal in the offing here – but some aspects of this are just plain bizarre.
For starters, so far there is no evidence of there ever being a whisky called The Croft Blend, but our people (actually our brand bloodhound) are continuing to dig. What is even more odd is that here you have a man, a soldier, who takes a bottle of whisky with him to France, serves throughout the conflict, never opens it, then brings it back and hides it. Does that sound like rational behaviour?
Maybe he was teetotal and whoever gave Cpl Mill the bottle didn’t realise this. Meanwhile he, not wishing to give offence, just took it with him. But why keep it? Maybe he became teetotal and didn’t want to drink, but again why then have a bottle of whisky there tempting you?
Maybe he was uncommonly mean, or ridiculously brave. I tell you this, if I were on the front line for the duration of the war as Cpl Mill is claimed to have been, I wouldn’t hang onto a bottle in case I needed a drink. It would have been drained after the first bombardment. If, for some inexplicable reason, I mislaid the bottle and only discovered it when I was heading home, I’d have cracked it in celebration.
Alternatively, maybe it was extremely rare – after all, no-one can find the brand – and he held onto it as an investment. If he did, he’d be about 100 years ahead of the game. In Mill’s day, whisky was for drinking – unless you were Mill of course.
Perhaps the Corporal felt that he didn’t need a drink and was happy with the daily rum ration – a quarter gill tot – or the large amounts of alcohol that were available behind the lines.
Actually, it’s slightly unclear whether Cpl Mill was ever under fire. The letter of provenance for the whisky says that in 1906, after six years with the 3rd Battalion KOSB, he joined the 3rd Squadron of the [Lanarkshire] Yeomanry, which was at that time a Territorial division. When the war started eight years later, the Yeomanry divided into two divisions, with one joining the regular Army in Gallipoli and Egypt, and by the end of the war on the Western Front. The other served on the home front.
In 1916, the horses were put back into their stables and the latter division became the 15th Cyclist Brigade and patrolled Dunbar on their bikes. Who knows what path Cpl Mill and his whisky took? If he stayed in the UK – he was already fairly old for active service – maybe this could explain why the whisky wasn’t drunk.
Does any of this matter? In a creative sense, yes, because this blurred label and equally hazy story opens up possible narratives. Why wasn’t there a Croft Blend? Maybe because this was a one-off, with a hand-drawn label made at ‘the croft’ and given to Mill. He never opened it because the bottle itself was too precious. It was a token which reminded someone of home at a time when home was so precious that broaching the bottle meant draining some of that memory away. Keep it close, keep it closed and you will return… even if it is only from Dunbar on your bicycle. There are many more such alternate fictional realities.
It matters from a whisky point of view as well. If a bottle is coming up at auction, its back story needs to be rigorously checked. There’s no room for romance, half-truths, or fiction here. Equally, a brand cannot drift into the realms of fantasy because it makes its story sexier, or more palatable.
Thank you Corporal Mill for reminding us of that.
04 July 2015
I was watching Jacques Tati’s masterpiece Playtime the other night. If you haven’t seen it, please do so, and then watch it again. It is a droll meditation on modern alienation played out in a unrecognisable Paris (actually a city set built by Tati), in which people are cut off from each other. It’s not maybe the first thing which comes to mind when writing about whisky, but now that I have to write every week on the topic I’m finding connections everywhere.
Anyhoo… One of the film’s long set pieces features Tati’s M Hulot trying, and failing, to get to a appointment in a vast, anonymous building. Searching for the man he’s due to meet, he looks down (through glass, inevitably) into a room which is divided into small cubicles. Inside each is a member of staff. No-one talks to each other. They work in isolation, never interact. It’s a pretty neat manifestation of silo thinking.
Maybe I should explain. Silo thinking is when the individual departments in a firm don’t share – or want to share – information. While it’s a mentality which is beginning to be challenged – it has been blamed for helping to cause the financial crash – there are still plenty of firms that function in this way. In a drinks firm, for example, you could see the silos being different categories, or sales channels: one for on-trade, one for off-, one for travel retail, one for specialists. Now replicate that in every one of the firm’s offices and there’s a hell of a lot of people not talking to each other.
Because there is inevitably inter-departmental conflict, this is not so much the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, but the right hand wanting to cut the left hand off.
The upside of this, it can be argued, is that it allows a certain degree of autonomy for individual brands or categories – for example, allowing single malt to exist on its own, rather than just being bundled into ‘whisky’ – but if the people selling it aren’t talking to each other then any advantage this may give, I’d argue, is lost.
Dividing a business into silos also means there is the risk of a lack of coherence within brands. When every market and sales channel is autonomous, each one of them wants its own expression. The brand ends up being warped into unfamiliar shapes, and any consistency of message and flavour is lost. Is this happening in Scotch whisky? In the case of some brands, yes.
I first came across the silo concept via the writings of Gillian Tett who, as the FT’s US managing editor, is considerably more intelligent and perceptive than I, as you can see in this extract from her contribution to the Banque de France’s Financial Stability Review in 2010.
‘…as innovation speeds up in the 21st century, specialists are engaged in highly complex activities in numerous silos, that almost nobody outside that particular silo understands, or even knows about – even though the activity in that silos often has the ability to affect society as a whole.
‘There is thus a bizarre paradox in the 21st century world: namely while the global system is becoming more interconnected in some senses, the level of mental and structural fragmentation remains very intense.’
The bigger the firm is, the more likely this is to happen, and the implications are serious. As Annelise Riles writes on Cornell University’s Collateral Knowledge blog: ‘The silo mentality is not just about a lack of knowledge. It is also about a lack of confidence in one’s ability to communicate with people outside the silo.’
Is that happening in Scotch? You bet it is.
01 July 2015
The relationship between independent bottlers (IBs) and the majors has all gone a bit hokey-cokey this year. One spring day you’ll find Glenmorangie divesting itself of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) to ‘a group of investors’ (a phrase which always fills me with a certain dread), then the next Bacardi is buying a minority stake in Compass Box. So, now that the dust has settled somewhat, what’s going on?
The SMWS sale makes sense. There has long been a camp within Glenmo' who a) wanted to get shot of the Society having b) wondered why they had bought it in the first place. Always an awkward fit, it had become increasingly out of step with the needs of a sleek LVMH company.
The Society was set up by a maverick – the great Pip Hills – to be a maverick. It wasn’t only different from the distillers, it didn’t even conform to the independent bottler model. Society bottlings were always extreme, quirky, different – difficult even. This iconoclastic stance was continued under the aegis of Richard Gordon, who brought a degree of stability after the fireworks of the original set-up, but it was still identifiably the Society.
Yes, it has got more ‘professional’ in recent years, there are more members, more overseas branches, the website is good, the bottlings have increased, it has acted as the training school for a remarkable new generation of brand ambassadors and distillers, but the underlying spirit has changed.
Changing spirit: the Scotch Malt Whisky Society
This is not to say that Glenmo' ruined the Society. It didn't. It has simply come to the realisation that it was an impossible fit within a (luxury) brand-oriented company. What’s next? We’ll have to wait to see what these shadowy investors have in store.
For them to succeed, they have to come to terms with the reality of being a successful IB – access to great stock. The Society, like most IBs, has had to bear the consequences of stock shortages. In recent years, access to Glenmo’s blending library put them in a better position than many in terms of volume, but they still faced the same reality faced by all IBs: the stock from closed distilleries had long gone, the stellar single casks which were around in the past were, seemingly, harder to come by.
Having good bottlings is fine, but in the long term, any IB business is built on having great ones. This is even more important for the Society as its members require whisky of a standard which justifies the membership fees. If you set yourself up as exclusive, then you need to come up with the goods. Are there sufficient great casks out there for a new-look, independent SMWS to prosper?
It’s stock which lies at the root of Bacardi’s deal with Compass Box. The latter is a throwback to a mid-19th century model of a whisky blender, in the days before those blenders bought distilleries.
Good relations with Diageo gave CB access to juice, but it was, inevitably, limited. Growing the CB ‘brand’ therefore was always going to be tricky, especially as the firm’s rate of expansion was greater than the liquid which was available to it. You can’t sell what you don’t have. Sticking with existing contracts restricted CB’s potential.
Dewar’s has stocks. Deep stocks by all accounts, and of a mix which CB can utilise and which will allow the firm to grow. Add that to the continuing Diageo agreement, and the fact that the firm is filling its own casks means it is, finally, ready to make a significant step forward.
While CB has been vociferous in its assertions that nothing has changed, it will be interesting to see how Dewar’s plays this. Will we see subtle briefings to the effect that CB is their innovations arm? Indeed, where does this leave Dewar’s innovations? What happens if both sides want specific stock?
Whisky politics: Compass Box founder John Glaser
The deal makes good business sense and is proof of CB founder John Glaser’s ability to play clever whisky politics but, while I have confidence in what he is doing, I suspect there will be some interesting times ahead.
Come to think of it, if Compass Box was willing to do a deal like this, one would presume that it would first have approached Diageo. If it did, then why on earth didn’t the big D act?
It’s hardly the misstep of letting Bushmills go, but it raises another question mark about its overall whisky strategy.
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Festivals and events 15 July 2015
Day 1 at the hedonistic drinks fest served breakfast cocktails, peat geekery and a Stormtrooper DJ.
Festivals and events 17 July 2015
Becky Paskin's third day at Tales proves whisky brings people together like nothing else.
Festivals and events 27 July 2016
Scotch whisky is as significant as any other spirit at this annual New Orleans cocktail festival.
Festivals and events 19 July 2015
Dwarves, apes, and William of Orange's campervan distillery. It could only be the last day of Tales.