More than 100,000 rare bottles were sold at auction in the UK last year, worth over £40m.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
07 March 2018
Top Shelf was the theme for the class, a title which was wholly justified as the drams were indeed rare and justifiably expensive. Banff and Caperdonich from Cadenhead’s 175th anniversary collection, two Port Ellens, an old Clynelish and Glenfarclas Fino Casks. You know, what most of us drink each weekend… There was even a wee freebie thrown in at the start in the shape of an old bottle of Bulloch Lade’s ‘Old Rarity’ which certainly lived up to its name.
Neither Charlie MacLean (my compadre at the tasting) or I have come across such a rare aroma. ‘Tinned tomato juice that’s gone off’ was the Walrus of Whisky’s analysis. ‘Rotting vegetables in the bins behind a supermarket,’ I retorted. Like any whisky, it told a story. Filthy though it undoubtedly was, it also said do not expect every old bottle to be magnificent. When you buy at auction be prepared for the worst.
It might have been an extreme example, but that Old Rarity also demonstrated how wrong it is to fall into the trap (as many have) of believing in some ‘Golden Age’ of whisky when everything was perfect. There were some amazing whiskies from the ‘60s and ‘70s for sure, but equally there was a lot of crap as well.
Rose-tinted specs: Was whisky really better in the old days, or is it all just hopeless romanticism?
We can point to the use of different strains of barley giving their own character to these old whiskies, the wider use of brewers’ yeasts, direct fire, or worm tubs. All would have had an influence of the character made. Equally, much of that new make would have been put into knackered wood, or in ‘Sherry’ casks which had been dosed with paxarette. Some would end up being remarkable whiskies, others – to be frank – wouldn’t.
There was no prelapsarian Golden Age. The issue is more subtle than that. After all, this is whisky we are talking about and as we should know by now there is no one simple, single answer. Rarity isn’t simply scarcity. It can also mean that the flavours and aromas are rare, unusual, fascinating. Rarity means that these are the exceptions, not the rule.
Maybe I listen to too much Miles Davis and buy into the way in which he approached his music, constantly moving it forwards, never resting on one style, no matter how popular it was. Perhaps I have bought into the kaizen approach of Japanese craft, that belief in continual, incremental improvement. I believe in a constant, always changing momentum and know that no matter how much we fetishise the past, we cannot return. Life is impermanent.
It is human to resist this. It is easier – and perhaps natural – that as we get older so we become increasingly nostalgic – music was better, so were movies, or cars; the summers were hotter and winters were always snowy. Just as our noses remind us of the scents of our childhood, so our view of the world is seen through a child’s eye.
It is wrong to fetishise the past. Whisky has never been set in amber. The distillers of the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s were moving the art forward as well. They too probably thought that whisky was better in the old days, while at the same time improving on what their fathers and grandfathers had done.
Evolving distillery: Bowmore’s looking to the past to influence its future releases, without stepping back in time
This doesn’t mean rejecting the past. Rather, you understand it and see how it could influence the future. So the examination of yeast, or barley, or worms, or direct fire is correct. The debate over whether to take the hit on efficiency to achieve a different flavour is a valid and vital one. Only by doing this will whisky continue to evolve in an increasingly complex and demanding market.
The questions have to be asked and the answers will be appropriate for tomorrow’s whiskies, just as the changes in production in the ‘60s were correct for the changing nature of the industry and the palates of the time. Tomorrow’s drinker is fascinated by provenance and richer flavours, and so the industry will (or should) respond to this change in ways which might see the past being mined. Just look at the way in which Suntory is using contemporary learnings to align tomorrow’s Bowmore with the flavours it produced in the 1960s and ‘70s.
It isn’t however going back to the past or believing that whisky was better in those days. Whisky was different, just as it was different in the ‘50s, and the ‘40s, and all the way back to the 15th century.
It is hopelessly naive to believe that there was a single point when every whisky produced was magnificent. It rained in summer, and snow didn’t always fall at Christmas. Move on.
28 February 2018
I don’t do puddings. As a rule, anyway. It’s not down to smug self-denial. Maybe unusually for a Scot, I just don’t have a particularly sweet tooth. Well… apart from Tunnock’s, which is different, isn’t it?
But there are always exceptions. Like now. The wine glasses have been moved off the table, which is now covered by two large sheets of silver foil. The next thing there’s the sound of singing and clapping, and two of the chefs appear and start flinging dessert onto the table. Imagine if Jackson Pollock was a chef and used food instead of paint, and you’ll get an idea of the end result.
It would be rude not to dig into the jams and berries, meringue, cake, cream, caramel, honey and fruits that have been smeared and splatted, drizzled and tossed everywhere.
It’s hard to eat, because we’re all laughing so much at the absurdity of it, but laughter is a major element of Machneyuda, with its pumping music, stripped-back furnishings and young, hip, friendly staff.
Its menu changes every day, depending on what is available in the neighbouring market and the chefs’ inclinations. By halfway through the dessert overload we’re beginning to flag and have to admit defeat. As we move on for a digestif, I wonder whether there’s a whisky cocktail that uses insulin as an ingredient.
None of this was what I was expecting from Jerusalem, but one day into a quick trip to Israel had seen most of my preconceptions being as wildly deconstructed as the dessert.
Sensory overload: The Mahane Yehuda market offers a bewildering array of flavours
Much of that process had come through food. Israelis love to eat. Every course was accompanied by a phalanx of side dishes – just in case, a little extra, a crunch, a sprinkle, something to add another layer.
The afternoon had been spent wandering around the ancient Mahane Yehuda market. Inside the shuk were young soldiers queuing for baklava, coffee stores and brew pubs; confused-looking pilgrims, the orthodox and the secular, backpackers and locals on their daily shop.
Here resides ‘The King of Tahini’ and Berschowitz’s spice store. ‘I’ll grind anything for you,’ he says with a half-smile. I look at his piles of home-made za’atar. ‘Try it! Try it!’ One herbal and heady, with hyssop and oregano and who knows what else, the other brighter and spicier.
I fill a bag with both, and more, and go back into the noise and the bustle of a market, the headiness of the spice shops mingling with whiffs of cheese and olive oil, coconuts and berries, honeyed pecans and balsamic infused with truffle. Senses deranged, in overload.
My friend Dudi drags me off to have a snack. I mean, we hadn’t eaten for, oh, about two hours. He buys a brace of pitas, soft and pillowy, filled with densely-flavoured meat. ‘It’s all the bits of the chicken that usually get thrown away,’ he says helpfully. ‘Think of it as Jerusalem haggis.’
Before dinner there’s still time to try freshly squeezed etrog and khat, and nibble on pieces of halva carved from vast sugared wheels.
To find a culture, look to the food; and, to find that, go to the markets. Overload your senses and tune in. It seems exotic, but it’s only in recent times that food shopping in the UK has become a sanitised, sterile experience, where aromas are sealed in by layers of plastic.
‘Jackson Pollock’: Machneyuda’s chaotic dessert is a feast for all the senses
I’m old enough to remember one of the last of Glasgow’s ‘Italian warehousemen’, Wilkies in Hyndland, where the smell of bacon and ham would mingle with oats, spices and fruits, bread, wines, teas and coffees; the same aromas which had been rising in stores the same as this all across Scotland for generations.
It’s no surprise, then, that these were the people who were the first whisky blenders. Yes, they understood that blending gave volume, consistency and a character which would appeal to a local palate, and also the need to define themselves against their rivals and neighbours.
It applied to tea or rum or coffee, or whisky. More importantly, they succeeded because they lived in this heady, sensory world. They understood flavour. That was the message I was giving to the bartenders competing in the Israeli heats of the Diageo World Class cocktail competition.
As a species we are predisposed to blending: perfumes, cigars, drinks, musical instruments, people and food. The food culture in Israel should feed into the way in which they approach drinks, just as the way in which south-east Asian cuisine, with its understanding of balance between sweet, sour, heat, and acidity, can influence their developing cocktail culture.
I’m there with World Class cocktailian Lauren Mote, who is also giving a session on her (amazing) Bittered Sling range. In it she talks of bitters as modifiers, about how their high levels of complexity come from a balance of individual ingredients working collectively rather than in isolation, and how their intensity changes a drink and gives it unity without dominating it.
It’s exactly the same with a blended Scotch – all the elements pulling together – rather than pushing away from each other, which is the world of single malt.
I know, I’m banging on about blends again. Well, there’s some things you just have to never stop saying. Like: try rum, or drink Riesling, or please give some Sherry a try – or find a market, and start to smell things again, allow your senses to be deranged.
20 February 2018
The Winter Olympics are on, which means that it’s time for many of us to suddenly take an interest in people sliding about, mostly at terrifying speed. ‘A novel enough way to commit suicide,’ as Sir Henry Rawlinson once commented.
There seems more danger involved this year: even the previously balletic ice skating now has a move called the Death Spiral, which strikes me as something dreamt up for the film Blades of Glory rather than being an officially sanctioned move.
The upshot of this is that I find myself seeking refuge in the calm of the curling rink – less violence, less fear of injury, fewer guns. It’s also a sport of which I have a minor knowledge.
There was only one curling rink in Glasgow when I was growing up. At school, someone had realised that, if we formed a curling club, we’d be able to miss an afternoon’s lessons due to the length of time it took to get to Crossmyloof.
We did it. For a while, anyway. And I loved it, finding curling a surprisingly subtle and precise game, tactically complex and far from being housework on ice.
My memory is hazy, but I can’t remember us ever having regularly competitive matches – either other schools weren’t onto the ruse, or they weren’t capable of such devious thinking. Maybe that’s why the training sessions petered out, and ‘going curling’ became shorthand for popping out to the pub.
At least we were following an ancient tradition. In the centuries before indoor municipal ice rinks, curling was an outdoor sport, ‘the roaring game’, played on frozen lochs and ponds – and no bonspiel would have been complete without copious amounts of whisky.
There’s a recently discovered family connection as well. When at my cousin’s a couple of weeks back for the ritual haggis-slaughtering event, the talk turned to our great-grandfather Thomas Moffatt, who was the schoolmaster in the Perthshire village of Forgandenny in the late 19th century.
Over ice: Curling was once an outdoor sport – and liquid refreshment played a crucial part
A book on the history of the village has recently been published, and the family have been poring over it to find references to a man by whose life we have always been intrigued. Though he kept diaries all his life, he has remained, somehow, elusive.
My mother and her cousins always maintained that he was teetotal. I’ve long been unsure about that, given the amount of toddies he seemed to consume on a regular basis when meeting with his cronies in Perth.
Anyway, the fact that Forgandenny would have been scented by the fumes from Stronachie distillery would surely have turned the most assiduous Rechabite into a lover of Scottish wine.
The truth was finally revealed in a passage about the Forgandenny Curling Club:
‘The evening was memorable for the formation of an old Curling Court, as was the custom after many toasts. Thomas Moffat [sic] became My Lord and Alexander Graham acted as his officer.
‘A drinking and fining game followed to raise money and the evening was so fast and furious that it became absolutely necessary to appoint an assistant officer in the person of Brother William Gourlay. The welcoming nature of the curling club members achieved some notoriety…’
Though this may have shocked our parents, my cousins and I revelled in the notion that our ancestor was head of such a notoriously raucous association.
Maybe there’s something in the genes. Another round of Talisker (no Stronachie was available) was poured to toast the old man, just as it would have been on the ice in those far-off days.
It’s another example of how whisky enters every crevice of life and binds people together. Winter sports are associated with booze. Maybe not at the elite level – being half-cut on the half-pipe might not be ideal – but on a strictly amateur level there’s as much excitement about the après-ski as there is about the activity itself, and surely the best thing after a long day in cold temperatures is a dram.
The joy with the Winter Olympics is that you don’t need to get yourself cold to begin with. Just pull on a woolly hat and have a dram while watching the highlights.
07 February 2018
I keep telling people I only watch the BBC’s Bargain Hunt television programme because it’s broadcast at lunchtime, but recently I’ve found myself watching all sorts of antiques shows and now am putting in bids for unlikely things (a bust of Dante? A Georgian bureau/bookcase which I have no space for?), so I think you can say I’m hooked.
And in case you think a Georgian bureau is a ludicrous expense, let me remind you that brown furniture is extremely cheap at the moment, and you’re better off buying an antique than trotting off to Ikea.
From this viewpoint, I look at auction houses as being places staffed by decent people who assess, seek out provenance and who, in the heat of the auction, will encourage people to buy, but will always be honest and fair in their assessment of the true value of the object. You trust them.
Which leads me, seamlessly, to the Malt Mill saga of last week. A whisky which no-one had ever seen before, ‘a unicorn whisky’ as the auction house called it, suddenly appears on the market.
That in itself isn’t that unusual. Most of the ‘Italian Job’ fakes were whiskies which no-one had ever seen before, appearing in volumes which ought to have alerted people to their dubiety though, despite the warning cries of ‘gift horse’, ‘too good to be true’, ‘caveat emptor’ and ‘are you really sure about the five Vermeers in the attic?’, folks went ahead and snapped them up.
Bargain hunting: Despite auctioneers’ best efforts, not all whisky sold at auction is guaranteed genuine
What set Malt Mill apart from other whiskies which – how shall I put this? – skirted on the borders of the plausible, was the caveat which the auction house put on the lot:
‘As a disclaimer, we… must say that we have had our experts scrutinise this mystical little wonder, and it is impossible to comment either way as to whether it is what it says on the tin. This, of course, adds to the esoteric awe and contemplation associated with this lot. It is ultimately up to the bidders to set the tone!’
In other words a polite way of saying: ‘Mebbe aye, mebbe naw, ‘sup to you.’ Or, in English [Thanks – Ed], we can’t prove it isn’t, so maybe it is; a stance which, it could be argued, doesn’t exactly err on the side of caution. Still, it was close enough for someone to shell out £3,400 for the miniature.
The story of its purchase was intriguing, as it boiled down to: ‘A mate of mine bought it off someone in the pub,’ which is an interesting approach to provenance.
Not wishing to cast aspersions on any licensed premises on Islay, but I think that most people who have frequented one of these drinking establishments have been offered something at some point. I know a man who was found in the ditch on the way home from one, moaning: ‘I bought a cow! I bought a cow!’ as the beast munched contentedly above him. At least it wasn’t a unicorn.
I believe that people who buy at auction assume that the seller is honest. I believe this is the case because those people also believe that the auction house has run checks on the item to satisfy themselves that it is kosher. As buyers, you trust their expertise.
I think we, naively, also believe that the auction house has a moral responsibility to run those necessary checks and balances to satisfy themselves (and the potential buyer) that what is being sold is, to their best belief, what it purports to be.
In other words, we as potential buyers think that the houses have done more than just believing the man in the pub story and that they have experts on hand who can indicate that they have reservations about bottles.
But read the small print. Here’s terms and conditions from a highly reputable auction house:
‘X makes every effort to ensure that the Catalogue and description of the Lot are accurate, but X makes no warranty to that effect.
‘All Statements whether made verbally or in the Catalogue are statements of opinion only and neither X or its employees or agents will be responsible for the accuracy of any opinion given. Each Lot is sold by the Seller with any and all errors of description, faults and imperfections.’
Here are three different specialist whisky auction houses’ take on the same issue:
‘In the event of a dispute arising over the provenance or authenticity of any Lot, if it cannot be proved beyond reasonable doubt to be genuine (and we shall be the sole judge as to authenticity and our decision shall be final) the Lot will be returned to the Seller and no monies will be due to either party. We reserve the right to refuse any item for auction, especially where there are questions regarding authenticity of the Lot.’
‘All Listings will be prepared and submitted by the Company but will be based upon the information which you provide.’
‘Should there be any doubt on the authenticity of an item, the onus is on the seller to prove it. In the event this cannot be done, the item will be returned at the full cost of the seller.’
All say the same thing, but say it slightly differently. Some suggest they will check, others say it’s up to the seller, others that we’ll do our best but if we make a mistake it’s not our fault. This doesn’t just apply to high-profile bottles such as Malt Mill, but to every bottle of whisky that comes up at auction.
An auctioneer’s job is difficult, at times almost impossible, so this isn’t a criticism of them. They are honest people. Rather, it is a warning to all of us who might be tempted to enter that market. Read the terms and conditions. Do your research into the whisky – and the house’s expertise.
It’s your money, but I have to confess that someone saying: ‘Well, to be honest, we’re not sure but, what the hell, it’s up to you’ fills me with the same sense of security as I get from the guy in the pub selling me that ‘genuine’ Rolex.
I’m worried about that bureau now. Does anyone know anything about Georgian furniture?
31 January 2018
The reaction to Diageo’s alleged experiments with Scotch saw monocles dropping. Tequila cask-finished whisky? Where will the madness lead to? What’s next? Tartan whisky? Whisky aged in space? Whisky flavoured with blackberries (© N Boyd)?
None of the Diageo ideas seemed particularly outrageous to me, given we live in a world where bottles of pea-flavoured water sell for £28 (more expensive than many single malts). To many they appeared to spring from the world of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley – which maybe should be renamed Diageon Alley.
Just because they were thinking of them doesn’t mean that any would have seen the light of day. There’s less of pushing the envelope about the notions, more of being scribbled on the back of one. In fact it would be more surprising if a company of Diageo’s size wasn’t looking at new ways to think about Scotch – after all, this is how categories grow over time.
Diagon Alley: Diageo’s ideas are like something from the world of Harry Potter
Take the Tequila cask, for example. Would Sir Alexander Walker have used Tequila casks if Scotland had been an importer of the spirit in the 19th century? You bet he would, and the only reason that the cask wouldn’t be permitted today is because there is no evidence (as yet) that it was used in such a way in the past, thereby putting it outwith the tradition.
The same, by the way, goes for Calvados which, for me, is as much of a shame. Imagine Caol Ila (which often has more than a whiff of mezcal about it) given a resting period in ex-Tequila casks, or Calvados casks adding a subtle fruit to a Scotch, increasing its complexity.
But was that the actual reason for the Diageon Alley Task Force? According to the Wall Street Journal, the rationale was ‘to explore “whether potential regulatory, technical, legal or other barriers are constraining” Scotch’. It was less a failed attempt to foist outrageous new expressions of Scotch on an unsuspecting market and more of a kite-flying exercise.
Diageo knew that the ideas would be slapped down by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), which then allowed it to reveal the true reason for the project: to see whether the SWA was ‘overreaching its remit’.
That is far more interesting, as it suggests that the trade body’s biggest member is flexing its not inconsiderable muscle and suggesting that things need to change. After all, the second part of the Diageo response to the SWA’s decision apparently raised ‘the scope for reform’.
Might that happen? There does seem to be a more nuanced air about some of the SWA’s pronouncements recently. In an interview last month, chief exec Karen Betts said she saw ‘more flexibility’ in how the regulations could be interpreted (and never forget the SWA interprets the law, not lays it down).
As we have pointed out ad nauseam here, there is considerable flex within the regulations, to the extent that it might only be the interpretation which needs to be revised to allow a new flow of innovation.
If the products of Diageon Alley have done their job and are now safely back into the NPD department of Gates’ Wizard Wheezes, could this new, more pragmatic attitude to the regulations see a sensible resolution to the ongoing debate over transparency? It’s my understanding that there is now a willingness at SWA HQ to discuss the intricacies of an issue which will not go away.
The old SWA default setting of ‘no’ is being replaced by ‘let’s consider’ and, while the tradition will always remain a pillar of what helps to define Scotch, it should never be used as a blunt instrument to restrict thinking, or prevent whisky moving forward.
As Japanese paper maker Eriko Horiki once told me: ‘Today’s tradition is the innovation of the past; today’s innovation is the tradition of the future.’ We always move forward. Maybe that path has now been made slightly easier to travel.
24 January 2018
We had been sitting in the terminal, frantically trying to find alternative ways to get to Seattle as the ferry had docked with mechanical problems. It wasn’t looking good.
The options seemed to be: wait until tomorrow and hope; catch a different ferry to Vancouver, then bus it to Seattle; or hire a car in Vancouver; or get the train. I was beginning to feel like I was stuck in a John Candy movie.
Then the announcement came. ‘It’s ok, folks, we’ve had divers down and they found a log stuck in the engine. This has been removed and we are good to go.’
Cue 300 people cheering. It was only once we were under way that we began thinking: ‘Log? Engine? Is this really safe?’ Not the ideal start to the trip, but we were, finally, on the move.
The idea of things being unable to sail along smoothly seemed to echo what we had just left behind in Victoria, with the heavy-handed application of an absurd clause in the law. In fact, ways in which whisky’s potential flow was being stalled had become a theme during the past couple of weeks of my stravaiging in northern climes.
The week before, in Norway, I’d discovered how distilleries were unable to sell their whisky in situ, but only at the state-controlled stores which, in remote locations, could be many hours away.
Whisky makers are constantly working within a world of restrictions. In some cases, it can be positive. Understanding constraints and then enhancing what you have is a fundamental element of creativity, but there are also restrictions which have been imposed by mindset. That's what was now coming into focus a couple of days later when I sat with five glasses of new make in front of me.
Mind-blowing: Five new make samples, four barley varieties, one distillery
The first had a rich, malty, roasted nuttiness with a clean, lightly floral taste; glass two smelled of tomato soup/fruity Italian tomato sugo, with added fat, dark fruits; the third was desert-dry, like corncobs, hay and beansprouts, with a taste of toasted sunflower seeds; the fourth light, sweet and malty; and the final glass floral and lifted, with a zingy, citric, apple flavour.
Nothing that unusual in that, perhaps. Malt whisky is, after all, about singularity. Five distilleries, five different new makes is what you should expect. Single malt Scotch has been built upon distillers’ ability to manipulate the simple ingredients of barley, water and yeast into different shapes.
It’s done by malting (if smoke is being added), mashing, fermentation, reflux, condensing and cut points (we’ll leave yeast out of this for the moment). Tiny tweaks which result in maximum impact.
All of these, however, were from the same distillery, Seattle’s Westland. What’s more, the first two were distilled the same way, the remaining three another way.
Their stark differences in flavour hadn’t started at the distillery, or in the maltings, but in the field. Four of the five were made from different barley varieties (numbers one and four were the same variety, the standard US malting variety Copeland, distilled two different ways).
Of the others, that tomato soup one was the ancient variety Purple Obsidian; the parched desert one was Talisman; the zingy, lifted one was NZ (it was originally named Richard, and then Fritz, which I think were better). All were grown locally.
Here you had one distillery creating a wider range of flavours, not through process, but varietal. Now imagine what other elements could be layered on top of that through roasts, smoke, yeast, distillation – and then oak.
My mind was blown. This was the concept of place, writ deep. Westland’s master distiller Matt Hofmann beamed. ‘You see? Amazing, isn’t it? Now imagine if this philosophy can be extended, and how these varieties could pick up different identities in different microclimates.’
I’ve touched on creating flavour in the field before but, bar tasting bere barley distillate, it has been theoretical. Now, here the potential of a radically expanded palette of whisky flavours had been revealed.
Holistic approach: A flavour-led philosophy can benefit all, says Matt Hofmann
For it to work, however, a series of relationships has to be established. ‘All of these, bar Copland, were rejected by the system, but we knew we had to go for it,’ explained Hofmann. ‘If this idea of new varietals is to build momentum, though, you need partners to make it happen.’
Thankfully there are like-minded individuals working in Washington State’s Skagit Valley. It is where cereal geneticist Stephen Jones established his Bread Lab, which trials thousands of potential new crops, all grown for flavour.
The work done with barley is, in turn, giving local farmers the incentive to plant more profitable malting barley strains, rather than the feed barley which they traditionally planted as part of the rotation system to ensure healthy soil for their main crop – be that tulips or potatoes.
There was an issue, however. Even if you could persuade the farmer to grow the varietal, it still had to be malted – and the systems used by the large maltings were set up to process varieties which germinate within a set time period. None of these varieties fitted those parameters – restrictions emerge once again.
What, though, if you designed a maltings which was at the service of the varietal instead? Enter Skagit Valley Malting and the creation of a flexible process which can be tailored to the specific quirks of each varietal.
Just as whisky production is an interlinked chain, here is a similar level of interdependence from soil to distillery. The restrictions, the ‘we can’t because’ mentality, has been broken and creativity can flow. As Hofmann said: ‘If we think solely how flavour can be expanded and improved and made more compelling through the entire process, then we all benefit.’
Philosophically, creatively, this makes sense. Can it happen in Scotch? Of course it can. The restrictions there aren’t down to legislation, but to mindset and a compartmentalised approach to agriculture and food production which works against true, deep, interdependence.
But we could easily see micro-malting, and different varieties being used, and a new stream of whisky start to flow. The log just needs to be pulled out of the engine.
09 January 2018
Words. Never quite enough, are they? Language. It gets us so far and then it somehow… falters as you grasp for the right way to get some message across. You come across that phenomenon every day, when even the most articulate of people, the greatest orators, somehow fail to quite achieve what they intended. Language is slippery, allusive and elusive. Some feel it is what limits our world.
That’s how this piece was always going to start. I was unsure of what to write in the dog days of the post-festive period when plans are being formulated and news seems scant. What new thing can be said about whisky on a week like this? Probably plenty so, as I’d engaged in some lengthy tasting sessions, I was going to try to worry away (again) at the notion of how we taste, and how communication is about so much more than just what is said, or written.
Loving soul: Carl Reavey touched the lives of many, not just on Islay but in the wider whisky world (Photo: Carney James Turner)
By concentrating on sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, we miss out body and mind. The way we look at the whisky in the glass should be no different to the way we look at anything in the world. It only makes sense if you fully engage with it and then communicate your feelings in whatever way seems fit. It can go beyond language.
So those were the thoughts. Rambling perhaps, but again that’s what happens when you seem to have time on your hands. Then something happens to remind you that you don’t; that the elusive spirit in the glass, so transitory, is also a reflection of where we are: a metaphor for our condition.
There’s a bitter irony to that realisation, because the final whisky I tried in that last session was Bruichladdich. Then came the news that my friend Carl Reavey had died. ‘My’ friend, as if it was only me. Carl was everyone’s friend.
Hugely generous, enthusiastic, quizzical, the sort of person who seemed lit by some unreal energy, always eager to learn, and talk, and share. Someone who knew the meaning, the real meaning, of being human. Someone who could communicate not just in words, but in his actions, and with his whole, huge, loving soul.
He did it about Bruichladdich, of course, but he was equally at home with birds, and bikes, and music, and farming, sea rowing, food. No topic seemed to be out-of-bounds when you talked to him. His life was a lesson in true communication. It was there in his deeds, not just his words.
The glass of his life seemed always to be the fullest, there for us to share. Now it is drained, but it is not empty. The memories remain, they float in air, in our senses, our thoughts, our hearts and hopefully in our actions.
Farewell friend, and thank you. You have no idea how much you will be missed.
03 January 2018
I don’t know about you, but I’m still not sure what day of the week it is. Not because of any over-indulgence, but because this is the time of year when, though you may know the date, you haven’t a clue what the day might be.
This probably comes in part from most of us working on a schedule where our days of non-work are fixed. All of that goes oot the windae during the festive season.
As a result, time seems to stretch. The same effect is in play even if you have been pushed back into work mode while the rest of us have been luxuriating on the sofa, wondering whether or not to pop to the pub or fit in just one more slice of pork pie.
The misbehaving of time allows you to spend more time with friends and family, to read that book you always wanted to, to go for walks. In turn, that leads to resolutions that we will make time for those activities throughout the year.
This feeling of slowness (not lassitude or laziness) becomes increasingly important in an environment where speed dominates. Instant response has become the norm, communication has been cut down to a few keystrokes, reaction is more important than consideration.
Whatever you say has to make an immediate impact: so better make it punchy, controversial, offensive. It is the best way to make your voice heard, which these days means you have to be present and commenting constantly, whether you have anything to say or not. Knowing you exist is not enough; you have to prove that you do.
The lust for immediacy leads to an inability to analyse – why bother when everyone has moved on? – or to plan for the long term. It’s easier to send off a quick quip or run an instant check on Google than actually to research and think before saying something.
Every second counts: Why is speed so often valued more highly than quality?
Having information at our fingertips doesn’t make us more intelligent, it just means we have access to more snippets of it. I’m ever more attracted to the option taken by Bartleby, the Scrivener in Herman Melville’s story, where he responds to each request: ‘I would prefer not to.’
We see that within whisky. The need for a new story per day, the instant reaction to a new whisky, the (overly) speedy response to a perceived gap in the market. Even maturation has fallen foul to the lust for speed.
Maybe it’s not that new. At Christmas, The Scotsman reported on the release of documents from the National Archive revealing how, in 1951, Mr AJ Menzies, managing director of Fettercairn, had invented a process ‘for accelerating the maturing … of whisky which reduces the maturing time from about five to 10 years to a few hours’, which was kicked into touch by ‘Government scientists over fears it could undermine the industry by encouraging overseas imitation’.
It’s not stopped folk from trying to speed things up ever since, however. Much has been made of recent developments which claim that whisky or rum can be ‘matured’ in just a few days.
What I’m still baffled by is why we need to do this. Why does everything have to be fast? Is it not more important to concentrate on making things better, rather than quicker?
Is Smash better than home-made mashed potato? Instant coffee better than espresso? Pot Noodles better than noodles in slow-simmered dashi? Is… [Ok Dave, we get the message – Ed].
Perhaps whisky’s complexity and balance is something to do with slow integration and not extraction; maybe it is about letting trees grow for more than a century, or peat to amass itself over thousands of years.
Maybe whisky isn’t about rushing, but quietly listening and understanding the words and actions of the past, and developing them, moving them on, gently, slowly.
Appreciate time. Allow it to stretch. We don’t have a lot of it.
26 December 2017
‘Can you tell where I can get a good one of these?’ ‘I’ve never heard of that drink, it’s amazing.’ ‘How exactly do you make this?’ These phrases and questions seemed to follow me around the world this year. The mysterious drink in question is the Highball.
Those of us who love whisky tend to forget that we live in a bubble and make the assumption that everyone knows as much as we think we do – or are as interested as we are. In reality, the majority of people just want a decent drink – which is what the Highball is.
The fact that whisky and soda is still an outrageous concept says to me how much work still needs to be done. I mean, how hard is it to take a glass, pour in a slug of whisky of your choice, throw in some ice, and top it up to the strength you wish with your chosen mixer. One gentle stir and there it is.
Simple serve: A Whisky Highball contains a dram and a mixer of your choice over ice
Technically, that’s a simple drink to make. Psychologically, it is a huge leap of faith. After all, haven’t we been told that whisky should never be adulterated in any way – other than with a garnish of opinion and pontification that is.
Things are changing. Brands are beginning to embrace the Highball – who could have imagined Smoky Cokeys being served at Lagavulin during Feis Ile? – but that doesn’t mean that the job is over. In fact, I suspect it has barely begun. The new Highball drinker is as likely to be one of us, someone who already drinks whisky. Converting existing whisky drinkers is vital – we are after all keen proselytisers for the drink and can therefore spread the word – but the aim must always to be to get new drinkers who may never have tried whisky before.
From a brand perspective that requires taking a long-term view and being consistent in your message – look at Jameson for evidence of how that can work. It also means not just working with top end whisky bars, but high volume outlets. The battle will have been won when we see Scotch Highballs being drunk as a matter of course in Wetherspoons. Can it be done? I suggest the Scotch industry takes a look at Japan…
The key to the Highball’s success is its simplicity. This is ‘teach a man to fish’ territory: glass, whisky, soda, ice, now go and make your own and tell your friends. Simplicity is also key to Scotch’s future success because it also means being clear-sighted in terms of vision, and uncluttered by contrived marketing.
Simple is often the hardest thing to do. It lies at the heart of the idea that whisky – and single malt especially – is inextricably linked to place. It is fascinating to see how many of the new distilleries are all engaging with the land on which they stand, and their communities.
‘A local distillery for local people’ can have an ominous League of Gentlemen ring to it – a xenophobic mistrust of outsiders. Instead, local means being engaged with the wider world.
‘An understanding of terroir lies in accepting our resources and constraints,’ Fred Revol of Domaine des Hautes-Glaces, said to me earlier this year. ‘The only way we can be happy in a globalised world is to have a sense of place, because it is diversity which makes the world richer.’ The clarity of that statement should lie at the heart of 21st century whisky.
Simplicity is also at the heart of the innovations which are now beginning to emerge within Scotch, such as the extraordinary return of rye. What they say to me is that distillers are looking at the most basic element within whisky – flavour. That is what brings new drinkers into Scotch and keeps them there and while the processes involved may seem complex, the underlying intent is straightforward and clear – create new and compelling flavours for people to enjoy.
Rejoice in diversity and grab that soda.
13 December 2017
I live a spoiled life, I know that. Every time I complain about some aspect of my work, one of my friends will stop me and say: ‘But you have the best job in the world.’ It’s pretty much true. As I say, probably too frequently, who in their right mind would pay a Glaswegian to drink and then write about his experiences?
One of the perks is getting tasting samples. Not full-size bottles, in case you were planning a raid on Broom Towers, but miniatures. That’s fine; in fact, it’s better.
There are some tasting sessions which are less exciting than others, but even those which are less stimulating will be instructive. Every bottle, every glass will open up some new possibilities, questions, revelations and ways of thinking about this thing called whisky.
Where did the flavours come from, what do they tell me about how it was made and matured, how has time impacted on it and what does it tell me about itself – and about me?
All of this means that I also, occasionally, get access to whiskies I would not otherwise be able to taste or afford. As I said, a spoiled and privileged life, but it bugs me. It bugs me especially when there’s a whisky which is so extraordinary that deserves to be tried by as many people as possible, but which will never be because it is priced at a level beyond the reach of everyone, bar a very few.
Hen’s teeth: Only 74 bottles of Bowmore 1966 50 Year Old are available
I know the arguments: rarity, preciousness, packaging (see Richard Woodard’s piece last week for more on that) and the idea that most consumer goods will have a top end, be that cars, watches, shoes, etc, etc.
I accept that logic and, reluctantly, move on. Most of the time. Sometimes it just nags away at me, not out of some sense of moral outrage, but a thought that sometimes there might just be another way.
It’s been triggered once more by the Bowmore 1966 50 Year Old. Everything about it is amazing: the liquid, the bottle, the box… and the price: £20,000. The price of a car.
Imagine the reaction when you get home from a trip ostensibly to the car showroom and explain to your partner why, instead of dangling a set of keys in front of them, you are clutching a box with a bottle of whisky in it. There again, I suppose the target consumer for this is rarely faced with that either/or dilemma.
One of the reasons for the price is that there are only 74 bottles available, and it was that which got me thinking. If the liquid is so precious, so rare, so fantastic, can you really justify bottling it in the first place? Is there an alternative?
It took me back to Cognac, specifically to the Paradis at Frapin and the large glass bonbonnes of precious liquids, some dating from pre-phylloxera times, which were held there to be used for blending (yes, guys, for blending). They have been retained because they are the treasure of that house, its symbolic core, there to be referred to and used, judiciously, over time. This is common practice in both Cognac and Armagnac.
Paradis found: In Cognac and Armagnac, old, rare spirits are preserved in glass
Why can’t whisky operate in a similar way? This isn’t an argument about whether rare whisky should be blended. Let’s leave that to one side for the time being. This is asking if there is another way to view and utilise precious stocks.
Instead of putting rare whiskies (it could be the 1966, or any other extremely limited, aged whisky) in bottles, why not put it in one glass demijohn and keep it at the distillery?
As a distiller or bottler you can then use it in a myriad of ways, while those visitors who are interested, who are willing to, yes, pay for the privilege can try a sip (and that’s all you need). In that way, more people try it, the pleasure is spread.
It could be used at events globally to show what is possible, to give people the taste of something which seems to defy logic. They gain vital knowledge, you make new converts and generate a hell of a lot more positive PR from the whole exercise. Everyone’s happy.
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Ask the professor 20 September 2018
If pre-1960s single malt was so wonderful, why isn’t it being made any more? The Prof answers all.
Latest news 13 February 2018
The Single Malt Fund will make investing in whisky ‘more inclusive and accessible’.
From the editors 13 December 2017
As extraordinary whiskies become the preserve of a privileged few, how about spreading the love?
The way I see it... 21 September 2017
The cost of rare Scotch is taking it beyond the means of many consumers, argues Angus MacRaild.