From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Getting crafty

    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?

    Hudson baby BourbonSign 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.

  • Weegie whisky

    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.

    Glasgow Distillery Co casks

    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.

  • Hegemony

    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.

  • Mill's Bomb

    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.

  • Silo thinking

    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.

  • Independents' day

    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. 

    Scotch Malt Whisky Society

    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?

    John Glaser

    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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