Tasting note challenge, whisky ice-cream and Ann Miller’s tales of university with Charlie Maclean.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
02 May 2016
There’s a mountain in my legs. For the past eight years, the Sunday of the Spirit of Speyside Festival has seen a walk up Ben Rinnes. On the summit there’s a toposcope attached to the trig point which points out all of the distilleries which you can see (memo to self, Ballindalloch and Dalmunach need to be added). It’s a chance to catch up with like-minded masochists and learn a little more about the area.
The Ben is a focal point; a triangular extrusion of pink granite among the folded hills whose flanks provide water for many distilleries. Distilleries emerge slowly as we head off. Allt-a-Bhainne on one side, then Glenallachie on the other, next The Glenlivet in the distance, and as the first saddle is reached we see Macallan, then Rothes and on to the coast.
On we tramp, seeing raven, curlew, grouse, and mountain hare. The talk is of old smuggling days and the slow repopulation of parts of forgotten glens. There’s snow too, a mighty drift near the top which has to be traversed before the wind-blasted summit is reached. We’ve lugged the giant quaich up [presented to Dave at the start of the festival – Ed] and pour in some drams, diluting them with snow.
Treat at the top: Alan Winchester pours a dram at the summit of Ben Rinnes
Beneath us is Speyside, bounded on one side by the white Cairngorm massif to the south-west, on the south-east by Bennachie and the Buck, and the Moray Firth grey to the north. Weather is flying in from the south-west, veils of rain falling on towns which slowly disappear: there goes Dufftown, Rothes, Craigellachie, Elgin, Archiestown. Then the clouds begin to break and one settlement is lit up. Sunshine on Keith.
The walk is followed by another tradition, a tasting in Edinvillie village hall where I choose drams from distilleries you can see from the top and try and make connections between them. We went back in time from Dalmunach via Glenallachie, then Glenrothes, Craigellachie, finishing with a double bill of hefty old-style whiskies: Macallan (Edition No.1) and Benrinnes. It told Speyside’s tale in reverse, of how its styles evolved and of the region’s diversity.
It is this reach which is both the region’s advantage and, to some extent, disadvantage. It is impossible to see everything, visit every distillery, attend every event at the festival. There’re 500 of them (probably more). Are there too many? Should there be a festival hub – Dufftown or Craigellachie? Is the festival’s growth limited to the number of beds available? All things that the organisers will address for 2017.
Keep up, Broom: The Glenlivet's Alan Winchester takes a solid lead
Thankfully, by this stage of proceedings stories of other events emerge as people bump into each other like dancers doing a Strip the Willow. The Copper Dog running out of beer at the stramash, barrel-rolling down the streets of Dufftown, a remarkable day-long Mortlach experience which ended up on the battlements of Drummuir Castle; and many more.
The airport is calling, however. There’s just time to slip into the Highlander Inn for a farewell pint. Tatsuya Minagawa pours me a wee deoch and doras of his latest bottling, Oishii Wisukii (delicious whisky), a 36-year-old blend. It is indeed oishii, a rich and elegantly mature unfolding of textures and rich fruits. A blend seems to be the right way to end.
There’s the team from Chichibu in the corner alongside some Germans. A party from Washington DC invite us to have dinner with them, there’s Dutch being spoken in one corner, Swedish in another, all linked by whisky’s remarkable ability to bind people together.
The spirit of Speyside indeed.
01 May 2016
‘Tusitala’, the t-shirt said. It means ‘Teller of Tales’ in Samoan and was the name given to Robert Louis Stevenson when he moved there in his final years. It – the t-shirt, that is – was made by Elgin firm www.smadug.com, whose wares I heartily recommend for both design and quality (and yes, I did pay for the new garment).
It seemed somehow appropriate, not that I am in any way comparing my wretched scribblings to RLS’s lofty prose. As my friend and mentor Nick Faith once told me: ‘Remember, dear boy, we deal in higher-level bullshit.’
I bought it at The Glenlivet Open Day, a mini-festival within the festival, with local traders, drams, and the sma’ still puffing away outside. Behind the warehouses is a huge hole that can probably be seen from the moon. This will be the location for the new distillery which is being added to the site, bringing production up to around 20m litres.
Over in Dufftown, there are new stills going into Glenfiddich, while on the hill opposite Aberlour, Macallan’s Hobbiton is being constructed. Speyside is witnessing the distilling equivalent of a nuclear arms race.
Tusitala: Both Dave and Alan Winchester have earned the moniker 'Teller of Tales'
The t-shirt really should have been worn by Alan Winchester, with whom I sat in the afternoon, occasionally prodding him with questions as he wove stories around the passing of time at The Glenlivet.
Using drams from six decades as reference points, he spoke of old managers and owners, the adaptations in production techniques, casks, overseas travels and the importance of community, and how through all of these changes the character of the spirit had remained the same.
‘Fruity, floral, toffee,’ was repeated like a mantra through his talk, and was echoed in the six glasses in front of us. Expansion doesn’t mean loss of character. Or shouldn’t.
‘You know, Dave,’ he said as we sipped on the 1959, ‘we’re the old ones now.’ It’s true. We’ve been yarning with each other for decades now – and it probably felt like that for the audience, for which I apologise. Sort of.
How times have changed, from days when whisky was hard to sell, to now, with gigantic building sites and a feeling of confidence as people of a new generation from around the world come to this nexus point of whisky-making to learn.
‘Time,’ as Dylan Thomas wrote, ‘passes. Listen. Time passes. Come closer now… Only you can hear and see, behind the eyes of the sleepers, the movements and countries and mazes and colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and wishes and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams. From where you are, you can hear their dreams.’
Here, on Speyside, you can taste them as well.
30 April 2016
‘Do you know what that is?’ asks Mark Fresson, pointing at a strange, small green hill. I hazard a guess of an ancient burial mound. ‘Nope. That’s Imperial.’
It seems churlish to point out to him that I am, sort of, correct. We’re standing in the stillhouse of Dalmunach distillery, Chivas Brothers’ new 10m lpa (litres of pure alcohol) plant on the banks of the Spey, a distillery which, it’s fair to say, is one of the most stunning of new builds. Mark was the architect.
What could have been a shed by a river, a functional box containing whisky equipment, is instead a mix of soft curves and three long arms mimicking a sheaf of barley.
The bowed front of the building is made out of reclaimed wood from Imperial’s washbacks, the massive stills – twice as big as Imperial’s but the same shape – commune in a circle in the massive, glass-framed stillhouse. The impression is of attention to detail, the need for aesthetics, as well as pipework and engineering in an industrial building.
Manager Trevor Buckley pours a dram of the new make which has flowed down a copper waterfall into the receiver. It’s filled with blue fruits and grape skin, blackcurrant and hint of Ribena with a clean finish and just a drying touch of cereal.
Outside, Imperial, that most unlucky of distilleries, slumbers under grass. In the evening, bats will flit above its tomb, snatching gnats from the air and, perhaps, returning to roost in the red-brick cave which Chivas Bros had to build to house them when their former home was demolished. That’s a first for me.
Dalmunach’s hidden away, as is its neighbour, the mighty Dailuaine. They are blending malts, that term which is used, somewhat disparagingly, for whiskies which aren’t commonly bottled as single malts.
That doesn’t mean their make is inferior. In fact, you could argue that one reason they are invisible distilleries is because their make is so highly prized. Speyside is hoaching with sites like these; its past has been built on quiet service.
Clean lines: Dalmunach’s design embraces aesthetics as well as practicality
My next destination was a car park. Admittedly there was a marquee protecting me from the snell wind, but there was no hiding the fact that it was a car park. The Craigellachie Hotel’s car park to be precise.
Inside, Cadenhead’s Mark Watt, all suited and booted, was sitting down with his guests to a food and whisky lunch. Out here, it was cold. Writer, know thy place.
There was, however, central heating in the form of a bodega full of Sherried whiskies which my partner in crime Charlie MacLean and I chatted through for a couple of hours with a tentful of hardy souls huddled in heavy jackets.
A couple of copitas of Sherry (a fino and oloroso) to start with and then into a conversation about wine influence, oak influence, refill, distillery character. We’d been bountifully supplied with cask samples by Bob Dalgarno of Macallan, and Brian Kinsman of Glenfiddich, including a Macallan PX cask, an opaque 9-year-old Glenfiddich from first fill, a gentle 21-year-old from a third fill butt, followed by Rothes ‘78 and a meaty treat of Benrinnes 21.
There was more whisky than glasses, and I had one half-litre of Macallan to share – an astoundingly rich and complex nine-year-old from first fill.
Part of the deal of winning the International Brand Ambassador title is you have to take the gigantic ceremonial quaich with you. No glasses, the need for one more dram, a giant quaich? Sorted. In it went and the sharing cup was passed around and drained, but with due reverence and appreciation.
These were whiskies which would never see the light of day on their own, they were components, adding structure and framework to single malts or blends, the hidden engineering of a whisky, their architects the whisky makers, men and women who don’t need the bright lights of fame, but quietly serve.
There was more to come, with a dash to Strathisla and a two-hour blind tasting on blending. Blind not because I’m a bastard (a term used somewhat regularly as the tasting progressed), but because that removes prejudice and allows you to discuss and understand how flavours exhibit themselves, and then how a blender could use them and fit them into his (or her) creation.
Among our samples a peppy Tormore, all jazz hands and pineapple, a thick, banana cake Strathclyde and more: sherried Longmorn, a relaxed, mature Strathisla, smoky Glenlivet (I know, that was evil) and then a vatting of the malts which go into Chivas Regal 12, then Chivas 18 at cask strength.
It was fun – well, I enjoyed it. The quaich was passed around again, now with a blend in it, elements quietly holding together to make a greater whole. It seemed very Speyside.
29 April 2016
It might not seem like it at times, but a certain degree of preparation goes into a masterclass. While a degree of improvisation is preferable – the roads less travelled are always more interesting than the main highways – a sort of structure does help.
It also helps to have tasted the whiskies you are talking about. There’s improvisation and there’s sheer recklessness. Which is why at 9.30am I’m sitting in Strathisla with 10 drams in front of me. These are for two classes, one of which is blind, so don’t expect me to divulge what they are. They are all, however, great.
Being at Strathisla also allows me to have a quick snoop around the Chivas Brothers Archive, run by the estimable Chris Brousseau. It is, sadly, only relatively recently that firms have realised how important the past is to their brands.
Living history: The industry is belatedly waking up to the importance of archives
No matter what efforts are being made now, the fact remains that until the industry realised that the past is important, the meticulous written records were more often than not consigned to bonfires or landfill.
‘That’s it?’ I ask. ‘Yeah, but…’ and his eyes light up, ‘it’s the first book – there’s the date and time of the first filling.’ It’s not a lot, but it’s something.
Chris shows me a letter from Charles Dickens praising Glenlivet, one from John Smith, Charles Doig’s original plans for distilleries, the legal document which enshrined The Glenlivet’s prefix.
There’s bottles galore, some real, others fake… Anyone fancy a ‘Balentye’s’ from Casablanca? Archives are a vital role in combatting counterfeiting.
‘We’re running out of space,’ he says. This is good. That means there is a realisation of the importance of history. Archives – and archivists – are a forgotten but vital component in whisky’s future.
Bottles galore: Just a few of the items in the Chivas Brothers Archive
Then it was time for the ‘light lunch’ proposed by my dear buddy Mr MacLean, over which we could discuss our Sherried whisky class. (You see? Preparation).
‘Light’ in MacLean’s lexicon can often tend to mean what other folks call ‘boozy’, but moderation was the watchword on this occasion, although in these days of the ‘just water for me’ culture, beer and wine might be seen as wildly excessive.
Lunch was taken in the Copper Dog, the marvellous, stone-flagged pub in the basement of the newly refurbished Craigellachie Hotel. Upstairs, Lyndsey Gray and her team run the Quaich bar with its serried ranks of bottles rare and fascinating, cocktails and views over the Spey.
The Craig’s revival has created a focal point for quality, like the village in which it sits, a hub. The Quaich Bar is no longer a hidden, small, dark green nook, accessible only to members of the Church of Drams, but open to all, bright and proud.
It’s not alone. On a whim, Mr MacLean and I then decided to spend the rest of the afternoon stravaiging around the higher-end drinking establishments of Speyside (thankfully, we had a designated driver).
First stop was the Dowans in Aberlour. It’s a hotel I’ve long loved though, like many of its kind, was always one where an eyebrow would be raised if you didn’t have a faithful hound with you when you checked in. A sporting place, stuffed with fishing rods and the smell of cordite and dog hair.
Now it is transformed into a stylish, modern hotel, with a sleek silver-and-black cocktail bar and another, The Still, with a wall of whisky, a club and regular tastings.
I didn’t ask if dogs were welcome. No longer do you enter through the back door, trailing mud. Now the entrance is at the front, giving you a sublime view over the river.
We drifted on to the four-star Station Hotel in Rothes, another establishment which has been gutted and redesigned, and now boasts two bars – Toots as the public, and a main bar.
There’s copper everywhere – you could make a sma’ still from the coasters alone – which is no surprise since it’s owned by the genial and humble Richard Forsyth. There’s another wall of whisky, but Dutch bar manager Bert Macor has smuggled in a fine selection of genever – which is where Charlie and I start.
Wall of whisky: The bar at the Station Hotel, Rothes
Tourism is important to the region. Forty percent of the visitors to the 2015 Spirit of Speyside festival stayed for six nights, but it isn’t just for this time of year. People come all year round; distillers bring in guests.
The issue for many years was a lack of bed space, a need for more hotels, restaurants and fine bars – quality, in other words. Offer all of that and people don’t come for a day trip, they stay, they spend, they sit and drink, and talk. These hotels are vital to a new, confident Speyside.
In many ways, what they are doing is learning from the past, from people like Alexander Edward, the young tyro who built the Craigellachie Hotel (and most of the village, and a distillery or two).
He saw the middle classes coming up by train to the Highlands and gave them a reason to stay by building a hotel. The new generation are doing the same. The past, you see, is always alive.
Today, Mr MacLean and I are doing our Sherried whisky class featuring two Sherries and eight drams, then comes a blind tasting on blends, and finally I am being deposited on a (hopefully fictitious) desert island to choose some drams.
For those of you up here already, a few of us are wandering up Ben Rinnes on Sunday morning. Meet at 10am on the Edinvillie road (Glenrinnes end).
Now… breakfast. If I hurry, I can squeeze in a visit to Dalmunach.
28 April 2016
Over the years I’ve seen seaweed in stillhouses and been attacked by midges in them as well. This, though, was the first time I’d ever experienced snow being blown in.
Sunbursts of daffodils shone out across the bleached hillsides, on which well-camouflaged, new-born lambs shivered. ‘Lambing snow’ they call it in these parts. You could tell who was local. They were the ones who raced into the stillhouse; we incomers dawdled, drinking it in.
It was worth the slower pace. It’s not every day, after all, that you get a chance to see Auchroisk, that modernist sculpture of a distillery that is, for some reason, little talked-of. Rarer still for folk to stand in the stillhouse, sipping on cocktails, as the hiss of steam mingles with the conversation and we all inch closer together for warmth as the wintry wind blows up the kilts.
Spirit of Speyside’s opening gala is a chance for a get-together, for a certain degree of scene-setting, the inhalation before the activities start.
Deeper breaths than usual this year, with close on 500 different events being run and in excess of 26,000 visitors attending. Seventeen years in, this is no longer just a local celebration, but an event which, this year, could bring in £1.5m to the region.
The evening is also a great place for gossip, the evening’s conversations underpinned by a steady stream of secrets – not that I can divulge anything… at the moment.
Eyes were flitting about, trying to spot anyone from BenRiach to find out what was going on there and, while there was general surprise at the deal (and the amount paid (‘£100m more than I reckon it’s worth’ was repeated a few times), there were some canny souls who claimed they knew something was afoot – and who was next.
Whisky and smiles: Friends old and new meet every year at the festival
The guest speaker was Jim Naughtie, broadcaster, author and, as was pointed out on more than one occasion, a local loon. His talk touched on the hard-drinking days of old-time journalism, when bottles of whisky would be hidden in cornflake packets, and his early memories of ‘bottles filled with viscous liquids’, that were smuggled out of distilleries, then pulled out of back pockets at dances.
It was a speech which touched on politics, while cleverly avoiding them, and framed by his roots in ‘this robust landscape, buttressed by granite’.
As he sat down, Capercaillie’s Charlie McKerron started on his last set of magical fiddle tunes, and bottles began to be passed around the room. Old buddies from around the world embraced, new friendships and introductions were made. Writers, hoteliers, barmen, operators, engineers, coppersmiths and managers mingling together.
I met Sandy McIntyre, Tamdhu’s manager whose brother, I discovered, I went to primary school with. ‘There’s amazing connections everywhere you look,’ he mused.
It summed up the evening: friendships rekindled, new promises made, and what seemed a disparate collection of frozen folk at the start of the night, leaving as one band, united by whisky.
Now, inspired by Jim Naughtie’s tales, I am heading off to do a preliminary tasting for a blending class tomorrow, followed by ‘a light lunch’ with Charlie MacLean.
Wish me luck.
27 April 2016
I’m sitting here in a state of confusion. The cistus is in flower in the garden, the bluebells are out and the birds are flitting about trying to pick up moss and twigs for nests – while avoiding my cat. The sun is shining out of a cobalt sky. It’s spring. I look away for a second and when I glance up again it’s snowing. Maybe the weather is mourning Prince in the most appropriate manner it can (come to think of it even the clouds look purple).
According to the forecast, the meteorological grief is even greater in Scotland, with blizzards predicted for the next couple of days which should add a certain frisson to this year’s Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival especially as I plan to be standing on the top of Ben Rinnes on Sunday lunchtime. If you are in the vicinity watch out for details – and bring a dram (memo to self, repack that case and think again about the tiki get-up for the desert island drams night).
But hey, the snow will just add to the magic of this celebration of the region and its whiskies. That’s the joy of the festival. You never quite know what is going to happen.
The Blackening: Neither snow or soot could spoil Speyside's annual festivalOver the years we’ve seen wild ceilidhs in Fochabers [town motto: too whit to whoo, tae Fochabers wi’ you!], and a room of baffled drammers trying to dance to Ziggy Campbell’s Moonhop disco; malt barns have become venues, warehouses turned into elegant restaurants; distilleries normally out of bounds to casual visitors fling their doors open. The public can wield hammers on the shop floor of the Speyside Cooperage, drambling tours of distilleries are organised – and descend quickly into chaos, and the pubs are filled with the languages of the world as glasses are clinked and drams are shared.
The fact that you are unsure of what is about to happen seems appropriate. Speyside isn’t one thing, but many. Its whiskies cannot be easily categorised, rather they occupy every niche of the flavour spectrum. Speyside is light, but also heavy, it is floral, but fruity, it can be smoky or free of peat. Speyside grows barley, it malts and coopers, and smiths copper. Its landscape ranges from the wilds of Glen Livet to the foggy mosses, and the Moray shoreline. How then can its whiskies be identikit? This week therefore is a chance to celebrate diversity, and to rejoice in confusion. I’ll see you there.
20 April 2016
How does a whisky become a cult? It’s a thought which sprang to mind when I was tasting this year’s release of Yamazaki Sherry Cask. Why this whisky? Or rather, why this whisky which isn’t the same whisky which did become a cult? Once cult status has been achieved, is it held in perpetuity? Once a cult, always a cult – as I’m sure I overhead someone muttering in a Glasgow bar one night.
Anyway, to get back to the question in hand, cult status is linked to scarcity. It can be granted to a whisky thanks to a (often belated) realisation that it is in finite supply – Port Ellen, Brora, Karuizawa. It can be a limited edition whisky where demand always outstrips supply: Ardbeg limited editions, Bowmore Devil’s Casks, and Yamazaki Sherry Cask.
In both scenarios, it produces a reaction akin to mass hysteria. ‘I haven’t tried it, but I have to have it because people are talking about it.’ It’s drams as Pokémon cards, limited edition trainers, or handbags.
If the cult has momentum, critical faculties also disappear. Possession of the sacred object is all that matters. The liquid (in this case) is meaningless. The fact that it might only be of average quality is irrelevant. It’s whisky as fetish.
Object of desire: Feverish interest greeted the release of the 2016 Yamazaki Sherry Cask
This might seem an enviable position for a producer. In actuality, it can be a nightmare, particularly when it comes to distribution. Who gets it? How many do they get? What’s the price? The same dilemma is then passed down to retailers, who have to deal fairly with cult members, knowing that it will be impossible to satisfy them all.
How, then, to be even-handed with what is an inevitably tiny allocation? Two retailers had an interesting response with the Yamazaki. ‘The issue is how you appear fair and not make more people than necessary angry, because that anger is there,’ says Arthur Motley, buyer at Royal Mile Whiskies.
‘A man gives an award to a whisky, so the distiller decides to increase its price. People get angry. The retailer doesn’t know how many they’ll get or what the price will be, so people get angry with us. We get a small allocation and can’t sell a bottle to everyone who wants one. People get angry. We’re living in new times.’
How, then, to be even-handed in selling the stock? ‘We could alert our most loyal customers and pre-sell the allocation, but that isn’t an option as you’ll be criticised for selling to an inner circle. Or we could sell on a first come, first served basis with one bottle per customer, which is what we did. We Tweeted that it had arrived and it went in seconds.’
That still leaves the fact that many (most?) whisky lovers will never try the dram. Is there any way to spread the love? Master of Malt devised A Cunning Plan for its six-bottle allocation of Yamazaki. Four were bottled as 3cl miniatures and sold in a lottery, which in theory meant 93 folk got to try it – maybe more if they were happy to share a glass. One went for auction, with all profit above the retail price going to charity.
The last full bottle went to a lottery, sporting a back label saying: ‘I hereby swear not to sell this bottle – but to drink it with my chums. May my taste-buds and olfactory bulb shrivel and die if I should break my word.’
How likely is that? We all know that these bottles are now as often bought to flip, not drink. That possession of the sacred object is no longer the main driver within the world of cult. Profit is.
In Royal Mile’s case, someone had tried to cheat the system and ordered two bottles, meaning that there was one left over. ‘Everyone believed when it was released it would resell for £800 to £1,000,’ says Motley. ‘The individual then makes more profit that we or the distiller makes. So we were faced with this issue – do we sell this spare bottle, put it into auction, or do we effectively give it away? Which is what we did.’
The bottle was sold to Edinburgh bar Bramble for £180 (0% profit) and the bar then sold 25ml drams at £6.43 (0% profit). It sold out in 10 hours (search #breakevenbottle on Twitter to see the video). Again, more people were able to try it, which gives this whisky lover a warm, fuzzy feeling.
But is it up to retailers to try to subvert the flipping culture? ‘How do you judge whether a customer is someone who wants to buy for a collection, or is going to drink it, or who wants to flip it?’ asks Motley, somewhat rhetorically. ‘If they do flip it, is that less valid? Is it even our business?’
Here, though, is the dark side of the cult business. Suntory knew that there would be huge demand for this bottle, so the company raised the price, to around (gasp!) £200 retail.
It also raised the spec of the whisky, so that the liquid was commensurate with the price being asked. That is to be applauded. Then you look at auction sites and see it selling for £2,000.
Now, I ask you, seeing this, what price do you think Suntory will charge next year and, if it is a four-figure sum, can you blame them?
The industry gets criticised for greed. Ask yourself. Who is being greedy here?
13 April 2016
Now, while I watch YouTube relatively regularly, I can’t say I fully understand how the clips on the ‘now watch these’ menu which pops up at the end are selected. Maybe it’s your browsing history, or the site’s goblins are using some cunning algorithm to make a connection between what you’ve seen and something which initially seems completely unrelated – but maybe isn’t.
Who knows? Actually, who cares? What matters in this case is what happened when the video finished, because it offered a link to an interview with the late Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson of Coil – which I’d guess might be the first time that these two gentlemen have ever been linked. One co-founded Throbbing Gristle and was noted for his interest in the occult, psychedelia and transgressive behaviour; the other blends whisky.
I love Coil, deeply, so I watched it (though I didn’t tell the Editor, what with this being a fairly busy news day). What was integral to Coil, Sleazy said, was being true to the vision upon which their work was grounded, on its truths.
True to a vision: Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson of Coil
The band, despite what some believed, were never simply provocative for the sake of it. Neither were they self-created ‘mavericks’ – an approach which is little more than marketing taking the tropes of the underground and diluting them for the mainstream. Beware the b(r)and which shouts: ‘Look how wacky I am!’
It occurred to me that these insights can be applied to any endeavour – even whisky – as they concentrate on the importance of honesty and values.
Listen closely and you can hear integrity in the music, just as you can taste it – or the lack of it – in a whisky. Values are more than logos and bottle shapes and paying lip-service to barely understood ‘heritage’. We’ve all encountered the weary taste of flaccid mediocrity as another barely-matured single cask flops on the tongue. We’ve tasted the dusty, hollowed-out corpses of formerly great brands reanimated to hit a price point.
Equally, we’ve had our worlds made richer by the complexity of a compelling liquid – and that could be a standard blend or a bottling from the upper stratosphere. In other words, whisky connects with you in the same way as art or music: emotionally, viscerally. It only truly resonates, however, if it has integrity, is true to itself.
I went back to work with some Coil as a soundtrack – which is what you should do as well:
06 April 2016
It’s one of those stories which makes you look twice at the date. It did, after all, appear on 1 April. ‘Scotched: Diageo bows to pressure to rename whisky brand’.
The reason for this surprise announcement? The reported renaming of the firm’s Indian whisky, McDowell’s No.1, and the cessation of exports of its sister brand, Bagpiper, at the insistence of the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) over potential confusion that they were Scottish.
The changes only apply to markets outwith India but, the more I consider it, the more it seems either some weird post-modern joke, or the start of something more sinister.
Let’s take bagpipes for starters. I think we all can accept that the great Highland bagpipe has associations with Scotland, but bagpipes themselves are originally Greek, or Egyptian. Chaucer’s motley collection of pilgrims are piped out of town as they depart for Canterbury in the 1390s:
‘A baggepype wel coude he blowe and sowne.’
That’s the same poem, by the way, which first mentions beer being used as a base for a distillate, but I digress.
Bagpipes have been played in India since at least the 19th century. First introduced to the military, they have also become a folk instrument there. Those of you who have travelled to Garhwal will have thrilled to the skirl of the pipes being played there by the Kumauni people. For the few of you who may not have experienced it, here’s a clip.
So integral are bagpipes to the Indian military that, in 1976, United Breweries (as was) launched its brand. Maybe Diageo, riddled with post-colonial guilt, has only just realised this and acquiesced to the SWA’s demands, seeing the brand name as an example of a symbol of British imperialism being imposed on a proud and independent nation. Ok, they might be 40 years late, but it’s a start.
Maybe, though, there’s another way of looking at this. Perhaps the SWA’s motivation is to protect bagpipes for Scotch. Equally, it could be an attempt to rid the world of what most whisky marketeers see as an antiquated cliché.
Whatever the case, you can’t on one hand preen yourself about the international reach of Scotland and then object when one Scottish export is then co-opted and adapted into local culture. No country ‘owns’ bagpipes – and, by extension, bagpipers.
Exclusively Scottish?: Bagpipers in Penzance, Cornwall (Photo: Tom Corser/tomcorser.com)
This could be the thin end of the chanter. We could be seeing an SWA-led campaign to turn the World Pipe Band Championships (which brings 40,000 people to Glasgow every year) into a Scottish-only event, the piping equivalent of baseball’s World Series.
A ridiculous notion, you say? It’s not the first time the SWA has acted as cultural shock troops. Take the long and somewhat absurd fight between the industry body and Glenora Distillery of Glenville, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and their use of the world ‘Glen’ in the name of their Glen Breton whisky. The Canadian distiller has managed to fight off the SWA, but the apparent success of the bagpiper gambit might see another attempt being mounted.
With the Scots clearly now in the mood to reclaim their cultural heritage, where will it end? Might Nova Scotia have to be renamed? Are the good folk of New Caledonia trembling in their boots? Who is next? When might the distillers at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, expect the writ to come through the door? What of craft distillers in Glendale, Missouri (where, as the New Riders of the Purple Sage reminded us, a train was robbed), or Glen Echo, Maryland?
Where will this madness end? Will there be law suits to ban bars being given Scottish-sounding names – yes, I’m looking at you, The Auld Alliance and Campbelltoun Loch. Could Haggis Appliance Repair in New York be concerned, and where, one might ask, will you then find a mechanic to fix your haggis appliance if they go under?
Could tartan and shortbread be next? You might think this the workings of an over-excited imagination, but if McDowell is now deemed to be an exclusively Scottish name (despite the firm being established in India in 1898), then whither all the Mcs and Macs around the globe?
And what, may I ask, of Scotch Tape? As far as I can ascertain, there’s no whisky involved in its production. A sticky situation indeed.
25 March 2016
We all like to feel special. We love being pampered and told that we are being rewarded for being… well… us. It is part of the human condition I suppose, a manifestation of our own self worth – our own inflated sense of worth some would argue. Why should we get something just because we exist? That’s one for the psychiatrists among you.
I began musing on this when I read of yet another whisky show which offered a VIP option for attendees. This has become so engrained in shows recently that it hardly raises an eyebrow. Yet what does whisky’s equivalent of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket get you? It could be early entry, it could be food, or access to drams which aren’t available to others. In one case, the VIPs were the only ones to get access to in-depth masterclasses. Any other classes simply showed whiskies which were available on the floor.
By only allowing wealthier visitors access to certain whiskies, shows are creating a divide and preventing the spread of education.
Let’s look at this in more detail. Earlier entry, in simple terms, means you pay more to be able to try more whisky. Why can’t the show simply run for longer so that everyone can get an equal chance? Restricting the time available opens up the real possibility that those who haven’t taken the VIP option will drink more quickly when they do finally get in. Result? Carnage.
It is the access to drams and classes which worries me the most, however. Both are examples of the creeping elitism which is appearing within whisky. This approach quite clearly divides whisky into the haves and the have nots. The monied folks can drink any dram they want; those on a smaller budget have to make do with something else. That isn’t what whisky is about.
A whisky show should be egalitarian, it should be about enjoyment and education. It’s the only opportunity that most people have to try some of the bottlings which they know they cannot afford to buy, but are still interested in.
Restricting classes to VIPs is, however, the most insidious manifestation of this elitist approach because it restricts education to those who can afford to pay for it. Where, I ask you, are the new generation of whisky drinkers going to come from if knowledge is restricted in this way? How can the industry hope to educate bartenders or students, people who are low in budget but high in interest if show organisers refuse to engage?
I’d think twice about attending a show which runs a two-tier system. There are alternatives. There are rooms out there filled with people who want to talk, and share, and celebrate in a spirit of equality. Whisky is for everyone.
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