In a world awash with whisky, warns Dave Broom, there’s no place for lazy innovation.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
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.
29 November 2017
It can’t be easy to launch a brand, especially into as established a category as Scotch. Full credit to the brave souls who try. They are braver than I.
For it to succeed, or even just be noticed, it has to have a point of difference and, because the market is cluttered, as a brand owner you might just have to shout that little bit harder to get yourself noticed.
Or you make something with high quality that offers a new spin on flavour. The latter is time-consuming as it involves more explanation and hand-selling. The former is, maybe, easier.
Behave like a paparazzi photographer trying to get a shot of a celeb. Shout out something rude, get them to turn their head, get the money shot. Success.
In whisky, that option involves slagging off the industry, calling it ‘clichéd’ and ‘traditional’. You might want to bandy around words around like ‘haggis’ and ‘heather’ and ‘old-fashioned’, and set yourself up as the alternative.
You are Prince (less than) Charming with your flaming sword of truth (© J Aitken), cutting through the thicket of thorns to rescue the Sleeping Beauty of Scotch. Hurrah!
I’ve been doing this gig for three decades now (and on days like this I sometimes wonder why I still bother), and I know that every year there will be some ‘innovative’ and ‘unique’ Prince Charming brand launched, and each year the story of its point of difference gets that little bit more desperate.
This week we got another. I won’t mention the brand, that would be… rude. It, apparently, takes Scotch back to its ‘rebellious history’, so cue mentions of ‘renegades’, ‘rebels’, and ‘outlaws’.
Crowded market: Newcomers to Scotch sometimes have to shout to make themselves heard
The underlying idea is that, if you drink this, you too are part of this wilder, more dangerous world, which is where Scotch has to be. It’s a brand which has to be (cue today’s marketing agency buzzword) ‘disruptive’.
It’s a brand which pays homage to illicit distillers of the past, or rather the ‘independent and unorthodox distillers of the 18th century’. It cocks a snook at the stuffy industry which, according to the brand owner, has closed off the category to new drinkers, making Scotch a spirit only enjoyed by those with ‘an encyclopaedic knowledge and level of superiority’.
It goes on: ‘But rewind time, and whisky wasn’t at all like that. It was enjoyed by all, from all walks of life. In fact, it was quite rebellious.’
There’s some truth in that. Whisky has suffered from being seen as a club for men of a certain age, drinking drams of a certain type, in a specific setting, in a certain way.
The key word is ‘has’. In the past decade, whisky has consciously moved itself away from that isolationist position and become inclusive: look at the bars, the cocktails; look at the new generation of drinkers of all sexes; look at the new distilleries.
Yes, Scotch has to guard against being elitist, but this brand’s view of the category isn’t one I encounter when I go around the world. So either they have new information, or it’s simply marketing bullshit.
But hey… what of the whisky? Well, the premise behind the brand is that whisky was so much better in the 18th century, when moonshiners hid in the hills beside clear Highland burns and crafted their often smoky, high-quality spirit. Funny how brands which purport to be against marketing clichés employ them so heavily.
The reality was that the bulk of those distillers were being harried by gaugers and at the mercy of often violent smuggling gangs. They were more like the coca farmers in Colombia, in thrall to drugs cartels.
The illicit era wasn’t a time of relaxed, quality-oriented distillation. Moonshining was forced upon people because of economic and cultural oppression.
Tough times: Scotch’s illicit past was nowhere near as romantic as some would have you believe
Ok, maybe I just take a different interpretation of history, so what of this liquid which pays homage to the renegade spirit? Is it, too, made in a heather hut in the hills? Does it carry with it the contraband goût?
No. It’s a blended malt. Made at modern distilleries and therefore sourced from the allegedly unfeeling, monolithic firms which brands like this oppose.
It, apparently, is the colour of antique brass, smells of peat, honeysuckle, boiled sweets, apricots and leather books. It’s clearly been aged for a decent period in good-quality casks, just like illicit 18th-century whisky. Aye, right pal.
In saying that illicit whisky was better than what is made today, the brand owner is insulting the men and women of today’s industry and, weirdly, the very firms with which he needs to work to get the juice to continue his ‘renegade’ quest.
He’s thumbing his nose at the people who he should be asking for help. He is – and this is quite some feat – shitting on his own doorstep, standing in it and then shooting himself in the foot.
Yes, we should always challenge orthodoxy, and always look for valid ways to broaden whisky’s remit and the discussion around it. We should never be complacent, but we should also always have our bullshit detectors switched on.
This isn’t a different path for whisky. It’s not innovative or dangerous. It’s a blended malt with a marketing spin attached.
If its owner genuinely wishes to challenge the thinking surrounding Scotch, then there are options open, but that necessitates deep thinking about distillation, liquid, a knowledge of history and an understanding of the way the market could develop.
Back to the drawing board.
22 November 2017
So there I was, sitting at a table outside a bar in Xiamen thinking how strangely like Miami it was, when Ariel Miao said: ‘We have a saying in China that when something grows really fast it has been injected with chicken blood.’ I must have looked surprised as she quickly added: ‘I don’t mean we really inject chicken blood into our veins’, which was a relief. While I didn’t really think that it was an actual practice, it is always good to have these things confirmed.
We had stopped for a breather before the night’s dinner at the Meridien which would see top-end malts, amazing food and continual toasting, similar to what had happened the night before, and the night before that, and which would continue in the same manner deep into the following week. If you cut me it wouldn’t be chicken blood which flowed out, but whisky.
Her analogy was spot on. Two days before, at Diageo’s now annual Whisky Summit in Guangzhou, Jim Beveridge had leaned across to me. ‘Do you get the impression that this is about to explode?’ he’d asked. I’d nodded in agreement. There was a feeling in the room that went beyond the usual bullish predictions for the year ahead and rallying calls to the troops. A sense that Scotch was indeed on the verge of doing something remarkable in mainland China, and that the predictions weren’t a self-deluding fantasy but a realistic (indeed sober) reflection of a new reality.
Scotch bubble: China’s thirst for single malt is only just starting to grow
China has long been seen as the great prize for Scotch, yet it’s a market which has remained tantalisingly hard to crack. It’s almost been as if the scale of the task has made firms freeze in the headlights. How could they penetrate such a huge market without just throwing money into a huge hole and discounting heavily simply to get a foothold?
To give you an idea of the potential rewards, Diageo’s aim to grow whisky to more than 50% of the imported spirit market would deliver RNB5bn (£500m) to Scotch. If that sounds ambitious then chew on this next figure for a second. The total spirits market in China is worth RNB510bn, with baijiu accounting for 98% of the sales. Seen in that light, a 50% share of the 2% international spirits sector seems almost modest.
It’s been tried before and stymied by distribution issues, anti-corruption purges, and a clampdown on entertaining, but whisky firms’ strategies are changing and the battle for palates and minds has taken a different turn. While there’s been regular talk of the scale of the consumption of high-end (and high-aged) whiskies, there is increasing evidence that this isn’t being driven by a desire to show off but because people genuinely like the taste.
The Scotch being bought at auction, and the single casks being snapped up, aren’t being stashed away or flipped, but are being consumed and enjoyed at home and also in whisky bars, 300 of which opened in the last year alone. There is, in other words, a rapidly growing connoisseurship.
The new Chinese market isn’t being built on the back of blends as was predicted, but on single malts, and the demographics are in its favour. The country’s young, growing and increasingly affluent middle classes are finding that malts reflect their aspirational lifestyles. To grow, Scotch has to educate rather than sell cheap.
Whisky experience: Xiamen's new Whisky Boutique teaches consumers about both blends and malts
I’d spent the afternoon talking to whisky bloggers at Xiamen’s new Whisky Boutique, an elegant Diageo-backed store which manages to balance retail space – and a wide selection of whiskies from all companies – with areas where customers can learn about blending, aroma, malts, and have sit-down tastings. The emphasis isn’t on the hard sell of expensive whiskies, but on education, teaching, and flavour. Two other boutiques have opened in Guangzhou and Shantou with more rolling out nationally in the coming year.
Malts suit the Chinese dim sum mentality, of picking and choosing from a wide range of flavours, and switching between them, rather than sticking with one brand, and with more offerings and China-only releases, it would seem that the menu is getting ever longer.
In fact, the only issue is whether there will be sufficient juice to satisfy the demand as it will be impossible to sustain the growth at the top end. If growth is to be maintained, there has to be a gentle weaning off the lust for extra-aged whiskies and a recalibration of the market by finding new ways of talking about blends. It has to start soon, as the chicken blood is pulsing strongly in the nation’s veins.
15 November 2017
It could be the season, the shortening days, or the year’s fast-approaching end which has made the sense of time passing uppermost in my mind. It’s been pushed further forward by the tasting of a number of venerable drams: the G&M Glenlivet which spent a mere 70 years in cask, Loch Lomond’s 50 Year Old, and a Glen Grant distilled in 1949, the latter tasted on my recent trip to Belgium where it sat alongside other aged malts with equally rich stories to tell.
They are exotic, they are often waxy, they speak of rancio. You can, to some extent, analyse the aromas by process: the length of the ferment, the clarity of the wort, the gentleness of distillation, the relaxed nature of their maturation in specific types of cask, but that doesn’t give all of the answers. Chance has played as much of a role in this strange continuum.
Unique journey: Each cask will mature whisky in its own, unpredictable, way
I know that we are meant to think that distillers are canny enough to deliberately lay down casks which will only be broached in half a century’s time. In reality, there is rarely any such intent. More often than not, these are casks which have been forgotten (or half-forgotten) in the back of a warehouse. It was good fortune that they were left alone.
Chance also plays its part in the creation of flavours. The moment when you put a new spirit in a cask is when the second part of its story begins, and it is one which you have less control over. Yes, you can say that this type of wood, combined with this character of spirit left for this length of time should give us something within a flavour spectrum, but the key word for me is ‘should’.
You cannot guarantee what will happen inside the cask. You seal it you put it away and you pray. But without chance there is no creativity. Chance and time gives you the curve ball, the oddities, the element of unpredictability, the ‘flaws’ – but it’s the flaws which make whisky interesting. This is not a spirit which aims for purity, but one which wears time grubbily and proudly on its sleeve. It is scuffed by its passing, as well as being smoothed and refined. It speaks of how air and wood and atmosphere have worked together to impart specific flavours on this one cask. Its neighbour will be different. Chance.
Venerable drams: The line-up tasted by Dave Broom during a recent sojourn at Belgium’s Spirit in the Sky festival
When it works – and there’s no guarantee that it will – the whisky is shifted into a different realm. Any whisky tells a story. The tales these whiskies relate are more akin to legends. I try not to approach them with any more reverence than any other whisky. In fact, I try hard to be impressed. But then you get a dram which has something in its depths which puts you in a different space, one which is almost mythical. The aromas are blurred by age, glossy with the patina of time’s passing. They emerge as if from a different dimension, wreathed in smoke and swathed in velvet, rich with fruits and wax and polish and a mysterious otherness which remains, tantalisingly, beyond our grasp. Sipping them is to enter a hallucinatory realm as the time spent in cask suddenly reveals itself. It speaks of the seasons long gone, the coldness of winter, the funk of autumn soil, warm summers and the freshness, just there. There can be a sense of melancholy, even regret, or defiance against the dying of the light.
They force you to think what has happened in the time spent in the cask, of the lives which have started and those which have ended, of fears and loves, joy and sorrows. You weave your own memories in with them as you enter this dream state watching the endless cycle of life spinning past as the whisky has sat. Maybe some of the shards of the world’s story have been embedded within it. It’s hard to tell. They are less spirits, more temporal missiles. It’s a privilege to try them. We should all try, because it is part of what makes this spirit so special.
01 November 2017
‘It's a bit like a washing machine,’ says Lasse Vesterby, opening the lid of the long tank. Right enough, inside there’s a slowly rotating drum with holes in it surrounded by a frothy scum. ‘Actually, we got the idea because in the summer me and my brothers used to hunt mink and…’ he gestures ripping the skin off an animal, ‘… this works a bit like a mink-skinning machine as well.’ None of this could be described as the standard opening of a distillery tour. Well, not for me anyway.
The mink-skinning/washing machine hybrid at Stauning on Denmark’s west coast was the solution to the first problem any distiller faces when trying to work with rye, namely its ability to gelatinise into something akin to wallpaper paste in the mashtun. This was a rather elegant way around that problem and given the quality of the whisky which has resulted, a successful one as well.
Engineering change: Distilleries like Denmark’s Stauning are altering our perception of what’s ‘normal’
I should have been used to the improvisatory aspect of Nordic distilling by then. The day before, Lars Williams had wandered into a clutter of tanks vats, pipes and probes and returned, holding the lid of a pressure cooker with various wires dangling from it. ‘I rigged this up and made it into a vacuum still,’ he says, with a surprising insouciance. ‘You did retreat when you used it for the first time?’ said Nick Strangeway, who was with me on the visit. ‘No, if it went wrong it would’ve imploded,’ Lars pointed out. ‘Actually, I suppose I did step back a little.’ Welcome to the world of empirical distilling, or rather Copenhagen’s Empirical Spirits, of which Lars is the co-founder.
Refshaleøen, on the edgelands of Copenhagen’s docks where Empirical is located, looks like the setting of some Nordic Noir series. It is in fact relatively close to the original Noma restaurant where among many other things, Lars ran the test kitchen.
He jumped ship this year to take his fascination for fermentation to the next step – making spirits – or to be more precise asking, ‘what is distillation?’ and ‘what is a spirit?’. He and the team aren’t making shochu, whisky, gin, or fruit spirits, but liquids which occupy a liminal space between all of those.
Outside the box: Lars Williams demonstrates how Empirical’s pressure cooker operates. Right: the site’s koji sauna
The base is made from pearl barley that’s inoculated with koji. Needing more volume Lars has modified a giant butter churn to rotate and steep the barley. ‘We’re just hoping it doesn’t roll off when we get it going,’ he says. I notice that his desk is clear of the potential disaster, sitting on top of the wood-lined former shipping container which is used as the koji ‘sauna’.
If it sounds ramshackle, it’s not. There’s hardcore science behind all of this questioning and adaptation (and creation) of distillation equipment. They’re asking why a spirit has to be strong, why a base spirit has to be neutral, whether you can focus on precise flavours by taking micro cuts from a spirit run and retain the portions you want; whether a distilled kombucha spirit can be used to give an acidic intensity to a fruit spirit. It’s more lab than distillery and as the answers come it’s one which will grow in importance.
The origin story of Stauning is more… earthy. A group of nine friends deciding to make whisky because, well, they liked whisky. Lasse and his brothers came from a family of butchers and so set up Stauning Mark 1 in the old abattoir. As you do. The cold store was used for floor malting, the barley was peated on a barbecue grill in the smokehouse, the grist was minced in a meat grinder, fermentation was in an old pickling vat, distilling took place in two small Portuguese pots fired with wood. And you know what? It worked. They’re engineers, you see. When a challenge arose they found a way around it.
In November 2007 they expanded to an old farm. Therein the barley is malted in two long lanes turned by gently rotating flails which they designed, mashed in the mink-skinning/washing machine combo, fermented in open-top washbacks and distilled in pots of the same shape as the originals, just larger – and still direct fired.
There’s unpeated and peated expressions (using local peat), a remarkable heather-smoked one, and another that’s been aged on an ocean-going schooner. American oak is the normal cask type, but there’s a nod to the local with the use of cherry wine casks for finishing.
Express lane: Stauning’s barley is malted in two long lanes
Now with a thanks to seed money from Diageo's Distil Ventures a new distillery is taking shape, but the approach and equipment will remain the same, just at a larger scale – 900,000lpa larger in fact, coming from 24 pots of the same shape, and still direct fired.
It’s all been a product of improvisation and empirical testing, where flavour was more important than efficiency.
Distillation has always been like this: a constant process of trial and error, and finding solutions. Don’t think for a moment that whisky’s story is a line of gentle improvement. It’s filled with blind alleys and failures, a story of bodging and inspiration, and happy accidents. It’s a fusion of the minds of alchemists, the women who ran the stills in grand houses and farmers making do with what they had. Style emerges from this glorious mess.
What is happening at Stauning and Empirical and numerous other new distilleries is a continuation of this ‘what if?’ impulse which results in new flavours and a progression of spirits’ saga. There is no guidebook, no path that has to be slavishly followed. The element of chance, and inspired improvisation is a thread which has always linked all great spirits.
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