From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Sandton reverie

    14 September 2015

    ‘Is this your first time to South Africa?’ asked the taxi driver.

    ‘No. I’ve been coming here since the mid-‘90s. I started coming to Jo’burg about 12 years ago.’

    I sat back for a few seconds – he was a fabulously chatty guy – and watched as Sandton’s increasingly weirdly-shaped buildings came ever closer.

    I thought of other trips like this, sweeping down from Rosebank into a purple bowl of jacaranda blossom, of hidden radio stations, endless malls, no-go areas downtown where we had to go because that’s where the second-hand vinyl was.

    ‘What’s your business?’

    I explain.

    ‘So why are you here this time?’

    ‘I’m one of the judges in a cocktail competition.’

    ‘You can make cocktails from whisky? Really?’

    ‘Indeed. They’re becoming more popular. Do you drink whisky?’

    ‘I love whisky. Not the blended stuff of course. The malt.’

    We chatted on. He was from Zimbabwe. ‘Now I have arrived. I am here. I can’t afford anything, but I have arrived!’

    It seemed to sum up where Africa – and whisky in Africa – is at the moment.

    The next day a group of us headed into Soweto. It, too, has changed since my last time there, which involved wandering around a beach party wearing a kilt and being mistaken for Captain Morgan in drag.

    Yes, you can still eat from vats of tripe (a good thing in my mind), but the roads are paved, there are bars – and the welcome is as genuine as before.

    ‘Tell people to come,’ we were told. ‘This is a safe place. By coming here you show people it’s nothing to be feared. Welcome To Soweto!’

    That night we went for a cocktail or five in Braamfontein, close to the shady parts of town where the record store was. The no-go area.

    Now we were drinking on the outside terrace of the Anti Est bar watching the happy chaos outside. This is a new South Africa.

    Welcome to SowetoWelcome: Soweto epitomises the new South Africa (Photo: Harvey Barrison)

    Africa has been the big gap in Scotch’s masterplan. No longer. Whisky cannot ignore the potential in South Africa, Nigeria, Angola (Luanda is the most expensive city in the world), as well as rising stars like Ghana, Ethiopia and Kenya.

    In terms of players, Africa could yet be Diageo’s get-out-of-jail card. No surprise that the firm has invested $1bn since 2010.

    It has a head start on its rivals, but Pernod Ricard is there as well, William Grant has built steadily, while Burn Stewart and BenRiach are both South African-owned (partly in the latter case).

    Why now? All the triggers for a Scotch explosion are there. A rapidly expanding middle class, growing economies (remember them?), greater political stability.

    Africa has the youngest population in the world – there’s going to be 85m people of drinking age in the next decade – and, bar South Africa, it is new to spirits.

    It is hardly perfect – there remains ghastly poverty, corruption and war – but Africa is changing.

    It isn’t as straightforward for Scotch as it was. Irish (Jameson basically) is on the march, while Jim and Jack are swinging in.

    That night in Braamfontein we were drinking vodka (hey, deal with it), while there are gin bars in Cape Town. What was almost exclusively a brown spirits market is broadening in scope.

    Scotch, however, still has an allure which gives it a slight advantage in this increasingly cosmopolitan continent. While some dismiss the new consumers in Angola as people who just drink everything with Coke, it doesn’t take long to change those habits.

    A decade ago, I was explaining to new consumers what whisky was made from. Today, thanks to the work of guys on the ground, Jo’burg has its own whisky specialist (the excellent Whisky Brother), one of the largest whisky bars in the southern hemisphere, Wild About Whisky, is in Dullstroom, and taxi drivers who know the difference between malts and blends.

    I’ll wager he’ll soon be drinking whisky cocktails. Education is the key. Africa awaits.

  • The striding man stumbles

    04 September 2015

    Brands give reassurance. It’s why we return to them on a regular basis, it is the foundation of loyalty. We know what we are getting, and what the brand stands for.

    In time, a brand’s range may be extended, but only to demonstrate variations on a central theme. Retaining the brand’s identity, its DNA, remains paramount. When a brand deviates too wildly from its core values it is an indication that the brand owner is panicking.

    Take Ritz. Cheese crackers, right? In fact, the definitive cheese cracker? Think again. Ritz now makes crisps as well. There might have been Ritz crisps for a while, but I’m not fully up to speed with the snacks market.

    What I do know is that salt and vinegar flavour on a cracker which is still trying to to be a Ritz does not work. The flavour is wrong, the texture is wrong. There are just some things which you leave alone because they work.

    Have you ever heard of avocado-flavoured cat food? Of course not. As my daughter said when I mooted it: ‘It would never happen. Cats are carnivores.’

    In other words, cat food manufacturers are sensible. They know that their consumers would turn their little furry noses up at such a ludicrous offering. They stick to what they know.

    Which brings me (seamlessly?) to Johnnie Walker Rye Cask. Why was something as absurd as this given the green light? The whisky itself is a well-made blend, but it is not Johnnie Walker.

    It tastes like a Canadian rye whisky – not quite Crown Royal (also part of Walker owner Diageo’s portfolio) but more in line with a rye-accented whisky from Hiram Walker.

    Why?: Johnnie Walker Select Casks Rye Cask Finish

    This raises the question of why, if you have a Canadian whisky already, do you try to make Scotch taste like it? Does it not make more sense to try to sell more Crown Royal?

    I don’t see Canadian distillers trying to be Scottish, nor is there any evidence of Bourbon producers trying to produce Scotch copies – in fact it’s widely agreed that when they did so in the 1960s it almost killed the category.

    But then who in marketing departments ever studies history?

    Instead, what you see in whiskies around the world is distillers doing the exact opposite. They define themselves as being not-Scotch. This, as I’ve argued before, is a wise strategy which also benefits Scotch because it allows the latter to define itself.

    Walker Rye Casks ignores all of this. Trying to make a Scotch taste like a North American whisky shows an unnecessarily defensive approach to the category – and the brand.

    Johnnie Walker isn’t just a Scotch, it is the best-selling Scotch whisky in the world. It therefore defines Scotch for more people than any other brand. It’s a benchmark, a reference point. Where, therefore, is the logic in making it taste like a Canadian whisky?

    I hope it’s a temporary moment of madness because this says: ‘We have lost faith in our brand and in Scotch as a category.’ It is a white flag being run up in the face of a perceived threat.

    Making Walker more Scotch – more Walker – makes sense. That would involve Diageo working out what Walker stands for in terms of image and flavour. Knowing what it can do – and, just as importantly – what it can’t. That’s not difficult.

    Is it?

  • Looking east

    27 August 2015

    In writing the update to the World Atlas of Whisky (that’s enough plugging – Ed), I was aware that, when I asked about their inspirations, how many of the new wave of the world’s whisky distillers said they were looking to Japan rather than Scotland (or, maybe I should say, as well as Scotland).

    It is an approach which can encompass production techniques, or just philosophy. Whatever way it is being applied, the fact is that Scotland is no longer the only template.

    This made me wonder whether there is anything which the Scotch industry could learn from its counterpart in Japan, which in turn made me think of my first distillery visit there.

    It was to  Yamazaki, with my mentor and buddy Michael Jackson. I was already excited just approaching the mashtun. ‘Wait until you see the stillhouse,’ he whispered to me. ‘Your jaw will drop.’

    MJ wasn’t a man given to hyperbole, but even knowing that, I thought that this time he might be overstating the case. I mean, how amazing could a stillhouse be? Then I walked in and, yes, my mouth gaped. He laughed. ‘Told you.’

    There sat stills of different shapes and sizes, lyne arms going up, down and probably sideways, heated by steam or fire, vapours being condensed in shell-and-tube condensers, or worm tubs.

    A distillery set up this way because of the need for blending complexity, producing a multiplicity of variations on the Yamazaki theme. These were then to be aged in different cask and oak types, adding further new spins.

    You can understand why this technique is required for blending, but in Japan, this same approach extends to single malts, which are also blends of these distillates, but not to one recipe. Yamazaki 12 and 18 are from the a single distillery, but they are made up of different component whiskies.

    Dr Egon SpenglerMultiple streams: should Scotch heed Ghostbusters’ Dr Egon Spengler?

    So, the question I was asking myself was, could this approach to single malt be tried in Scotland? The multiple stream thing is hardly unknown there – think of Springbank, Bruichladdich or Roseisle, while various other distilleries make peated and unpeated.

    When it comes to combining the different streams, the Scotch industry has obviously taken the words of Dr Egon Spengler in Ghostbusters to heart. After all, doing so might result in life stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.

    As a result, the distillates are always kept separate. Here’s our unpeated, our medium-peated and our heavily-peated. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great, but surely there is a further option to add another selection?

    I mean, look what happened when the Ghostbusters disobeyed Dr Spengler’s directions.

  • Scottish Genever

    20 August 2015

    I have just finished a book on gin. It’s out in the autumn in case you are interested – you never know. After all, in my experience whisky distillers (and a growing number of whisky lovers) are also particularly partial to a little gin, but the links between gin and whisky run deeper than that.

    There are whisky distillers making gin: Botanist, Hendrick’s, Caorunn and Boe, for example, while Cameronbridge is home to Gordon’s and Tanqueray.

    Adding a gin makes sense. It can be made quickly and launched onto the market without any of that maturation stuff needing to take place – and you can sell it for pretty much the same price as a single malt.

    There’s more though. When the gin industry was trying to recalibrate itself after the disasters of the Gin Craze which ran from the 1720s to the 1750s, the new gin rectifiers needed juice to redistil into gin.

    Up until this point, gin-making had been pretty much a London-only operation, but now the London distillers were seeing rivals opening up in Bristol, Liverpool, Warrington… and Scotland.

    The powerful Haig/Stein clan saw a commercial opportunity to ship base spirit from their Lowland distilleries to England, much to the dismay of the London distillers who viewed it as a further challenge to their monopoly on the production of base spirit.

    In those days, Scottish distillers needed export licences to ship their spirit to England. So lucrative did the Haigs believe the gin trade to be that they offered – what shall we call them? – financial incentives to their Scottish rivals not to queer their trade.

    The base spirit shipped south wasn’t gin, it was whisky. It was also the start of the Scotch export trade.

    Some Scottish gin did make its way down to England as well, based on the Dutch genever style that was, rightly, regarded as the gold standard. Members of the Haig family had visited genever’s spiritual home, Schiedam, in the 16th century to learn the techniques.

    What they made (popularly known as ‘Hollands’) was very different to the dry ‘London’ styles we know today. In those pre-Coffey days, gin was a pot still grain spirit redistilled a third time with botanicals. You could argue it was flavoured whisky, coming from the same roots as usquebaugh.

    Millstone whiskyGinspiration: Zuidam’s Millstone whisky

    In 1786, James Stein installed a gin plant at his Kilbagie distillery in Fife capable of producing 5,000 gallons of ‘Hollands’ daily. The Haigs were attempting to sell their Scottish-made ‘Hollands’ in London in 1807 while, in 1828, distiller Robert More, Schiedam-trained, was selling ‘Geneva’ made at the Underwood distillery in Falkirk.

    Could Scottish Hollands return? I was in Baarle-Nassau not long ago visiting Patrick v Zuidam of Millstone whisky fame, whose father started the family distillery 30 years ago to reclaim genever as a premium spirit.

    Patrick came to whisky through realising that effectively he was making a whisky in the first place. His genevers, aged in quality casks, are a missing link between the two spirits and are a must-try for whisky drinkers.

    It is also, I’d like to think, an approach which enterprising Scottish distillers could try out. Stranger things have happened. 

  • NAS whisky

    14 August 2015

    (Takes deep breath…)

    This was going to rear its ugly little head at some stage, so might as well get it out there in the open now. I dare say it’s a topic which will re-emerge fairly regularly, like a zombie, or a half-starved dog who has decided you are its new master, or a vindictive partner post-divorce…

    (Takes another deep breath…)

    There is nothing inherently wrong, evil or nasty about No Age Statement (NAS) whiskies. The reason that there is an increasing number of them is driven primarily by the fact that there currently isn’t sufficient stock to match global demand. This situation will ease, but at the moment producers are faced with this dilemma. 

    Single malt distilleries are, by their nature, limited in their production. If distillers then say a whisky must be, say, 12 years old before it is released, then that availability is restricted further. Yet demand is rising, and 12 years ago your production levels were low. Do the maths.

    The good side of NAS?: Talisker 57˚N

    At the centre of the reaction against NAS is the fact that the Scotch industry has spent years persuading people that the older a whisky is, the better it is. That isn’t true. Age is not the sole determinant of quality. There is also a great deal of difference between age (a number) and maturity (character). Age statements blur that reality. 

    There’s a further underlying issue. In the ‘old’ days, it was generally reckoned that a single malt would hit maturity at around 10 or 12 years of age. The reason for this was that the casks used to mature the whisky were refill, often multiple refill. Today, wood management has not only been improved, but more first-fill casks are being used for single malts, meaning that the whisky can start its mature period at a younger age.

    However, since the industry has been wedded to numbers, you can’t just launch an 8-year-old age statement as replacement for a 12-year-old, even if it is better. NAS – the blending of mature young whisky with extra-mature old – is a way around this.

    There’s nothing wrong with this as long as the end result is complex and balanced. It is what blenders have been doing successfully since the 19th century, but since the most vociferous opponents of NAS malts are proponents of the paradigm that malts = good, blends = bad, it’s not going to gain any traction.

    No Age, therefore, is a way to ease stock pressure and, in theory, make whiskies not by number, but by flavour. It should produce whiskies which are as good, if not in some cases better (Talisker 57˚N is a classic case of the latter). 

    I get all of that. I defend all of that.

    The problem is that not all distillers have played fair. Rather than maintaining (or improving) quality, there have been some (and I would argue it is just some) examples which are less good than the whiskies they are replacing – and they cost more.

    My argument would be that if you are making an NAS whisky to replace one with an age statement, then you must ensure that it is better. For me, the issue isn’t NAS, but quality.

    I would like to see greater transparency – similar to what Glenrothes has recently done – with distillers declaring what the constituent parts are. They also need to explain why NAS is necessary and what its principles are. So far, they have failed to do so. 

    Until that happens, the Scotch industry will inevitably face (often unfair) accusations that it is dumbing down quality.

    Education is needed. On both sides.

    (…and exhale.)

  • Whisky Galore!

    10 August 2015

    Up stupidly early one Saturday morning, I did something most uncharacteristic and flicked through the TV channels. There it was, the familiar black-and-white montage of Hebridean life, that well-known voiceover:

    North-west of Scotland, on the broad expanse of the Atlantic, lie the lovely islands of the Outer Hebrides, small scattered patches of sand and rock rising out of the ocean…The inhabitants scrape a frugal living from the sea, and the sand and the low-lying hills of coarse grass and peat bog.
    A happy people, with few and simple pleasures [who] have all that they need. But, in 1943, disaster overwhelmed this little island. Not famine nor pestilence, nor Hitler’s bombs, or the hordes of an invading army.
    But something far, far, worse. There is no whisky!… From that day every man went into mourning.’

    Whisky Galore is a fantastic film which, like the best of the Ealing comedies (and indeed all the work of Alexander Mackendrick) I could watch on a continuous loop. It was one of my dad’s favourites as well. The opening scene when, after the whisky had run out, the old man simply, silently went to bed and died had him in tears of laughter every time he saw it.

    The dram of everyman: a scene from Whisky Galore!

    It was that and that line ‘every man’ which resonated with me. My father was a whisky drinker. Not a heavy whisky drinker, but that is what he had every night when he got home off the bus.

    My uncle in Glasgow was a whisky drinker too – he had to be as he worked for Black & White. That ensured a decent supply in our house. My uncles in Perth were whisky drinkers as well, but they drank Famous Grouse. My uncle in the Army drank whisky as well.

    When they all got together, the glasses would be filled, the music would be played, there would be singing, laughing, war stories and we as kids would watch it all, trying to discern who was speaking through the fug of cigarette smoke.

    It would be the same in pubs. Not just the smoke, but also the men, at the bar, the ‘hauf and a hauf’, the bottles of lemonade on the bar top, the water jugs or spigots. Drinking whisky was to be a member of a club. One which I would, in time, be allowed into. To be admitted was to be given a tacit nod that you had come of age.

    It was a male-only club as well. My Army auntie had whisky and soda, but that was considered a little ‘fast’ by the other women in the family. There again, she was from Aberdeen.

    Mourning would indeed have happened had that whisky supply been turned off. That is what they drank. There was no thought of alternatives, no discussion of cocktails, no wine, just the occasional beer – cracked with a tin opener. Whisky was it. For every man.

    There was also a difference between having a dram and being bought one. You sipped whisky purloined in some way as a teenager, but only when someone purchased one for you could you be called a whisky drinker, or indeed a man.

    For me, that first time was after my dad had died. I was still below legal drinking age but, hell, this was Glasgow. My Black & White uncle bought me a dram in a bar next to Queen Street Station. He didn’t ask me if I wanted one, there was just this silent slide of a small glass towards me, this tacit invitation to join. I accepted it, of course, not knowing where this first proper dram would eventually lead.

  • Tales of Tales

    08 August 2015

    ‘You doing Tales?’ It’s a question which drops into every conversation in the bar industry from January onwards. The reply is usually in the positive and most often accompanied by a knowing smile. If you have done Tales before, then no more words are necessary.

    For those who haven’t experienced the full madness of the event, it’s a bit like a Glastonbury for the spirits world – with all the attendant ecstasies, self-inflicted damage, lack of sleep, mass bonding sessions, but maybe more learnings.

    To be more precise, Tales of the Cocktail takes place over four days every July in New Orleans – though each day seems like a month. In a good way. There are seminars – geeky, detailed, provocative, educational, instructive. There are tasting sessions, there are pop-up bars, there are enormous parties, there are dinners, there are inevitable late-night sessions where new friends are made and old acquaintances reconnected.

    It’s networking in the nicest possible way. All in 100-degree heat and 200% humidity, in a city which has total disdain for sleep.

    We veterans have it planned like a military campaign. Don’t overdo it. Plan dinner. Pack Berocca. Don’t be afraid of grabbing a power nap. Avoid late-night tattoo parlours. Realise that New Orleans will always win in hand-to-hand combat.

    I get (slightly) better at it every year, but still return to the bosom of my family with a few more lines on the face, a sprinkle more grey hairs; broken, but elated.

    Tales also presented an opportunity for Dave to pick up not one, but two Spirited Awards​

    It is also a chance to gauge the temperature of the bar trade globally: what’s hot, what’s cooling off, what are the trends? Take Scotch, for example. If reports are to be believed, this is a category in decline, a style of spirit that has had its day. Tales would suggest otherwise.

    I got a hint of this the day before I landed in New Orleans, when I did a gig at the fantastic Reserve 101 whisky bar in Houston. The next day, I had breakfast with Ryan Roberts who runs Cullen’s – another top-end Houston Scotch bar.

    At Tales, I ran into Leslie Ross, who is bar manager for the same city’s Treadsack bar group, and who sent across images and recipes for some of the Scotch-based cocktails she’s been working on.

    A dying category? Not in Texas and not, if Tales is the measure, in the rest of the bar world.

    When I started going to Tales, you’d be lucky to see a Scotch seminar. Distillers approached the event with a certain trepidation, unsure of how to engage with a world where vodka and (to a lesser extent in those days) gin ruled.

    This year there were more Scotch seminars than ever – and they were all were sold out. The bar trade clearly wants to continue to learn.

    Ryan Chetiyawardana and I talked of peat and smoke in drinks, Ian McLaren of Dewar’s led an incredible class on scientific research into bottle aging in spirits – something of real interest to Scotch lovers – which also touched on the degradation that takes place in the bottle through oxidation and exposure to light. Much more on this soon.

    William Grant threw a massive party, but also celebrated Scotch in the guise of Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Monkey Shoulder. Edrington’s Cutty had events, while Beam Suntory showcased its entire whisky portfolio in its Julep House.

    I tried to moderate the proceedings when six malt ambassadors hurled insults at each other in a mass blind tasting in front of 240 people – which culminated in Grant’s Lorne Cousins accompanying AC/DC’s Long Way to the Top on bagpipes.

    Meanwhile, Diageo reprised its 2014 class on the difference between age and maturity, with a blind tasting which included Port Ellen and Brora.

    Yes, there were other spirits – agave, gin, and a strong showing from Bourbon – but that’s only right. The point is that Scotch is, in Tales terms, on an equal footing. It gives us all something on which to build.

    I returned shattered, but happy. Plans are already afoot for next year. Bigger, broader, deeper, more fun. 

  • No dram is an island

    04 August 2015

    In February, Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) CEO David Frost made a speech in which he voiced his concern about the impact of global politics on Scotch.

    He spoke of the Russia/Ukraine conflict, of ‘poor economic management in the Eurozone, Argentina and Venezuela’, concluding that ‘it’s clear that we will have to work harder to keep exports growing in future years’.

    He was right on all counts.

    David Frost‘Work harder’: SWA CEO David Frost

    In recent years, there has been a worryingly naive belief within the boardrooms of Scotch firms that that every market will grow at amazing rates and fall in love with Scotch.

    Their sunny outlook was correct – for a while. When the opposite began to occur, it was time for Plan B.

    The question is: what is it?

    Some of the circumstances working against Scotch were unforeseen: the clampdown on corruption/corporate entertaining (are the two the same thing?) in China, economic sanctions imposed on Russia in the fall-out from the Ukraine conflict.

    But it is a fact of life that no economy grows in a steadily upward direction, there will always be fluctuations, booms will inevitably be followed by slowdowns. The best you can hope for is that they will then plateau before the next boom starts up again.

    The get out clause for Scotch has long been that, as one market begins to falter, resources can be put into another to take up the slack.

    At the moment, however, the Scotch industry is still casting round for likely contenders to perform this role.

    India? It is beginning to move in the right direction, but remains mired in tax issues and internal politics.

    Africa likewise has massive potential, but remains politically volatile, while Japan is slipping back into a deflationary mode.

    In terms of Scotch’s major markets, that leaves the US – and it is increasingly being targeted.

    In March, Paul Ross, Edrington Americas CEO, admitted that the firm was ‘under-represented’ in the US and that it was now treating America ‘almost like an emerging market, to rebalance our global footprint’.

    There are two things to be taken from this. First, why hadn’t Edrington noticed the US before? It’s quite big, after all. Second, this talk of an unbalanced global footprint suggests that there has been a slowdown – or that one is anticipated – elsewhere.

    Don’t get me wrong. Targeting the US makes perfect sense for Scotch. The irony is that, while it is the spirit’s number one market in value terms, in the grand scheme of things Scotch under-performs in a market of its size and maturity.

    The trouble is that the US market is also seeing a revival of interest in Bourbon, indications that Canadian whisky is stirring itself from its torpor, and the rise of small-scale local whiskey distillers.

    Stir in Irish and Japanese and there’s a lot of liquid fighting for a share of the American whisky drinker’s pocket. In addition, if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, that consumer is used to cheap whisky and is virulently resistant to price hikes. So, while aiming for the US is the right thing to do, it won’t be straightforward.

    At least the US economy is showing signs of life – whereas in Europe a wholly misguided obsession with ‘austerity’ rather than focusing on fiscal stimulus has caused economies to stagnate, resulting in the very people who you need to buy whisky being forced out of the market.

    The outcome of austerity has wiped out most of Europe – especially the south – and the UK for Scotch.

    Frost is right to be worried about geopolitical risk. With Scotch reliant on exports for 90% of its sales, the industry should be too.

  • Silence can be tarnished

    31 July 2015

    There is nothing sadder in whisky terms than a closed distillery. It is not just that a building has shut its doors, not just that a community has lost a focal point, but that a small and very precise point of difference in this complex world has been lost forever. Every sip which you take of a dram from one of the members of this club drives it closer to extinction.

    Have you ever wondered, however, why they were closed on the first place? The standard response is that they were surplus to requirements in the 1980s when the industry got its calculations regarding supply and demand badly wrong (that would never happen again, would it?).

    It’s the right answer, but it doesn’t actually answer the question – why were these specific distilleries chosen? What was the process which chose that one over its neighbour?

    Size played its part. When the industry had to contract, it made more sense to concentrate production in larger plants than across a multiplicity of smaller ones. Sounds brutal? Believe me, it was – and was not a decision which was taken easily.

    There is another reason, though, one which is rarely articulated. As a blender said to me once, sotto voce: ‘When it came down to it, the whisky wasn’t that great.’

    Now I know this flies in the face of received wisdom that every single closed distillery was actually a precious gem, only culled by flinty-eyed accountants and heartless corporate types to try to maintain their share price, but what if there is something in this idea that the whisky didn’t pass muster?

    Remember that the cull took place before a single malt category had formed. The make of each distillery was being assessed in terms of what was needed for blends. Some of these plants could have blossomed as single malts, were there an outlet, and had they been suitably set up in terms of maturation profile. I’d have loved it if Convalmore could have remained in production, for example.

    Golden?: Brora distillery was closed down in 1983

    Many of the whiskies from the 1980s cull are magnificent (and are among my top whiskies of all time) because they were filled into refill casks. The original intent was that these would be used, in blends, when young and fresh. There never was a plan to release them 30-odd years later.

    What has happened in that period is relaxed maturation, where oxidation has played a more important role than oak – how many times have you had an overcooked example?

    We, however, are guilty of approaching these whiskies with undue reverence. Our eyes go misty when the cork is pulled, our critical faculties disappear. It must be good – it’s from a cult distillery, there’s hardly anything left.

    As well as the great relaxed examples, there are plenty where there has been no influence from the wood at all. There might be smoke, for example, but it barely covers the fact that the whisky is thin and lacking in complexity. Is that interesting aroma of baby sick a fault? It can’t be. In fact… it’s not there at all!

    My advice? Taste with your mind open. Don’t be dragged into this assumption that not only are older whiskies automatically better, but those from closed distilleries are better again.

    Life, and whisky, is far more complicated than that.

  • A naked lunge

    27 July 2015

    It has to be said that William S Burroughs isn’t known as either a whisky lover (he preferred Tequila), or as a marketing guru, but when I came across this quote I couldn’t help but think of both.

                 ‘Junk is the ultimate merchandise,’

    wrote the great sage.

    ‘The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to the product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise, he degrades and simplifies the client.’

    William S Burroughs

    Great sage: William S Burroughs in 1977 (extreme right, with Carl Solomon, Patti Smith and Allen Ginsberg; photo: Marcelo Noah)

    Now I also realise that it isn’t necessarily wise in these somewhat febrile times to appear to draw parallels between ‘junk’ and alcohol, so let it be clear from the outset that I’m not. I mean, it’s fairly obvious that Thomas de Quincey wasn’t talking about opium but whisky when he penned the following:

    ‘Happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat-pocket; portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint-bottle; and peace of mind could be sent down by the mail.’

    It’s what is being outlined in Burroughs’ analysis that piqued my interest. It should be the case that anyone wishing to sell more whisky – and, my goodness, doesn’t everyone want to do that these days? – might simply wish to make their whisky better than the alternatives. In other words, to improve it. Is that happening?

    We hear a lot about whiskies being more consistent these days than in the past, but that in itself only suggests that distillers have managed to successfully iron out issues which previously resulted in quality dropping on occasion. Aiming for consistency in an existing brand, while laudable, is one thing. Wishing to genuinely improve something is different. It should go hand-in-hand with creating consistency.

    Is it being simplified? I wonder if it is. Those of you still reading this are dong so probably because you love whisky’s complexities, and this can be a fiendishly complicated spirit. At the same time, it is the over-emphasis on the arcane world that exists within whisky which puts many people off.

    It’s like Game of Thrones. Only once you are fully committed can you understand what the hell is going on. It is tacitly understood that you need to make that extra effort. You are either in, or out. There is no middle ground.

    That’s fine – it’s the way the modern world of TV operates. I like Boardwalk Empire, you don’t. Does the same apply to whisky, however? Is the lack of simplicity – in language, in education – potentially hampering its growth?

    So, what of Burroughs’ second rule? Are we, as consumers, being degraded and simplified? In the latter case, maybe we are. The mass capture of data, the insidious growth of (anti-)social media and the number-crunching which goes with it have reduced us to ciphers.

    We are ‘red’ or ‘blue’, grouped by likes and dislikes, targeted by algorithms – do you honestly think there is someone at Amazon who knows you well enough to suggest what you’ll like?

    It’s the 21st century equivalent of astrology. It doesn’t allow for that thing called individuality, it denies the existence of free will – and that, my friends, degrades us all.

    This new approach makes it easy – on paper at least – for brand owners to target effectively the right people with specific brands, but by simplifying consumers there is real danger that whisky itself loses its sense of difference.

    It is choice which drives it, it is quirkiness, it is the weird unpredictability of a single cask, the fact that it, at its core, is not smooth and neutral, but a wondrously frustrating and enigmatic bundle of contradictions. It cannot afford to lose that.

    Burroughs was a prophet, but prophecies do not always come true. They don’t… do they?

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