To endure, Scotch whisky brands need to practise genuine innovation, says Dave Broom.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
13 June 2017
Unlike Theresa May (I told you, no politics! – Ed), I’m all for debate. I've been struck, however, by how polarised what passes for debate in Scotch has become. You could, if you were of a philosophical bent, blame Aristotle for bequeathing this ‘either/or’ logic to the western world, a manner of thinking which, in whisky, manifests itself as: blends or malts, independent bottlers or brand owners, big companies or small, condensers or worms, smoke or no smoke.
Preferred pour: What you like may not be someone else’s choice of dram, but that doesn’t make them wrong
Call it binary thinking, call it logocentrism, but this reductionist approach boils down to: ‘You are either wholly on my side or you are against me.’ There is no grey area, no room for, well, debate, especially when the voices are loud.
The drinker feels compelled to choose between one or the other, and once that decision has been made the rejected option (blends, condensers, big companies, for example) is either ignored or, in the more extreme circumstances, condemned. In this way of thinking, whisky is comprised of mutually exclusive camps.
As soon as those lines get drawn, there is no space left for nuance, or accepting that both options are valid. We may prefer one over the other, but that is significantly different to saying that the one we haven’t chosen is wrong.
We have acted in a specific way at a point in time, but may swing back in the future. So I drink a blend, then a smoky malt, I buy an independent bottling, and then a brand, I buy one dram from a small distiller, and then one from a major, have a cocktail, and then something neat. That is how whisky works.
It is a spirit of nuance, one where aromas and flavours shift and change in the glass; it pulls your memories one way and then another. It can be a guided missile aimed directly at your pleasure zone, or something contemplative, which needs to be teased out gently. It is layered and therefore contradictory – in other words, it’s complex.
That quality, along with character and balance, are the foundations of assessing quality. The very nature of balance also rejects the dualistic approach. Every dry element has to be balanced by sweet, for example. If this principle is whisky’s heartbeat, then surely we can extend that approach outwards and look at ways in which we stop thinking in such a reductionist fashion?
I was chatting about this over a drink with a friend, when he said: ‘You know what? The word I hate the most at the moment [he has an ever-shifting list of pet hates] is “standard”. What’s “standard” about a single malt? What aspect of its being can ever be defined as “standard”?’
Change of heart: It’s not uncommon – or wrong – to switch from neat whisky to cocktails, and back again
It’s a sound point. In the dark ages when I started to write about booze, whisky was divided into two camps: ‘standard’ and ‘deluxe’. In simple terms, ‘standards’ were blends without an age statement, while those with one (usually 12 years old) were ‘deluxe’. Standard was also shorthand for ‘cheap’.
To be honest, the only people who ever used these terms were those in marketing – and journalists. No-one today walks into a bar and asks for a ‘deluxe’, ‘super-premium’ or ‘luxury’ whisky. They do, however, still see the term ‘standard’, by which they mean ordinary, or ubiquitous. Its deployment is done in a disparaging fashion, it says: ‘It is beneath me.’
Glenfiddich 12-year-old, The Glenlivet 12, Glenmorangie 10, Talisker 10, Laphroaig 10 are considered ‘standard bottlings’ – but how can this possibly be true? By its nature, single malt is anything but standard, so why call it that? Perhaps it is because when people explore the malt realm, the most popular bottlings are not considered worthy of the consideration of the serious drinker.
They may have started with the biggest sellers, but have moved on. Our very human desire for fresh stimulation, when exacerbated by an aggressive consumerist culture, makes it easy for us to dismiss our starting-points as youthful folly. It’s another example of binary thinking.
I’ve said it many times and will never stop repeating it: revisit these whiskies. Be prepared to be amazed at their quality – and often absurdly low prices. Doing so might just be a starting-point to begin to dismantle this binary world.
06 June 2017
1. Whisky drinkers are changing
A criticism levelled at the Fèis some years back was that it was becoming too much of a club. The same people would turn up every year and, as accommodation was limited, there was little room for newcomers. That appears to have changed significantly.
Not only are there more hotels, but the number of tents and camper vans made some pitches look like mini-Glastonburys. While it is always great to hook up with old friends, there is plenty of evidence that there is a new whisky drinker (younger, more women) out there, making the effort to get to Islay and that the Fèis is beginning to adapt to this shift in the demographic.
2. The transformation of the ‘whisky tasting’
There will always be space for the established format of a person talking about six (or seven) drams, but there was plenty of evidence that new possibilities are now being trialled. Having food with the whisky was pretty much standard; there were excellent street food stalls at every event, while Martine Nouet pushed things further with her pop-up restaurant.
There was whisky and music, the innovative Whisky 101 at Jura’s Tastival, and a greater presence of cocktails and Highballs – seeing the Smoky Cokey on draught was a personal thrill, while Alessandro Palazzi’s Negroni Torbato (Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition, Cynar and Aperol) is a potential new classic.
It showed a desire to engage with this new whisky community, and a willingness to see whisky as something which should be aligned with people’s wider lives. Innovative and, yes, fun.
Lagavulin views: As the sun sets on Fèis Ìle 2017, Dave Broom shares some nuggets of wisdom
Not the dolphins, which didn’t appear (as far as I know). The question was asked – inevitably online by someone who wasn’t there (and answered by people who weren’t there) – as to whether Fèis had lost its mojo and was now just an event for buying bottles.
Well, while there were queues – Bowmore won that battle, with Bruichladdich a close second – I didn’t spot any great obsessive collecting taking place. Perhaps the wise decision to have larger runs (Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, Laphroaig) has changed the mindset of the attendee.
Bowmore might think of having a maximum two bottles per person purchase, though. While the sight of auction vans cruising the roads looking for people willing to do an immediate flip was saddening, what I found was a willingness to share rare drams – not hoard them.
4. Whisky diffusion lines
As well as the usual T-shirts/polo shirts, fleeces, waterproofs and bunnets, the appearance of distillery-branded underpants seemed a somewhat quixotic decision – until plane-loads of folk without luggage arrived in need of such essentials, only to discover that Kilchoman was the sole place to buy underwear.
Is this the start of pants wars? Why only men’s? Is there an opportunity for the Lagavulin Ladies range, the Ardbeg Intimates? Laphroaig Foundations? Laddies and Ladies? (I’ve copyrighted all of these, by the way.)
It was also a lesson for those who hadn’t stayed on the island for a period of time, that what is considered commonplace on the mainland might not be quite as easily obtainable here. You need to plan in advance on Islay and to operate with a different mindset – and that goes as much for the whisky as for underwear.
5. Fèis Fringe?
There were so many events that sometimes it was hard to work out exactly what was going on and where. While the Fèis hasn’t become quite as crazy as Spirit of Speyside, the distances between events can be considerable (see number six); buses don’t run 24 hours a day, taxi fares are steep and designated drivers get understandably grumpy.
It would be good to get the fringe side (whether it’s ancillary distillery events or non-official happenings) quasi-organised with a central information point. If only there was a generic whisky website which might be able to help with that. If you know of one – oh, hang on…
6. Difficult decisions
There was considerable buzz around the arrival of Ardnahoe, with buses ferrying people to look at the site. What’s going to happen next year in terms of schedule, when the distillery is open? It would be logical for them to share the day with Bunnahabhain, though that’s by no means guaranteed, given the fact that Kilchoman and Jura – the two distilleries which are furthest away from each other (25 miles plus a ferry trip) – share their open days. It leaves people with an either/or decision. Surely Jura and Caol Ila makes more sense?
Global gathering: Festival-goers old and new, and from around the world, are welcome on Islay
7. Engaging with a deeper Islay
We had foraged cocktails – admittedly for gin (and, come to think of it, with The Botanist and now gins from Jura and Colonsay, who knows what next year might bring?) – but also walks and talks, which opened up the island.
The distilleries have long been running behind-the-scenes tours, giving visitors access to the parts of a distillery you don’t normally see – the opening of the maltings is a great example of this as well – but engaging with landscape, water and nature is a significant part of the development of Islay’s whiskies. If distilleries are now talking terroir, then they also need to find ways to show what it means. It seems to be happening.
8. Suited and booted
Adam Hannett rocks a three-piece suit. A strange thing to say? Well, generally speaking you're more likely to spot a corncrake than a suit on Islay – there’s no need on a working island for such formal apparel, but Adam’s light blue number had the ladies swooning, and nods of approval from (some) chaps in the audience.
The days of compulsory kilt-wearing are long gone. The suit says the guard has changed, we’re serious, smart players; and, while Islay might be remote, don’t treat us like ignorant islanders. We’re setting the rules.
9. Community engagement
Bruichladdich and Ardbeg are the big days in terms of locals being able to join in with the Fèis properly (they have to work during the week) but, as ever, Islay’s hospitality shone. I heard of stranded people getting lifts in police cars, while in every pub which I went into (all in the way of research) I saw locals chatting with incomers, sometimes to the latter’s surprise.
Advice would be offered, stories told, recommendations given, deep whisky talk entered into. If you want to get an idea of what the Fèis is really about, you can’t stay in your own little group, but get out there and chat. This is a community festival, after all.
10. Plan ahead…
…and have a Plan B in case of transport issues. Start it now. There’s only 51 weeks to go until the next one.
30 May 2017
The sleeper seemed to be a good idea. Overnight to Glasgow, first bus to Kennacraig and the ferry over to Islay in time for Lagavulin’s celebrations. What could go wrong? I turned down the idea of the lounge car (‘Get you!’ – Ed) in preference of turning down the sheets and getting some rest. I was asleep before we even left Euston, only briefly surfacing as we rolled and rocked gently through sleeping England on the way north.
Combined effort: It took a train, bus, ferry and 23 hours, but Broom finally made it to the Islay Festival
The sleep was deep. In fact, as I woke up at 5am it felt like the most restful night I’d had in ages. Then I realised we had stopped. There was the blurred, echoing sound of a station announcement. ‘Must be Glasgow Central,’ I thought, ‘we’re early.’ I went back to sleep, waking 90 minutes later to the sound of a tearful guard and a somewhat irate fellow passenger outside. ‘We’re in Preston?!’ he was saying.
‘I’m sorry,’ she was replying, ‘but the power lines are down. Nothing’s moving north or south.’ Two-and-a-half hours later we are boarding an emergency coach to take us the three-and-a-half hours north to Glasgow. I’ve missed the connections, but there are other buses, other ferries. I’m in a better position than the lady next to me who is heading to Iona via Glasgow, Oban and Tobermory. She’s giving a presentation at a conference. First thing the next day. We start to talk, as you do when adversity throws you together.
It’s funny how we unburden ourselves when the situation is right. You can sit next to the same person on a long-haul flight or train journey and not exchange a word. When an incident happens, however, all of that reserve goes out of the window and you form a group mentality which holds as long as the situation exists.
So, as well as the intricacies of the Scottish transport system, we talk of things we’d normally never reveal to strangers – family, exams, children, where we stay, our lives, dreams. She works for Kairos, a Christian organisation that lobbies actively for peace and reconciliation between Palestine and Israel.
We chat about building communities and understanding, and how Iona was founded on such principles – communal living, discussing, meditating, eating and working together to gain a greater understanding and opening up possibilities. It’s why there are so many places with the Kil- prefix in the west: cells of communities of monks finding their desert, places to contemplate and plan new possibilties.
England flattens out and leads into Scotland’s southern uplands, its hills festooned with wind farms. Maybe, I muse to my new friend, Nicola Sturgeon’s secret plan is to build so many of them that one day we undo the zip that binds us to England and we propel ourselves north-east to dock once more with Norway.
Caledonian Sleeper: The sleeper train seemed like a good idea… until the power lines came down
We part in Glasgow, steaming hot, people in flip-flops looking dazedly at the unfamiliar bright disc in the sky, and I wait for the bus to Kennacraig, a further three hours west – the land of dreamers.
There’s the usual stop at Inveraray for a ‘comfort break’ as my American friends coyly put it. For me, that means the comfort of Loch Fyne Whiskies, a quick purchase of the Living Cask Batch 4, a tasting of a truly excellent cask strength Laphroaig, and then it’s on the bus and onwards.
At Ardrishaig a quartet of ladies gets on, one talking loudly about dating and how hard it is these days. ‘Men just don’t chat you up any more,’ she complains. ‘It’s harder than ever to make friends.’ I’m not eavesdropping. I can hear this through the music on my headphones. There’s a sense of people falling apart.
On the ferry, it binds once more. The Whisky Exchange crew are there with an (over)-laden van, the ferry a buzz of excitement from visitors and returning Ileachs, the familiar, reassuring CalMac smell of macaroni cheese and chips mingles with the Caol Ila Highball next to me.
Tiredness is forgotten. It’s taken 23 hours to get here and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I’m home. On Islay. This festival is about whisky, for sure, but it is also about community – of the people making it and living here, and those who come to join them for this remarkable week.
24 May 2017
It’s not every day that you wake up, look out of your hotel window and see a rollercoaster opposite, and to the left a baseball stadium. There again, having a theme park, spa, stadium and hotel all together in the city centre seems a perfectly normal and rational thing for Tokyo. Things are done differently here.
The stadium’s conference centre was the venue for this year’s Tokyo International Bar Show (TIBS), which itself morphed out of Whisky Live six years ago to embrace a new, wider-ranging Japanese bar culture. The geek fest of the whisky years has receded significantly, replaced by a more egalitarian (and noisy) approach.
Nothing shows how far and how fast the Japanese bar scene is moving than the gin wars that broke out at the event. The Kyoto Distillery launched a limited edition Navy Strength KiNoBi and a new variant KiNoTea (with added – and crazily expensive – tea from Uji), while Nikka weighed in with its new Coffey Gin and Vodka, made at Miyagikyo. Not to be outdone, Suntory chose the event to launch its new gin, Roku.
KiNoBi gin: Kyoto Distillery launched a limited edition Navy Strength KiNoBi gin at the show
All are based on a mix of traditional botanicals with added Japanese elements: sansho pepper, red shiso, bamboo, hinoki, yuzu, kinome and gyokuro tea for KiNoBi. Coffey Gin combines a traditional botanical mix with distillates of sansho and a Japanese citrus mix of yuzu, kabishu, amanatsu (and apple); while Suntory adds sansho, yuzu, gyokuro, matcha, sakura leaf and blossom to its traditional base. When Hombo’s earthier WaBi (shell ginger, yuzu, gyukuro) is stirred in, you can see how Japanese gin has gone from nothing to a category – almost overnight.
The key to all of these is the use of those local botanicals – and with such a diverse range of citrus alone, not to mention herbs and tea, this is a gin-maker’s paradise. They are there to give the gins identity and set them apart from the standard London Dry base.
Japan is not alone. Northumberland’s Hepple uses botanicals grown on its estate – including juniper and Douglas fir, while the biosphere gin of Dyfi explores Welsh botanicals in a similar way to Norway’s Vidda, or the approach taken by California’s St George’s Terroir.
There was an echo of this thinking in the chat I moderated between three of Japan’s newer whisky distilleries: Chichibu, Mars Shinshu and White Oak. All of the distillers agreed that they were still looking for their character, itself an understanding of the long-term nature of whisky. While gins can be brought to market (relatively) quickly, whisky makers have to sit and wait to see how the work done at new make stage then matures.
Mars is looking at yeasts and roasts of barley; White Oak has completely re-evaluated its whisky making to try to make a lighter, and more gentle, style; while even Chichibu is still experimenting and focusing ever more heavily on the local: peat, barley – even wood – but, as brand ambassador Yumi Yoshikawa pointed out: ‘Only if it gives us quality. Local doesn’t automatically mean better.’
New spirits: Nikka’s new Coffey Gin and Vodka are made at Miyagikyo
This approach is echoed at newer builds such as Akkeshi on Hokkaido’s east coast, which aims to produce a 100% Akkeshi single malt whisky using local barley, peat and mizunara wood from local forests. Japanese barley is the ultimate aim for Shizuoka along with double, and partial triple, distillation. The climate is the main difference for Hombo’s new Tsunuki distillery in the southern city of Kagoshima, where the ambient temperature will have a significant impact on maturation. The local suddenly increases in its importance, but why is that unusual?
While using local botanicals may seem logical for gin, in reality this is a spirit which sprang from the spice trade and has always been internationalist in approach. Whisky, however, started as a localised spirit whose ties have been slowly loosened – or, perhaps, overlooked. Even those apparently rootless creations, blends, were originally crafted to suit the tastes of their respective markets – the Glasgow palate being very different (and, inevitably, superior) to those of Edinburgh or London.
Now those links with the immediate environment are being re-established. We are seeing it around the world and, while the ‘grain to glass’ tagline is often overused, there are indications that the shift is under way in Scotland as well. All single malt distilleries reflect their place – part of their individuality comes from how the template was devised hundreds of years ago, expertise, the availability of ingredients and their flavours, all the way down to the lactobacillus unique to that place. The local subtly guides character in the right direction.
Finding character is as much about listening to those whisperings as it is about imposing a formula. The local is not about copying, or trying to force the issue (such as using tiny casks again). It is about taking your time, looking, tasting, reading and listening. Without having this understanding, you will struggle in tomorrow’s whisky world.
03 May 2017
‘Try this.’ It’s upstairs in the Smuggler’s Cove. I’ve just finished rambling about rum and only broke into song once. Martin Cate clearly thinks I need a drink. I probably do. The liquid he gives me is funky, oily, weirdly resinous, pungent with the effects of age and dunder. It reeks of a wildness that you know spells danger and drags you ever further down a shady alley of depravity. We’ve all been there. It was bottled by Ellis & Co of London in 1936 and hails from Jamaica.
To explain, Smuggler’s Cove is the greatest rum bar I’ve been to. To enter it is to be absorbed into a darkened, jetsam-festooned cave (with added flotsam for balance). There’s an anchor above your head, a waterfall running down into the basement lagoon and shrines to masters of tiki past. Oh, there’s also close to 600 rums.
As I sit and chat with my new rum buddies, the bar is filling up. It’s 5pm. Clearly they like to start their drinking early in San Francisco. There’s vintage aloha shirts and work clothes. People sipping neat rum, punches and tiki drinks being mixed, a soundtrack of exotica.
Smuggler’s Cove: The bar stocks more than 600 different rums (photo: Kelly Puleio)
My friends are members of the Cove’s Rumbustion Society, all of whom have drunk a minimum of 100 rums (including some of Cate’s ‘Immortal’ bottlings). Some have topped the 400-rum mark. There are some who have gone 200 beyond that. Dedication. But not beyond the call of duty.
‘There’s something wrong with your hands.’ Cate’s back. ‘They seem to be empty. Name your poison.’ I drift across the Caribbean and go for agricole. ‘Vieux, or très vieux?’ I go for the former. No need to be greedy.
He reappears with two glasses. ‘You have two hands.’ If I keep up this pace, I’ll soon have four. One glass is a Dillon from the ’70s, the other a Neisson of similar vintage. If that’s vieux, who knows what très vieux means...?
The Dillon has a cool restraint to it, a tailored gent carrying a sword stick. The Neisson, on the other hand, starts off like a pungent denizen of the opium den he is walking past. It smells of earth and horse sweat, savoury and deep. In time, this flies off, like Sherlock Holmes throwing aside a grimy disguise. Rum does that to you. Below us the tiki drinks are still being rocked out. Someone is ordering his 608th rum.
Would I have got this from a whisky bar, I wonder. I mean, this is… fun. Here – and at all the great rum bars I’ve frequented – a balance has been struck between the geeks who sip on their rums and the outrageous concoctions being mixed. It allows everyone to feel welcome.
Whisky doesn’t do tiki. It would be absurd to reverse-engineer it into that space, but there is a lesson to be learned from places like this. One where passion and fun can combine contentedly. Where people learn as much as they want in a relaxed way.
The folks worshipping at the altar of tiki aren’t considered unsophisticated. They are part of the crew. They are here because they love rum – it’s just tonight that love is manifested in a different way to those who are taking their medicine neat. When was the last time you saw that in a whisky bar?
Whisky is getting better at talking about the primacy of flavour, but what of the fun? Any of us who have bellied up to the bar with a bottle or two know that it can be the spark which can ignite an evening, as well as the sinuous thread that pulls people together. There is fun within the bottle, but the spirit is released only when we forget what we have been told whisky should be. It’s like having a drink with a vicar, then discovering he’s a wizard with a pool cue.
The new whisky bars – think Black Rock or Swift – know the importance of fun as well as flavour, but to many the whisky bar is not a destination for enjoyment. Rather, it is a place for worship: bar as a church, not a club. If I was in a bar drinking a whisky from the ’30s or the ’70s I can pretty much guarantee that my neighbour wouldn’t be sipping on a Bobbie Burns or whisky punch. Y’see?
Rum is learning from whisky – single malt especially – but whisky can also learn from rum, and there’s no more important lesson than this.
25 April 2017
‘Whisky is for everyone’ is an easy line to throw into a conversation. It sits there alongside ‘it’s all about flavour’, ‘drink your whisky whatever way you want’, or ‘blends are as good as malts’ phrases, which drift ever downwards through repetition into cliché, paying lip disservice to their truths.
None of these phrases are wrong; they should act as the foundation of the way in which we all talk of, understand, and educate about whisky. They have to be more than words, though. They have to be backed up by deeds and belief.
The failure to act on them is why I wasn’t too surprised to read the account of a recent whisky show for ‘high rollers’. After all, the industry has been slowly, insidiously gravitating towards this grouping for a number of years. Perhaps the rest of us have tried to ignore it, or wished it might go away – or at least be balanced by a more open and welcoming attitude. That clearly hasn’t worked.
You cannot say: ‘Whisky is for everyone,’ if you corral it into an area which is only accessible for one grouping, and then praise them for being ‘an elite’.
Global spirit: Scotch whisky’s success is not down to an elite few
They already feel that they are the only ones worthy of this whisky because they have the money, the power and (it would seem) the right sort of genitals. You have just fed their already bloated sense of entitlement. They’re not interested, or passionate, or intrigued about whisky. It exists simply to further boost their egos. It is ‘theirs’ – ie it is not ours. That’s how elites operate.
‘Don’t get worked up Dave, it’s just a few rich guys.’ No. It’s more than that. If the universality of whisky is not key to education, then we have all failed. If its qualities aren’t actively demonstrated through talk, and action, laughter and fun, then this ‘elite’ will own the narrative, one which declares that ‘old is good’, ‘single malt is the best’, ‘price is a determinant of quality’, and ‘it is for us and not you’.
In their dreams they look down from their gated apartments at us and wave their tumblers. ‘You can aspire to this,’ they sneer, ‘but you can never afford it, or become one of us.’ It’s the Kardashianising of whisky. Scotch ceases to be a drink for everyone; it is an object for a specific group and it is tainted by association.
All of this runs counter to everything that Scotch should stand for. Whisky is democratic. It is a drink made from humble ingredients, which are elevated by way of skill, art, experience and intuition into a liquid that encapsulates place, mood, emotion and time. At its best, it speaks to your heart.
Throughout its history, Scotch has always managed to balance the seemingly contradictory notion that it is a drink of the farmer and the working class, and the drink of the gentleman in his club. It has done this because its message has never been: ‘I am a whisky drinker, therefore I am better than you.’ It is why it became a global spirit.
Reject elitism: Whisky is not a commodity reserved for rich men
There is an important difference to be drawn between Scotch as a signifier of success and becoming a drink for an ‘elite’. Everyone measures their personal success in different ways. Buying a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label, or Ballantine’s Finest is as much a reward for someone with little money as a rich person buying a bottle of King George V or Ballantine’s 30-year-old. Scotch succeeded because it never defined itself as a drink for a specific class, creed, or colour (sadly, it’s struggled to say it’s also for women, but that’s changing).
Now, however, we see brands, blenders, distillers forgetting that important point and positioning whisky as some form of lifestyle choice for this self-perpetuating, self-aggrandising clique.
Can you stop them drinking it? Of course not. That’s as absurd as their inferred argument that the rest of us are not worthy. What the whisky industry can do, however, is stop pandering to them, stop saying something to one group of people and something else to the rest of us.
‘How do you know when a politician is lying?’ goes the old joke. ‘When his lips move.’ If we cannot believe in what we are being told, if we suspect that brands themselves are looking down on the majority of existing and potential drinkers, then what hope is there? Whisky’s message must be consistent and egalitarian because it belongs to all of us.
Every year after this particular show, friends come up to me and say: ‘It’s hideous, but I hold my nose and attend… because… you know…’ Well, enough.
Have the courage to stand up for what you believe in.
12 April 2017
My window is open – and not just because the cat wants to go out. The sun isn’t just shining, but there’s some heat to it. It’s one of those spring days where things begin to pop.
It was even the same in Edinburgh last week. I shouldn’t really say ‘even Edinburgh’ as if the weather there is always rainy and dreich, but you never quite know what’s going to be flung at you there – warm sunshine or a switchblade of an east wind cleaving you in two.
Spring has sprung: Whisky can be adapted to all seasons, hot and cold
The change in weather usually acts as a cue for friends on Instagram to post images of lambs, daffodils and ice creams, and all that clichéd spring stuff. This year, though, I’ve noticed more glasses of pink wine being snapped, accompanied by the tag ‘first rosé of the year!’, as if you have to put pink wine away as soon as the leaves turn and the clocks go back. Quite why you can’t (or shouldn’t) drink rosé wine in winter I know not, but I can appreciate that sunshine seems to trigger a shift in people’s consciousness.
This would have made more sense in past times when our diet was fixed by the seasons. Spring represented a move away from the preserves, dried foods and roots of the winter and a new season of fresher, more vibrant flavours. Maybe that vestigial memory has been retained within us all.
I’m all for seasonal drinking – hey, I wrote four pieces about seasonal whisky last year – but there was something about these cries of ‘first rosé of the year!’ which nagged away at me and, no, it wasn’t the fact that people were enjoying themselves or that they were drinking pink wine – I love pink wine.
Rather, it was this underlying notion that, in this country at least, drinks are still rigidly compartmentalised. Each one has its correct place and time – and you can apply that to the class system if you wish. Accordingly, Champagne is for celebration, gin is for pre-dinner drinks, pink wine is to be consumed when the sun is out, but only between the spring and autumn equinoxes.
Where is Scotch whisky in this? The ‘Drambusters’ class at Tales on Tour raised this idea that whisky is fixed in terms of occasion, use, demographic and flavour (it’s only useful for adding smokiness to mixed drinks).
The time to crack open the Scotch, it would seem, runs in the opposite way to the time to open the first rosé. Whisky, still, is seen as a drink best-suited to the period between Samhain and Beltane, if you want to be all Celtic about it.
Whisky Highball: A simple, refreshing classic cocktail
‘Whisky: the drink of the dark,’ says many things; it speaks of indoors, of darkened rooms and firelight – it says neat. In fact, it says every image used in whisky advertising for many years. Yes, whisky plays in that field – and does it better than most drinks – but it can also play in the rest of the year.
The fact that this notion of Scotch as a year-round drink is still a tough sell to new consumers (in mature markets) shows how far we still have to go in terms of letting the light into those rooms, dragging people into the sunshine and pouring them a dram – but one with a different set of flavours, maybe at a different temperature, in a different glass, mixed with different ingredients. The conventions that seal Scotch up as the rosé is opened don’t need to be challenged, they need to be overturned.
Before consumers can be convinced, distillers have to be – and bartenders as well. It is time to make a concerted effort that says: ‘Lighten up guys.’ Look at occasion, flavour and serve; explore delicacy rather than heft, experiment with Highballs and, as the days lengthen, bring whisky with you out of the dark and into the light.
15 March 2017
‘Judas!’ The cry came out during Bob Dylan’s 1966 concert at Manchester from an irate member of the audience resenting the fact that Dylan had moved away from his folky voice-of-a-generation shtick, and was now plugged in with The Hawks chanting new, cryptic, Beat poetry at volume. It was the end, as some like the heckler saw it, of a tradition.
A similar division is happening in Scotch, where the new defenders of the old ways are fighting the good fight against those who they see as betrayers of heritage – a dispute which is under way in many areas.
Take barley. On one hand, we have ongoing research into new varieties which will be disease-resistant, easily-malted and bred to maximise yield (litres of alcohol per ton of barley used). The underlying drive is for efficiency. Yield, we are told, dominates the initial part of the whisky-making process. Character takes over from fermentation onwards.
A new era: Times are changing for barley, but debate continues over flavour and efficiency
A few stick to the notion that barley might also deliver flavour – there’s an ongoing debate about Golden Promise, for example. As a result, the ‘old was better’ camp believes all new varieties are bad (efficiency being the enemy of quality) and that the old ones were automatically better. The reality is more nuanced.
This was brought into focus when I was devouring Dan Barber’s book The Third Plate (which is compulsory reading for anyone interested in sustainability, food and agriculture). In it, an artisan baker says:
‘While people understand the change in seasons when it comes to the availability of fruits and vegetables… they see bread more as a staple. People view bread as stability itself.’
The consumer demands consistency, the millers provide the flour which will deliver it, and in turn demand that farmers grow the type of wheat they need to maintain that consistency. This continues even if each part of the chain knows intuitively that the wheat being grown maximises yield at the expense of flavour.
‘… we don’t dictate the rules,’ the baker continues, ‘we obey them.’
He then compares this to the standard consumer approach to wine.
‘If grapes are soaked with rain one year, the wine tastes different, but people don’t reject it for being different… we don’t give that kind of slack to bread.’
Wine is not only allowed to be inconsistent, it revels in it.
Where is whisky in this paradigm? Maybe we could draw a parallel between standard blends and standard loaves, while single cask malts could be more wine-like.
The actual question is: does the future of whisky lie in bread or wine, or can it play in both? Should distillers be looking at flavour-driven barley varieties as well as efficient ones?
This is something which is already happening in beer. Until recently, the brewing industry operated a very similar model to that seen in bread. Consumer demand drove brewers to ask maltsters (and, by extension, farmers) to grow consistent, flavour-light barley.
Now, however, there is demand on the consumers’ part for new flavours. This could mean the brewer asking the maltster for new varieties, who will pass on the question to farmers, who in turn will ask plant breeders for barleys which will deliver a wider spectrum of flavours. This in turn may lead to new, smaller-scale, localised, specialist maltings.
Obey the rules: Bread is seen as ‘stability’, but should whisky be the same?
Nothing will shift, however, unless consumers, writers, bartenders and retailers show that demand exists. Nothing will go into the ground unless all parts of the chain can benefit from it.
The old ways camp’s eyes light up. Might this mean old varieties being revived? Will we see ‘heirloom’ whisky? Perhaps, but again there is a middle way. Research is needed.
Will the flavour delivered in beer distil over? Rather than just replanting old varieties, might there not be more sense in cross-breeding old and new varieties for flavour and conceivably higher yield without compromising quality?
Flavour-led barley will also necessitate a shift in mindset on the part of distillers who see yield as being paramount. Smaller-scale distillers may find this as a way to differentiate themselves, while one batch of low-yielding flavoured barley a year in a large distillery may be all that is needed to give scale and greater momentum. In other words, the two sides of the debate have a part to play if this is to succeed.
This isn’t just theoretical. In Scotland, we have seen (and will see) different roasts of barley being used. The global rise of single malt has also resulted in distillers looking into their own local varieties – witness what’s happening in Japan.
Barber’s chapter on seed includes a long section on Steve Jones and his work in breeding new cereal varieties (including barley) at his Bread Lab research station in Skagit Valley, Washington State.
A new chapter for barley is starting. To grow whisky, you have to start in the soil.
01 March 2017
I’m reading a remarkable book about trees. It’s called The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and is one of those volumes that makes you view what you think is a familiar and known world in a completely new manner. You realise, in fact, that everything you thought about the natural world was too simplistic – or just plain wrong.
A new path: It’s time for Scotchwhisky.com to explore other styles of whisky
Wohlleben’s opening premise is that ‘a tree isn’t a forest’, which seems pretty self-evident. We all know that lots of trees are a forest. He develops his argument – backed-up by rigorous science – to show that a forest is a not a collection of individual trees, but a complex interdependent system in which the trees help each other, communicate together, and even nurse sickly members of the community. They work together in ways which are quite extraordinary.
As he writes:
‘If every tree were looking out only for itself then quite a few would never reach old age... Every tree therefore is valuable to the whole community.’
That got me thinking about whisky. In our increasingly compartmentalised world, we tend to see Scotch as one thing, Irish as another, etc. From a whisky production point of view this is a good thing.
Each needs to be as distinct as a beech is from a birch, or an oak is from a pine – but that doesn’t mean each ‘species’ of whisky stands alone and apart from the others of its genus.
Like the trees, they refer to each other and are part of one greater organism. Separating them and thinking one is better (rather than just different) from another eliminates any chance to compare and contrast, and have perspective.
Which in turn brings us to Scotchwhisky.com. Not to write about other whiskies, producers, styles and approaches would be a dereliction of duty. Most of you will have some Japanese or Bourbon or Irish sitting at home. Should we write about them? Yes. And we will.
Yes, we are still called Scotchwhisky.com and Scotch will remain the primary focus for the site, but it is time to widen the remit and write about everything that is happening out there in the world of whisky.
It’s time for us to walk in the forest and see what we find.
15 February 2017
It was only after a few minutes that I realised that my hand had stuck to my glass. ‘Can you feel your beard?’ Westland’s Matt Hofmann asked. ‘Mine’s beginning to freeze.’ He was right. A distinct crisping of the facial hair was taking place.
A source of inspiration: The World Whisky Forum took place at Box distillery in Sweden
Up the snowy slope, the steam from Box distillery mingled with the fog emanating from our mouths, as we huddled around the fires on the frozen lake, the whisky helping to heat the core. ‘It’s only -14˚C,’ said Box distiller Roger Melander. ‘It’s often -26˚C.’
This was the start of the first World Whisky Forum, the brainchild of Box’s Jan Groth. A chance for distillers from around the world, irrespective of size, to come and talk and share. And, apparently, freeze.
‘Just as well we’re not in Finland,’ said Martin Tønder Smith from the Norwegian alcohol monopoly, ‘otherwise they’d also be getting us to jump in the lake.’ He didn’t look too worried about the possibility. Made of hard stuff, these Nordic folk.
The temperature may have been cold, but the welcome and the talks over the next two days were anything but. Don’t get me wrong – debate was rarely heated, rather a warm glow of consensus and friendship began to suffuse the room.
Non-attendees could glance at who was speaking and conclude that this was simply a chance for small(er) players to get together to moan about big firms, and about Scotch. It wasn’t.
In fact, Scotch was praised, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) was praised, big companies were not seen as the enemy, but as another (important) facet of an increasingly complex whisky world. If you are true to your vision, the message seemed to be, then size does not matter. The issue was: how do we keep whisky moving onwards?
A Swedish sunrise: Debates at the World Whisky Forum were rarely heated, much like the surroundings
Two topics kept re-appearing. There had been a passionate debate at the end of the first day’s sessions about the need for legislation, but also about how frustrating it could be to work within its idiosyncrasies and interpretations, and try to reconcile different interpretations of ‘tradition’.
Lone Wolf’s Steven Kersley’s opening gambit of ‘challenge everything’ may have sounded like being radical for the sake of it, but his stance was more nuanced: accept the realities of Scotch and the need for big distilleries to make a consistent product, and learn from the experiments which have been created to achieve that consistency. At the same time, he saw a real need for Scotch to keep pace with developments elsewhere.
‘Why do we malt this way?’ he asked. ‘Why do we only use these grains, or those yeasts? What can we learn from brewing? Could we freeze-distil? If you don’t know the answers, then find out.’ That shouldn’t be seen as radical. It should be seen as normal.
A different side of this notion of challenging norms came from Ichiro Akuto’s back-to-basics approach at Chichibu, where his staff have learned how to plant barley, cut peat, do floor malting and coopering; an involvement in the process leading to a more profound understanding – the same deep thinking which pervaded Hofmann’s inspiring talk about the importance and relevance of examining what ‘local’ means, and how it could be used in creating a new quality style of whisky.
Yesterday’s innovation is today’s tradition. The reason Scotch whisky is where it is today is because distillers over hundreds of years have adapted and evolved that tradition. When something is fixed, it atrophies.
‘Challenge everything’: Attendees were encouraged to embrace new ways of whisky-making to ensure its future
The key is evolution, as long as that allows you to study older, perhaps forgotten, techniques and reinterpret them within today’s frame. The rules appear to permit flexibility, though their interpretation – wedded to an obdurate reading of ‘tradition’ – can appear to negate that.
It’s why Ludo Ducrocq’s (William Grant & Sons) piece was so vital. If you are new, he said, learn from your mistakes (and don’t bottle them); leave written, tangible, evidence of having been there. Understand and protect your legacy, because your legacy is being created today. And, as he alluded subtly, pick your battles with legislators.
I left inspired by the passion and dedication shown by all the attendees. Something happened in the frozen north, a coming together and the emergence of a common belief. Not necessarily a ‘movement’, but a new willingness to share and help, to find common purpose.
Scotch needs to be part of those future discussions, it too needs to move on, writing its own future. At times, we all need to be thinking outside the box.
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