Whisky price inflation ignites an inner debate in Royal Mile Whiskies’ Arthur Motley.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
20 April 2016
How does a whisky become a cult? It’s a thought which sprang to mind when I was tasting this year’s release of Yamazaki Sherry Cask. Why this whisky? Or rather, why this whisky which isn’t the same whisky which did become a cult? Once cult status has been achieved, is it held in perpetuity? Once a cult, always a cult – as I’m sure I overhead someone muttering in a Glasgow bar one night.
Anyway, to get back to the question in hand, cult status is linked to scarcity. It can be granted to a whisky thanks to a (often belated) realisation that it is in finite supply – Port Ellen, Brora, Karuizawa. It can be a limited edition whisky where demand always outstrips supply: Ardbeg limited editions, Bowmore Devil’s Casks, and Yamazaki Sherry Cask.
In both scenarios, it produces a reaction akin to mass hysteria. ‘I haven’t tried it, but I have to have it because people are talking about it.’ It’s drams as Pokémon cards, limited edition trainers, or handbags.
If the cult has momentum, critical faculties also disappear. Possession of the sacred object is all that matters. The liquid (in this case) is meaningless. The fact that it might only be of average quality is irrelevant. It’s whisky as fetish.
Object of desire: Feverish interest greeted the release of the 2016 Yamazaki Sherry Cask
This might seem an enviable position for a producer. In actuality, it can be a nightmare, particularly when it comes to distribution. Who gets it? How many do they get? What’s the price? The same dilemma is then passed down to retailers, who have to deal fairly with cult members, knowing that it will be impossible to satisfy them all.
How, then, to be even-handed with what is an inevitably tiny allocation? Two retailers had an interesting response with the Yamazaki. ‘The issue is how you appear fair and not make more people than necessary angry, because that anger is there,’ says Arthur Motley, buyer at Royal Mile Whiskies.
‘A man gives an award to a whisky, so the distiller decides to increase its price. People get angry. The retailer doesn’t know how many they’ll get or what the price will be, so people get angry with us. We get a small allocation and can’t sell a bottle to everyone who wants one. People get angry. We’re living in new times.’
How, then, to be even-handed in selling the stock? ‘We could alert our most loyal customers and pre-sell the allocation, but that isn’t an option as you’ll be criticised for selling to an inner circle. Or we could sell on a first come, first served basis with one bottle per customer, which is what we did. We Tweeted that it had arrived and it went in seconds.’
That still leaves the fact that many (most?) whisky lovers will never try the dram. Is there any way to spread the love? Master of Malt devised A Cunning Plan for its six-bottle allocation of Yamazaki. Four were bottled as 3cl miniatures and sold in a lottery, which in theory meant 93 folk got to try it – maybe more if they were happy to share a glass. One went for auction, with all profit above the retail price going to charity.
The last full bottle went to a lottery, sporting a back label saying: ‘I hereby swear not to sell this bottle – but to drink it with my chums. May my taste-buds and olfactory bulb shrivel and die if I should break my word.’
How likely is that? We all know that these bottles are now as often bought to flip, not drink. That possession of the sacred object is no longer the main driver within the world of cult. Profit is.
In Royal Mile’s case, someone had tried to cheat the system and ordered two bottles, meaning that there was one left over. ‘Everyone believed when it was released it would resell for £800 to £1,000,’ says Motley. ‘The individual then makes more profit that we or the distiller makes. So we were faced with this issue – do we sell this spare bottle, put it into auction, or do we effectively give it away? Which is what we did.’
The bottle was sold to Edinburgh bar Bramble for £180 (0% profit) and the bar then sold 25ml drams at £6.43 (0% profit). It sold out in 10 hours (search #breakevenbottle on Twitter to see the video). Again, more people were able to try it, which gives this whisky lover a warm, fuzzy feeling.
But is it up to retailers to try to subvert the flipping culture? ‘How do you judge whether a customer is someone who wants to buy for a collection, or is going to drink it, or who wants to flip it?’ asks Motley, somewhat rhetorically. ‘If they do flip it, is that less valid? Is it even our business?’
Here, though, is the dark side of the cult business. Suntory knew that there would be huge demand for this bottle, so the company raised the price, to around (gasp!) £200 retail.
It also raised the spec of the whisky, so that the liquid was commensurate with the price being asked. That is to be applauded. Then you look at auction sites and see it selling for £2,000.
Now, I ask you, seeing this, what price do you think Suntory will charge next year and, if it is a four-figure sum, can you blame them?
The industry gets criticised for greed. Ask yourself. Who is being greedy here?
13 April 2016
Now, while I watch YouTube relatively regularly, I can’t say I fully understand how the clips on the ‘now watch these’ menu which pops up at the end are selected. Maybe it’s your browsing history, or the site’s goblins are using some cunning algorithm to make a connection between what you’ve seen and something which initially seems completely unrelated – but maybe isn’t.
Who knows? Actually, who cares? What matters in this case is what happened when the video finished, because it offered a link to an interview with the late Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson of Coil – which I’d guess might be the first time that these two gentlemen have ever been linked. One co-founded Throbbing Gristle and was noted for his interest in the occult, psychedelia and transgressive behaviour; the other blends whisky.
I love Coil, deeply, so I watched it (though I didn’t tell the Editor, what with this being a fairly busy news day). What was integral to Coil, Sleazy said, was being true to the vision upon which their work was grounded, on its truths.
True to a vision: Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson of Coil
The band, despite what some believed, were never simply provocative for the sake of it. Neither were they self-created ‘mavericks’ – an approach which is little more than marketing taking the tropes of the underground and diluting them for the mainstream. Beware the b(r)and which shouts: ‘Look how wacky I am!’
It occurred to me that these insights can be applied to any endeavour – even whisky – as they concentrate on the importance of honesty and values.
Listen closely and you can hear integrity in the music, just as you can taste it – or the lack of it – in a whisky. Values are more than logos and bottle shapes and paying lip-service to barely understood ‘heritage’. We’ve all encountered the weary taste of flaccid mediocrity as another barely-matured single cask flops on the tongue. We’ve tasted the dusty, hollowed-out corpses of formerly great brands reanimated to hit a price point.
Equally, we’ve had our worlds made richer by the complexity of a compelling liquid – and that could be a standard blend or a bottling from the upper stratosphere. In other words, whisky connects with you in the same way as art or music: emotionally, viscerally. It only truly resonates, however, if it has integrity, is true to itself.
I went back to work with some Coil as a soundtrack – which is what you should do as well:
06 April 2016
It’s one of those stories which makes you look twice at the date. It did, after all, appear on 1 April. ‘Scotched: Diageo bows to pressure to rename whisky brand’.
The reason for this surprise announcement? The reported renaming of the firm’s Indian whisky, McDowell’s No.1, and the cessation of exports of its sister brand, Bagpiper, at the insistence of the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) over potential confusion that they were Scottish.
The changes only apply to markets outwith India but, the more I consider it, the more it seems either some weird post-modern joke, or the start of something more sinister.
Let’s take bagpipes for starters. I think we all can accept that the great Highland bagpipe has associations with Scotland, but bagpipes themselves are originally Greek, or Egyptian. Chaucer’s motley collection of pilgrims are piped out of town as they depart for Canterbury in the 1390s:
‘A baggepype wel coude he blowe and sowne.’
That’s the same poem, by the way, which first mentions beer being used as a base for a distillate, but I digress.
Bagpipes have been played in India since at least the 19th century. First introduced to the military, they have also become a folk instrument there. Those of you who have travelled to Garhwal will have thrilled to the skirl of the pipes being played there by the Kumauni people. For the few of you who may not have experienced it, here’s a clip.
So integral are bagpipes to the Indian military that, in 1976, United Breweries (as was) launched its brand. Maybe Diageo, riddled with post-colonial guilt, has only just realised this and acquiesced to the SWA’s demands, seeing the brand name as an example of a symbol of British imperialism being imposed on a proud and independent nation. Ok, they might be 40 years late, but it’s a start.
Maybe, though, there’s another way of looking at this. Perhaps the SWA’s motivation is to protect bagpipes for Scotch. Equally, it could be an attempt to rid the world of what most whisky marketeers see as an antiquated cliché.
Whatever the case, you can’t on one hand preen yourself about the international reach of Scotland and then object when one Scottish export is then co-opted and adapted into local culture. No country ‘owns’ bagpipes – and, by extension, bagpipers.
Exclusively Scottish?: Bagpipers in Penzance, Cornwall (Photo: Tom Corser/tomcorser.com)
This could be the thin end of the chanter. We could be seeing an SWA-led campaign to turn the World Pipe Band Championships (which brings 40,000 people to Glasgow every year) into a Scottish-only event, the piping equivalent of baseball’s World Series.
A ridiculous notion, you say? It’s not the first time the SWA has acted as cultural shock troops. Take the long and somewhat absurd fight between the industry body and Glenora Distillery of Glenville, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and their use of the world ‘Glen’ in the name of their Glen Breton whisky. The Canadian distiller has managed to fight off the SWA, but the apparent success of the bagpiper gambit might see another attempt being mounted.
With the Scots clearly now in the mood to reclaim their cultural heritage, where will it end? Might Nova Scotia have to be renamed? Are the good folk of New Caledonia trembling in their boots? Who is next? When might the distillers at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, expect the writ to come through the door? What of craft distillers in Glendale, Missouri (where, as the New Riders of the Purple Sage reminded us, a train was robbed), or Glen Echo, Maryland?
Where will this madness end? Will there be law suits to ban bars being given Scottish-sounding names – yes, I’m looking at you, The Auld Alliance and Campbelltoun Loch. Could Haggis Appliance Repair in New York be concerned, and where, one might ask, will you then find a mechanic to fix your haggis appliance if they go under?
Could tartan and shortbread be next? You might think this the workings of an over-excited imagination, but if McDowell is now deemed to be an exclusively Scottish name (despite the firm being established in India in 1898), then whither all the Mcs and Macs around the globe?
And what, may I ask, of Scotch Tape? As far as I can ascertain, there’s no whisky involved in its production. A sticky situation indeed.
25 March 2016
We all like to feel special. We love being pampered and told that we are being rewarded for being… well… us. It is part of the human condition I suppose, a manifestation of our own self worth – our own inflated sense of worth some would argue. Why should we get something just because we exist? That’s one for the psychiatrists among you.
I began musing on this when I read of yet another whisky show which offered a VIP option for attendees. This has become so engrained in shows recently that it hardly raises an eyebrow. Yet what does whisky’s equivalent of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket get you? It could be early entry, it could be food, or access to drams which aren’t available to others. In one case, the VIPs were the only ones to get access to in-depth masterclasses. Any other classes simply showed whiskies which were available on the floor.
By only allowing wealthier visitors access to certain whiskies, shows are creating a divide and preventing the spread of education.
Let’s look at this in more detail. Earlier entry, in simple terms, means you pay more to be able to try more whisky. Why can’t the show simply run for longer so that everyone can get an equal chance? Restricting the time available opens up the real possibility that those who haven’t taken the VIP option will drink more quickly when they do finally get in. Result? Carnage.
It is the access to drams and classes which worries me the most, however. Both are examples of the creeping elitism which is appearing within whisky. This approach quite clearly divides whisky into the haves and the have nots. The monied folks can drink any dram they want; those on a smaller budget have to make do with something else. That isn’t what whisky is about.
A whisky show should be egalitarian, it should be about enjoyment and education. It’s the only opportunity that most people have to try some of the bottlings which they know they cannot afford to buy, but are still interested in.
Restricting classes to VIPs is, however, the most insidious manifestation of this elitist approach because it restricts education to those who can afford to pay for it. Where, I ask you, are the new generation of whisky drinkers going to come from if knowledge is restricted in this way? How can the industry hope to educate bartenders or students, people who are low in budget but high in interest if show organisers refuse to engage?
I’d think twice about attending a show which runs a two-tier system. There are alternatives. There are rooms out there filled with people who want to talk, and share, and celebrate in a spirit of equality. Whisky is for everyone.
16 March 2016
There was something both alarming and surreal about Andy Simpson’s opening gambit in our recent debate on investment grade Scotch. He said, ‘Firstly, we’re going to have to put aside the overused nonsense that whisky’s a drink…’ I must confess that I’m still trying to get my head around that one.
If whisky isn’t a drink, then what is it? A monkey? A lawnmower? Clearly I have been living in a cloud of delusion for all these years. Here’s me thinking that the Famous Grouse in the cupboard my Dad dipped into for his sole nightly dram, the bottles in all the bars I’ve visited, the contents of all the casks I’ve seen, all contained drink. Now it seems they didn’t. They were lawnmowers.
Of course, Simpson could be outlining a highly refined philosophical position which is rooted in the Buddhist concept of nothing having independent existence. If everything in the world is linked, then in some way a drink can indeed be a lawnmower, or a monkey. Logic then would suggest that consuming one of those two things would be inherently dangerous (I am assuming here that the monkey is alive). There again, this philosophical stance holds, if whisky isn’t a drink, it is also a drink. (Do keep up). It is just not only a drink.
Maybe it is simpler than that. Perhaps what Simpson is getting at is that that whisky might as well be a lawnmower because it is not solely for consumption, but for speculation. It is there to be looked at, and sold on for profit. Opening it destroys the investment. If that is his position, then he is completely right in his assertion. Whisky isn’t a drink, it is a commodity to be traded. It exists purely to make some speculators money.
Lawnmower Man: No Jobe, you've got it all wrong. You're supposed to drink that, not cut the grass with it!
It works at all levels of a market. As soon as any item attains commodity status it is danger of being exploited. Look at the way in which the coffee industry has been adversely affected by commodity traders. It isn’t coffee they are dealing in, but goods which can be traded. Who cares if farmers are adversely affected if the traders are OK?
As soon as a new front in this world of speculation and ‘investment’ for selfish gain emerges it’s instantaneously serviced by a layer of consultants and ‘experts’ who give the new investor advice – in whisky this has happened despite no-one knowing how things will play out. ‘It is the way the world works, Dave’, you say. ‘Wake up and smell the coffee.’ I have, that’s the issue.
It struck me that this also should open up a discussion as to whether there is – or should be – an ethical dimension framing any speculation. Take this imaginary scenario. I have stock from a distillery (let’s call it ‘D’) held by one of my companies. I also run a separate consultancy company advising on whisky investments. With my adviser’s hat on I recommend distillery ‘D’ as being a good investment. My clients take my advice because no-one knows about the market or the liquid because no-one drinks it. My other company then sells my stock at top price. I can then move on to distillery ‘E’. Smart business, or manipulation of the market? You decide.
‘How sweet,’ the singer Neil Innes wrote, ‘to be an idiot.’ I am proud to be one of them. I believe that guitars are to be played, cars are to be driven, yachts to be sailed, suits to be worm, and wine and spirits to be drunk – no matter what the price is.
I’m off to mow the grass. With a bottle.
11 March 2016
A couple of weeks ago I was rambling on about how our minds are apparently only capable of holding on to four or five facts from an hour-long talk (keep scrolling down, if you’re really interested, and you should hopefully spot the original piece).
The subject continues to nag away, mainly because the whisky festival season has started again – it is actually more akin to Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour. That means I’ll be on my hind legs on a semi-regular basis talking about whisky. And other things probably, I find it hard to stick to one subject. I apologise in advance.
Never-ending: Dave Broom and Bob Dylan are both martyrs to their respective causes
If this whole four or five things in an hour is true, then how much can anyone remember after a whisky festival? How does steady dramming affect the uptake of information?
At home I’ll taste six drams, then take a long break before re-tasting, but that’s a luxury which isn’t possible at a fair where, quite naturally, you want to try as much as you can. Trouble is, once you do try everything, you can’t remember what you had three hours ago. To be honest, you probably have difficulty remembering your name.
So, there’s an element of (dare I say it) self-control needed. You can’t have every dram, so look at the racing card and pick the ones you really want to try (tip: don’t ever go straight for the ‘Give me your most expensive/oldest’ gambit – that’s a sure-fire way to get a distiller’s back up).
Make room for things you have never tried before – open your mind to surprises. Drink plenty of water. Eat! Spit! Take notes and then re-read them. If you can’t understand the scrawl, then sit down and drink more water. It is your friend.
The room, somehow, plays a part in this. After all, every show basically does the same thing: tables, drams, people; yet even some which offer free food and plentiful water end up as drunken brawls within an hour of opening, while others – even with more whisky on offer – are calm and controlled.
I thought that people’s behaviour at a show was a cultural thing: drinkers in some countries are just more badly behaved than others, but it’s not true. Shows in the same city with the same drams can be either a mess or superb.
It could time – the higher the price of the ticket and the shorter the duration of the show, the greater the incentive is to drink fast and hard to recoup the outlay: ‘Hey, I’m in profit.’ Long days might be tiring for the folks behind the stands, but they work.
Ultimately, though, it’s the space. The tighter it is, the deeper the queues around the stands become and the tension rises exponentially. If people are feeling physically constricted in an environment where time is constrained – and alcohol is served – then there’s only going to be one outcome. The physical space – the room, the ceiling height – is important, as is controlling numbers.
After all, if there are only a few pieces of information that people will take away, then they need to have space to think about them, and relax.
29 February 2016
A very excited friend posted me this the other day:
‘Yeast!’ she cried, electronically. ‘Geek out!’
It did look interesting. Exciting even, though as someone who wasn’t allowed to even take science at school, I found much of it impenetrable. My esteemed colleague Mr Woodard ventured that Oxaloacetate was in Mexico. Come to think of it, I’m sure I have a mezcal from there.
Anyway, she sent it because she’s been on a distilling course – obviously quite an advanced one because, any time you go around a Scottish distillery and it gets to the yeast bit, the talk goes something like this: ‘Then we add yeast.’
Actually, there’s often less said about fermentation than there is about distillation, but that’s yet another thing to leave hanging up there on the rafters to pluck down at a future date.
It’s always intrigued me why this is the case because, when talking to winemakers or brewers, you almost have to shut them up about yeast because you want to get on with the tour. For them, yeast is an active participant in specific flavour creation, one way to help differentiate your wine/beer from your competitors’.
The same conversation is to be had at many rum distilleries, when you talk about Tequila, cachaça and mezcal (which tends to be wild ferment). In other words, it matters.
Not so in Scotch. ‘We don’t believe the yeast itself contributes to the final distillery character’ is the line, which means that, since all distilleries use the same yeast strain, the flavour differences which do exist are not generated by the yeast, but by other factors (peating, mashing, fermentation times, still utilisation, cut points).
Actually, looking at that you begin to wonder whether they have a point. If there are so many other flavour-creating opportunities, what’s the point of adding another on top?
But what about American whiskey? What about, for example, Four Roses using five different strains on two mashbills to create 10 different new makes – floral, fruity, spicy, vegetal?
Ah, but, surely after maturation the differences are evened out? No. They remain distinct, even after spending time in new wood. Four Roses might take it to the extreme, but all the other distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee have their own strain(s).
In Japan, Nikka coyly says it uses ‘around five strains’; Suntory, too, has a selection of different yeasts for its makes.
It used to be the same in Scotland when distillers used a mix of distiller’s and brewer’s yeasts. This stopped when local breweries closed, lager rather than ale yeasts were used and the Scotch industry was looking at ever greater efficiencies.
Will things change? It is interesting to observe how many of the new whiskey distillers in the States are coming from a craft beer background where different roasts of barley and yeast strains are the norm. These learnings are now being applied to their whiskies. David Fitt at English Whisky Co – an ex brewer – is doing the same, as is Darren Rook at the London Distillery.
There might be an ‘if it ain’t broke’ attitude in Scotland, it could be that a switch to multiple yeast strains is difficult to retrofit, or their introduction might cause cross-contamination.
Maybe it’s a bit like the law: easy to change, but difficult to undo once the change has taken place. I do know one of the bigger distillers is looking into yeast, but they are an exception. If I was a new distiller it is one area I’d be looking at.
But I'm not a distiller, or a scientist. Maybe that’s why I remain somewhat baffled.
19 February 2016
The ‘Third Option’ proposed by Compass Box is calm, serious, and thought through. Rather than a knee-jerk, ‘right, you bastards, we’ll see you in court!’, it sets out pretty much what we’ve been saying here from the outset: firms should have the option of declaring the make-up of vattings, this is an industry-wide issue, and it needs to be addressed – ideally openly.
There has been extensive support from the online whisky community but, without wishing to diminish the importance of their influence, the issue will only gain proper traction with the support of distillers and bottlers.
Familiar words? But scroll down to see who wrote them. You may be surprised…
Bruichladdich was quick to declare that it will deliberately break the law and reveal the make-up of its vattings. It will be interesting to see what support the Third Option gets from the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) members who came out in support of transparency, because the process of trying to change the law or create a new clause cannot take place unless the SWA’s members ask the SWA to do so.
Part of me wonders what would happen if Compass Box (and Bruichladdich) joined the SWA at this point, and whether their lobbying would be more effective once they were inside the tent.
As there seems little chance of that happening – hell having not suffered from the impact of a polar vortex – for there to be a swing in momentum behind the Third Option would require one of the big beasts, Diageo, Chivas Bros, Edrington or Wm Grant, to declare support. Dewar’s owner Bacardi, which has a stake in Compass Box, has yet to declare its hand.
Furious blogging and messages of support are one thing. The world of realpolitik works slightly differently, and the majors will only act if they feel it is in their best interests to do so, or if they see their reputation is being damaged by their (apparent) silence on the matter.
The debate is in the public domain and, given the nature of today’s world of rapid response and 140-character judgements (or assassinations), there is a real risk that it will become fatally polarised and silence will be taken as tacit approval for the current law. Before this happens, it is time, as we said back in November, to talk.
Those who support the Third Option will be accused of naivety, the debate will be framed, by both sides, as being a maverick against the system. Neither are true. This is a serious issue which needs to be addressed in a serious manner.
Now is the time to do it because, the more we look at the issue, the more absurd the law becomes.
There appears to be a more liberal application of the same EU law in Cognac, for example, but it was a press release for Diageo’s new Gifted Horse Bourbon which illustrated the ludicrousness of the situation.
‘The Gifted Horse… is comprised of 38.5% 17-year-old Kentucky straight Bourbon, distilled at the Bernheim Distillery…[it] also contains 51% four-year-old Bourbon and 10.5% four-year-old corn whiskey, both produced at a high-quality distillery in Indiana.’
This is perfectly legal in the US, but if Diageo tried to say that about, say, Oban Little Bay, it would be breaking the law. The Bourbon drinker can have all the information he or she desires, but the Scotch drinker cannot. Go figure.
It’s not even a new debate. My esteemed colleague Mr Woodard was idly leafing through Aeneas MacDonald’s 1930 book, Whisky, (the finest book on the subject) and found the following in a section calling for ‘the urgent need [for] some form of trade legislation (carried out of course by a trade association)’, in which the author had this to say about the need for clarity in bottling:
‘There are other matters which might be recommended… Thus each label on a whisky bottle ought to bear the names of the malt whiskies (grouped as Highland, Islay, Campbeltown, and Lowland) in the blend, and the exact percentage of grain spirit contained in it.
‘In addition, it should state the number of years and months that the blend and each of its constituents has matured in cask. This will seem a somewhat dramatic proposal, but the sound whiskies would only gain by it.’
In this, as in so many other things, Aeneas was right.
Can we expect what wasn’t enacted in the 1930s to finally take place in the 21st century? We can only wait and see.
15 February 2016
How important are our senses – specifically those concerning aroma and taste (flavour) – in giving us a map to understand the world? We are assailed constantly by scent molecules, all of which influence us in some way, but it is their presence and clustering in specific places which gives us that mysterious, somewhat opaque French term: terroir.
It’s this resonance of place – the spirit of the spirit if you like – which interests me most about whisky these days and, once you get into that mental space, you’ll find connections everywhere.
An examination of how sound and place are linked was behind a superb recent piece by Jez riley French on the Caught by the River blog. Jez was writing about yoik, the Sami people’s traditional form of singing and the oldest vocal tradition in Europe.
Yoik, as he outlined, is about singing in open air and using the landscape, the echo, the curves of rock, the wind and cries of nature, to mould the song. The piece is alive and fluid, allowing the song to exist in, and be crafted by, space and time.
The yoiks are about landscape, myth and animals and, as singer Ánde Somby outlined, when singing the latter in open air, a transformation takes place between man and animal, loosening the boundaries between one and the other.
It made me think of the last time I walked between Sligachan and Coruisk on Skye, heading into the belly of the Cuillin, red deer voices belling in the glen, the rattle of stone underfoot, susurration of cloth on heather, clink of scree and slip of boot, pipe of buzzard, wind in the grass. Total engagement.
It’s a topic that has long engaged poet/musician Richard Skelton, whose work is an all-enveloping examination of landscape, mostly through music, whose physicality mirrors the complex, layered nature of specific landscapes.
In his most recent works he’s turned his attention to peat lands – to the exhumation of bog bodies which have been pressed, preserved, tanned and decalcified by the weight of time.
Lost vegetation: peat is much more than just a flavouring agent for whisky
Peat. Yes, that stuff which scents whisky and to which we give little thought. Peat is an active ingredient in whisky, but has deeper links to place and culture. It warms, dries, perfumes and preserves.
Why were these bodies buried in bogs and not interred on high mountains? To bind us to the earth? An exchange? Replacing the cut turf with flesh?
When we light peat, we ignite memory: of phantom woods and lost vegetation, of millennia of cultivation, of feather and bone, insect and plant. As Seamus Heaney wrote in Bogland:
‘Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.’
A reductive view of whisky says peat is used as fuel to dry barley and add phenols to the grain, which help form the spirit’s final character. True, but there’s more.
Peat offers linkage to the earth and the past. The peat bog is a map whose markers are myrtle and cotton, sphagnum sponge, sundew stick and midge itch.
It holds entombed bodies and half-bottles rammed into the bank, shattering on the spade; it echoes to laughter and song and the planning of that night’s DJ set in the village hall.
Its sounds are rain and wind, the improvisations of skylark and oboe burble of whaup, the grey drift of hen harrier and gaze of owl. When we sip a smoky dram, this becomes part of us, but do we realise it?
We walk through landscape, our eyes open to ‘beauty’, our ears and noses stoppered. We sip a dram, our minds focused on process, unable to move through the border which separates A Drink from location, yet that is what malt whisky (peated or not) is about: a distillate of place.
Drinking it is our version of yoik.
09 February 2016
‘You do know, don’t you, Dave…?’ When anyone starts a sentence like that, you can expect them to quickly follow up with evidence that you don’t know at all and that they are, in this case, your intellectual superior. Think of it as passive aggressive jousting. ‘You’ll never guess what I’ve found out’ is so much friendlier.
There is little you can do in this situation as they are going to tell you anyway. If you are aware of their (not very) remarkable revelation, you have two option: disagree with them, or provide extra information which trumps their rather basic understanding of the topic, a course which is fraught with danger as their passive aggression is immediately forgotten and you end up looking like a smug, know-it-all bastard, which obviously you don’t want.
In this case, I accepted that my ignorance was once again being exposed by their intellect. ‘You do know,’ they continued, ‘that after an hour’s lecture people only will remember four or five facts?’
Now, I didn’t. So interested was I in this remarkable fact, that I (almost) forgave him his approach to the subject. He continued, at some length, as to why. The fact that I can’t remember anything more than this opening gambit proves it must be correct. Our brains are sieves.
Four or five things? Can this be true? Well, as they say, 75% of statistics are made up, so it might not be. Let’s, however, assume that it is. This is a statistic which, if true, should cause any whisky speaker/educator/ambassador or ‘master’ to wake up at 3am in a cold sweat.
‘What did he just say?’ … ‘Absolutely no idea.’
Most masterclasses last for an hour – sometimes 90 minutes. They have been carefully crafted to include half a dozen drams, detailed information, pictures, all sewn together by the passion of the presenter.
Imagine, all of that effort… wasted. You might as well sit the victims down with four drams, say five things and pack them off. Or think about what might work better.
For example, an excessive reliance on numbers doesn’t work. All that the listener will remember is that a number was used, and pluck one at random from their fuzzy memory. This is particularly important to people who, like me, have dyscalculia and failed their Maths ‘O’ Level twice.
Talk of flavour, rather than in scientific formulae. You might be interested in the precise angle of a lyne arm, but I can bet that 98% of most people won’t be. The 2% who are will ask you, fear not. Most people are interested in who makes it, where it is made, what it tastes like and where those flavours come from.
The professionals know this already, but it also applies to any bartender selling a dram, or when you explain whisky to your newbie friend.
Our passion for the cratur can easily lead to us turning people off whisky because of the complex information we dump on them. Whisky is there to be enjoyed in a relaxed way, so relax when you tell your friends about it. As Louis Armstrong sang: ‘We have all the time in the world.’
Oh, and please don’t start a sentence with: ‘You do know, don’t you…’
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