From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • What can Jack Daniel’s teach Scotch whisky?

    26 July 2016

    The best-selling whisky brand in the UK isn’t The Famous Grouse any more. It isn’t Bell’s, or Whyte and Mackay, or Grant’s. Instead, it’s that most American of drinks products, Jack Daniel’s of Lynchburg, Tennessee.

    How should Scotch react to this? First of all, it’s important to remember that the figures released last week by The Grocer refer to value, not volume (Grouse still leads on that score, although possibly not for much longer). We’re also talking Nielsen statistics, which cover the supermarkets and other major retailers, but not pubs and bars.

    And now we also discover – adding still further to the intrigue – that Jack’s figures also include sales of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, which is not a whiskey at all, but a honey liqueur ‘infused’ with the real thing. Oh, and also the brand’s RTD products, such as its cans of ready-mixed Jack Daniel’s and Cola.

    Be that as it may, it’s clear from the comparative figures and anecdotal evidence that, while Jack is hot in the UK, blended Scotch – including its leading brand, Grouse – is most definitely not.

    Given Scotch’s long-term overseas success story – only partly undermined by the last three years of export declines – do producers care that much about what happens in their own back yard? After all, Cognac exports 97.5% of its production, and you’d hardly say that Hennessy was on its knees.

    Some coverage of the story extrapolated Jack’s success into a broader trend of American whiskey supplanting Scotch in the nation’s affections, arguing that consumers are turning their backs on the blends their fathers and grandfathers enjoyed in favour of a little Americana.

    Jack Daniel's

    From Lynchburg with love: Jack Daniel’s sells more than 1m cases in the UK

    There’s some truth in that, but let’s not get carried away. This is the story of one brand’s success, not that of an entire category: American whiskey sells more than 1.5m cases in the UK every year, but roughly three-quarters of that is Jack. Compare that to blended Scotch at about 5m cases, plus malts at approaching 1m cases, and the picture doesn’t look quite so bleak.

    So everything’s all right, then? Not quite. Leaving aside the question of pride – that distillers would really like their fellow countrymen and women to drink more of their product – the UK is a large and dynamic market, in which any spirits category worth its salt would like to be doing considerably more business.

    It also offers a microcosm of the malaise afflicting Scotch in a number of its more mature markets now (and especially in the US): the ‘malts are better than blends’ consumer mentality, a prejudice that Scotch producers did much to encourage, and which they are now belatedly trying to reverse.

    But more specifically, it is Jack Daniel’s accomplishments which should be closely scrutinised. This is a whiskey that has long understood – and exploited – its essential DNA, mining a seam of retro-Americana and beneficial celebrity endorsements to create a brand with a broad demographic appeal.

    Furthermore, having once recognised the power of that appeal, it has stayed true to its winning strategy, keeping its brand message clear and consistent. Young and old, male and female, whatever your socio-economic group – everyone, it seems, loves Jack.

    Can any Scotch whisky brand operating in the UK today make a similar claim?

  • Kilchoman’s lessons for whisky start-ups

    08 June 2016

    In December 2005, when spirit first ran from the stills at Kilchoman, it became Islay’s eighth working distillery, and the first new one in about 120 years. Now there are plans, at various stages of development, for at least three more.

    It’s a picture repeated across Scotland, around the world. We live in an era of whisky renaissance, where anyone with a dream and a beneficent investor can become a distiller. Exciting – but risky – times.

    Anthony Wills had a dream when he drew up plans for Kilchoman soon after the millennium. Fast-forward to the distillery’s open day at this year’s Fèis Ìle, when long queues for the superb festival bottling snaked out of the shop and into the grounds, and you might think that the previous decade or so had been one long upward curve. Far from it.

    ‘I never imagined that within 10 years of starting this distillery we would be where we are now,’ an emotional Wills told a Fèis masterclass audience. ‘My dream was to start a distillery and put [the whisky] on the market at a relatively young age.’

    Events conspired to fuel his early doubts. The need to raise more cash, the falling-out with the adjacent landowner, the fire that put the maltings out of commission for a year… The burst pipes, the temperamental boilers… Things go wrong at distilleries, particularly new distilleries, and they’re generally not cheap or easy to fix.

    All valuable lessons for any wannabe whisky-maker. Wills has previously said that, if you think you need £5m in funding, you really need £10m. But things can go right, as well as wrong.

    Kilchoman stoppers

    Uniquely Islay: Kilchoman has had its ups and downs over the past decade and more

    Kilchoman bought the adjacent farm in November last year, ending those rows over the garden fence. Controlling the land means the business can plant more barley for its flagship 100% Islay product – 150 tons this year, up from 100 tons previously – and there are plans for a new malting floor and kiln to be operational by next spring. Total production will be close to 200,000 litres this year; in 2006, it was just 50,000 litres.

    Through all of these ups and downs, the central message of the spirit – created and reinforced by Jim Swan and the late John MacLellan – has remained constant. Small stills, narrow neck to the spirit still, ploughing cash into cask sourcing and letting top-quality wood work its magic.

    And it’s paid off. That exuberant young spirit has shaken off its puppy fat and become something richer and more complex, even in less than a decade: this year’s outstanding Fèis bottling is well under nine years old, and cask samples suggest it is no one-off.

    That, in turn, has given Wills a dilemma: what to release and what to hold on to. ‘We will keep stock back for older bottlings,’ he promises. ‘That’s crucial to the long-term future of the distillery.’

    That said, he doesn’t see Kilchoman releasing a 25- or 30-year-old bottling in the 2030s, reckoning that sweet, floral spirit will hit its peak somewhere between eight and 14 years. I’m not so sure he’s right, but it’ll be fun finding out.

    Wills reckons he could write a book on what not to do when building a distillery which, by its nature, would also be a valuable guide on how to do it right. Part cautionary tale and part inspiration, the Kilchoman self-help manual ought be a best-seller among the emerging new generation of whisky-makers.

  • Fèis Ìle 2016 remembered

    31 May 2016

    Looking back on my first Fèis Ìle, I think two things in particular surprised me: the funnels; and the abundant sunshine. For anyone who visited the festival this year, the latter – barring one damp, midgy afternoon on Jura – needs no explanation. We’ll get to the funnels later.

    Even Jura had its moment in the sun. The decision to split its distillery day in two paid off with a glorious Wednesday. Everywhere else, from the exuberant birthday celebrations at Lagavulin to the practically tropical Ardbeg Night shindig a week later, had no reason to complain. ‘You should have been here last year,’ said one veteran Fèisophile with a sad shake of the head. ‘Hideous. Absolutely hideous.’

    Every distillery does it slightly differently during Fèis. As ever, there were queues, most notably at Bowmore, where the fervour to get hold of this year’s bottlings had the dizzy air of the January sales or the first day at Wimbledon. Manager David Turner left the distillery on Tuesday night at about 9.45pm, to be greeted by a dozen hardened Bowmore groupies, desperate to get their hands on one of the 200 Vintage Edition bottles the following morning.

    Others played it differently; there were queues at Lagavulin and Kilchoman, sure, but there were also sufficient quantities of whisky available to satisfy everyone (I think). Ardbeg and Bunnahabhain put their Fèis bottlings up for sale on the Monday; Ardbeg’s and Jura’s will also be sold more widely afterwards.

    There’s a debate to be had here: at one end of the spectrum, the desire to give festival-goers something special and exclusive – but what if you end up disappointing hundreds, who queue for hours only to come away with a bottling from the core range, a fridge magnet and a baseball cap?

    On the other hand, why bother to come all the way to Islay to snag that Fèis bottling if you can order it off the internet a few days later? Somewhere between these two poles, a happy medium must exist.

    Ardbeg Day

    Night and day: Ardbeg’s open day was perhaps the most inventive and original

    There were one or two other gripes among the dedicated festival-goers. While some distilleries made a clear effort to innovate and offer new attractions and activities to keep things fresh for long-time visitors – Ardbeg being perhaps the most shining example – others stuck to the same formula as before. There’s a fine line between ‘tried and tested’ and tedium.

    Contrast this feeling with the buzz surrounding this year’s Spirit of Speyside festival, where visitors were spoilt for choice, with hundreds more events taking place in a much shorter period than the Fèis. Is it just that more distilleries = greater competition = more creativity and dynamism?

    Accommodation is another issue. Of course Ileach business owners want to make the most of their busiest week of the year, but when the punters decide that hiring a camper van is a cheaper and better option than taking a room, something’s gone slightly awry. Reports of vacancies and cancellations reinforce the point, as does the sight of mobile homes trying to edge past each other on the narrow roads to Kilchoman or Bunnahabhain.

    At the end of what was almost entirely a joyous and sun-filled week, these might sound like ungracious quibbles, but an event like Fèis has to keep asking itself difficult and searching questions to become even better than before, and to keep those utterly passionate whisky nuts flocking to this small island from all over the world.

    And the funnels? I first spotted them at Jura, then they resurfaced at Bunnahabhain when, as a masterclass concluded, the two people either side of me surreptitiously decanted the remains of their cask samples into sample bottles (always best to use a funnel when you’ve had a few drams), carefully inscribing them with a handy marker pen.

    Beyond recalling Islay's proud smuggling heritage, it also prompted me to wonder what will become of these whiskies. Retasted later, at leisure? Or taken home to Germany, Finland and South Africa, to be squirrelled away and then dug out again at some future date – Islay malt's bootleg tapes?

    Either way, it illustrates the kind of near-obsessive fascination that this annual whisky extravaganza inspires. Only at Fèis…

  • Whisky’s role in Russia’s doping scandal

    17 May 2016

    We live in an age when every element of a brand’s image is constantly and painstakingly controlled, fine-tuned; this press release picked apart by an in-house committee of sceptics, that new label endlessly trialled in focus groups.

    Each potential association or partnership is carefully vetted – will this project chime with our target consumer? Does that celebrity share our brand’s values and reinforce its core strengths?

    But you can’t control everything. Take the case of the Russian doping scandal and Chivas Regal.

    In a jaw-dropping New York Times article last week, former Russian anti-doping chief Grigory Rodchenkov lays bare the scale and sophistication of that country’s alleged doping programme, especially in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

    Years of planning, cloak-and-dagger stuff involving the FSB (successor to the KGB), swapping urine samples via a hole in the wall to ensure drugs cheats escaped detection. Russia finished top of the medals table. No athlete was caught.

    Since named as the lynchpin in Russia’s allegedly state-sponsored doping programme, Rodchenkov was forced to resign and fled to Los Angeles (while two of his former colleagues died suddenly shortly afterwards in Russia).

    Flags at the Sochi Winter Olympics

    Head start: Did Russia's athletes use drugs (and Chivas Regal) at the Sochi Winter Olympics? (Photo: kremlin.ru)

    The intricacies of the Russian programme, he claims, took many years to perfect, particularly his favoured cocktail of performance-enhancing substances, which involved three anabolic steroids – metenolone, trenbolone and oxandrolone – designed to aid recovery and maintain peak performance.

    But it’s the method of delivery that interests us: to accelerate the absorption of the substances and to reduce the window within which detection was possible, Rodchenkov dissolved the drugs in alcohol to a precise recipe – 1mg of steroid cocktail per 1ml of alcohol.

    Given that this is Russia, you might have thought a patriotic shot of vodka would do the trick, but no… Chivas Regal Scotch whisky for the male athletes; Martini vermouth for the women. Discerning choices perhaps, but listen carefully and you can hear the heads of the respective brand managers hitting their desks.

    Then again, come to think of it – a dram for the men and a nice glass of Martini for the ladies? I’m not sure what’s most shocking here – the allegations of a massive doping programme and cover-up… or the casually sexist way in which it was perpetrated.

  • Revisiting barley at Bruichladdich

    04 May 2016

    It’s fair to say that Vic Cameron’s article for this website – Does barley variety affect whisky flavour? – provoked a reaction. Thanks to the dubious pleasures of (anti-)social media, that reaction was not always either elegantly expressed, or free of personal prejudice against Vic, and/or the company (Diageo) for which he used to work.

    For the record, I’ve no reason to doubt Vic’s credentials or his honesty. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s right, either – so let’s have the debate, but let’s keep it civilised. That ok with everyone?

    Anyway, it seemed somewhat serendipitous, given the subject matter of Vic’s piece and the affiliations of many of those who spoke out against it, that I should happen to be visiting Bruichladdich on Islay last week.

    If ever there were a place to explore the counterpoint to the Cameron view, this was it. Bere barley, organic barley, Scottish barley, Islay barley… never mind fermentation times or cut points, the raw materials themselves are the hot topic here.

    So did I discover an answer to the questions raised by Vic’s piece and the reaction it sparked? You’ll have to wait a few weeks to find out in more detail, but here’s a suitably ambiguous teaser: yes and no.

    The discussion at Bruichladdich was not so much about barley variety as barley origin: isolating and making whisky from batches of the same strain, but grown in different locations. The Black Isle, Aberdeenshire, Lothian.

    Nosing new-make spirit from all three, then cask samples of them after one year in first-fill Bourbon, one thing was clear: they were different. Not vastly different – I’ve had vodka flights with more diversity – but different nonetheless.

    Bruichladdich barley samples

    Enigma variations: Bruichladdich has distillates sourced from barley grown in different regions

    That variation answers one question, but prompts others, and one in particular. Why are they different? Is it, to borrow a French winemaking term much used at Bruichladdich, down to terroir? Is it just because the growing season in 2015 (or 2016) was a bit wetter in, say, Lothian than in Aberdeenshire?

    We’ll need years more of experimentation, data-gathering and careful analysis before we can even begin to identify the character of Black Isle barley versus Lothian barley (assuming that there is one), leave alone the impact this might have on your glass of Classic Laddie years after that barley has been harvested.

    (And, as the chief engineer of this parish has noted, it’d be nice to see the spirit go into some refill, rather than first-fill, casks, minimising the wood influence and allowing the grain to speak more clearly over time.)

    Anyway, it’s potentially ground-breaking stuff. Potentially. Crucially for Bruichladdich, it plays well to the company’s audience: literate whisky lovers with a more than passing interest in the way their spirit of choice is put together.

    For these Laddie-ites, it’d be great if, years down the line, they could do a horizontal tasting of a flight of ‘regional’ 10-year-old Bruichladdichs, noting every nuance along the way. But, even if that isn’t to be, the journey promises to be fascinating and, if nothing else, they’ll have a bit more information about the origin of the whisky in their glass.

    A bit more transparency, if you will.

  • Export travails

    03 March 2016

    These are tricky times for the international trade in Scotch whisky. A number of factors – falling oil prices, currency headwinds in developing markets, the implosion of the Russian economy – have conspired to bring three consecutive years of export declines, according to HMRC figures for shipments from bond.

    This is unprecedented in the industry’s recent history. Look back over the past 50 years and – prior to this poor run – you could count the years of export value decline on the fingers of one hand: 1969, 1983, 1998, 2002 and 2004.

    Booming sales of American whiskey, which is tipped to overtake those of single malt Scotch within five years, prove a competitive threat to the category.

    Beyond the obvious macroeconomic causes for the recent decline, we might hypothesise a number of other reasons, including the competitive threat from other spirits categories and the restrictive impact of constrained supplies of single malt (the value of malt exports fell in 2015, but market share increased because blends fell faster).

    Over the past half-century, Scotch whisky has been transformed into a global powerhouse of an industry, and one that is increasingly reliant for growth on the performance of developing markets in Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.

    Scotch’s aspirational status makes the rewards here potentially huge, but the flipside is market volatility. Brazilian consumers might lust after Johnnie Walker, but if the weakening real sends Red Label prices up 30-40% in a year, they’re likely to go back to drinking locally produced cachaça instead.

    The greater truth behind the numbers is the relative maturity of Scotch whisky around the world. According to WhiskyInvestDirect analysis of the HMRC figures, 27 countries imported more than 500,000 cases of Scotch in 2015; in 1985, the figure was just 14.

    Scotch is an industry that is increasingly mature in its global footprint, and that is both a boon and a potential burden: it constitutes a spread of risk (if one market falls, chances are that another will pick up the slack); but it also reduces the headroom for future growth.

    Don’t get me wrong: there are still vast opportunities for Scotch around the world, but the number of untapped markets with true and large-scale growth potential is unquestionably smaller than it was a generation or two ago.

    To that extent, Scotch whisky has become a victim of its own international success.

  • The West Wing and transparency

    01 February 2016

    I loved The West Wing mainly, I think, because it should have been boring. Lots of badly-dressed people walking the corridors of a mocked-up White House talking at breakneck speed about politics? Hardly the sexiest proposal ever to cross a commissioning editor’s desk.

    What made it was the vision of creator Aaron Sorkin that the machinations and dilemmas of White House senior staff could make gripping television. Hell, it was so good that I even forgave its annoying habit of descending periodically into misty-eyed, flag-hugging patriotism. Americans, huh?

    Scotch has a minor moment in The West Wing. In a flashback sequence, chief of staff and recovering alcoholic Leo McGarry recalls a moment on the campaign trail when he fell spectacularly off the wagon – thanks to the lure of Johnnie Walker Blue Label.

    What follows is a lyrical description of the pleasures of drinking, undercut by the character’s addiction and its potentially disastrous impact on his career.

    The words aren’t the script’s finest, but I’ll repeat a few of them here:

    ‘Good Scotch sits in a charcoal (sic) barrel for 12 years; very good Scotch gets smoked for 29 years; Johnnie Walker Blue is 60-year-old Scotch.’

    Except that, of course, it isn’t. According to James Espey, who developed Blue Label precursor Johnnie Walker Oldest in the 1980s, the concept was born when a small amount of 60-year-old Scotch was blended with a much larger volume of 15-year-old. The label proudly proclaimed that the liquid was ‘aged 15 to 60 years’, and you can still occasionally find these old bottles for sale today.

    Several years after Oldest’s launch, the law was changed so that producers could only mention the youngest part of any blend. The Blue Label, er, label was amended and the product has remained without an age statement ever since.

    But. But, if you Google Johnnie Walker Blue Label and 60 years old, you’ll find plenty of people perpetuating that sexagenarian myth. There are even EU-based online retailers still advertising the product explicitly as a 60-year-old whisky.

    Lesson? Never underestimate the power and longevity of a marketing message, nor its ability, with repetition, to turn incorrect information into ‘fact’.

    In this context, it’s easy to see why a change in the law was needed to protect the consumer. But, ironically, that very change makes it now impossible to put the record straight and tell that same consumer the full story of Blue Label’s blend.

    Legislators did not foresee a world of single malt shortage where age statements would be largely cast aside, leaving the consumer without even the vague reassurance of a number to help navigate the category.

    Nor did they envisage the possibility that a brand owner might want to react to that situation by giving their consumer the complete truth about a whisky – the age and origin of its components, plus their proportions in the blend – to satisfy their thirst for knowledge about what is in their glass.

    The example of Johnnie Walker Blue, and Leo’s passionate, if erroneous, description of it, tells us a lot about how we got to where we are in terms of whisky law, age statements and transparency.

    Now the question is: where do we want to go next? Ultimately, that’s up to the industry to decide.

  • A Word or Two on Whisky and Port

    18 December 2015

    Does the name Joseph James Forrester ring any bells? No? Unless (like me) you’re bit of a Port geek, there’s no reason why it should. But he popped into my head the other day when I was reading Iain Russell’s fascinating account of the life of Robert Bruce Lockhart.

    Forrester was never involved in plots to assassinate Lenin (he died before the Russian revolutionary leader’s birth, so it would have been tricky), but he led a life almost as full of colour and controversy – and his death was far more dramatic (remind me to tell you about that at the end).

    Born in Hull in 1809, Forrester joined the family Port shipping business, Offley Forrester, at the age of 22 and, once in Portugal, refused to follow the herd.

    At a time when British Port shippers tended to remain within their own little clique in the port of Vila Nova de Gaia (a bit like drinks writers on the Sussex coast), Forrester made a point of exploring the wilder lands upstream, and particularly the Port vineyards of the Douro Valley.

    He learned to speak good Portuguese and published two remarkably detailed maps of the Douro from Spain to the Atlantic – a boon to the traveller at a time when the Douro was a treacherous mountain river, long before modern damming projects transformed it into the broad, serene waters of today.

    Forrester's map of the Douro

    Treacherous river: Forrester’s maps of the Douro remain much admired

    Forrester also concerned himself in some detail with the production of Port – again, something the British shippers eschewed, except during harvest.

    If his pursuits left him outside the inner circle of the British Port establishment – he was never invited to join their ‘club’ in Porto, The Factory House – his estrangement was complete with the publication in 1844 of an impassioned treatise, A Word or Two on Port Wine.

    So extreme were the views stated in the pamphlet that, at first, it was published anonymously. Forrester, you see, questioned the very basis of Port production: the addition of brandy to stop fermentation and create a sweet, strong wine.

    Great Douro wines, he argued, needed no brandy, but could stand proudly on their own: pure, unadulterated; based on grape, soil, aspect and altitude; reflective of the conditions of the year, for good or ill.

    This is where the Lockhart connection comes in. Real Port, to Forrester, was pure and untouched by brandy; real Scotch whisky, for Lockhart, was pure (malt) and untouched by grain.

    Fast-forward to 2015 and both would note current trends with a degree of satisfaction. Scotch malt whisky is flying in markets around the world and – rightly or wrongly – increasingly considered by many consumers as more ‘authentic’ than blended Scotch.

    Meanwhile, the unfortified table wines of the Douro have increased hugely in number, quality and diversity over the past few decades, winning a place in the top echelons of the fine wine hierarchy. You can now pay £60 for a bottle of unfortified Quinta do Vesúvio, a vineyard Forrester knew well (he spent the last night of his life there).

    Joseph James Forrester

    Man of the Douro: even Forrester’s death was inextricably linked to the river

    But there’s a twist. Without the skyrocketing global success of blends in the 20th century, most of the single malt distilleries so beloved of Lockhart would now be in ruins or silent, overrun by retail developments and housing estates.

    Similarly, without the international achievements of the Port trade, the vineyards of the Douro – that inhospitable, rocky place that oscillates between furnace-like summer heat and brutal winter cold – would be neglected, overgrown, their proud terraces crumbling into the waters below.

    Both Lockhart and Forrester recognised an inherent truth in their respective worlds: the underrated quality of two products overshadowed by (to their minds) inferior alternatives.

    But what both failed to see was not simply the finer qualities of the products they dismissed, but also the symbiotic co-existence of those supposedly opposing forces: blends and malts; Port and table wine.

    One could not thrive without the other and, just as Douro table wines and single malts have Port and blends respectively to thank for their current success, they are now in a position to repay the debt by using their new-found fame to convert consumers to the delights of their sister products. A kind of virtuous circle of life, if you will.

    What’s that? What about Forrester’s death, you ask? He set off on 12 May 1861 from Quinta do Vesúvio, high in the Douro, travelling downstream by boat with Dona Antónia Ferreira, the grande dame of the valley, who went on to own no fewer than 24 of its most famous vineyards.

    As the boat negotiated the notorious rapids of Cachão de Valeira, it capsized and – according to legend – the contrasting fates of the pair were decided by the clothes on their backs.

    While the whalebone of her crinoline allowed Dona Antónia to float gently to safety, Forrester’s sovereign-laden money belt dragged him down below the Douro’s fierce waters, never to be seen again.

  • A vintage conundrum

    16 November 2015

    I spent last Tuesday evening drinking Cognac, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Hey, don’t look so shocked. We don’t take a vow to remain eternally faithful to Scotch here at Scotchwhisky.com, and I reckon we’re all the better for it.

    Particularly when the Cognac in question is Frapin, which is, in many ways, the anti-Cognac: small brand, produces every bottle from its own Grande Champagne vineyards, maker of vintages, and of – for Cognac – innovative products such as single domaine bottlings and (of which more in a moment) the Multimillésime.

    Host for the evening was Patrice Piveteau, Frapin veteran and, since the departure of the marvellous Olivier Paultes to Hennessy, its maître de chai.

    In the course of several courses and several Cognacs, the kind of food matching exercise you enjoy but secretly know will never be repeated in the real world, Piveteau said a few things that resonated with me, and made me think (reluctantly, while trying to devote all my senses to a 1988 Frapin matched to blue Crozier cheese) of Scotch.

    ‘To age,’ said Piveteau, ‘I have no rules. The rule is the tasting, and what I want. It’s the reverse of the scientific way.’

    Piveteau is a knowledgeable and experienced man, one who has spent decades immersed in the world of eaux-de-vie and who is capable, as I can personally attest, of talking for some time on the subject of the little-known grape variety Folignan. But he’s also humble and sensible enough to recognise that the liquid, not the number, should have the final say.

    Then, later, this: ‘I know that everybody wants to know the age of each Cognac [in Frapin’s Château de Fontpinot XO blend], but the age is not important – it’s the Cognac in the glass. So I give the information – it’s about 20 years old – but if, next time, I want to put a bit of 12-year-old in the blend, it’s not a problem. The important thing is the quality in the glass.’

    This provides a vital counterpoint to the current debate about transparency in Scotch, in the wake of the Compass Box story we broke on this site last month.

    Yes, we should have as much accurate and honest information about Scotch as possible, but the same stringent criteria should also be applied to the interpretation of the data: just because the 17% of Strathclyde and Girvan grain in This Is Not A Luxury Whisky is 40 years old, and the 4% of Caol Ila is 30 years old, does that make it better than the 79% of Glen Ord that is 19 years old? Of course not – or not necessarily, anyway.

    The climax of the Frapin evening was the unveiling of Frapin’s sixth Multimillésime, or multi-vintage, Cognac, a mix of 1986, 1988 and 1991 – which is clearly and proudly stated on the label.

    Frapin Multimillesime 6

    Role model?: But the rules governing Cognac and Scotch 'vintages' differ

    Frapin Multimillésime No 6 is many things: a merging of the blending and vintage concepts, a neat and snappy piece of innovation in a sector that is mainly devoid of it – and one of the finest liquids I’ve tasted all year.

    But if you’re reading this and thinking ‘what a great idea for Scotch’, I’ve got bad news for you: you can’t do it – or rather you can’t tell anyone you’re doing it. According to the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009, you can only mention one vintage or distillation year on a Scotch label, and that vintage has to make up 100% of the liquid in the bottle.

    Unlike the rules on minimum age, which are enshrined in EU law and cover all spirits sectors, this particular nugget only applies to Scotch, meaning that Frapin can happily talk about the vintages in its Multimillésime, but – to pluck an example out of the air – Glenrothes cannot.

    Then again… Isn’t Frapin still breaking the broader ‘minimum age’ law anyway, by mentioning the older components (1986, 1988) of Multimillésime alongside the youngest (1991)?

    Anybody else need a drink?

  • 'Special' releases

    26 October 2015

    In the Scotch whisky calendar, it must rank as one of the most eagerly awaited launches of the year. What will be released? From which regions and distilleries? How old? And – for many, most crucially of all – how much will they cost?

    Given all of this, I was taken aback to find, on arriving at the unveiling of these much-anticipated limited editions, no velvet rope, no fanfare and no impatient throng through which it was necessary to elbow my way. In fact, nobody else seemed interested at all.

    There stood the whiskies in front of me. All five of them. Yes, five. No, not nine.

    Other writers were there too, but they seemed more interested in catching up with Charlie Pillitteri to talk about his (admittedly fabulous) Canadian icewine. Someone’s tasting the whiskies? How odd…

    By now, you might have realised that I’m not talking about Brora, Port Ellen, Pittyvaich and Diageo’s 2015 Special Releases, but three blends called Glenalba and two single malts with the distinctly unglamorous name of Ben Bracken.

    Five limited availability whiskies unveiled at discount retailer Lidl’s Christmas tasting. Ranging in age from 22 to 34 years, and in price from £29.99 to £49.99.

    Don’t look at me like that. When Lidl released the 33-year-old ‘Maxwell’ single malt three years ago at a headline-grabbing price of £39.99, it sold out within three days – and secured the retailer a priceless tide of positive publicity.

    Trade drivers: but do Lidl's cut-price whiskies have a bigger role to play?

    The contrast in pricing between Lidl’s whiskies and the Special Releases is glaring: at £49.99, the 34-year-old Glenalba blend and the 28-year-old Ben Bracken Speyside malt are still some £30 shy of the cheapest Special Release, a Lagavulin 12-year-old.

    But the point of the comparison isn’t to have a pop at Diageo’s Special Releases pricing strategy – on which I’m sure we all have our own views anyway.

    Because, let’s be clear, the motivation behind the two launches is entirely different: Diageo showcasing the depth and excellence of its aged whisky stocks through the medium of established brands, Lidl using own-label products to lure shoppers away from Asda to buy their turkey, cake and crackers there instead.

    Is that the overriding point of the Lidl whiskies? To encourage and perpetuate the ‘discount junkie’ mentality among consumers, which – at Christmas in particular – does so much to erode margins for the whisky industry?

    Yes and no. Talk to Lidl head of beers, wines and spirits Ben Hulme and you’ll also get a sense of the pride he takes in sourcing these whiskies at such remarkable prices.

    They’re not loss-leaders, he insists, and while the publicity surrounding them will no doubt draw the punters to the stores, he hopes it will also elevate Lidl’s reputation for quality, once people taste the whiskies.

    They’re also, I’d argue, potentially great recruitment tools to persuade people to expand their whisky repertoire, and – ironically, given the Lidl pricing ethos – to get them to trade up.

    Today’s Ben Bracken consumer may not be tomorrow’s Port Ellen or Brora collector, but that’s not to say they might not be tempted by a realistically priced unpeated Caol Ila or Lagavulin 12-year-old.

    Because value exists at all levels – from the keenly-priced aisles of Lidl to the sometimes rarefied reaches of the Special Releases.

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