To really understand your likes and dislikes, try removing any prejudice from your whisky glass.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
25 September 2019
London’s former fish market will be filled with the rather more appealing aroma of several hundred different whiskies this weekend, when The Whisky Exchange Whisky Show returns to Old Billingsgate.
If you’re going, you’re probably already fine-tuning your strategy for the event: the must-taste drams, the distillery stands you simply have to look in on, the seminars and tastings that stand out in the schedule.
Sometimes it’s the whiskies you didn’t see coming that make the biggest impression: that spur-of-the-moment pour from a distillery you’ve never heard of; the passing friend who thrusts a glass under your nose and and says: ‘Try this.’
For the most part, because of the nature of the event, you won’t be tasting blind. You’ll know the distillery, the age (if there’s one on the label), and perhaps the cask type. You may also have the marketing spiel ringing in your ears as that nice person behind the stand pours you a measure.
Does any of that matter? Try as we might to be objective, we all have our preconceptions – positive and negative – about the names on the bottles, the professed style of the whisky inside and even the design of the packaging.
Sometimes, if we allow them to, these inner voices can drown out the true sound of the whisky in front of us. ‘I don’t like Sherried whiskies’ … ‘Eight years old is just too young’ … ‘My friends all sneer at this distillery.’
Inner voices: It’s hard to cast aside preconceptions when we know what we’re tasting
Such internal influences can create a negative force, skewing our honest opinion of the liquid we’re looking at, nosing and tasting. The empiricism of blind tasting removes such destructive thoughts.
However, blind tasting also has its limitations, not least because that’s not the way we normally drink whisky. We make a conscious choice in a bar or a shop, or at home, whether the bottle we select is an old friend or a new acquaintance.
That decision is influenced, to a greater or lesser extent, by the story that lies behind the liquid inside the bottle. It may be the whisky’s story, but often it will be our own: recollections of a memorable distillery visit; a night spent with friends or family; a moment of discovery in the frenetic atmosphere of a packed whisky event.
When the whisky tells the story, it should be an engaging one, and one that is rooted in authenticity. Not, however, the empty, dead linguistic template of ‘luxury’ and ‘craft’, where distillery identity is sacrificed in favour of a one-size-fits-all false narrative, and historical fact treated as an inconvenience to be twisted into a new, alternative ‘truth’.
Sometimes, rather than relying on a press release or some back-label scribblings, we can discover the best stories through our own efforts: reading around the subject, listening to what informed people have to say or, if you’re lucky enough to write about whisky for a living, conducting research for an article.
Rich history: Cardhu’s compelling heritage can add an extra layer to tasting its whisky
Now, when I taste Cardhu, lurking at the back of my brain are thoughts of the two remarkable women who did so much to shape that distillery’s early history, Helen and Elizabeth Cumming: Helen, or ‘Granny Cumming’, selling bottles of whisky out of her kitchen window for a shilling a pop; the shrewd business dealings of Elizabeth, which did so much to secure the family fortune (we’ll be featuring the Cummings on Scotchwhisky.com soon).
If I pick up a glass of Bruichladdich Bere Barley (or track down the Arran bere bottling from a few years back), I’ll be thinking of an idiosyncratic barley variety that has survived in some of Scotland’s remotest outposts for up to 6,000 years, nearly became extinct 20 years ago, and is now undergoing a resurgence.
Will Cardhu’s history or bere’s survivor status be any consolation if the whisky I’m tasting is crap? Of course not. The aromas, flavours, texture, balance and complexity will always remain the ultimate arbiters of quality.
But do those anecdotes add an extra dimension to the pleasure when there’s a good drop in your glass? You bet they do. Enjoy the whiskies this weekend – and listen to their stories.
10 September 2019
If it comes in on budget, Pernod Ricard’s new malt whisky distillery in China will cost US$150 million, or roughly £120m – almost as much as Macallan’s much-vaunted new home on Speyside. The owner of Ballantine’s and The Glenlivet is not so much dipping its toe in the water of Chinese whisky, more plunging into the deep end head-first from the 10-metre diving board.
That first word – if – is a big one. After all, Macallan’s theme park-meets-production facility was originally meant to cost £100m, but delays sent that figure spiralling to £140m. Then again, what’s the odd £40m between friends?
Even for those well-versed in their construction and commissioning, new distilleries are funny things; independent life forms with the unnerving ability to stretch timelines and strain budgets, and to create difficulties unforeseen in the most pragmatically Eeyore-ish of business plans.
That’s as true of boutique start-ups as it is of ventures with the heft of Pernod’s Emeishan – something I was reminded of last week, as our minibus bumped along the single-track road to the Drimnin Estate on Scotland’s remote Morvern peninsula, home to Ncn’ean distillery. Somewhere to the left of us sat Mull and Tobermory, although we had to take that on trust thanks to the weather, which was distinctly dreich.
‘I could write a book about what not to do when you’re opening a distillery,’ said Ncn’ean CEO and founder Annabel Thomas, echoing the experience of many others before her. ‘It’s not the really big stuff that makes you lose sleep at night. It’s the little things that you never really thought about.’
Taking the plunge: Pernod’s new malt whisky distillery in China will cost about £120m
It can be a long list. Even for a project with a spend roughly one-twenty-fourth the size of Emeishan, there’s raising the cash in the first place. Then there’s the question of what you can get up and down a long single-track road: so Ncn’ean’s set-up revolves around the reality of its barley intake arriving in one-tonne bags.
You want to be as sustainable as possible? At Ncn’ean, the options for steam creation were oil, or a biomass boiler fuelled by woodchips. With 2,000 acres of commercial forestry on the distillery’s doorstep, that decision was relatively simple – but, at £500,000, the boiler cost half as much as all the kit in the distillery. And, at times, it’s been a temperamental beast.
But not all the surprises are unpleasant ones. Determined to use only organic barley, Thomas was told to expect ‘horror stories’ in terms of grain size and nitrogen levels; horror stories that, so far at least, have failed to materialise.
Then there’s the serendipitous spike in fruity esters that comes at the end of the summer, when Ncn’ean switches from its ‘old’ spirit style (about one-tenth of production, distiller’s yeast, lower spirit cut) to ‘new’ (wine and distiller’s yeasts, higher cut), accentuating its signature high-toned, early-maturing spirit style.
Ncn’ean’s first whisky is due for release in 2020. In the meantime, the distillery has been selling its Botanical Spirit – and the story behind it encapsulates the vagaries of starting up a new distillery.
The original Ncn’ean business plan featured a gin still. Then Thomas abandoned the idea, reasoning that the company was ‘a bit late’ into an already overcrowded market.
Life of its own: Botanical Spirit wasn’t an original part of Ncn’ean’s business plan
Time passed. People tried the Ncn’ean new make, loved it and told Thomas to bottle it, but she reckoned that new make occupies the geekiest niche of the whisky market and would only appeal to an extremely limited audience; instead, following much experimentation and foraging of mainly local ingredients such as bog myrtle, Ncn’ean Botanical Spirit was born. Not whisky, not gin, but something in between – an unconscious modern recreation of usquebaugh.
Now Ncn’ean is preparing the second batch of Botanical Spirit, supplementing this with a quirky and very limited run of three cask-aged variants – Bounty bar-accented ex-Bourbon; savoury/celery ex-Spanish vermut (vermouth); and caraway/herbal ex-Mondino (organic German amaro). Something that wasn’t even mentioned in the original business plan has taken on a life of its own.
You might think that there are few parallels between a small, independent distillery starting up in a remote corner of the Scottish Highlands, and a hugely ambitious, money-no-object venture on the other side of the world. But you can bet that Emeishan will have its surprises and setbacks, leading its creators down twisting paths that, at the moment, don’t even feature on their maps.
Ncn’ean was originally going to be called Drimnin but, to make it distinct from the estate owned by Thomas’s parents, it took an abbreviated form of the name of the witch-queen Neachneohain. Now Thomas has decided to shift the apostrophe one space – Nc’nean – to make it easier to pronounce.
If whisky-making is an iterative process, the same can be said for the creation and operation of new distilleries and their products. Whether you’re working out of a converted farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, or in a temple to the lure of the emerging wealth of the Chinese consumer, it’s a fascinatingly unpredictable ride.
07 August 2019
As the clouds of war darkened over Europe in 1938, the story behind a series of mounds in the Suffolk countryside can’t have seemed hugely significant to the world at large. But they bugged Mrs Edith Pretty, who owned the land across the River Deben from the town of Woodbridge, so she called in local archaeologist Basil Brown.
What Brown discovered the following year – in a race against time as the inevitability of conflict grew – was one of the most dramatic archaeological finds in the history of the British Isles: the 7th-century ship burial of a man believed to be the Anglo-Saxon King Rædwald, complete with an array of treasures, including his helmet, shield and gold belt buckle.
In the years since, these unprepossessing grassy bumps have been further investigated, with a dig in 1991 uncovering a warrior buried alongside his horse and a number of artefacts, including a sword and a comb.
Beyond the immediate appeal of the ship and the treasures themselves, the finds transformed historians’ understanding of a mysterious era in British history. In the words of the National Trust, which owns the site, a period previously viewed as being ‘dark and insular’ was now revealed to be ‘cultured, sophisticated and vibrant’.
Face of the past: A replica sculpture of the helmet discovered at Sutton Hoo
It’s a dramatic and inspirational story but, until now, visitors to the site might have been forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. ‘The word “underwhelming” was used quite a lot,’ conceded Mike Hopwood, National Trust visitor experience project manager, talking to The Guardian newspaper.
‘There was a sense that, no matter how much you read that this was a really important place, when you stood at the site there wasn’t enough to give a connection. “Ok, I have seen some lumps in the ground, but I don’t really understand why I should be so excited.”’
A raft of changes at Sutton Hoo, unveiled this week, should put an end to this sense of ‘meh’. Visitors are confronted by a full-size, 27 metre-long sculpture of the burial ship in the visitor centre courtyard; a new route follows the likely path taken by the ship as it was hauled uphill from the River Deben to its – and its king’s – final resting-place.
In Tranmer House, the former home of Mrs Pretty, displays, recordings, projections, photographs, and diary and newspaper extracts aim to recapture the excitement of the dig itself, and the small moments – such as the unearthing of the first ship’s rivet – that made Brown’s heart beat faster in the realisation that something special lurked in the Suffolk soil.
In the main exhibition hall, there are beautifully made replicas of the main treasures (now in the British Museum in London), while films, audio clips and displays explore Anglo-Saxon culture. This autumn, a 17m-high observation tower will enable visitors to gain an enhanced perspective of those bumps and the landscape surrounding them.
Unprepossessing bumps: Visitors to Sutton Hoo were previously left feeling ‘underwhelmed’
The realisation for the National Trust with Sutton Hoo was that you need more than a compelling story if you’re expecting people to journey to a relatively obscure part of the East Anglian coast (40% of visitors travel for more than two hours to reach Sutton Hoo).
In this respect, there’s an obvious correlation with whisky tourism. New city distilleries and the forthcoming Johnnie Walker Experience benefit from their urban locations, but the vast majority of malt whisky distilleries are in rural locations that are, by comparison, relatively inaccessible. For all but the true whisky enthusiast, some shiny copper, a few dusty casks and a free dram just aren’t enough to justify the detour.
Money is only part of the answer here. The Sutton Hoo transformation is costing £4 million, but it’s the philosophical approach which holds the key to the venture’s future success – the recognition that this special place needs to connect with people on a more visceral level.
The hundreds of millions of pounds being spent on whisky tourism in Scotland (and elsewhere) can pay for all manner of flashing lights, whistles and bells, which can in turn engage the five senses of the visitor; but it is only by connecting with people on an emotional level that distillers can truly inspire them, and create a bond between whisky and drinker that endures long after they have returned home.
Visual aid: Changes at Sutton Hoo include this full-size sculpture of the ship
24 July 2019
It’s quite a contrast. Two advertisements, only three pages apart, in Alcohol and Tobacco: 100 Years of Stimulating Ads, a pictorial guide to a century of booze and fags marketing in the US.
Ad one, from 1990: two men in beach shorts recline on sunbeds, drink in one hand, high-fiving with the other. Why? Pan out and you’ll see they’re surrounded by 10 bikini- and swimsuit-clad women, all with supermodel figures. You can see that one of the women has undone her bikini top, but you can’t see their faces. ‘Seagram’s 7 and 7th heaven,’ reads the caption. ‘Seagram’s Seven Crown,’ adds the strapline. ‘America’s Good Time Spirit.’
Ad two, from 1997: Absolut Pride. That unmistakable bottle silhouette, entirely filled in by rainbow colours; released in June 1997 to mark the 28th anniversary of the Stonewall gay rights uprising in Greenwich Village, New York.
The two different approaches say much about the changing times of the decade in which they were produced, but also about the brands they are attempting to sell: one a traditional American whiskey with a predominantly male demographic; the other an imported Swedish vodka keen to strengthen an already cool image with its young, urban – and more gender-balanced – clientele.
It’s an important distinction: while shifts in advertising strategy do reflect societal change, they only do so through the prism of what the brand owner thinks will sell their product.
More than 20 years on, social media has complicated that picture. It’s entirely (and depressingly) possible that the Seagram’s ad would still work today from a commercial standpoint, selling more of the product to a certain audience (including, if he drank, the current resident of the White House).
Changing times: Two ads from the 1990s illustrate shifting priorities from advertisers
But the marketeer brave enough to greenlight such a campaign had better be ready for the backlash on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, which will then inevitably percolate through to the mainstream media. It’s hard to quantify the reputational and commercial damage that this kind of shitstorm can generate, but it’s one most companies are keen to avoid.
As a result, even the most hard-nosed advertiser stops running such campaigns, not necessarily out of any desire to be fair or moral, but because they know they can’t get away with it any more. Everyone, surely, has got that message by now?
Not quite everyone.
Establishing a new whisky brand in the 2010s is a tough task, but one of the pluses is that you have a blank canvas: you get to create your own identity and, within the confines of the category, your own audience. You don’t have to be stuck in the past.
That’s what makes the approach taken by Bladnoch Distillery Ltd’s Pure Scot brand utterly baffling: a horrendous series of sexist, demeaning, objectifying Instagram posts under the strapline ‘Don’t be Told’.
Looked at collectively, the posts make it abundantly clear that the only role open to women in the Pure Scot world is as a ‘sexual aspiration’, to quote Vinium Consultancy, the source of a complaint about the campaign to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).
The campaign is bad enough; the reaction from the company to the complaint, and the finding against it by the SWA, is bewildering. Yes, the offending posts were removed, but in a fashion that redefines the word ‘begrudging’. To quote:
‘…we have reviewed these images, most of which are extremely old and even pre-date the launch of Pure Scot whisky itself. Many of these images are out-of-date and no longer speak to our positive Pure Scot brand message…’
(Pure Scot submission to SWA Complaints Panel, quoted by SWA)
Ok, so the images were old (but bear in mind that Pure Scot was only launched in 2015), and the campaign, and the brand, have moved on to a more ‘positive’ message. The perfect opportunity, then, to hold your hands up and admit: ‘We got it wrong.’
Moving on?: Pure Scot says it has evolved to communicate a more positive message
Er… no. Instead, Pure Scot ‘wholeheartedly rejected’ any suggestion that it had breached the SWA’s Code of Practice for the Responsible Marketing and Promotion of Scotch Whisky, and appealed against the ruling, only to have the verdict upheld by the SWA’s Independent Complaints Panel.
But the thing that bugs me most, beyond the posts themselves? It’s this:
‘Pure Scot’s marketing is appropriate for a brand which aims to set itself apart from the competition by daring to be different and breaking the mould of what traditional whisky marketing looks like.’
(Pure Scot submission to SWA Complaints Panel, quoted by SWA)
‘Set itself apart… daring to be different… breaking the mould…’ Do me a favour. One of the chief criticisms of the offending Pure Scot posts was that many only showed the lower half of the female model’s body; now look again at that Seagram’s ad from 1990 with its lack of female faces. Twenty-five years on, the same level of objectification.
But it’s not just Pure Scot. Right now, around the world, there are plenty more people who think it’s a good idea to try to sell whisky in this way; by treating 50% of the population as if they don’t really count, except as an object to be looked at, pursued and acquired. The lesson of this furore is not to let them get away with it.
Rather than ‘breaking the mould’, the puerile Pure Scot campaign is every bit as anachronistic in the context of Scotch whisky as the use of tartan, heather and bagpipes. This isn’t some vision of the future of Scotch whisky marketing, it’s a hellride back into its rather shameful past.
And in the past is just where it should stay.
26 June 2019
Today’s politicians, routinely accused of opportunism and a lack of long-term vision, could do worse than to consult the historical example of 17th-century French statesman Jean-Baptiste Colbert.
Colbert was a minister during the reign of Louis XIV, taking on the key roles of Controller General of Finance and Secretary of State for the Navy in the 1660s. His main mission was to bring order and efficiency to a notoriously chaotic and wasteful country – and, in particular, to set the nation’s forests in order.
He began an eight-year survey of the woodland around Tours in 1661, and was horrified by what he found: deforestation, frequent fires, cattle grazing everywhere. ‘France perira faute de bois,’ – ‘France will perish for lack of wood’ – he warned starkly in his 1669 work, Ordonnance des Eaux et Forêts. In an age when naval strength was vital to geopolitical power, France’s chronic timber shortage was a massive weakness.
Colbert’s philosophy of ‘bon usage de la nature’, with its emphasis on sustainable development, was based more on pragmatism than eco-ideology: manage woodland correctly and the result would be tall, narrow-trunked and straight-backed oaks, providing the perfect material for shipbuilding.
Dappled shade: Forests like Loches in France have been nurtured for centuries
But it was no short-term fix: the benefits from the forest planting and management programme that Colbert initiated would only be reaped when the oaks reached maturity, some 200 years later.
Today, in the dappled shade of Loches Forest, south of Tours, Colbert’s blueprint lives on, maintained by the forest guards of France’s l’Office National des Forêts (ONF). But now, some of the main beneficiaries of this painstaking work are not shipbuilders, but cask manufacturers.
Traditionally, casks made from this fine-grained sessile oak (Quercus petraea) are destined for the winemakers of Bordeaux and Burgundy, but whisky makers like Gregg Glass of Whyte & Mackay are now getting in on the act too.
The company’s Jura Seven Wood, launched last year as part of a wholesale revamp of the island single malt, uses casks sourced from six different French forests: Vosges, Jupilles, Les Bertranges, Allier, Tronçais and Limousin.
Each forest lends its own distinctive note to the mix, from the mocha and red fruit of Vosges to the unctuous peach and mango of Les Bertranges and the brooding astringency of Limousin. In flavour terms, these are great building blocks for the blender.
Black death: Lead from bullets fired during the First World War has infected this wood
There’s far more than provenance to the work that Glass has done on oak with cask supplier Demptos – oak sub-species, grain type, toasting regime and so on – but there’ll be time to explore all of that soon enough on Scotchwhisky.com. For now, let’s focus on the trees.
Jura Seven Wood started life with cask trials almost a decade ago, and some of the liquid has been matured for 17 years in total (10 years in ex-Bourbon before an extended ‘finish’ in French oak). But that timescale pales in comparison to the management programme in Loches Forest.
There’s a saying that making a cask takes ‘two centuries, two years and two days’, referring respectively to the typical life of the tree, the seasoning process and the final manufacture of the cask. For great wine you need great grapes; for a top-quality cask, finding the right tree is a must.
In Loches, this is where Fabien Daureu and his fellow gardes forestiers (forest guards) weave their magic, because straight-trunked, 200-year-old oak trees don’t come about by accident.
The keys are slow growth – 2mm a year is ideal – meaning narrow trunks and fine grain; straight trunks and no low branches, which would create knots in the wood.
Rosy future: A genetic anomaly makes this wood more valuable for cask manufacture
So Fabien and his colleagues visit each block every 10 years, deciding what to cut and what to keep. In the first decade, there might be 700,000 or even 1m oaks per hectare; by the time 250 years have passed, that number will have fallen to 50.
It’s a Darwinian process of dominant and submissive trees, where the former rob the latter of light, and fierce competition leaves no space for low-growing branches, forcing trunks to rise ramrod-straight in search of the sun.
There are tricks – beech trees can give shade and stop the summer sun from causing imperfections in the wood – and there are surprises, both good and bad, which only emerge once that two-century process is over and the tree has been felled.
At the Sogibois stave mill near Bordeaux, these secrets are revealed. The bad: split logs riddled with black and rendered useless by lead bullets embedded in the trees during the First World War; and the good: the rosy-hued wood created by the genetically mysterious presence of carotenoids, which break down into norisprenoids and create a prized fruity flavour that commands a higher price in the form of the Essencia casks made by Demptos.
Back in Loches, after 200 years of careful management, the next oaks to be felled stand proudly, well-spaced, in what looks at first like an otherwise deserted part of the forest. But look closer and you’ll see vast numbers of young saplings pushing up from the floor, less than the height of a man, renewing a process that will, given time, create the wine and whisky casks of the mid-23rd century.
And you thought making whisky was a long-term process...
12 June 2019
There’s a sense of bemused amusement on board Damselfly at what we’ve just witnessed. ‘I have never,’ says Matt, our skipper and Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT) guide, ‘ever seen a heron do that.’
Anyone with a passing knowledge of Britain’s waterways and lakes – anyone with a fish pond, for that matter – will be familiar with the grey heron. Normally, it’s a solitary sentinel of a bird, standing statue-still at the edge of the water, eyes fixed to detect the slightest movement. Then… down flashes that dagger of a bill, spearing an unwary fish.
Not this heron. For the past few minutes, we’ve watched it engaging in some pretty eccentric behaviour. At the best of times, the heron is not exactly the most elegant flyer, lumpily heaving its ungainly body from A to B as if it was all too much effort.
But this particular bird seems to think it’s some kind of raptor, jerkily descending to the water in a stuttering approximation of a hover, legs stretching down, wings working overtime, before faceplanting into the water like a fat man bellyflopping from a diving board after one too many barbecue beers.
We’ve watched this routine repeat itself two or three times from our boat, when it happens. Flap, stretch, flop – this time head right in and under. Then – in unlikely triumph – up and away, the shimmering silver of a decent-sized bream in its beak.
Fisher king: The grey heron is a familiar sight on Britain’s waterways (Photo: Keesromijn)
This display prompts a debate: is this bird a Darwinian pioneer of innovative heron behaviour, a harbinger of the future; or an evolutionary dead end, its energetic but ultimately exhausting technique rejected in favour of the heron’s traditional zen-like patience?
Has it been observing the effortless technique of the marsh harriers soaring above the nearby reed beds of Ranworth Broad? Was it here the other week, when an osprey paid a rare visit? As it devours that bream, whole, wriggling and head-first, it’s not telling us; but if ever a heron looked smug…
We always avoided the Norfolk Broads when on family jaunts north from Essex in my childhood, rejecting the pleasure craft-choked waterways in favour of the relative serenity of the North Norfolk coast. West Runton over Wroxham every day of the week.
Now that I’ve lived in Norwich for several years, I know better. Not so much with regard to Wroxham, but a little effort takes you to places like Ranworth, where the NWT’s thatched visitor centre is only accessible by boat or on foot, the floating gin palaces forbidden from entering the calm waters. It’s a sunny June Sunday, and Damselfly is the only craft afloat on the broad’s wide expanse.
Back catalogue: There may be some hidden gems lurking in your whisky cupboard
It’s hard-wired into human nature to be driven on to discover the new, and to feed our restlessness with constant movement: this freshly opened restaurant, that hip new travel destination. But sometimes the urge to proceed also entails the rejection of all that isn’t novel, and a failure to explore what we mistakenly believe to be familiar, when we don’t really know it at all.
In this impatient age of perpetual motion, new whiskies are bottled, launched and sold out with unprecedented haste. We feature half a dozen every Friday here on Scotchwhisky.com, but we could double that number and still not be fully comprehensive.
Many of these whiskies are intentionally ephemeral – limited-edition bottlings or single cask examples – but many more are not. And what of those that have gone before? Most people will have their handful of old favourites, but what about the rest?
If you’re lucky enough to have a well-stocked whisky cupboard(s), take some time to reach into the back and flick through those bottles you’ve probably forgotten you’ve ever bought; or navigate past the ‘New In’ section of your favourite retail website to discover (or rediscover) the drams that are otherwise in danger of becoming the whiskies that time forgot.
Sometimes you have to delve back into the past to discover something new.
01 May 2019
Sir Ian McKellen steps out into the cool Norfolk air, taking a breath during the interval of his one-man show at the Norwich Playhouse. ‘Here, I know you!’ pipes up a woman delivering pizzas nearby. ‘You’re in all them Harry Potter films, aren’t you?’
Understandable as it may be to mistake Gandalf for Dumbledore, it’s quite a put-down for one of the greatest and most versatile actors of his generation. Included in the price of fame, it seems, is the possibility that people might almost – but not quite – know who you are.
Like any good pro, Sir Ian uses the self-effacing story in the second half of the show, which combines autobiographical anecdotes with a kind of ‘greatest hits’ package of readings, from Tolkien to Shakespeare via D.H. Lawrence and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
We begin with Gandalf in Moria, and close, more than two hours later, with Prospero in The Tempest. It’s that kind of show; it’s been that kind of career, for a man who’s played King Lear three times, but was also Magneto in X-Men and – fulfilling a dream – did 10 episodes of Coronation Street.
Eighty not out: Sir Ian McKellen is currently touring the UK’s theatres (Photo: Oliver Rosser/Feast Creative)
Most of the show’s second half is dominated by a formidable pile of books: 37 Shakespeare plays (the first folio plus Pericles), with the audience invited to shout out the titles, prompting a succession of reminiscences and readings from Sir Ian.
Eventually we come to Richard III. ‘First word of the play?’ Sir Ian asks. People shift uncomfortably, momentarily transported back to the classroom, but many find the right answer (we’re a cultured bunch in Norfolk): ‘Now.’
‘Now,’ Sir Ian nods. ‘Now! What an opening word for a play! Now! “Now” is the theatre. This…’ – arms spread wide to take in stage and auditorium – ‘is now. It’s not last night’s performance, it’s not next weekend in King’s Lynn. They’ll be different. This is it. Now.’
If ‘now’ sums up the theatre, it must also acquire added weight and poignancy for a near-octogenerian actor whose recent King Lear was likely, he said, to be his last major Shakespearean role; an actor for whom this formidable tour of the UK has the air of one long, extended encore. Mind you, judging by the way he bounds up the steps at the end of the performance, he’s likely to be doing this for some time to come.
Hogwarts headmaster?: ‘Gandalf’ is often mistaken for ‘Albus Dumbledore’
But ‘now’ also represents the ultimate embrace of the present; the stripping away of experience and preconception to focus on the moment and to truly live it, to devour it and, in turn, to be consumed by it.
Do we do that with whisky? And, if we do, do we do it nearly often enough? Or are we beset by nagging internal voices, telling us what to expect long before glass reaches nose and lips? Warning us, cajoling us, telling us what others have already said, or what we think they might think?
Do we empty our minds and allow the purity of that moment to emerge, opening ourselves to the possibility that, even if it’s a whisky we’ve tasted 100 times before, it might yet surprise us, astonish us, yield up some hitherto undiscovered element of its essence? Do we do that? Sometimes, maybe, but I think we could do it more. I know I could.
‘I once asked Michael Gambon if the same thing ever happened to him,’ Sir Ian tells us, once the laughter at the Gandalf/Dumbledore story has subsided. He moves into a passable imitation of his fellow actor’s slurred drawl. ‘Oh, my dear boy! Of course it does – it happens all the time!’
‘So what do you say to them?’
‘Nothing, of course. What can I say? I just sign your name.’
Ian McKellen on Stage: with Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others and You is currently touring the UK and raising funds for local theatres. Tickets from the official website.
27 March 2019
For just a moment, Billy Leighton is lost for words. ‘That’s a revelation,’ he says, with more than a hint of awe. ‘I can’t believe how good that is.’
The Irish Distillers master blender has just sampled a whisky he made – Jameson Bow Street 18 Years Batch 1 – with a sliver of Derg Cheddar cheese from County Tipperary.
It’s not the only epiphany: the core Jameson 18, with its sweeter character and lower abv, bounces off the creamy, citrus brightness of a St Tola goat cheese from County Clare; the tangy, acidic power of a Creeny sheep’s milk cheese from County Cavan teases out the understated spice and length of this year’s Jameson Bow Street 18 batch.
The pairings, created during the launch of the latter with the aid of Dublin cheese and wine shop Loose Canon, achieve what every great food and drink match should: they deliver new flavours that you won’t find, in isolation, in either of the base components. In the case of Derg/Bow Street, big, savoury, salty notes; umami-like, alchemical.
(That, come to think of it, is exactly what a great blend does: takes an assortment of components and, thanks to the skill and experience of the blender, creates a transcendent final product that mightily exceeds the sum of its parts.)
Perfect pairings: Great food matches, like great blends, transcend their constituent parts
That good whisky and the right cheese (or vice versa) go together isn’t news, but the fact that this exercise is being played out on behalf of a blended whiskey is, I hope, instructive. There are signs that companies are paying a bit more attention to blends – and it’s about bloody time.
Four weeks later, more blended whisky and another match. Two matches, in fact. First, there’s Dewar’s ‘Double Double’ range of age-stated blends, paired with an infographic detailing the intricacies of their maturation: age and marry single malt and blend components; combine and marry them again; finish them in ex-Sherry casks.
The ‘four-stage process’ seems a wee bit over-complicated, while the age statements (ranging from 21 to 32 years old) hint at the inexactitude of numbers – for me, there’s an imbalance between maturity and price tag – but that’s quibbling. The liquid is still wonderful.
The second match? Berry Bros’ Perspective Series, which the long-suffering Dave Broom has already partially described, while battling beard-related frostbite. You can read Dave’s full verdict on the range on Scotchwhisky.com this Friday, but for my money it’s another excellent line-up, enhanced by the presence of Lindsay Robertson’s highly evocative landscape photographs on the labels.
For those of use who care about blends, the entry of so much new liquid into the marketplace in such a short space of time is a welcome event, although one that is annoyingly newsworthy because of its very rarity.
Too complex?: However intricate the ageing of Dewar’s Double Double, the whisky is wonderful
Compare that to the never-ending conveyor belt of single malt launches and is it any wonder that malts continue to generate headlines and online chatter way out of proportion to their share of the whisky market? We’ve probably had more new Highland Park whiskies in the past six months than new blends in the last five years.
If that’s changing, so much the better. And if the way that these whiskies are being treated by their owners is also evolving – building a story around them, making broader cultural connections – that can only help in terms of elevating the reputation of blends in the world at large.
Forty years ago, beyond a bland, mass-produced monoculture, Irish cheese was dead. Slowly but surely, fuelled by the presence of German and Dutch immigrants missing the cheeses of home, a renaissance began – one that has now given us the likes of Derg, St Tola, Creeny – and purveyors like Loose Canon.
It’s hard to ignore the parallels with Irish whiskey, which has escaped the doldrums to stage a renaissance of its own, but why not expand the analogy beyond Ireland to the bigger family of blends out there?
The more we all talk about what makes these whiskies special, the more likely it is that, in the eyes of the world, they’ll become exactly that.
13 February 2019
‘Up there? Seriously?’ After 12km of following undulating paths through the bare, wintry vineyards, we’re closing in on our destination, the quintessentially Tuscan town of Montalcino.
The farm track we’ve been following has been taking an inexorably upward trajectory, and now, as we reach Montalcino’s outskirts, a ribbon of innumerable steps ascends steeply around the next bend and beyond. For walkers at least, the beauty of these Tuscan hilltop towns comes at a price, and that price has a name: gravity.
But we’re not complaining (you need to be able to breathe to do that). We’ve spent the past few hours zig-zagging our way from the village of Torrenieri towards Montalcino’s ever-visible outline, our walk punctuated by stops to sample the local fare. Fortified by soup, salami, ricotta, honey and the odd glass of red wine, we’re fully fuelled for the climb ahead.
Prized vineyards: But Brunello di Montalcino was once almost unheard-of in the wider world
This is the annual Brunello Crossing event, including our 13km walk, plus gruelling running races over distances of 13km, 23km and 44km. In that context, despite the climb ahead, we’ve taken the easy option.
The metaphor of an arduous ascent into the light is an apt one for what was once the poorest part of Tuscany, where sharecropping grape growers scratched a living by shipping Sangiovese north to the big wine companies in Chianti.
In those days, Brunello di Montalcino – for the few who had heard of it – was Italy’s Cahors, a forbidding, inkily powerful red wine that demanded the patience of decades in bottle to tame its wildness.
And now? It is, to quote one local producer, one of Italy’s ‘Killer Bs’, a premier league fine wine alongside Barolo and Bolgheri, with a roster of big-name wineries: Biondi-Santi, Altesino, Argiano, Soldera, Castelgiocondo.
If Montalcino’s transformational story is compelling, so is that of the region’s biggest producer, Banfi. Banfi is an incomer, an interloper, an American company whose Italian roots couldn’t allay the initial suspicion of the locals when it parachuted in during 1978.
Typically Tuscan: Montalcino is a quintessential Italian hilltop town
Banfi, owned by the Mariani family, came to Montalcino to make sweet wine (aiming to repeat the huge success story of its Riunite Lambrusco), but stayed to make Brunello when that didn’t work out, hastily ripping out much of its Moscadello vines in favour of Sangiovese.
Four decades on, Banfi isn’t simply the biggest producer of Brunello, and the one that has arguably done most to secure the wine’s global reputation – certainly in the US – but it is also a pioneer in research and innovation.
Its Castello Banfi Poggio alle Mura Brunello bottling is the fruit of 20 years of studies that identified no fewer than 600 clonal variants of Sangiovese in Montalcino, narrowing this down to 15 and then three that are now thought to produce the finest and most complex wines.
In the vineyards, the diversity of soil types has spawned a painstaking, labour-intensive approach to viticulture: Sangiovese vines planted on more fertile soils use the more productive spur cordon trellising system; those on poorer ground are trained according to Banfi’s own alberello system of two spurs in a v-shape. Assessment is not made block by block, or even row by row – but vine by vine.
Spot the difference: Banfi uses a painstakingly precise vine trellising system
No doubt there’s still some lingering resentment about the fact that an American company owns fully 850 hectares of Montalcino vineyards, but more than 40 years of continuous investment, and the salaries paid to 350 full-time employees, have helped to soften those early doubts.
There’s a feeling sometimes in Scotland that the very idea of foreign acquisition of whisky distilleries and brands is wrong, that owners from France, Japan or the US – England, even – are somehow robbing the country of its natural resources, exporting revenues and profits that should never have been allowed to leave its borders.
But the best overseas owners create jobs and prosperity with their investment, and are a positive force for the collective good of Scotch whisky when they bring their own ideas and expertise with them, driving local producers to adapt and improve in order to compete.
In the simplest terms, they’re givers, not takers; like the vast majority of immigrants to every country, their presence enriches, rather than detracts. Look at the broad sweep of history, and whisky in Scotland, like wine in Montalcino, would be many times the poorer without them.
30 January 2019
‘What does English whisky taste like?’
I’m taken aback. We both look down at the bottle of Cotswolds single malt I’ve just handed over as a gift. ‘Well…’ I’m tempted to tell them to crack open the bottle and find out for themselves, but that might seem unhelpful.
I opt for a different cop-out: replying to one question with another (always good when you don’t know the answer): ‘What does Scotch whisky taste like?’ Quizzical look. ‘No, think about it. You like Lagavulin. You like Glengoyne. They don’t have much in common, but would you say they both “taste like” Scotch whisky?’
When we don’t know much about something, easy definitions and pigeon-holes are tempting, reassuring even. To whisky newcomers, Islay = peat and Speyside = fruit are comforting equations. As the journey progresses, their limitations become all too apparent.
With English whisky, everyone’s at the start of that journey. St George’s and Hicks & Healey have been distilling for well over a decade now, but they are the outliers, the pioneers. Now, with 20-plus distilleries making whisky from Yorkshire to the Isle of Wight, critical mass beckons.
After talking to a number of English distillers in recent months, I’m no nearer to answering the question – and neither are they. Then again, how many of them set out to create something ‘English’ in the first place? And how would they even begin to define that?
Whisky landscape: Cotswolds aims to make a spirit that reflects the distillery’s surroundings
Some appear to be following the Scottish template quite closely: St George’s, with its Forsyths pots; The Lakes, led by the likes of Paul Currie (son of Arran founder Harold Currie) and ex-Diageo production director Dr Alan Rutherford OBE; Cotswolds, where founder Dan Szor was inspired by the resurrection of Bruichladdich.
But St George’s does peated, triple-distilled and a range of grains that uses rye, oats, wheat, unmalted barley, and chocolate and crystal malts; The Lakes, while overtly ‘Scottish’ in its approach, has released two hybrid whiskies, The One and Steel Bonnets; Szor wants the Cotswolds spirit to echo its ‘gentle, beautiful’ landscape, and the cereals and fruits that grow there.
In Kent, Copper Rivet has drawn up its ‘Invicta Charter’ as a starting-point for a discussion about common standards for English whisky – but not as a restraint on flavour creation, as its two contrasting new make spirit styles show.
In Southwold on the Suffolk coast, Adnams uses brewer’s yeast and a Christian Carl ‘beer stripping column’ to produce its high-abv wash; The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD) has manually-operated stills, employs an archaeobotanist to source ancient grains and isn’t scared to release a pure rye spirit at an obscenely young age – because it tastes good.
Traditional template: The Lakes is close to Scotland geographically and in whisky terms
The Lakes sold its first bottle of single malt at auction for a record £7,900, and is laying down stock for an aged range up to 25 years old; meanwhile, Cotswolds’ first release was priced at £45 a bottle.
Can you see a common thread here? No, neither can I.
These are people forging a new path, learning and borrowing from what has gone before, but refusing to be enslaved by it, and certainly not scared of voicing their own opinions.
To Szor, most Scottish distilleries are now mere ‘manufacturing plants for a global brand’ (whether that’s a criticism or not depends on your viewpoint), while Copper Rivet distiller Abhi Banik decries the misuse of the word ‘solera’ by some Scottish distillers, and was shocked to see the artificial ‘seasoning’ process that most Sherry casks go through prior to their use for maturing whisky.
When Szor thinks about whisky, he comes back to the individuals watching over the stills, not their postal addresses: Ichiro Akuto, Patrick Zuidam, Matt Hofmann: ‘I think of individual distilleries and the people behind them, and what their aspirations and ambitions are,’ he says. ‘Those personalities will come through.’
If anything unites the emerging generation of English whisky distillers, it is the healthy determination of each of them to follow their own path, create their own philosophy, rather than the fact that they all happen to be located in the same country.
‘What is English whisky?’ Apart from being unanswerable, the question’s irrelevant.
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