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From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Whisky must make an emotional connection

    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’.

    Sutton Hoo helmet replica

    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.

    Sutton Hoo burial mounds

    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.

    Replica burial ship at Sutton Hoo

    Visual aid: Changes at Sutton Hoo include this full-size sculpture of the ship

  • Whisky marketing can’t live in the past

    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).

    Seagram's and Absolut ads from the 1990s

    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.’

    Pure Scot whisky bottle

    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.

  • Secrets of the forest

    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.

    Trees in Loches Forest, France

    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 oak wood infected by lead

    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.

    Pink oak 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...

  • The joy of whisky’s back catalogue

    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.

    Grey heron in flight

    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.

    Whisky bottles on shelf

    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.

  • Whisky lives in the ‘now’

    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.

    Sir Ian McKellen

    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.

    Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf

    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.

  • Let’s give blends the respect they deserve

    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.)

    Jameson Bow Street 18 Years with cheese

    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.

    Dewar's Double Double infographic

    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.

  • Why foreign owners are good for Scotch

    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.

    Banfi vineyards in Montalcino

    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.

    Montalcino

    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.

    Sangiovese vines in Banfi vineyard

    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.

  • What is English whisky?

    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?

    Cotswolds Distillery

    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.

    The Lakes Distillery

    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.

  • Remembering Gérard Basset OBE

    23 January 2019

    The hospitality business – working in restaurants, bars and hotels – is often an unforgiving one. Long and unsociable hours, enormous pressure, fierce competition… the timid need not apply. No wonder that it takes its toll, both on relationships and on individuals’ physical and mental health.

    Those who rise to the top in such a world often have a reputation for being, to use an understating euphemism, ‘difficult’. The pantomime goings-on of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares may be exaggerated for the cameras, but they hint at an apparent underlying truth: here, nice guys (of either gender) don’t finish first.

    Gérard Francis Claude Basset gave the lie to that theory. When he died last Wednesday at the criminally young age of 61 from cancer of the oesophagus, the tributes naturally mentioned his many career achievements as a sommelier and hotelier (of which more in a moment), but without exception they focused on one aspect above all: his kindness.

    Perhaps it was something to do with the way that Gérard came into the business; visiting England in 1977 to watch his beloved St-Étienne play Liverpool in the European Cup (they lost), he stayed on, ended up working as a kitchen porter on the Isle of Man and, slowly but surely, made his way. It says much of the UK hospitality scene of the time that he was picked out for a front-of-house role pouring wine ‘because I was French’.

    Gerard Basset

    Star sommelier: Gérard Basset’s unassuming demeanour hid a wealth of achievements

    So began a remarkable career, by the end of which the letters denoting Gérard’s qualifications came to outstrip the length of his name: MW (Master of Wine), MS (Master Sommelier), MSc (from wine organisation the OIV), MBA in wine business and – perhaps his proudest achievement – OBE.

    He co-founded the Hotel du Vin chain in 1994, selling it to Malmaison for £66 million a decade later; then, with wife Nina, set up the boutique TerraVina Hotel in the New Forest. Not bad for a lad who left school in St-Étienne with no qualifications and no idea what to do.

    A tireless entrant in sommelier competitions, Gérard’s most emotional triumph came in Chile in 2010, when he won the Meilleur Sommelier du Monde title at the sixth time of asking, after finishing second three times. Before the contest, he’d pledged that this would be his final attempt.

    Through it all, he appeared unchanged by success and setbacks alike – unfailingly humble, with a wicked, dry sense of humour. For someone so ceaselessly busy and hard-working, he rarely seemed in a rush, always making time to talk to people.

    These qualities were invaluable in shaping perhaps Gérard’s most lasting legacy to hospitality in this country: the generation of young sommeliers he mentored, and who are now some of the leading figures in the trade.

    If they learned from the great man’s patience and humility, they were also inspired by something less obvious – his immense drive, ambition and appetite for hard work.

    Anyone who has a passing familiarity with the formidable Master of Wine and Master Sommelier qualifications will know just how hard it is to achieve either in a lifetime; Gérard passed both in less than a decade.

    His many competition wins were grounded in a ceaseless quest for knowledge, coupled with a fearsome regime of tasting new wines and spirits each and every day; he would draw detailed wine maps from memory, starting from scratch if there was even one error, and once employed a memory coach. There was steel beneath that humble exterior.

    Gerard Basset

    Lasting legacy: A generation of sommeliers was inspired by Basset’s example

    When diagnosed with cancer, Gérard used the time to write his memoirs; you can contribute to a crowdfunding campaign to enable their publication via the Unbound website; they ought to be quite a read.

    Kindness often appears to be an increasingly rare and undervalued commodity, in an age when opinions are voiced and dismissed with parallel disdain on social media, and when so much cruelty has crept into political discourse – so it’s salutary to bear in mind that being nice is in no way incompatible with being ambitious, driven and competitive.

    We would all do well to remember that in our discussions of whisky (and other topics). Fine to be passionate but, when so much is subjective, a little more respect for the other person’s opinion should not be too much to ask.

    In one of his last interviews, Gérard was asked (for possibly the hundredth time) if the cliché of the ‘snooty sommelier’ still persisted. His answer applies just as much to those involved in whisky as in wine:

    It has changed, but with any profession you get nice people and stupid people. When you meet a snooty sommelier – and they do exist – it’s a shame because most people who become sommeliers are passionate about wine.
    ‘Sometimes the problem is that they are too passionate about wine, and they think more about the product than the people.’

    With Gérard, whether with friends, customers, colleagues or employees, it was always about the people.

  • Whisky’s shifting balance of power

    12 December 2018

    Forget what you know. Take a map of the British Isles and Northern Europe, rotate it through 180 degrees and look again. Let your eyes rest naturally where they will. 

    With a conventionally aligned atlas, the gravitational pull of the south-east corner of England is compelling. London, the proximity of continental Europe, the sheer weight of numbers in terms of population, not to mention influences political, legal and cultural.

    Maybe the simple trick of flipping north and south will suggest an alternative narrative to you; maybe it won’t. But if geographical trickery won’t do it, a delve into the past surely will.

    We have historian Neil Oliver to thank for the atlas-upturning trick, in his fascinating new book, The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places. What could have been yet another box-ticking listicle in print form instead offers an eclectic sweep through British and Irish history, from the first known touch of humanoid feet on UK soil to the fragile collision of nature and technology at Dungeness.

    The map-flipping is reserved for the chapter on the Ness of Brodgar on Orkney; rotate a page in the atlas, reckons Oliver, and:

    ‘...Orkney – and Shetland – are revealed as the hub of the wheel. For people on the move around northern Britain, north-western Europe and Scandinavia, those archipelagos appear like roundabouts, way stations en route from somewhere to everywhere else.’

    Ness of Brodgar excavation

    Prized finds: Archaeologists have been excavating the Ness of Brodgar for 15 years

    Some 5,000 years ago, Brodgar was London. What was assumed (until as recently as 2003) to be a natural whaleback of land forming part of the isthmus between the lochs of Stenness and Harray is instead a disguised mound of rubble, a vast complex of prehistoric buildings – the result of centuries of human habitation: construction, demolition, reconstruction.

    The experts are still scratching their heads about the Ness of Brodgar, but the architecture and the pottery unearthed on-site is older than similar examples found elsewhere. In other words, the innovations created here may well have rippled southwards, to Stonehenge, Avebury, throughout the British Isles and probably beyond. At this point in history, Orkney was anything but peripheral. Instead it was central, leading, pioneering.

    Any contemporary world whisky map would have a similar northern bias. In terms of the numbers, the power and the influence, the global scale, Scotch is at the centre of things, the hub around which much else revolves. Producers elsewhere may choose to emulate or consciously react against its example but, either way, Scotch retains its role as reference point.

    Ness of Brodgar excavation

    Huge influence: The advances made on Orkney may have reverberated beyond the UK

    With scale can come an appearance of permanence. Distillery numbers well into three figures (and rising), exports worth upwards of £4bn a year; it becomes hard to imagine a world without Scotch, even one in which Scotch takes a supporting role and allows another country of origin to move into the spotlight.

    But we wouldn’t have thought that in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, during that first period of mass distillery closures; nor during the Irish whiskey boom that followed when, less than 150 years ago, the most prized and popular whisky on the planet hailed from Dublin, not Dufftown.

    We wouldn’t have thought it as the 19th century ticked over into the 20th, and the effects of the Pattison Crash reverberated throughout the industry; nor during the 1920s devastation of Campbeltown and beyond; nor, as recently as 35 years ago, when the last round of cuts claimed Port Ellen, Brora and many more distilleries as casualties. All of these events had their own causes and effects, but all can also be seen as forming part of the natural popularity cycle of any consumer product.

    Brora and Port Ellen distilleries

    Famous victims: Brora and Port Ellen were casualties of whisky’s natural popularity cycle

    It’s not that Scotch is in any immediate trouble right now; these remain good days for the industry, but the good days are the best times to ask questions, to explore new directions, for the industry to interrogate itself about how to do things even better, and create a product that resonates even more powerfully with consumers young and old.

    Irish whiskey is resurgent, American whiskey booming, Japanese whisky more popular (although also arguably more troubled) than ever before; meanwhile, the world beyond whisky’s boundaries of convention, from Norfolk to the Nordics, is finding its own way, building in confidence. Perhaps the needle of the compass is already beginning to twitch.

    Neolithic farmers continued to develop the Ness of Brodgar for at least 1,000 years, constructing two huge walls to mark it out as special, and to shelter it from the outside world over which it exerted so much influence.

    No doubt, over the course of a millennium, there were numerous ups and downs, times of prosperity and poverty; nonetheless, behind those towering walls, the people who lived there may have grown to take its pre-eminence for granted, to believe that its supremacy was vouchsafed for eternity by whatever gods they worshipped.

    Clearly, they were wrong.

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