From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Let’s hear it for cheap blended Scotch

    02 August 2017

    For lovers of ‘rare’ Scotch whisky, these are rich times indeed – provided, that is, that their passion for the spirit is matched by the thickness of their wallet.

    In the past couple of weeks alone, we’ve seen whisky at UK auctions clearing £2m a month, with the average bottle of Scotch single malt fetching £286; a new Dalmore 40-year-old expression with a £6,000 asking price; a 50-year-old blended grain from Angus Dundee for close to £900; and, my personal favourite, a 12-year-old Port Charlotte reduced with some iceberg water that’s attracting auction bids of ‘upwards of £1,000’.

    But it’s a big world out there, and these scarce bottlings attract a hugely disproportionate share of the headlines. Taken together, the Dalmore, the Angus Dundee and the iced Port Charlotte account for less than 1,250 bottles of Scotch whisky. For an industry that sells well over one billion bottles a year, that’s a drop in the proverbial ocean – or the merest chip off an iceberg.

    The results recently announced by leading Scotch producer Diageo amply illustrate this fact. It was no surprise to see that the company’s Scotch whisky sales had risen during the year to the end of June – but the manner in which that growth was achieved might give us pause for thought.

    The company’s stable of single malts – including The Singleton, Talisker, Lagavulin and Oban – increased their sales, but not as much as Diageo’s formidable roster of blends, spearheaded by the remarkable Johnnie Walker.

    At this rate, it won’t be long before Scotch’s most famous name shifts 20m cases of product a year, meaning that more than one in five bottles of Scotch sold around the world will have a striding man on its label.

    But Walker wasn’t (for me, at least) the big story that emerged from the figures. Instead, the unlikely hero of Diageo’s whisky year was a low-priced blend with a label featuring a pair of lovable/sickly (delete as appropriate) canines: Black & White.

    Black and White

    Top dog: Black & White has successfully recruited people into Scotch whisky

    A brand of Scotch conceived by James Buchanan while on his way back from an 1890s dog show, Black & White is now Diageo’s tactical, affordable blend designed to drive recruitment into the Scotch category in emerging markets such as Mexico and India.

    That’s working well, but a new use was found for Black & White during the past year. Brazil, previously a golden market that drained more than 2m cases of Johnnie Walker a year as recently as 2013, is now beset by economic woes and political scandals.

    When that happens, people tend to have less money to throw around on fripperies – and expensive Scotch whisky, however great its joys, is almost the definition of a frippery. If large numbers of Brazilians can’t afford a bottle of Black or Red Label, you either sell them something less expensive, or they go back to the cheap cachaça they were buying before, perhaps never to return to Scotch.

    This is the lucrative (relatively – the profit margins are much slimmer than Walker’s) furrow that Black & White is ploughing in Brazil right now. And, if we broaden our gaze to a global perspective, it isn’t alone.

    Diageo has White Horse, Old Parr and VAT 69 also inhabiting what company boss Ivan Menezes calls the ‘primary Scotch’ hinterland, and together they sell something like 8m cases of Scotch whisky a year – and all have had a decent time of it in the last 12 months.

    Outside Diageo, there’s Passport, 100 Pipers and Clan Campbell (Pernod Ricard/Chivas Brothers); there’s William Lawson’s (Dewar’s/Bacardi); there’s William Peel, Label 5, Sir Edward’s.

    Passport

    Foot soldier: Chivas’ Passport is one of a number of less heralded blends

    These aren’t necessarily household names (you may not even have heard of some of them), but they all sell more than leading single malts Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet, even if at substantially lower prices.

    They are the foot soldiers of the Scotch whisky industry, doing the hard yards by combining a low price with an acceptable quality level to create a product that somebody wants to buy. It may be that person’s first foray into the world of Scotch, or it may be a way for them to stay in that world when the good times recede and cutbacks have to be made.

    These blends are the products that may have provided us with that often terrifying first sip of Scotch whisky at 15 or 50, drawing us into the tantalising web of single malt, aged grain, of Islay, Campbeltown and Speyside. Given this pivotal role, it’d be nice if they were celebrated more and shown a little greater respect and gratitude by all of us who love Scotch whisky.

    After all, despite their modest price tags, they form the bedrock of the industry, and without them no rare single malt or self-indulgent ‘limited release’ would exist in the first place. 

  • Port casks: what’s in a name?

    26 July 2017

    As a huge Port fan, the headline of the press release was enough to grab my attention: ‘Port X Whisky: The Dalmore Releases Unique Vintage Port Collection.’ It even distracted me (briefly) from the clichéd, ‘press release bingo’ terminology that followed, with all of its ‘luxury’, ‘ground-breaking’, ‘iconic’ and ‘crafted’ marketing BS.

    Anticipation, however, soon changed to mystification and then frustration. Yes, the first sentence of the release talked of a ‘three-bottle, limited edition collection of whiskies matured in vintage Port casks’, but the truth was hidden several paragraphs further down.

    ‘Tawny Port pipes from Graham’s vineyard in [the] Douro, Portugal, add the finishing touches…’ Eh? Tawny Port? Turns out that the ‘Vintage’ in the name of the range refers to the whisky, not the Port. Dalmore 1996, 1998 and 2001, matured in ex-Bourbon casks, then finished in ex-tawny Port pipes.

    Confused? I certainly was. And so, it seems, was the person who wrote (and signed off) the press release. But the differences here are glaring.

    Graham's Vintage Port

    Long wait: vintage Port is often matured in bottle for decades before consumption

    Vintage is the zenith of Port, the product of a single ‘declared’ year taken from the finest vineyards and bottled within two years of the harvest. Cask maturation – such as it is – takes place more often than not in huge, vertical wooden vats known as balseiros, and sometimes in stainless steel or cement. So sourcing an ex-vintage Port cask to mature whisky in would be rather tricky.

    While vintage Port is a dark, fiercely tannic wine, typically allowed to age in bottle for decades before reaching its peak, tawny Ports are – as the name suggests – gold-coloured and softly oxidative in style.

    Tawnies are matured in wood, sometimes for just a few years, sometimes for a decade or more, and bottled when ready to drink. They are almost always a blend of different years and often bear an age statement of 10, 20, 30 or 40 years (there are ‘vintage’ tawny Ports, usually called colheitas, but let’s not make an already confusing situation utterly bewildering.)

    In either case, it’s important to note that the wood is primarily a vessel, not a contributor to character. New oak plays almost no part in Port ageing and, instead, older wood is wanted to provide a secure, neutral environment, allowing a gentle, gradual oxidation in the case of tawny Port.

    What does this mean to the distiller? Essentially, that what was previously in the cask is far more important than the cask itself. Important, then, to make it clear that that cask contained Graham’s tawny Port, rather than Graham’s vintage – because the influence from the wine leached into the wood will be entirely different.

    Graham's Port balseiros

    Vast vats: Huge balseiros used to mature Port in Graham’s lodge at Vila Nova de Gaia

    There’s no doubt that the Scotch whisky industry has made massive strides in analysing and understanding the myriad effects of various cask types on spirit, from the ‘standard’ vessels acquired from the Bourbon and Sherry industries to the more esoteric wood sourced from Madeira and the fine wine world.

    But there’s still some laziness about in the way in which this is communicated. It’s all very well to talk of a single malt being ‘Sherry cask-matured’, but (without even getting into the American/European oak question) what kind of Sherry? A bone-dry fino? A nutty amontillado? A darkly unctuous Pedro Ximénez or PX?

    Most likely it’ll be the dried fruit and rich spiciness of an oloroso, for which ‘Sherry cask’ has become shorthand in whisky circles, but the imprecision is irritating and potentially confusing.

    When drinkers do discover a whisky matured or ‘finished’ in ex-amontillado casks (for instance, Glenmorangie Dornoch), or one that has seen the inside of an ex-fino cask (see Glenfarclas 1966 47-year-old), it won’t taste like most ex-Sherry drams they’ve tried. Just compare that Glenfarclas with most of the distillery’s regular output.

    Dalmore Vintage Port Collection

    Source of confusion: The vintage here refers to the whisky, not the Port

    There’s an opportunity here. Single malt Scotch is a disarmingly simple product in terms of ingredients (water, barley, yeast); one that creates a blank sheet of paper on which to tell a tale of distillery character and geographical place.

    The cask adds another layer to that back-story, enables Scotch to piggyback on the heritage of another of the world’s greatest drinks, whether that be Port or Sherry (or Madeira, or a winemaking region).

    It also adds to the broader discussion of flavour creation and the preservation, enhancement or obscuration of distillery character, but for that discussion to carry weight and credbility, let’s make sure we get our facts straight in the first place.

    And knowing the difference between vintage and tawny Port would be a good place to start.

  • Whisky’s age of uncertainty

    19 July 2017

    Britain is currently gripped by the era of über-uncertainty, according to Gary Keogh, marketing director of William Grant & Sons UK. And, just to be clear, we’re not agonising about where our next taxi is coming from.

    Brexit, Trump, terrorism, the General Election result… The one thing we can rely on, it seems, is the unreliability of forecasts, predictions and polls.

    This was quite a brave opening gambit from Keogh, coming as it did at a company presentation outlining the likely dominant trends in the UK drinks market for the year ahead.

    How is Scotch doing in this slightly scary environment? Well, I could give you all the facts and figures, but anyone with a passing acquaintance of the UK drinks scene won’t find anything to shock them. Blends declining, malts growing, American and Irish whiskey more dynamic (but still much smaller).

    That, at least, was predictable. The greater interest for me lies in the consumer psychology that underpins the unexpected series of events of the past year or so. This is complex, sometimes contradictory, but for anyone wanting to sell more stuff to more people for more money, vital.

    Bottles on shop shelves

    Dizzying array: ‘Repertoire drinkers’ no longer stick to just one favoured brand

    We often live in an echo chamber of our own making, where our social media algorithms bounce our own opinions and prejudices back at us; and yet, it seems, we increasingly crave authenticity and provenance in the products we choose to buy and the brands with which we wish to interact.

    We value loyalty and expect those favoured brands to stay ‘true’ to us; but we have become fickle, restless consumers, flitting from one gin/whisky/wine/craft beer to the next in search of yet another new experience. Keogh reckons that Glenfiddich drinkers consume an average of 18 other spirits brands.

    Eighteen?! Growing up – and yes, I appreciate that this was a fair while ago – my parents drank Bell’s and, sometimes, Gordon’s, plus Cockburn’s and Emva Cream (the latter for the grandparents) at Christmas. I well remember the shift from Bell’s to The Famous Grouse in the 1980s – a seismic event.

    My dad’s in his 80s now, and he drinks Smoky Black Grouse – or Black Bottle – or Bowmore, Jura, Talisker, Balvenie or any number of other single malt brands he comes across at the right price, or is given at Christmas, birthday or Father’s Day.

    He’s clearly not a ‘Millennial’, to use the marketing term applied to those in their 20s or 30s, but in his ‘repertoire drinking’ he exhibits some of the traits associated with that demographic grouping. And he’s far from alone.

    If nothing else, this shows just how nonsensical these lazy labels are – or ‘meaningless’ and ‘worthless’, to quote Keogh. There are 11m so-called Millennials – people aged between 21 and 40 – in the UK, and does anyone seriously think they have a ‘shared’ and common character? Or, if they do, that it mirrors the life view of the urban hipster elite that is all too often viewed as encapsulating the Millennial psyche?

    These shifts in consumer behaviour may prompt broader social concerns – people living in an echo chamber don’t tend to be the most tolerant or empathetic creatures on the planet – but what do they mean for the future of Scotch?

    Adventurous – or fickle – consumers are, in theory at least, more easily persuaded to try your product; but getting them to buy another bottle – and another, and another – is the tough one.

    Traditionally, times of uncertainty are thought to be good for big, established brands, as people take refuge from a chaotic world in the names they know and trust. There may still be some truth in that, but it increasingly runs counter to what is becoming established consumer behaviour – flitting from product to product like frenzied butterflies.

    If Scotch is to thrive in this brave new world, its standard-bearers need to forge a deeper understanding of this fast-evolving consumer mindset than ever before – and stop relying on lazy demographic labels to get it out of trouble.

    That, at least, is a certainty.

  • Ardbeg, ‘crap whisky’ and serendipity

    21 June 2017

    The next time you feel like moaning about ‘health and safety gone mad’, think about the old pot ale tank at Glen Elgin distillery. Made from 6ft by 3ft sections of cast-iron, it blew apart one night, sending one of the panels 30 metres across the yard. ‘It would have taken your head off,’ Ed Dodson says.

    As anyone who’s read the recent feature outlining the 20-year-old story of the resurrection of Ardbeg will know, Dodson was the whisky veteran sent in to patch up the Islay distillery and get it up and running again following its acquisition by Glenmorangie in 1997.

    The hard part about writing this type of article – and keeping it to a vaguely sensible length – is not so much knowing what to include, but what to leave out. And, even then, there’s that nagging feeling that some of the best stuff has ended up on the cutting-room floor.

    Hence the Glen Elgin story (Ardbeg’s old heating tank for the mash was cast-iron, and was an early casualty of the Glenmorangie takeover) – not to mention the time in April 1997 when blue asbestos was discovered in Ardbeg’s roof, leading to a temporary shutdown.

    Ardbeg stillhouse 1997

    Trial and error: How did Ardbeg’s spirit arrive at its combination of fruit and smoke?

    Dodson was clearly fascinated by the Ardbeg spirit character – had been since the 1970s during his ‘Islay period’ of single malt drinking. ‘I’d never been there, but it didn’t make sense to me,’ he recalls. ‘I always thought Laphroaig and Lagavulin were really heavy compared to Ardbeg. But it wasn’t until I began to nose the new make spirit [in June 1997] that I thought: “This is why.”’

    But where does that quintessential Ardbeg character – the lush fruit keeping the smoke in check – come from? Dodson has a sacrilegious hypothesis: ‘My theory – which didn’t go down well with the marketing department – was that, when they were starting up Ardbeg, the whisky was probably crap, so they decided to put an angle on the lyne arm.

    ‘And it was probably still no good, so they put in the purifier, collecting any liquid and directing it back into the body of the still, allowing it to run back down, but not stopping the vapours from heading up the still.

    ‘It’s serendipity. A lot of the things that have happened in the Scotch whisky industry came about by accident.’

    Serendipity, yes, but also the willingness to make mistakes and the good sense to learn from them, to improve, hone, tinker to get the best possible result out of the raw materials and equipment at your disposal.

    Distilleries, it seems, have an almost human character, full of temperament and idiosyncratic traits that defy scientific analysis. Dodson had thought that he’d be able to get 1.3m litres of pure alcohol a year out of Ardbeg – until he faced the challenge of working with a spirit still that’s almost as big as the wash still. ‘I could only get to the 1.1m-litre mark because of the need to get a balanced distillation,’ he says.

    On the night that the first spirit ran from the stills again at Ardbeg, the plan was to bring the wash still in slowly and gently. ‘That won’t work,’ said Duncan Logan, 35-year Ardbeg veteran and, despite no longer working there, an invaluable source of advice to Dodson at that time. ‘You have to let it come in, then slow it down afterwards. If you shut the steam off, you’ll lose it.’ Logan was ignored – but not for long.

    At Ardbeg, the talk now is not of survival, but expansion. That brings its own challenges and potential pitfalls. Intervening in the serendipitous evolutionary process that has made Ardbeg Ardbeg over a period of more than two centuries is something that has to be done with care and sensitivity.

    But Ardbeg is a distillery, not a museum. And if a distillery is like a person, then change is part of what makes you realise you’re still alive. What will the serendipitous discoveries of tomorrow be? It’ll be fun finding out.

  • Twin peaks, single malt and David Lynch

    07 June 2017

    As a frenzied Bill Pullman drove into the night and the credits to Lost Highway began to roll, there was a sharp intake of breath next to me. ‘Ok then,’ said my partner. ‘So what the f**k was that all about?’

    It’s a fair question, one you could justifiably ask at the end of almost all of David Lynch’s works. From the nightmare vision of Eraserhead to his biggest popular success, Twin Peaks (now back on our television screens), Lynch’s filming is typically and deliberately opaque.

    It doesn’t help that the director consistently refuses to explain or, when he does, frequently contradicts himself. Sometimes – as when asked about the blue box that is the fulcrum of Mulholland Drive – Lynch says he doesn’t know the answer himself. Given his stream-of-consciousness approach to film-making, that may even be true.

    David Lynch

    Mystery man: David Lynch has never been keen to explain his films (Photo: Chris Saunders)

    My approach to watching Lynch: don’t actively try to make sense of it; concentrate, but relax; let the film wash over you and, once it’s over, ask yourself the most important question of all: did you enjoy it?

    This suspension of conventional critical faculties is oddly liberating, and there’s still plenty of time afterwards to analyse, theorise and come up with your own personal answer to that ‘what the f**k’ question.

    To one person, Lost Highway is about wish fulfilment and the monsters of the Id; to another, it’s an exploration of the unreliability of memory; to a third, it’s an impenetrably pretentious pile of crap.

    Lynch’s refusal to explain shifts the burden from him to us: we have to form our own impressions and theories for what we’ve just seen. ‘It’s my creative vision,’ he seems to be saying, ‘but you’ve got to do the work and decide what it’s about, and what it means for you.’ Not so much audience participation as audience responsibility.

    I’d love to see philosophy applied to whisky tastings. All too often, the host is telling us what flavours we’ll ‘get’ before our glasses have even been filled – the infuriating whisky equivalent to David Lynch nudging you throughout a screening of Blue Velvet and saying: ‘You’ll like this bit.’

    Then, once things are opened up to the floor, the competitive sport that is tasting note oneupmanship takes over. Everyone’s so busy trying to describe the precise tropical fruit flavour in their whisky that they’ve forgotten to notice whether they actually like it or not.

    Just because formal tastings have a quasi-academic format and atmosphere, that doesn’t mean the pleasure factor should be altogether discounted. Far from that, shouldn’t it come first?

    Do I like it? Why do I like it? Then: what do others think? We might all want to address the question ‘what the f**k was that all about?’, but the answer surely has to begin in our own heads.

  • Getting to grips with grain

    17 May 2017

    For whisky enthusiasts, the distillery visit is a staple, the trail woven between mash tun, washback, still and warehouse a well-trodden one. The mental image is of gleaming copper and clear liquid rushing into spirit safe, in the comforting fug of the stillhouse.

    Grain plants aren’t quite like that, which – along with their paucity in number and lack of tour guides and distillery shops – might explain why they are not more frequented. But their blunt sense of the industrial doesn’t render them any less fascinating.

    At first glance, North British grain distillery in Edinburgh, a Stuart Hogg boot from the Murrayfield rugby stadium and jammed right up against the Tynecastle home of Heart of Midlothian, is from another whisky age. The boardroom walls glower with the stern monochrome portraits of dozens of directors past and present. See if you can spot the lone woman.

    North British grain distillery

    Engine room: Grain plants like North British perform a vital role in Scotch

    But grain plants like North British are the engine room of the Scotch whisky industry. They may lack a touch of romance, but they make up for that with some pretty impressive numbers.

    The plant’s four gigantic Coffey stills, run at full power, can produce the equivalent of 500 bottles of 40% abv whisky a minute. I’ll pause and let that sink in for a moment.

    There’s more. In a day of running at peak production, the used cereal could cover 10 football pitches to a depth of 1cm (although the Hearts groundsman would prefer that theory to remain untested), and the electricity consumed could power 750 homes for 24 hours.

    The yeast is enough to bake more than 350,000 loaves of bread; the animal feed byproduct sufficient to sate the appetites of 7,000 cows for a day. And the carbon dioxide produced in a 24-period could put the fizz into 18m cans of Coke. Or Tennent’s lager, if you prefer.

    Some of this is more than purely theoretical. The dark grains produced by North British make a nutritious animal feed with 25% protein levels. A nice little earner on the side? Not really. This arm of the business normally runs at a slight loss, but is still cheaper than the alternative of paying costly effluent charges.

    Meanwhile, the carbon dioxide is compressed, processed and liquefied, then sold to bring some sparkle to the likes of Highland Spring, beer and soft drinks.

    Even the baskets of ‘sacrificial’ copper pipe, used within the stills to strip out unwanted sulphur compounds, are impressively hefty.

    The plant uses 30 tonnes of cooked grain (maize, with more than 10% of green malt) every 90 minutes, does 12-15 mashes a day (18’s the record), and the three older stills can get through 38,000 litres of wash an hour (48,000 litres for the newer still).

    In a warehouse sit three neatly stencilled casks: one commemorating the Victorian plant reaching 1.5bn litres of spirit produced, in February 1998; next to it another, marking 2bn litres, achieved in 2008; then the third: 2.5bn litres, in December 2015.

    By now you’re probably thinking that everything here is inescapably industrial, the focus exclusively on maximising yield, efficiency of process, producing as much as you can for as little cash as possible.

    But then your tour might take you into the labs to meet the team who spend their time ensuring that North British keeps producing a spirit that is… North British. Oily, a bit solventy, with a sweet-and-sour edge that whispers of the sulphurous.

    Here, for all the gadgetry and computer screens, the ledger recording spirit quality remains hand-written (although the calligraphy was admittedly a bit neater back in the day). What is more, the pride in the liquid is as unmistakable, unfakable and as passionate as that of any master distiller on Islay or Speyside.

    So if you’re offered the chance to visit, don’t be put off by any preconceptions of it being boring or lacking in romance. Glamorous it ain’t, but it’s honest, and it’s real. Take the tour, and take it all in. It’s another world of Scotch whisky, but a vital one in every sense of the word.

  • Reviving the lost lessons of the past

    09 May 2017

    Silas slaps the sawn-off section of an oak trunk for emphasis. ‘Look closer,’ he says, and we do. ‘There are two types of year rings. The lighter is the spring growth. It’s the same every year, but it contains lots of little straws bringing water and nutrients up through the tree. That makes it brittle.

    ‘The summer and autumn growth gives a darker and denser ring. So you need a wood with a higher proportion of summer/autumn growth to build a strong boat.’

    Silas is one of a team at Roskilde in Denmark using traditional tools to construct modern facsimiles of Viking ships and other boats from the pages of Nordic history – clinker-built craft, ships from the Faroes constructed without the aid of any written plans.

    Viking boatbuilding

    Look closer: There are parallels and contrasts between shipbuilding and cask construction

    How did the Vikings do it? Take a good, straight oak log, split it into halves, then quarters, eighths, sixteenths. Then use an axe (broad, rather than bearded, since you ask) to plane the wood. An axe? It does the job – and it saves having to make another tool.

    Silas’ sermon on boat-building is part of the launch of Highland Park Valkyrie and the single malt’s new ‘Viking Soul’ brand ethos. The idea is to draw parallels between boat and cask construction (Martin Markvardsen and Keith Moar from Highland Park are here too) – but, in the end, the differences are as fascinating as the similarities.

    While the oak used for whisky casks is allowed to season for a year or two, the Vikings wanted their wood green for its flexibility. Heating it to 60C in the fire liquefies the lignin (the glue holding the grains together), allowing the wood to be twisted, grain-against-grain, moulded to the shape required, clamped and allowed to cool and set.

    Green wood was also vital for the tannins that helped seal the vessel – the same tannins that whisky-makers are generally keen to prevent from finding their way into your glass.

    The level of knowledge about these ancient techniques is astonishing. The museum at Roskilde holds the remains of five Viking ships, scuttled in the main channel approaching the town as a blockade to ward off invaders well over 800 years ago.

    Clinker-built boat

    Clinker-built: The workshop at Roskilde aims to revive ancient techniques

    By examining the fibres of the wood and checking the growth rings against an extensive database, historians can tell that the two smaller ships were made from oaks growing near Roskilde in about 1030. The biggest ship – a King’s Ship, 30m long, built for speed and to carry up to 75 warriors – has a keel constructed from a tree felled near Dublin in 1042. Dublin? Those Vikings got around.

    Why scuttle such an impressive vessel? Because it was dying. After 30-40 years of service, the iron nails fixing the planks had been rusted by the salt waters, expanding and cracking the hull.

    So how about trying to construct a Viking ship in the 21st century, using old methods and tools (but copper nails for greater longevity)? Sure. But it took Silas and the team at Roskilde four years and 50,000 man hours.

    Compare this to the Viking Sagas, which talk casually of building a ship in a northern winter – six to eight months – and, even allowing for modern employment law and health and safety rules, something doesn’t quite add up.

    It’s the same with the sails. The Vikings’ adoption of the sail – some time between 750 and 850 – revolutionised their ships, allowing them to cross the North Sea, discover Greenland, Newfoundland. No sails, no Vikings.

    But these sails were big – 112sq m big – and each of their many strips was hand-woven on a loom. At Roskilde, the museum’s skilled weaver can complete one strip of 15cm in a day (5-6 hours’ work). How the hell did the Vikings do it? Again, it doesn’t add up.

    Viking boatbuilding

    Plane truth: The Viking axe was a multi-purpose tool, not the bloodthirsty weapon of myth

    The answer is simple, says Silas. There are some skills that have just been lost – honed and passed down by word of mouth and practice of hand through the generations, then forgotten in the bustle and din of industrialisation. In the rush to move on, something vital has been mislaid.

    Despite a weakness for nostalgia, our Darwinian view of evolution tends to assume that human beings are constantly finding better, faster, more efficient ways of doing things. From Olympic sprinters to computer chips, it’s all about progress.

    Roskilde calls that view into question and, given the parallels being drawn with whisky, makes you ponder whether a multi-billion pound industry’s drive for increased efficiency, economies of scale and profitability has unwittingly led to something being lost along the way.

    Barley, yeast, fermentation and distillation techniques, cask maturation. What can whisky’s written record teach us? Are some of the secrets of the past lost to us now – as with the Vikings – or can they be resurrected and revived, moulded into something fresh for the 21st century?

    Might, progress, after all, turn out to be a two-way street?

  • Let’s tear walls down – not build more

    19 April 2017

    What drew me to Çannakale, an apparently unremarkable small city in the north-west of Turkey, was a fascination with conflicts ancient and modern: the nearby ruins of Troy, home to Hector and Paris, besieged by Achilles and Agamemnon; and the early 20th-century tragedy of Gallipoli, a byword for strategic military blundering and human slaughter.

    On that solo overnight bus trip from Istanbul more than a quarter of a century ago, I got into a conversation with a local man from the European side of the Bosporus. It was he that raised the issue of politics, and relations with Greece – I would never have dared, having seen first-hand the blistering hatred with which each nationality viewed the other, fuelled by the conflict on Cyprus.

    He – and others I met during my brief stay in the area – described a different world in terms of Greek-Turkish relations. Here, where the countries’ only land border runs, there was more than grudging respect; there was trade, there were familial connections, friendships, love.

    United front: Germans stood atop the Berlin Wall days before it was torn down (photo: Lear 21 at English Wikipedia)

    Çannakale came to mind earlier this week as I listened to a radio report from Presidio, a city in western Texas, located in what is known as Big Bend – a huge loop of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo river that divides the US from Mexico.

    Presidio overlooks the river, and therefore the border, and the links between the area and its Mexican neighbours run deep – as in Çannakale – into family, business and culture. I guess it’s always harder to hate your neighbour when you can see into their eyes.

    It might play well in other parts of the US, but President Trump’s election pledge to build a wall between the US and Mexico is greeted with a mix of horror, disbelief and derision here, as much for its geographical impracticality as for its sheer inhumanity. Technically difficult, if not impossible, an unnecessary division of people who don’t wish to be divided – and almost certainly doomed to fail in its central aim.

    Where do the walls exist in Scotch whisky? In a multi-billion pound industry, where power has increasingly come to rest in the hands of supposedly soulless multi-national enterprises, you would think that the barriers would divide those involved in producing the stuff.

    Counter-intuitively, that isn’t necessarily the case. Check out Angus MacRaild’s report of last week’s An Evening with the Blenders event at the Scotch Whisky Experience, which united luminaries from Diageo, Suntory, Irish Distillers, Edrington, William Grant, Glenmorangie, Nikka, Whyte and Mackay, and Triple Eight Distillery.

    According to Richard Paterson, the good humour and open-hearted candour that characterised the event are a million miles away from the prevalent spirit when he took his first baby steps in the whisky industry half a century ago.

    Sure, the respective sales forces of Diageo and Pernod Ricard might enjoy some ‘healthy competition’ when plying their wares in bars from Shanghai to San Francisco – but among the blenders the accent was on generosity, mutual respect and camaraderie.

    Perversely, as relations have become warmer on the production side of whisky, they appear to have moved in the opposite direction among a noisy minority of the people who claim to love it. People who, as Dave Broom has previously noted, appear happier when trashing the modern whisky world than when celebrating it.

    Two months after that 1989 trip to Turkey, I was at home watching in tears – like millions of others – as triumphant Germans ripped apart the Berlin Wall and joyfully reunited their divided city.

    Back in 2017, would it be too much to ask for a little of that spirit to find its way into the online whisky discussions and social media streams – if not in the corridors of power in Washington and beyond?

  • Not every whisky can be a Macallan

    05 April 2017

    How did you greet the news earlier this week that a collection of Macallan single malt had smashed the world whisky auction record, fetching close to HK$8m (US$1m)?

    Bemusement? Disbelief? After all, even the most optimistic prognosis from auction house Sotheby’s had suggested it might make roughly half that figure. How about annoyance? Anger? Envy?

    To some whisky fans, Macallan is a sell-out. A once credible single malt ruined by some kind of Faustian pact to chase the big money, ‘iconic’ status and the kind of consumer that – to jaundiced eyes – knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

    For these self-appointed cognoscenti, each Lalique-clad luxury launch is another harbinger of the passing of Scotch whisky’s golden age, to be greeted with a tut, a sigh and a dismissive shake of the head. How much? Seriously? For that?

    In short, Macallan encapsulates all that’s wrong with the 21st-century Scotch whisky industry. Style over substance. This Tellytubby-esque swanky new distillery. That cynical, colour-oriented move into NAS to eke out stocks and keep the Asian markets happy.

    In short, Macallan is the anti-Glenfarclas.

    Like most views based on prejudice as much as reason, I find that this school of thought has some serious flaws, even though I may bemoan the use of the dead language of luxury to communicate the brand.

    But, however great the disapproval of the whisky geek, that hasn’t stopped rival distillers from casting green-eyed glances in Macallan’s direction, or indeed from directly attempting to follow its example.

    Just a few days before that Macallan auction in Hong Kong, a press release landed in my inbox trumpeting the luxury credentials of another Speyside malt, which shall remain nameless (this isn’t a witch hunt, and I could cite numerous other examples).

    Macallan Lalique Legacy Collection

    Ow much?!: This Macallan single malt collection fetched nearly US$1m at auction

    Distillery X offers, we’re told, ‘an exquisite range of handcrafted single malt whiskies, capturing the elegance of the 19th century’. Which is nice.

    Just in case we didn’t get that, here’s the follow-up: ‘X is a boutique range of single malt whiskies, born in a time of true elegance, capturing a historic moment in time and the essence of the Victorian reign.’ Lovely.

    And there’s more: ‘From its birth, X was the pinnacle of exquisite taste and the answer to Scotch enthusiasts that have a hunger for unbridled luxury.’ (True enough: I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve felt a hunger for unbridled luxury.)

    I could go on. In fact, I will: the range of ‘precious’ whiskies was ‘realised in the dream of pioneer, <name of distillery founder>, who dedicated his life to creating single malt whisky that would be appreciated for generations and achieve cult status for their unparalleled finesse’.

    Well, sort of. He built the distillery to supply the blenders, then had to sell it a few years later when the late Victorian whisky crash happened. Distillery X wasn’t bottled as an OB single malt until roughly a century after it was established, and long after its founder’s death.

    The abundant use of cliché and taking of liberties with historical fact make this press release an easy target, a ready source of the kind of journalistic sneering that regularly attracts the #prfail hashtag on social media.

    (By the way, I might suggest that some of my colleagues take a serious look at their own profession before aiming pot shots at PR people, but we can have that discussion on another occasion.)

    We all have bad days at the office (only yesterday I missed a reference to one ‘Jonny Walker’ in one of our features, but thankfully an eagle-eyed colleague spotted and amended it). What concerns me here is not so much the writing as the thinking behind it.

    I can’t become Lionel Messi by lacing up a pair of boots and putting on a replica Barcelona shirt; distillery X can’t just automatically become the new Macallan by simply adopting the brand’s cliché-ridden vocabulary and rewriting its own history in that image. Particularly when it isn’t even among the world’s top 50 best-selling single malts.

    Love it or loathe it, but Macallan has earned its right to – borrowing another hideous piece of marketing jargon – ‘inhabit the luxury space’ by first building an unequalled reputation as the single malt for collectors and (yes, that word) investors.

    As one seasoned observer of the whisky scene puts it: ‘Macallan will always fall back on the glorious bottlings of old. You need credibility in your sector, I think, before you play the luxury game. Otherwise you are Dalmore.’ Ouch.

    Instead, be distinctive, be individual. Don’t tell me that you’re great – tell me why you’re great. Better to explore quirkiness, like Ardbeg, no-nonsense credibility, like Glenfarclas, or gentle self-deprecation, like Laphroaig.

    Above all, be yourself – not an unmerited facsimile of who you want to be.

  • The Cognac that thinks it’s a single malt

    29 March 2017

    That old gag about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery popped into my head the other day when I spotted the latest new Cognac release from Martell. Let’s just say the concept and packaging are eerily familiar to anyone well-versed in the world of single malt Scotch whisky.

    Martell VS Single Distillery is an assemblage of eaux-de-vie all made in the same distillery, a departure for a product that is more typically the ultimate blend, using spirit from a multiplicity of sources – vineyards, distilleries, warehouses.

    Why do this? Well, while Cognac is a big seller in the US – it’s the largest market in the world in volume terms, although China is more lucrative – single malt Scotch is on fire right now Stateside.

    Incidentally, if Martell has been taking marketing lessons on provenance from stablemate The Glenlivet (both are owned by Pernod Ricard), the brand has also been indulging in a little Macallan-esque press release bingo in the missive that accompanies the launch.

    Three uses of the word ‘iconic’, two mentions of ‘disrupting’ the category, namechecks for ‘craft’, ‘luxury’ and ‘innovative’ – plus the delightfully ugly phrase ‘pushing the boundaries of the competitive landscape’. Lovely stuff. Utterly meaningless, but lovely stuff.

    Martell VS Single Distillery

    Eerily familiar: Martell VS Single Distillery aims to exploit the single malt zeitgeist

    Smartly packaged and aping the consumer-friendly cues of single malt, it’s a little surprising to see Martell VS Single Distillery priced at US$34.99 a bottle – less than the core Martell VS bottling and closer in price to standard blended Scotch than the single malts to which it pays homage.

    But then, for all its size, the Cognac market in the US remains heavily skewed to the cheapest VS price tier – even VSOP struggles to gain much traction here – leaving Martell VS Single Distillery as an opportunistic attempt to tap into a hot trend, rather than an attempt to drive the Cognac category upmarket.

    It’s also part of a broader movement that extends across the whisky category. As single malt continues to expand, its growth is modifying the language used to talk about blended (and blended malt) Scotch products.

    Last year’s launch of Chivas Regal Ultis – the brand’s first venture into blended malt – was rich with descriptions of the roles played by the five single malts that are its constituents. As was the fanfare surrounding the debut of Royal Salute Union of the Crowns a few weeks earlier.

    Meanwhile, the publicity accompanying the recent relaunch of Johnnie Walker Platinum Label as Johnnie Walker Aged 18 Years ticked off four malts (and alluded to more) in master blender Jim Beveridge’s description of its creation – even though the liquid remains unaltered.

    Yes, blends continue to dominate Scotch whisky, accounting for more than 90% of export volumes last year; but single malts brought in more than 25% of export revenues, breaking through the £1bn mark for the first time.

    And, in the ways that we talk about and communicate Scotch whisky, their contribution is becoming stronger still, with an impact and influence that is felt in blends and beyond – even, now, into the world of Cognac too.

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