From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • 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.

  • Scotch, watches and crazy money

    21 March 2017

    We were tempted to hold on to last week’s report about the world’s ‘oldest’ Scotch whisky being inserted into an expensive watch for a couple more weeks. After all, it would seem to sit nicely alongside the stories of spaghetti plantations and sightings of the Loch Ness Monster traditionally reserved for that annual celebration of human gullibility, April Fools’ Day.

    It’s just bizarre, isn’t it? Take what is reputed to be the world’s oldest Scotch whisky, Old Vatted Glenlivet 1862, and put a drop inside a perfectly good Swiss watch, then charge nearly £40,000 for it (there’s a sub-£15k version if you’re on a budget). I mean… why?

    I can only assume either that the idea was borne out of an extremely long lunch, or that it was the result of an Alan Partridge-esque brainstorming session where the ideas became increasingly desperate. For ‘monkey tennis’ and ‘youth hostelling with Chris Eubank’, substitute ‘find the world’s oldest whisky and stick it in a watch’.

    There are other objections too. This is the third similar venture from partners Louis Moinet and Wealth Solutions (the latter sounding uncannily like an Orwellian parody of itself), and each time the spirit in question has been chosen in the same way.

    Cognac: Gautier 1762; rum: Harewood 1780. Now Glenlivet 1862 – in each case, the oldest example that could be found. But, unless you subscribe to a wholly Darwinian theory that only the best examples of a particular craft survive through the ages, this is a purely quantitative judgement.

    Old Vatted Glenlivet 1862

    Quantity over quality: This may be the world’s oldest Scotch, but is it any good?

    Gautier 1762 may be the oldest Cognac anyone knows about, but the liquid itself might be awful. Ditto for Harewood, ditto for Glenlivet. It’s no different to an unquestioning belief that the oldest (in terms of maturation period) spirits are the best. Well, I’ve tasted 50-year-old rum, and it was bloody awful.

    There’s almost an air of obscenity about the indulgence of the ‘whisky watch’; the kind of extravagant stunt they might have pulled during the most louche days of the Roman Empire, while tucking into some stuffed dormice and electing their horses to high public office.

    But, underneath the hype and jaw-meets-floor pricing, the crazy whisky watch says something about the way the world now regards this product of malted and milled cereal grains, mixed with water, fermented, distilled and matured in oak.

    It’s up there with Lafite and Pétrus, Louis XIII and Richard Hennessy; with Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Rolex (no disrespect to Louis Moinet).

    At this level, whisky’s chosen apparel is Lalique crystal and ebony, not thin glass and a cardboard carton. And it deserves to move in those circles, because of the potentially transcendent sensory experience it can impart to the drinker, and the value people are willing to place upon that experience.

    But that status comes with a price, and it’s a price that’s likely to extend into five figures, and into sometimes questionable areas of aesthetics. It’s what begins to happen when the world doesn’t undervalue you any more.

  • Ardbeg moments with Mickey Heads

    08 March 2017

    For me, memories of Ardbeg and of its inimitable manager, Mickey Heads (now celebrating a decade in the job), are inevitably coloured by the Islay weather – but not in the way that you might think.

    Encounter number one: September 2010. A couple of glorious Indian summer days, when the Corryvreckan whirlpool off Jura was reduced to a millpond and we all blinked into the sunlit dazzle of the waves as Mickey communicated his whisky passion as only Mickey can.

    Encounter number two: the Islay half marathon in August 2013, which a bunch of drinks journalists ran in memory of our late colleague Alan Lodge, whose favourite spot (and dram) happened to be Ardbeg.

    Post-run, post-lunch, whisky in hand, sunbathing on the shore in front of the distillery. It might not be the approved Mo Farah post-race warmdown, but it worked for us, and Mickey was there to pour the drams.

    And encounter number three: Ardbeg Day during last year’s Fèis Ìle, when a semi-tropical slice of summer invaded the changeable Islay spring. Mickey was busy – as are all the distillery staff during Ardbeg Day – and a brief sighting suggested that he may also have been slowly melting, dressed in what appeared to heavy priest’s robes as part of the Ardbeg Night smuggling theme.

    This trinity of visits suggests two things to me: one, that the sun always shines at Ardbeg; two, that in Mickey Heads, this world-famous but historically fragile distillery has a manager that it richly merits.

    Ardbeg Mickey Heads

    Whisky passion: Over the past decade, Mickey Heads has become inextricably linked to Ardbeg

    There’s a pleasing numerical symmetry to Mickey’s tenure at Ardbeg: the 20th manager of the distillery, marking 10 years in 2017, having joined almost exactly 10 years after Glenmorangie bought the distillery.

    That acquisition ended an uncertain period during which Ardbeg could have become another Port Ellen after a stop-start period of production (it was silent from 1981-9 and 1996-7, and scarcely running at full speed at other times).

    Apt, then, that its management should pass to a true Ileach, one born just a few miles from Ardbeg and whose father (a stillman) and grandfather (head maltman at Port Ellen) were also closely involved in the industry. Arguably all the more important to reinforce those local links when the distillery’s current owner (luxury goods corporation LVMH) has its offices in faraway Paris.

    That said, Mickey’s career path – or ‘meander’ as he has modestly described it – appeared at first to be taking him further away from Ardbeg, rather than closer to it. From cutting peat for Laphroaig to becoming the distillery’s brewer (during which time he also helped out at Ardbeg, then owned by the same company), then hopping across to run Jura between 1999 and 2007.

    But then came the call back to Islay, and Ardbeg. And now, 10 years on, Ardbeggians all over the world are being encouraged to raise a glass, and three cheers, to Mickey.

    In a whisky world where hype and marketing cliché all too often overwhelm the truth of an essentially local product, it’s not hard to celebrate someone so down-to-earth, hard-working and humble, and someone whose connection to what he makes is so powerful.

    Corryvreckan in my glass, to recall that first Indian summer visit. Sláinte, Mickey.

  • Unearthing Islay’s hidden riches

    23 January 2017

    On his first visit to Islay, Professor Steven Mithen was a penniless young archaeologist who had to sleep in his car because even the local B&Bs were beyond his meagre budget.

    It wasn’t whisky that drew him to the island, but its vast array of historical sites, from evidence of the first Ice Age explorers 12,000 years ago to the deserted townships of the 19th century.

    As Prof Mithen continued his investigations, he needed funding – but who better to ask for a few hundred quid than the distillers who had brought Islay its modern-day fame?

    He wrote to them all. None replied. This was the 1980s, and a less than buoyant Scotch whisky industry had bigger things to worry about than helping an academic to dig holes in the ground.

    Much has changed since then. Prof Mithen is now an acclaimed authority on the origins of the first hunter-gatherers and farmers (among many other subjects), and is Professor of Archaeology and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Reading.

    His work has taken him, notably, to southern Jordan – but he has also returned regularly to Islay, where he now has a home. And, three decades on, he has finally secured some cash from a distiller: £310,000, to be precise, out of the proceeds of Lagavulin’s 1991 Single Cask release, the last of the expressions released to mark the distillery’s bicentenary last year.

    The money is going to Islay Heritage, the organisation of which Prof Mithen is a trustee, and into which he has channeled his personal research. The grant will be spent on the creation of an Islay Heritage Trail – Islay’s historic sites can be hard to access and there’s little to tell you what you’re looking at when you do find them – as well as the first detailed investigation of Dunyvaig Castle in Lagavulin Bay.

    Dunyvaig Castle Lagavulin

    Remarkable ruins: Dunyvaig Castle watches over the entry to Lagavulin Bay

    Most of what Prof Mithen and his colleagues are investigating predates Scotch whisky, but don’t for a moment imagine there’s no connection here – or, for that matter, with his researches in the Middle East.

    What were our ancestors doing in Jordan 12,000 years ago? Among other things, domesticating barley. Then look at a site such as the Giant’s Grave Neolithic burial cairn on the Rinns of Islay – what did those early settlers bring with them? Barley again.

    Then there’s the peat. The primal substance that gives Lagavulin and other Islay single malts their distinctive character also preserves many of the finds unearthed by archaeologists. From pre-history to today’s golden age of Islay whisky, the links run deep.

    This almost symbiotic relationship is implicitly recognised in the way that Islay Heritage is going about its work. This will be no tourist trail imposed on the local community, but a co-operative effort to identify and recognise the ‘Islay 100’ – the 100 most significant archaeological sites and monuments on the island.

    That number – 100 – is a sign both of the ambition of the initiative and the sheer depth of Islay’s history and heritage. And that heritage, says Prof Mithen, resounds far beyond the island’s shores, with a significance for the whole of north-western Europe.

    Whisky lovers don’t need to be told that Islay is a special place. Those lucky enough to have visited the island will know that that status extends beyond whisky to its culture, landscape and people. Now it seems that we’ve just barely touched the surface of what this small Hebridean paradise has to offer.

    Anyone interested in buying one of 520 bottles of Lagavulin 1991 available for purchase, priced at £1,494 each, can enter a special ballot on The Whisky Exchange website. This closes on 12 February and bottles will be allocated at random. By late last week, more than 6,000 people had registered their interest.

    Of the remaining two bottles, one will go to the Diageo Archive, and the other will be auctioned at Whisky.Auction from 26 February for 10 days, with the money raised also going to Islay Heritage.

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