From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Whisky’s golden age

    20 December 2017

    Spoiler alert: the three editors responsible for this website get to choose their three whiskies of the year next week, and guess what? Three out of the nine drams in question aren’t Scotch.

    That’s not deliberate. There’s no masterplan at work here, no purposeful attempt to put Scotch in its place and suggest that better and more imaginative whisky-making is being practised elsewhere.

    We’re not using the increasingly diverse and dynamic world of ‘world whisky’ as a stick with which to beat Scotch (© Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible), but maybe the choices do say something about the changing face of whisky at the end of 2017.

    It’s a big world and, practically speaking, there’s no logical reason why you can’t make whisky of a similar standard to Scotch in any country on Earth. Hey, we’ve known that for decades. There are simply more people succeeding in doing it now, putting their own, local twist on the whisky template, and rightly gaining more attention for doing so.

    This changing world casts Scotch in the role of complacent incumbent; the flabby Roman Emperor doomed beneath the siege of the raw, but vital, Goths, Visigoths and Vandals. Has there been complacency? Yes. Is that the dominant mood today? No.

    Apart from anything else, the same, iconoclastic tide of new wave distillers (let’s avoid the c-word) is as present in Scotland as in other whisky-making countries and, as this movement gains traction, laziness is not a safe option.

    Whisky glass

    Global threat: Scotch whisky is responding to challenges from around the world

    Single estate whisky; rye and other cereal grains; barley variety and provenance; yeast types; experimental fermentation and distillation regimes. And so on, and on, into as yet uncharted waters.

    If it was just the niche start-ups – the conscious disrupters like Lone Wolf and InchDairnie – it might be just a diverting sideshow, but it’s more than that.

    When a big-time distiller gets grumpy with a newcomer for bringing an innovative style of Scotch to the marketplace ahead of them (ask me afterwards), you know that there’s more to this than mere tinkering and half-hearted experimentation. This is real.

    Look back at the rye question. Yes, InchDairnie’s doing it. Bruichladdich’s doing it. Lone Wolf is doing it. Arbikie, it turns out, was doing it two years ago (without telling anyone). But Diageo’s doing it too, and not just playing around with it at Leven, the company’s pilot plant, but at two of its established distilleries.

    The liquid results of Diageo’s experimentation will end up, if the rumours are true, in a bottle labelled ‘Johnnie Walker’ – the Bobby Charlton/David Beckham/Leo Messi (delete as age-appropriate) of Scotch whisky, and surely the last haven for complacency, if complacency were the default option.

    One of the problems is that established companies – Diageo, Chivas Brothers, William Grant, Edrington – have a position in the market that makes them wary of being seen to make mistakes. That means that such experiments tend to stay under wraps until they succeed.

    Rye Bruichladdich

    Rye revival: But some experiments are kept under wraps until the time is right

    That only matters in terms of perception. The reality is that we’re a few years into a period of unparalleled innovation and dynamism in whisky as a whole, and in Scotch in particular. Where will it lead us?

    The new generation of start-up distillers (no, I still won’t use the c-word) tends to generate more heat than light, exciting a narrow audience of über-geeks and leaving the wider, more casual audience of whisky cold. A bit like the impact of the more outré creations of Paris Fashion Week – more academic than practical.

    But, when the bigger companies begin to follow the example of the newcomers – even to lead the charge – everything changes. There’s some fantastic Scotch whisky on the market right now, and not all of it is sold for an astronomical price, but how about what is to come?

    By all means wax nostalgic about the whiskies of half a century ago, and bemoan their passing, but I’d rather look forward, to the great whiskies being created today, and in the years ahead. I’ll say it: we’re entering a golden age for whisky, and Scotch is ready to play a full part in that.

    A positive note on which to end 2017, and begin 2018. Happy Christmas, one and all.

  • A celebration of individual identity

    06 December 2017

    I should be watching Andrew Watt’s skilful manipulation of the Arbortech grinder as he transforms a plain oak cabinet into a 3D representation of the dark waves of Loch Lomond, but something’s distracted me: the portable workbench he’s using has a woman’s name scribbled on it in marker pen.

    ‘Why Nora Batty?’ Andrew looks up, slightly embarrassed (and also way too young to remember the formidable female character from TV comedy Last of the Summer Wine). ‘Um… I guess I just like to give names to things.’

    He does. A nearby station, also related to Andrew’s work on the impending Loch Lomond 50 Year Old single malt release, is entitled ‘Madame Lomonde’s Cabinet of Carvering Curiosity!’. The creative process can lead you down some strange paths.

    Loch Lomond 50 Year Old Tempest Chest

    Random pattern: Individual expression is an important facet of Method’s approach

    We’re at Beecraigs Sawmill, nestled in the hills above Linlithgow in West Lothian, the home of Method Studio, the company commissioned to design and make the oak cabinets, known as ‘Tempest Chests’, for what is comfortably the oldest and most expensive whisky yet released by the Loch Lomond distillery.

    I guess you’d describe the people at Method as furniture and cabinet makers, although their preferred epithet, ‘architects of objects’, hints at the deeper philosophy that underpins what they do for an impressive roster of high-end clients: Burberry, Vacheron Constantin, Jaguar Land Rover, Fortnum and Mason.

    Back to that Arbortech. Andrew’s using it to delicately shave and shape the surface of the plain oak, creating a pattern of waves that isn’t a pattern at all, but deliberately and counter-intuitively random. Just like the surface of a loch, in other words.

    We move across the workshop, where several sculpted cabinets sit waiting to be painted in a shade of indigo so dark that it’s almost black. Method’s founders, Marisa Giannasi and Callum Robinson, are explaining their approach, which has a strong focus on the expression of individual identity.

    Method Studio Loch Lomond 50 Year Old

    Carvering curiosity: Method Studio is making 60 chests for Loch Lomond’s 50yo release

    There are three craftsmen making the 60 Loch Lomond cabinets – Andrew, Edward and Tommy – and, while they’re all working to the same brief, each has his own style and approach, and is actively encouraged to explore and express that in the finished article.

    Tommy’s the youngest and has a tendency to ‘go at it more quickly and maybe more violently’, while Edward exudes an almost Buddha-like calm, making the ‘waters’ on his cabinet more serene. The differences are subtle but, as we look over the carved cabinets, Andrew can pick out his own – and the others’ – work.

    It’s a deliberate effort to focus on and reflect the individual skill of the craftsman, and to create something unique for the final purchaser. What might be perceived as imperfections and inconsistencies elsewhere are encouraged and celebrated here.

    There’s a lot of debate these days about the prices charged for these ultra-rare, ultra-old whiskies, and about just how much of that sum is accounted for by the packaging.

    Loch Lomond 50 Year Old Tempest Chest

    Final article: The ‘Tempest Chests’ are designed to echo the waters of Loch Lomond

    In the case of Loch Lomond 50 Year Old (£12,000, by the way), it isn’t just about the cabinet – there’s the brass key, the Canada tan leather inlay, the hand-blown Glencairn crystal decanter and the turned brass, glass-lined vial (reminiscent of Loch Lomond’s straight-necked stills) containing a tasting sample of the whisky.

    But, if whisky is going to inhabit this demi-monde of high net worth individuals and luxury launches – and it obviously is – then it’s good to see it treading its own path in doing so. No imitation perfume bottles aping the most decadent habits of the Cognaçais, and no falsely modest plain glass or puritanical cardboard cartons.

    Instead, a truly bespoke (for once, that horrendously overused word is justified) package that both speaks of where the product comes from and is also, ultimately, an expression of individual character and identity. Which, after all, is what single malt whisky is all about in the first place.

  • What can whisky learn from gin?

    22 November 2017

    Sometimes I think it’s a debate as old as time itself. The idea that Scotch whisky’s strict regulations are somehow hindering innovation, tying distillers up in so many regulatory knots that they cannot give full rein to their creativity.

    And then, the consequent argument that Scotch as a whole is missing out, overtaken by rival spirits categories that are free to explore every avenue of flavour creation to make a range of products that appeals to a broader demographic.

    It’s a topic that we’ve explored in detail previously, and it’s one that reared its head again this week in the debate between writer Angus MacRaild and Eden Mill founder Paul Miller.

    Many of the threads are familiar, but what piqued my interest this time was Miller’s use of the example of gin to support his pro-change argument.

    He said: ‘Think of what’s happened with gin, where not everyone likes the classic, juniper-heavy style. A lot of new drinkers think they like gin, but what they really enjoy are flavoured gins.’

    Legally speaking, this is murky territory. Here’s what the relevant EU regulation (110/2008) has to say:

    (a) Gin is a juniper-flavoured spirit drink produced by flavouring organoleptically suitable ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin with juniper berries (Juniperus communis L.).
    (b) The minimum alcoholic strength by volume of gin shall be 37.5%.
    (c) Only natural and/or nature-identical flavouring substances as defined in Article 1(2)(b)(i) and (ii) of Directive 88/388/EEC and/or flavouring preparations as defined in Article 1(2)(c) of that Directive shall be used for the production of gin so that the taste is predominantly that of juniper.

    Juniper berries

    Leading role: Juniper should be the predominant flavour of gin, according to EU law (Photo: Kyoto distillery)

    Consider those last few words: ‘…so that the taste is predominantly that of juniper’. As legal phrases go, this is pretty woolly, since it rests on the ‘taste’ of a product, which has to be to some extent subjective. You might try a gin and detect the clear influence of juniper; I might not.

    With this in mind, it’s hard to see how ‘flavoured’ gin (unless the flavour in question is juniper) can stand. Doesn’t it risk becoming just another offshoot of flavoured vodka?

    The legal intricacies are only part of the point. However vague the rules, the ‘juniper clause’ is there for a reason: juniper defines gin, and its absence in flavour terms makes what’s in your G&T or Martini something else instead.

    By this argument, Miller’s ‘new drinkers’ aren’t falling in love with (or even drinking) gin in the first place. Does this matter, as long as they’re buying a bottle with the word ‘gin’ on it? Yes, because sooner or later they’ll realise that they don’t really like gin at all, and will move onto the next fad. How can you be loyal to a spirit when you haven’t even been drinking it in the first place?

    Just suppose for a moment that everyone abided by the strictest interpretation of the EU regulation and the juniper clause. Would this stifle creativity and innovation within gin, in the same way that critics say is happening with Scotch? Of course not.

    Ki Noh Bi gin

    Real thing: Ki Noh Bi gin shows that originality needn’t mean ripping up the rulebook

    Here’s an example: Ki Noh Bi is a cask-matured spin-off from Japan’s Ki No Bi gin, distilled in Kyoto by the team, including Marcin Miller and David Croll, that has done so much to elevate Japanese whisky over the past decade or so.

    On the surface, Ki Noh Bi checks just about every bandwagon-jumping box going: new wave botanicals (yuzu, green tea, bamboo leaves, etc) – tick; provenance (most botanicals locally sourced, spirit rice-based) – tick; cult Japanese whisky reference (it’s matured in ex-Karuizawa casks) – tick.

    But never mind the zeitgeist, taste the gin. Distinctive but balanced, with a spiced smoothness undercut by fragrant yuzu, but still with juniper to the fore. It is different, but it’s still the same in all the important ways. It is, demonstrably, gin (and, as an aside, it’s one of the most delicious things I’ve tasted all year).

    I have a few nagging doubts about the longevity of the current gin boom, simply because there are too few producers doing what Kyoto distillery has done with Ki Noh Bi, and too many throwing gin’s USP out with the juniper, consciously or not. The fact that the regulations are so sloppy only makes this easier.

    The lessons for Scotch should be obvious. Far from being restrictive, well-written rules provide a mould for what defines their subject, but a mould that can be pulled, twisted and shaped in any number of ways.

    In the case of Scotch, that means every stage in the process, from the selection of raw materials, through malting, milling, mashing, fermentation, distillation and maturation.

    Far from complaining, true innovators should welcome the presence of a rulebook to lend their creativity structure and focus. And everyone should be careful of what they wish for.

  • 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?

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