Behind the picture-postcard beauty lies a tale of history, geology – and whisky-making.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
13 February 2019
‘Up there? Seriously?’ After 12km of following undulating paths through the bare, wintry vineyards, we’re closing in on our destination, the quintessentially Tuscan town of Montalcino.
The farm track we’ve been following has been taking an inexorably upward trajectory, and now, as we reach Montalcino’s outskirts, a ribbon of innumerable steps ascends steeply around the next bend and beyond. For walkers at least, the beauty of these Tuscan hilltop towns comes at a price, and that price has a name: gravity.
But we’re not complaining (you need to be able to breathe to do that). We’ve spent the past few hours zig-zagging our way from the village of Torrenieri towards Montalcino’s ever-visible outline, our walk punctuated by stops to sample the local fare. Fortified by soup, salami, ricotta, honey and the odd glass of red wine, we’re fully fuelled for the climb ahead.
Prized vineyards: But Brunello di Montalcino was once almost unheard-of in the wider world
This is the annual Brunello Crossing event, including our 13km walk, plus gruelling running races over distances of 13km, 23km and 44km. In that context, despite the climb ahead, we’ve taken the easy option.
The metaphor of an arduous ascent into the light is an apt one for what was once the poorest part of Tuscany, where sharecropping grape growers scratched a living by shipping Sangiovese north to the big wine companies in Chianti.
In those days, Brunello di Montalcino – for the few who had heard of it – was Italy’s Cahors, a forbidding, inkily powerful red wine that demanded the patience of decades in bottle to tame its wildness.
And now? It is, to quote one local producer, one of Italy’s ‘Killer Bs’, a premier league fine wine alongside Barolo and Bolgheri, with a roster of big-name wineries: Biondi-Santi, Altesino, Argiano, Soldera, Castelgiocondo.
If Montalcino’s transformational story is compelling, so is that of the region’s biggest producer, Banfi. Banfi is an incomer, an interloper, an American company whose Italian roots couldn’t allay the initial suspicion of the locals when it parachuted in during 1978.
Typically Tuscan: Montalcino is a quintessential Italian hilltop town
Banfi, owned by the Mariani family, came to Montalcino to make sweet wine (aiming to repeat the huge success story of its Riunite Lambrusco), but stayed to make Brunello when that didn’t work out, hastily ripping out much of its Moscadello vines in favour of Sangiovese.
Four decades on, Banfi isn’t simply the biggest producer of Brunello, and the one that has arguably done most to secure the wine’s global reputation – certainly in the US – but it is also a pioneer in research and innovation.
Its Castello Banfi Poggio alle Mura Brunello bottling is the fruit of 20 years of studies that identified no fewer than 600 clonal variants of Sangiovese in Montalcino, narrowing this down to 15 and then three that are now thought to produce the finest and most complex wines.
In the vineyards, the diversity of soil types has spawned a painstaking, labour-intensive approach to viticulture: Sangiovese vines planted on more fertile soils use the more productive spur cordon trellising system; those on poorer ground are trained according to Banfi’s own alberello system of two spurs in a v-shape. Assessment is not made block by block, or even row by row – but vine by vine.
Spot the difference: Banfi uses a painstakingly precise vine trellising system
No doubt there’s still some lingering resentment about the fact that an American company owns fully 850 hectares of Montalcino vineyards, but more than 40 years of continuous investment, and the salaries paid to 350 full-time employees, have helped to soften those early doubts.
There’s a feeling sometimes in Scotland that the very idea of foreign acquisition of whisky distilleries and brands is wrong, that owners from France, Japan or the US – England, even – are somehow robbing the country of its natural resources, exporting revenues and profits that should never have been allowed to leave its borders.
But the best overseas owners create jobs and prosperity with their investment, and are a positive force for the collective good of Scotch whisky when they bring their own ideas and expertise with them, driving local producers to adapt and improve in order to compete.
In the simplest terms, they’re givers, not takers; like the vast majority of immigrants to every country, their presence enriches, rather than detracts. Look at the broad sweep of history, and whisky in Scotland, like wine in Montalcino, would be many times the poorer without them.
30 January 2019
‘What does English whisky taste like?’
I’m taken aback. We both look down at the bottle of Cotswolds single malt I’ve just handed over as a gift. ‘Well…’ I’m tempted to tell them to crack open the bottle and find out for themselves, but that might seem unhelpful.
I opt for a different cop-out: replying to one question with another (always good when you don’t know the answer): ‘What does Scotch whisky taste like?’ Quizzical look. ‘No, think about it. You like Lagavulin. You like Glengoyne. They don’t have much in common, but would you say they both “taste like” Scotch whisky?’
When we don’t know much about something, easy definitions and pigeon-holes are tempting, reassuring even. To whisky newcomers, Islay = peat and Speyside = fruit are comforting equations. As the journey progresses, their limitations become all too apparent.
With English whisky, everyone’s at the start of that journey. St George’s and Hicks & Healey have been distilling for well over a decade now, but they are the outliers, the pioneers. Now, with 20-plus distilleries making whisky from Yorkshire to the Isle of Wight, critical mass beckons.
After talking to a number of English distillers in recent months, I’m no nearer to answering the question – and neither are they. Then again, how many of them set out to create something ‘English’ in the first place? And how would they even begin to define that?
Whisky landscape: Cotswolds aims to make a spirit that reflects the distillery’s surroundings
Some appear to be following the Scottish template quite closely: St George’s, with its Forsyths pots; The Lakes, led by the likes of Paul Currie (son of Arran founder Harold Currie) and ex-Diageo production director Dr Alan Rutherford OBE; Cotswolds, where founder Dan Szor was inspired by the resurrection of Bruichladdich.
But St George’s does peated, triple-distilled and a range of grains that uses rye, oats, wheat, unmalted barley, and chocolate and crystal malts; The Lakes, while overtly ‘Scottish’ in its approach, has released two hybrid whiskies, The One and Steel Bonnets; Szor wants the Cotswolds spirit to echo its ‘gentle, beautiful’ landscape, and the cereals and fruits that grow there.
In Kent, Copper Rivet has drawn up its ‘Invicta Charter’ as a starting-point for a discussion about common standards for English whisky – but not as a restraint on flavour creation, as its two contrasting new make spirit styles show.
In Southwold on the Suffolk coast, Adnams uses brewer’s yeast and a Christian Carl ‘beer stripping column’ to produce its high-abv wash; The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD) has manually-operated stills, employs an archaeobotanist to source ancient grains and isn’t scared to release a pure rye spirit at an obscenely young age – because it tastes good.
Traditional template: The Lakes is close to Scotland geographically and in whisky terms
The Lakes sold its first bottle of single malt at auction for a record £7,900, and is laying down stock for an aged range up to 25 years old; meanwhile, Cotswolds’ first release was priced at £45 a bottle.
Can you see a common thread here? No, neither can I.
These are people forging a new path, learning and borrowing from what has gone before, but refusing to be enslaved by it, and certainly not scared of voicing their own opinions.
To Szor, most Scottish distilleries are now mere ‘manufacturing plants for a global brand’ (whether that’s a criticism or not depends on your viewpoint), while Copper Rivet distiller Abhi Banik decries the misuse of the word ‘solera’ by some Scottish distillers, and was shocked to see the artificial ‘seasoning’ process that most Sherry casks go through prior to their use for maturing whisky.
When Szor thinks about whisky, he comes back to the individuals watching over the stills, not their postal addresses: Ichiro Akuto, Patrick Zuidam, Matt Hofmann: ‘I think of individual distilleries and the people behind them, and what their aspirations and ambitions are,’ he says. ‘Those personalities will come through.’
If anything unites the emerging generation of English whisky distillers, it is the healthy determination of each of them to follow their own path, create their own philosophy, rather than the fact that they all happen to be located in the same country.
‘What is English whisky?’ Apart from being unanswerable, the question’s irrelevant.
23 January 2019
The hospitality business – working in restaurants, bars and hotels – is often an unforgiving one. Long and unsociable hours, enormous pressure, fierce competition… the timid need not apply. No wonder that it takes its toll, both on relationships and on individuals’ physical and mental health.
Those who rise to the top in such a world often have a reputation for being, to use an understating euphemism, ‘difficult’. The pantomime goings-on of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares may be exaggerated for the cameras, but they hint at an apparent underlying truth: here, nice guys (of either gender) don’t finish first.
Gérard Francis Claude Basset gave the lie to that theory. When he died last Wednesday at the criminally young age of 61 from cancer of the oesophagus, the tributes naturally mentioned his many career achievements as a sommelier and hotelier (of which more in a moment), but without exception they focused on one aspect above all: his kindness.
Perhaps it was something to do with the way that Gérard came into the business; visiting England in 1977 to watch his beloved St-Étienne play Liverpool in the European Cup (they lost), he stayed on, ended up working as a kitchen porter on the Isle of Man and, slowly but surely, made his way. It says much of the UK hospitality scene of the time that he was picked out for a front-of-house role pouring wine ‘because I was French’.
Star sommelier: Gérard Basset’s unassuming demeanour hid a wealth of achievements
So began a remarkable career, by the end of which the letters denoting Gérard’s qualifications came to outstrip the length of his name: MW (Master of Wine), MS (Master Sommelier), MSc (from wine organisation the OIV), MBA in wine business and – perhaps his proudest achievement – OBE.
He co-founded the Hotel du Vin chain in 1994, selling it to Malmaison for £66 million a decade later; then, with wife Nina, set up the boutique TerraVina Hotel in the New Forest. Not bad for a lad who left school in St-Étienne with no qualifications and no idea what to do.
A tireless entrant in sommelier competitions, Gérard’s most emotional triumph came in Chile in 2010, when he won the Meilleur Sommelier du Monde title at the sixth time of asking, after finishing second three times. Before the contest, he’d pledged that this would be his final attempt.
Through it all, he appeared unchanged by success and setbacks alike – unfailingly humble, with a wicked, dry sense of humour. For someone so ceaselessly busy and hard-working, he rarely seemed in a rush, always making time to talk to people.
These qualities were invaluable in shaping perhaps Gérard’s most lasting legacy to hospitality in this country: the generation of young sommeliers he mentored, and who are now some of the leading figures in the trade.
If they learned from the great man’s patience and humility, they were also inspired by something less obvious – his immense drive, ambition and appetite for hard work.
Anyone who has a passing familiarity with the formidable Master of Wine and Master Sommelier qualifications will know just how hard it is to achieve either in a lifetime; Gérard passed both in less than a decade.
His many competition wins were grounded in a ceaseless quest for knowledge, coupled with a fearsome regime of tasting new wines and spirits each and every day; he would draw detailed wine maps from memory, starting from scratch if there was even one error, and once employed a memory coach. There was steel beneath that humble exterior.
Lasting legacy: A generation of sommeliers was inspired by Basset’s example
When diagnosed with cancer, Gérard used the time to write his memoirs; you can contribute to a crowdfunding campaign to enable their publication via the Unbound website; they ought to be quite a read.
Kindness often appears to be an increasingly rare and undervalued commodity, in an age when opinions are voiced and dismissed with parallel disdain on social media, and when so much cruelty has crept into political discourse – so it’s salutary to bear in mind that being nice is in no way incompatible with being ambitious, driven and competitive.
We would all do well to remember that in our discussions of whisky (and other topics). Fine to be passionate but, when so much is subjective, a little more respect for the other person’s opinion should not be too much to ask.
In one of his last interviews, Gérard was asked (for possibly the hundredth time) if the cliché of the ‘snooty sommelier’ still persisted. His answer applies just as much to those involved in whisky as in wine:
‘It has changed, but with any profession you get nice people and stupid people. When you meet a snooty sommelier – and they do exist – it’s a shame because most people who become sommeliers are passionate about wine.
‘Sometimes the problem is that they are too passionate about wine, and they think more about the product than the people.’
With Gérard, whether with friends, customers, colleagues or employees, it was always about the people.
12 December 2018
Forget what you know. Take a map of the British Isles and Northern Europe, rotate it through 180 degrees and look again. Let your eyes rest naturally where they will.
With a conventionally aligned atlas, the gravitational pull of the south-east corner of England is compelling. London, the proximity of continental Europe, the sheer weight of numbers in terms of population, not to mention influences political, legal and cultural.
Maybe the simple trick of flipping north and south will suggest an alternative narrative to you; maybe it won’t. But if geographical trickery won’t do it, a delve into the past surely will.
We have historian Neil Oliver to thank for the atlas-upturning trick, in his fascinating new book, The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places. What could have been yet another box-ticking listicle in print form instead offers an eclectic sweep through British and Irish history, from the first known touch of humanoid feet on UK soil to the fragile collision of nature and technology at Dungeness.
The map-flipping is reserved for the chapter on the Ness of Brodgar on Orkney; rotate a page in the atlas, reckons Oliver, and:
‘...Orkney – and Shetland – are revealed as the hub of the wheel. For people on the move around northern Britain, north-western Europe and Scandinavia, those archipelagos appear like roundabouts, way stations en route from somewhere to everywhere else.’
Prized finds: Archaeologists have been excavating the Ness of Brodgar for 15 years
Some 5,000 years ago, Brodgar was London. What was assumed (until as recently as 2003) to be a natural whaleback of land forming part of the isthmus between the lochs of Stenness and Harray is instead a disguised mound of rubble, a vast complex of prehistoric buildings – the result of centuries of human habitation: construction, demolition, reconstruction.
The experts are still scratching their heads about the Ness of Brodgar, but the architecture and the pottery unearthed on-site is older than similar examples found elsewhere. In other words, the innovations created here may well have rippled southwards, to Stonehenge, Avebury, throughout the British Isles and probably beyond. At this point in history, Orkney was anything but peripheral. Instead it was central, leading, pioneering.
Any contemporary world whisky map would have a similar northern bias. In terms of the numbers, the power and the influence, the global scale, Scotch is at the centre of things, the hub around which much else revolves. Producers elsewhere may choose to emulate or consciously react against its example but, either way, Scotch retains its role as reference point.
Huge influence: The advances made on Orkney may have reverberated beyond the UK
With scale can come an appearance of permanence. Distillery numbers well into three figures (and rising), exports worth upwards of £4bn a year; it becomes hard to imagine a world without Scotch, even one in which Scotch takes a supporting role and allows another country of origin to move into the spotlight.
But we wouldn’t have thought that in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, during that first period of mass distillery closures; nor during the Irish whiskey boom that followed when, less than 150 years ago, the most prized and popular whisky on the planet hailed from Dublin, not Dufftown.
We wouldn’t have thought it as the 19th century ticked over into the 20th, and the effects of the Pattison Crash reverberated throughout the industry; nor during the 1920s devastation of Campbeltown and beyond; nor, as recently as 35 years ago, when the last round of cuts claimed Port Ellen, Brora and many more distilleries as casualties. All of these events had their own causes and effects, but all can also be seen as forming part of the natural popularity cycle of any consumer product.
Famous victims: Brora and Port Ellen were casualties of whisky’s natural popularity cycle
It’s not that Scotch is in any immediate trouble right now; these remain good days for the industry, but the good days are the best times to ask questions, to explore new directions, for the industry to interrogate itself about how to do things even better, and create a product that resonates even more powerfully with consumers young and old.
Irish whiskey is resurgent, American whiskey booming, Japanese whisky more popular (although also arguably more troubled) than ever before; meanwhile, the world beyond whisky’s boundaries of convention, from Norfolk to the Nordics, is finding its own way, building in confidence. Perhaps the needle of the compass is already beginning to twitch.
Neolithic farmers continued to develop the Ness of Brodgar for at least 1,000 years, constructing two huge walls to mark it out as special, and to shelter it from the outside world over which it exerted so much influence.
No doubt, over the course of a millennium, there were numerous ups and downs, times of prosperity and poverty; nonetheless, behind those towering walls, the people who lived there may have grown to take its pre-eminence for granted, to believe that its supremacy was vouchsafed for eternity by whatever gods they worshipped.
Clearly, they were wrong.
28 November 2018
The damp inside the cellar is palpable, seeming to soak into your lungs with every breath. As the light flicks on, it illuminates a scene of apparent desolation: rows of ancient, mould-encrusted casks, many with their chestnut hoops broken and pointing to the blackened rafters like the crooked fingers of a long-dead corpse.
It looks abandoned, derelict; but this is one of the ‘Paradis’ cellars at Cognac Frapin’s home, Château Fontpinot, where some of the casks are a century old, and some of the eaux-de-vie have rested for decades.
We move on to another cellar, this time upstairs. ‘I like this one,’ says Patrice Piveteau, Frapin’s cellar master. Here the air is drier, the warmth – even in the weak November sunshine – a welcome contrast.
Piveteau’s affection for this chai is partly due to its maturation conditions – it houses many vintage Cognacs, their casks splashed with the red wax seals used by the Cognac authorities to guarantee their authenticity – and partly to its stunning roof, with its huge, beautifully irregular, hand-cut beams and trusses.
Frapin is as close as Cognac gets to single malt. In a region dominated by big names (Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin, Courvoisier), where the prevalent business model is that of the négociant (buying in grapes, wine and/or spirit to bottle under your own name), Frapin goes the other way.
Upstairs cellar: Drier conditions will give these vintage Cognacs greater finesse
Every grape harvested from the 240 hectares of the company’s vineyards in the heart of the pre-eminent Grande Champagne sub-region is used to make Frapin’s Cognacs; nothing is bought in, nothing is sold on.
In an age when, more than ever, we want to know where our food and drink comes from and how it’s made, tracing the journey from soil to plate and glass, Frapin’s is a compelling back-story. But, for Piveteau, it’s one that comes with a challenge.
‘We have one range for everywhere in the world,’ he explains. ‘Frapin is not big enough to make segmentation – there is no variability through using different wine growers or different sub-regions. We do have two types of terroir, but they are both in the heart of Grande Champagne.’
In this context, the Frapin philosophy is almost puritanically restrictive, meaning that the only path to differentiation and diversity for Piveteau lies through maturation and, in particular, the age and location of the cask.
There are ‘new’ casks (up to five years old), in which the spirit will spend between six months and a year, with lots of interaction and flavour from the wood; casks of five to 15 years old, where the influence is more subtle and slow; and casks of 15 to 100 years old or more, where it’s all evaporation, oxidation and concentration.
Downstairs cellar: This damp ‘Paradis’ will make for a supple, rounded character
Then there are the cellars. Four groups of them, spreading the fire risk, but also giving Piveteau options. Some humid, promoting the loss of more ethanol than water; some dry, where the opposite occurs.
The former gives a rounded, supple Cognac; the latter something with a stronger character, but more elegance and finesse. ‘It’s a way for me to produce something different,’ explains Piveteau.
And in the glass? Frapin’s Cigar Blend has a full year in a new cask, which adds a touch of tannin, and is aged in a humid cellar, which tames any austerity and gives a richly rounded texture.
Meanwhile, Château de Fontpinot XO (six months in new oak, aged in a dry cellar) has classic Frapin fruit-and-flowers purity, underpinned by a firm structure and a supreme elegance. Go back to your empty glass after five minutes and a perfumed tobacco leaf aroma lingers.
This is as precise as Cognac gets in terms of provenance: vineyards, winemaking, distillation, maturation and bottling all in one place. But, as Piveteau is at pains to point out, the liquid remains a blend. ‘And to have a good blend, you need knowledge and a lot of stock,’ he says.
Single cask: But even single-property Cognacs like Frapin’s Fontpinot are still blends
‘It’s like painting – to have a good green, you need lots and lots of good blue and yellow.’ On average, the Cognac region has seven years of stock; Frapin has 16, scattered among the diverse cellars of Segonzac, Fontpinot, Chez Piet.
It’s an instructive example that should remind all of us about the true nature of single malt Scotch whisky. We spend so much time dissecting the singularity of what makes Laphroaig Laphroaig, or Glenfarclas Glenfarclas, that we risk forgetting the old truism about all single malts being, at their heart, a blend.
Where Piveteau plays around with cask age and location, a master distiller on Islay or Speyside tweaks cask types, ‘finishes’ and spirit maturity, combining whiskies of all hues in order to create complexity and maintain continuity of character.
It is a space where science and art collide, and where location and process are moulded by human judgement and experience into something greater than the sum of their parts.
Maybe if we all thought and talked of single malts in this manner – in terms of the plurality rather than singularity of their character – we might grow to understand and love them in a different way.
And maybe, just maybe, it might elevate the all-too-often maligned world of blends – without which, let’s remember, most single malts would long ago have become extinct – and restore them to their rightful place in the collective whisky consciousness.
10 October 2018
‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.’
We all like a bargain. I recently picked up a couple of bottles in one of those ‘flash’ online sales – one a dependable old friend, the other a marginal gamble risked on the positive verdict of others.
Both are excellent whiskies. Bowmore Vault Edition First Release was the calculated risk, but a worthwhile one – a ballsy Bowmore with lots of savoury charm. The old friend was Ballantine’s 17 Year Old, and it is, as ever, simply sublime.
The sale having passed, I Googled them both again, to find the latter a tidy sum less expensive than the former. Whatever the perceived sexiness of single malts from Islay, this set me thinking: why? Have blends fallen so far from grace? Sadly, it seems, the answer is yes.
The easy comparison here would be between a 17-year-old and an NAS (no age statement) product. But then I have to stop myself, and run through a checklist of the stunning NAS whiskies I have tasted, matched against the impressive ages of some singularly unimpressive bottles on the other side of the equation.
To put it another way, Ballantine’s 17 Year Old is not a better whisky because of the number that is attached to it; it is a better whisky because it is, well, better.
Then again, age statements seem to be back in vogue. In a seeming age of stock shortages and NAS ubiquity, Old Pulteney is bucking the trend, Tamdhu is swapping a 10-year-old for a 12-year-old, The Glenlivet 12 Year Old should be back soon, and Tomatin is taking out a vintage malt in favour of a 30-year-old (which, incidentally, is a beauty).
And then there is Glenrothes. Now fully under the ownership of Edrington, the attachment to vintage releases has been cast aside in favour of a (mostly) age-stated range named the Soleo Collection that is, like much of Edrington’s output, matured in ex-Sherry casks.
Numbers game: The new, age-stated Glenrothes range is a departure for the malt
We’re told by the company that ‘premium drinkers are more confident when choosing a whisky with an age statement, as it acts as an important cue in navigating the range’. Beyond my befuddlement about what exactly a ‘premium drinker’ is, I can’t really argue with that.
‘What’s more, to them, the age statement is indicative of a whisky with better taste and a higher quality.’ (My italics.) Now this is interesting. ‘To them…’ The implication here is that Edrington doesn’t believe this statement to be true – and, by the way, it certainly isn’t – but it’s willing to go along with it because these ‘premium drinkers’ mistakenly believe it.
This takes us back to the rationale behind Glenrothes’ espousal of vintage releases in the first place, back in 1993. I well remember the sainted Ronnie Cox, of former Glenrothes owner Berry Bros & Rudd, trumpeting the supremacy of maturity over age, of releasing whiskies when they were at the perfect pitch, rather than just because they’d reached a particular birthday.
This philosophy also gave Glenrothes a quirk, a slight sense of idiosyncrasy in an increasingly crowded and homogenous marketplace of malts. Did it take a bit longer to explain to people? Did those people have to spend a few minutes more getting their heads around the concept? Yes. So what?
This is not to say that the new Glenrothes Soleo whiskies are bad. They’re not, they’re perfectly decent single malts from a fabulous distillery. Nor is it to say that age statements have no place in whisky; they are what they are, a serviceable but imperfect and never definitive signpost to relative quality and value.
I think, in the end, it’s the lack of courage that bugs me about the Glenrothes revamp. A 10-year-old, a 12-year-old, an 18-year-old, a 25-year-old and a 40-year-old; the riskiest move is a ‘premium’ NAS whisky which costs more than the 12. Soleo, but where’s the soul?
It’s safe, it’ll probably be successful, but it also smacks of an opportunity lost to reinvent the Glenrothes vintage USP for a new generation, just because it might be a slightly harder sell, and represent a road ‘less travelled by’.
Still, at least they kept the bottle.
19 September 2018
‘Before the beginning there was nothing. And nothing came from nothing, since nothing can. But something, somehow, did, and that was the change…’
The idea that brought these words to life sounds like a twisted, regret-inducing New Year’s resolution, or a contrived concept for the Twitter age: create a short story, exactly 365 words long, every day, for a calendar year.
Anyone who writes will be breaking into an empathetic cold sweat. Every day? Exactly 365 words? Inspiration, or literary hair shirt?
But James Robertson, author of And the Land Lay Still and The Testament of Gideon Mack, did it, and the result was 365 Stories, written throughout 2013, published online on the corresponding days in 2014, then collected into one volume.
Liberating force: Robertson says the impact of the format of 365 Stories was revelatory
‘It’s amazing what you can do within those constraints,’ Robertson explained recently on Radio 4. ‘I found myself going back to really basic, elemental stories, to folk tales, ballads, fairy tales, myths and kind of reusing them and refreshing them – and for me it was a revelation because it opened up this toolbox of things that I didn’t really think I could use, and actually it’s all there to be used and it has to be used.’
‘Elemental stories’, but also satires, frivolities, snapshots of stories in progress, portraits of family life; an in memoriam to fellow novelist Iain Banks on the day he died. As the threads interweave, they inspire a deeper contemplation of the creation and direction of narrative and how our lives shape and shift.
Daily discipline: Robertson’s story-telling reverted to ‘basic, elemental’ subjects (Photo: Marianne Mitchelson)
Then composer Aidan O’Rourke wrote a ‘response tune’ to each story, one a day, for a year. Now Robertson, O’Rourke and another musician, Kit Downes, bring words and music together live in what Robertson calls ‘a wee show’. Creative cells merging and multiplying, generating new artistic life.
We’re often told that the rules governing Scotch whisky are too tightly drawn, that they hamstring innovation and smother creativity. Water, barley, yeast; malt, mill, mash, ferment, distil, mature – all have boundaries.
But they only provide the frame, inside which the canvas is pristinely blank. The constraints fence off a safe space in which whisky’s creators can explore and play.
Far from bemoaning whisky’s rulebook, rejoice in it.
Aidan O’Rourke, Kit Downes and James Robertson are appearing in concert in Bath and London in early October.
18 July 2018
In the sunlit Champagne vineyards above Epernay, Hervé Lourdeaux is holding two vine leaves in his hands. One is a dark, glossy green; the other lighter, its paler green punctuated by a delicate white line. ‘Coton,’ he says, tracing it with one finger – and, indeed, it is as if someone has patiently stitched a thread into the leaf’s veins.
The darker leaf is Pinot Noir, the star Champagne grape variety alongside Chardonnay; the pre-eminent pairing here, as it is further south in Burgundy. The cotton-veined leaf belongs to Pinot Meunier.
Pinot what? If you’ve never heard of it, don’t worry. Champagne producers are nothing if not savvy marketers, and most of them would much rather talk about the sexy Chardonnays of the Côte des Blancs or the vibrant Pinot Noirs of the Montagne de Reims. Pinot Meh-nier? Not so much.
And yet Meunier is vital to Champagne. It makes up almost one-third of the vineyards, meaning that your favourite fizz is likely to have a healthy dose of it in the blend. Fan of Krug Grande Cuvée? It’s 25% Pinot Meunier.
Fruity and rounded, Meunier is strong and stable in the vineyards when Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are temperamental, challenged by Champagne’s marginal climate for growing grapes. More than once, Meunier has got Champagne houses out of jail in a difficult vintage.
Marne Valley: In Champagne, Meunier plays a similar role to grain whisky in Scotch
Recently, belatedly, this is being acknowledged in the region – and beyond. There are single varietal Pinot Meunier Champagnes; English sparkling wine producer Rathfinny of West Sussex describes Meunier as a ‘revelation’, while over in Hampshire, Jacob Leadley includes a healthy dose of the grape variety in his excellent Black Chalk wines.
Meunier is no longer the grape variety that dare not speak its name, the Cinderella of the vineyards. ‘You need it for the non-vintage,’ says Laurent Fresnet, chef de cave at Champagne Henriot and a colleague of Lourdeaux. ‘It’s young, it’s sweet and it’s quick to mature.’
Remind you of anything whisky-related? Here’s Grant’s master blender Brian Kinsman, talking about Girvan grain at the recent relaunch of the Grant’s range: ‘Very light, very easy-to-mature whisky… From the time it goes into the cask, we’re adding flavour from the cask.’
Blends built Scotch; non-vintage blends built Champagne. Both are the youngest incarnations of their respective drinks, and both need the mellowing influence of their unheralded components: grain whisky and Pinot Meunier.
Without them, luxury single malts and prestige cuvée Champagnes would be a pipe dream. They pay the bills – and they should never be undervalued.
13 June 2018
It’s the hope that kills you. Time spent as an England football fan – time spent as a football fan of almost any stripe, come to think of it (says the Ipswich Town supporter) – is an ultimately futile exercise ending in disappointment. The conclusion, whether through missed penalty, goalkeeping calamity or red card, always leaves you bereft. Unless you actually win the damned thing, of course.
But that hope is addictive. By the time the next big tournament comes around – in this case, the World Cup starting in Russia tomorrow (14 June) – you’ve forgotten the pain and trauma of the comedown and you’re ready for just one more hit. ‘This one will be different… It’s our time.’ Except that it almost certainly isn’t. Almost…
In England, we’ve become rather good at this particular form of rose-tinted self-deception. The trick, as exhibited in the run-up to this latest episode in (probable) national humiliation, is to start with your expectations slightly to the north of zero: young squad, relatively unheralded manager, atrocious record in knock-out football and aversion to scoring penalties.
Then, slowly and gradually, and even though we know we shouldn’t, we start to hope. ‘They’ve got a fantastic team spirit’ … ‘Young players have no fear’ … ‘Maybe they’re starting to build something special’ … ‘Get to the knock-out stages and who knows what might happen?’ But, deep down, we all know what’s going to happen. Germany again. Or Iceland.
If only we could just resist the temptation to dream, to believe, it would be so much easier to bear. Damp down the expectation and maybe we could actually enjoy the football for once.
Ultimately futile: But hopes start to build as the start of the tournament beckons
After all, it happens with whisky. Often, the most memorable glasses are the ones that startle us, shock us simply because, although we weren’t expecting fireworks, they turn out to be so bloody good. We lower our expectations and we open our mental windows to delight.
In a perfect world, of course, we would approach each new whisky unencumbered by any form of preconception, positive or negative; because, while lowered expectations can be liberating, prejudice can leave us blind and deaf to all sensory delights.
‘Oh, I don’t like blends’ … ‘Smoky whiskies aren’t my thing’ … ‘Sherry bombs are a monstrosity.’ Armed only with our own fixed views and a paucity of facts about the liquid in front of us, we make up our minds without taking a sip. Why bother even tasting it?
We’re all human. Even at a blind tasting – unless you’ve gone to the trouble of using opaque glassware – a whisky’s hue and depth of colour will spark synaptic associations related to perceptions of age, cask type, use (or not) of spirit caramel.
However inevitable these auto-suggestions may be, the trick is not to be shackled by them, to hear them but not to let them make up your mind for you, to leave yourself open to the possibility of surprise.
Put your nose in the glass. Take a sip. It won’t happen every time, but just once in a while you may be amazed.
I’d love to be able to relate this back to football, but I’ve been on this planet for more than half a century, and England’s sole moment of real triumph happened before I was born – so I have absolutely no problem managing my expectations.
After all, as I write this, we’ve just been beaten at cricket… by Scotland.
11 April 2018
I like to think that I’m an optimistic sort of fellow [Hang on, who is this? – Ed], but this, I knew, was pushing it. I’d been writing about the revamp of the Jura single malt range, cheerfully plundering the books on my shelf (thank you, Messrs Broom, Jackson and Townsend) for a little historical context.
Then a thought occurred to me – I wonder what Alfred Barnard had to say about Jura? After all, his formidable tome, The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, had given me some useful insight into late Victorian Campbeltown for a piece I’d written a year ago.
True enough, he’d had more interesting things to say about the town and the latter days of the herring boom than he had about the whisky itself, but hey; as I say, I was feeling optimistic.
Not for long. Barnard’s entry for Jura begins – as it so often does – with an account of his journey to the distillery, in this case via ‘Mr MacBrayne’s steamer Fingal’ from Tarbert.
That’s fine. Nothing wrong with a bit of colour and scene-setting. Not really relevant to my researches, but never mind. And then we arrive at the distillery itself.
‘The works cover nearly three acres of ground, and are situated close to the pier, and a beautifully wooded glen. The Distilling and Mashing House consist of a lofty and solid stone block of buildings, which are visible for many miles round, and attached thereto are the old Maltings and Warehouses, which are built round a courtyard.’
Swathes of dross: Was Alfred Barnard more like an estate agent than a journalist?
Theroux it ain’t, and don’t get me started on the illiberal use of Capital Letters, but it’s ok in its own way – although it’s not exactly news that distilleries tend to be quite big buildings. Anyway, Barnard only really gets into his stride half a page later.
‘We were next taken to the Mill, which contains a pair of Malt Crushers, and from thence to the Grist Loft, in which there are two large Grist Hoppers, which feed the Mash-tun. Still descending, we then passed on to the Brewing House, a neat building 35 feet long by 25 feet broad, which contains a metal Mash-tun 20 feet in diameter by 5 feet deep, with stirring gear driven by the water-wheel; here also we observed two Heating Tanks, holding together 3,000 gallons, which supply hot water to a Mashing-machine, which mixes the grist before it reaches the Mash-tun.’
Anybody still awake out there? I could go on [Please don’t – Ed] – Barnard certainly does and, apart from a single sentence on the old smuggler’s hole next to the distillery, it’s deadly dull.
Now let’s be fair: there’s the odd useful sentence in Barnard if you look hard enough. The line in Lagavulin’s entry about tasting some ‘exceptionally fine’ eight-year-old whisky prompted a 200th anniversary release in 2016 that is now part of the Islay distillery’s core range; a similarly glowing verdict (in a sister work about breweries) on the James Eadie blend helped inspire its revival by Rupert Patrick, Eadie’s great-great-grandson.
Commemorative bottling: Barnard was the inspiration for this Lagavulin release
The trouble is that you have to wade through vaste swathes of dross to locate these gems; Barnard seems to have approached each distillery visit not so much as a writer or journalist, but rather as if he were casing the joint, or performing an estate agent’s valuation.
Now I know he had no particular whisky expertise, that he was catering for a trade audience and that what he accomplished in visiting well over 150 distilleries with all the limitations of Victorian travel was remarkable.
But it seems to me that the value of Barnard lies not in his writing per se, nor even in his selection of what (and what not) to write about. Instead, it lies in the timing of his tour, at the near-peak of the late Victorian whisky boom, and the fact that he’s describing an industry that would be on its knees within a decade or two, with a number of the distilleries visited closed, never to reopen.
Maybe Barnard just needed a good editor, or some constructive feedback early on in his endeavours to point him in the right direction. Instead, what we’re left with is a comprehensive, but frustratingly flawed chronicle of the whisky world in the 1880s.
Barnard, let’s remember, was no trained journalist, but a former ad man and toilet soap exporter – and that fact is painfully obvious when you read his accounts.
Then again, perhaps he was a man ahead of his time. In his obsession with extraneous, irrelevant details, his love of sequential first-person narrative (‘We did this… then we did this’) and his inability to self-edit, could it be that Alfred Barnard was the world’s first whisky blogger?
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