Our expert Prof tackles this oxymoronic riddle that often leaves whisky drinkers puzzled.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
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?
21 March 2018
If you’ve got a hundred quid or so to spend on a bottle of wine (hey, you never know), I can recommend the recently released Sassicaia 2015, which to these taste buds at least is the best vintage for some years.
Sassicaia is a ‘Super Tuscan’, as you may know, if you’re (a) a fan of Italian wine; (b) Dr Bill Lumsden; or (c) remember Glenmorangie’s Artein Private Edition bottling from 2012, which was finished by (b) in ex-Sassicaia casks.
There’s no formal definition of Super Tuscan, but the tag generally applies to a small number of Italian wines, created from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, that thumbed their noses at the winemaking rules of the day, blending international grape varieties (with or without the native Sangiovese) and rejecting conformity in the name of quality.
In so doing, they elevated Tuscan winemaking by several degrees, led to rule changes and swapped often insipid wines for something altogether bolder and finer.
Even though Sassicaia celebrates its 50th birthday this year, the wine was being made privately a generation before. In the 1930s, when Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta bought the Tenuta San Guido estate, nestling in the hills near the Tuscan coast, there were no vines there at all.
Room for error: Midleton’s micro-distillery gives the freedom to innovate without fear
More fond of Claret than Chianti, the Marchese looked at the stony soil, noted the similarity to Bordeaux and decided to plant some Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc just to see what might happen.
The resultant wine, which he enjoyed drinking and found to age well, remained a strictly private affair until it was commercialised in 1968. Since then, stellar vintages like 1985 (and, perhaps, 2015) have secured its apotheosis into the fine wine pantheon.
Sassicaia also effectively created a new winemaking region in what was once mosquito-ridden marshland: Bolgheri. Others followed its lead, and the likes of Ornellaia, Ca’Marcanda and Guado al Tasso have shown that Sassicaia’s success was no fluke.
Nobody goes to the trouble of planting a vineyard entirely on a whim, but the Marchese had no way of knowing that his slightly crazy idea of transplanting Bordeaux to coastal Tuscany would work. It could – should, according to conventional wisdom at the time – have been an utter failure.
The Marchese probably didn’t care too much, because this was a personal project and he had little to lose. He was, in other words, in the privileged position of having the licence to get it wrong.
The great innovators of whisky have long understood this way of thinking, especially in the area of cask maturation. ‘We tried other spirits like brandy, and they didn’t work for us… We tried a number of wines – maybe not always the right wines. They didn’t really work for us.’ That was David Stewart MBE, speaking last year.
Super Tuscan: But Sassicaia spent decades as an unheralded private venture
‘I was sampling [the whisky] every month after about eight months – once, way back, I mucked up a product by leaving it in the wine casks for too long.’ That’s Lumsden, discussing the making of last year’s Private Edition, Glenmorangie Bacalta, and comparing it to an earlier, ill-fated project.
Both Stewart and Lumsden are relaxed enough – and secure enough in their status as great whisky creators – to admit that things go wrong, not least because they understand that innovation is inextricably linked to trial and error.
Two other aspects are important here: having an understanding boss who won’t go nuclear every time something doesn’t work out; and having the wisdom to know when to bottle, and when to blend away.
Both elements will be vital to today’s new generation of whisky makers, who are more eager than ever to push the creative envelope and embrace a brave new world of flavour innovation.
When they get it wrong, they’ll need to find the courage to admit it, learn from it, and move on. Sometimes deciding what not to bottle is the trickiest part of all.
Midleton master distiller Brian Nation summed up this philosophy when discussing the Jameson plant’s new micro-distillery last October. He said: ‘We’ve had some stuff that doesn’t work, or stuff that we thought would work quicker, and it hasn’t, and we’re just giving it a little bit more time – but that’s all part of the whole innovation and experimentation.
‘In the micro-distillery… we will be able to make more mistakes, on a more regular basis, in order to find the right way.’
Long may that philosophy continue.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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