Work has begun on Dunyvaig Castle, a fortress built a stone’s throw away from Lagavulin distillery.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
23 January 2017
On his first visit to Islay, Professor Steven Mithen was a penniless young archaeologist who had to sleep in his car because even the local B&Bs were beyond his meagre budget.
It wasn’t whisky that drew him to the island, but its vast array of historical sites, from evidence of the first Ice Age explorers 12,000 years ago to the deserted townships of the 19th century.
As Prof Mithen continued his investigations, he needed funding – but who better to ask for a few hundred quid than the distillers who had brought Islay its modern-day fame?
He wrote to them all. None replied. This was the 1980s, and a less than buoyant Scotch whisky industry had bigger things to worry about than helping an academic to dig holes in the ground.
Much has changed since then. Prof Mithen is now an acclaimed authority on the origins of the first hunter-gatherers and farmers (among many other subjects), and is Professor of Archaeology and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Reading.
His work has taken him, notably, to southern Jordan – but he has also returned regularly to Islay, where he now has a home. And, three decades on, he has finally secured some cash from a distiller: £310,000, to be precise, out of the proceeds of Lagavulin’s 1991 Single Cask release, the last of the expressions released to mark the distillery’s bicentenary last year.
The money is going to Islay Heritage, the organisation of which Prof Mithen is a trustee, and into which he has channeled his personal research. The grant will be spent on the creation of an Islay Heritage Trail – Islay’s historic sites can be hard to access and there’s little to tell you what you’re looking at when you do find them – as well as the first detailed investigation of Dunyvaig Castle in Lagavulin Bay.
Remarkable ruins: Dunyvaig Castle watches over the entry to Lagavulin Bay
Most of what Prof Mithen and his colleagues are investigating predates Scotch whisky, but don’t for a moment imagine there’s no connection here – or, for that matter, with his researches in the Middle East.
What were our ancestors doing in Jordan 12,000 years ago? Among other things, domesticating barley. Then look at a site such as the Giant’s Grave Neolithic burial cairn on the Rinns of Islay – what did those early settlers bring with them? Barley again.
Then there’s the peat. The primal substance that gives Lagavulin and other Islay single malts their distinctive character also preserves many of the finds unearthed by archaeologists. From pre-history to today’s golden age of Islay whisky, the links run deep.
This almost symbiotic relationship is implicitly recognised in the way that Islay Heritage is going about its work. This will be no tourist trail imposed on the local community, but a co-operative effort to identify and recognise the ‘Islay 100’ – the 100 most significant archaeological sites and monuments on the island.
That number – 100 – is a sign both of the ambition of the initiative and the sheer depth of Islay’s history and heritage. And that heritage, says Prof Mithen, resounds far beyond the island’s shores, with a significance for the whole of north-western Europe.
Whisky lovers don’t need to be told that Islay is a special place. Those lucky enough to have visited the island will know that that status extends beyond whisky to its culture, landscape and people. Now it seems that we’ve just barely touched the surface of what this small Hebridean paradise has to offer.
Anyone interested in buying one of 520 bottles of Lagavulin 1991 available for purchase, priced at £1,494 each, can enter a special ballot on The Whisky Exchange website. This closes on 12 February and bottles will be allocated at random. By late last week, more than 6,000 people had registered their interest.
Of the remaining two bottles, one will go to the Diageo Archive, and the other will be auctioned at Whisky.Auction from 26 February for 10 days, with the money raised also going to Islay Heritage.
19 January 2017
When Boris Johnson, the supremely gaffe-prone Brexit campaigner, was appointed Foreign Secretary by new UK Prime Minister Theresa May, eyebrows arched heavenward. After all, wasn’t giving ‘bumbling’ Boris the job a bit like entrusting the country’s foreign relations to a combination of a golden retriever puppy and the Duke of Edinburgh?
This week, Johnson has been in India talking up business as the UK contemplates a raft of international trade deals in the brave new post-EU world. In a speech to local business leaders, he decided that there was really only one subject with which to open.
Not a bad idea, given the enormous tariffs on imported whisky which make it so hard for most Indians to be able to afford the likes of Johnnie Walker or Ballantine’s. Time, said the Foreign Secretary, to ‘tear these barriers down’.
Puppy meets Prince Philip: Boris Johnson may need to spend more time on Whiskypedia than Wikipedia
Hard to argue with the thrust of Johnson’s message, but let’s take a look at the detail of his speech and… erm… Well, you be the judge.
‘I have come on several official trips [to India] now, as well as various family weddings, and we always try to remember to bring something for our Sikh relatives who live in both Delhi and Mumbai.
‘Can you guess what it is? That’s right – we tend to bring a bottle of whisky, Black Label whisky, to add to the astonishing 1.5bn litres of whisky that are consumed every year in this country.
‘And why do we bring a bottle of Scotch to our relatives in Mumbai and Delhi (normally Black Label, though I have just bought something called Green Label; I hope it isn’t crème de menthe)?
‘The reason, my friends, is that this wonderful country still sets a tariff of 150% on whisky imports, and I believe this matters.’
‘It is an extraordinary fact that no-one can deny, that even though Scotland is incontestably the home and progenitor of Scotch, the only place in the world where the water trickles through the peaty glen in exactly the right way to turn into liquid fire, even though whisky is itself a Gaelic word, uisge beatha. Does anyone know what it means? H2O – water of life.’
I know, I know. But there’s more. The above is the official Foreign & Commonwealth Office transcript of the speech but, according to STV, the Foreign Secretary – as is his wont – departed slightly from the published text.
‘Uisge’ came out, rather unfortunately, as the Irish variant ‘uisce’, while ‘uisge beatha’ was mangled into ‘uisceaugh’, which more closely resembles a sneeze than the water of life.
Worse still, where did he gain this somewhat flawed knowledge, by his own admission? Wikipedia.
Yes, Wikipedia. The UK’s Foreign Secretary is relying on Wikipedia to provide the technical background to a keynote speech to a vital trading partner.
If only, at times like this, he had someone in his entourage with a detailed knowledge of the subject on whom he could rely. A trusted special advisor. Someone like – oh, I don’t know – former Scotch Whisky Association chief executive David Frost?
19 December 2016
It started with the assertion that gin revenues in the UK would overtake those of blended Scotch whisky by 2020 – a forecast made last week by research company Euromonitor International. Things escalated rather quickly from there.
Within a day or two, UK sales of Scottish gin were about outstrip those of Scotch, according to some headlines. By the time I was asked to comment on the issue on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme last Tuesday, it was Scottish craft distillers who were driving this gin-naissance at the expense of their whisky-making compatriots.
And so an initially compelling headline, propelled by the media equivalent of Chinese whispers, quickly became – depending on your point of view – a source of Scottish national pride, or a betrayal of one of the country’s most lucrative exports.
And the truth? Well, that’s become an over-valued currency in 2016, as global political events have taught us.
A little clarity. Euromonitor reckons gin sales in the UK were worth £1.07bn in 2015, versus blended Scotch at £1.28bn. By 2020, it predicts the respective figures will reach £1.37bn and £1.17bn.
Read that again. Blended Scotch. No mention of single malts, which now account for roughly 15% of Scotch whisky sales by volume in the UK – and considerably more by value. Bring in the likes of Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet and Glenmorangie, and there’s no story.
On-trend: But can gin really overtake Scotch in the UK?
Secondly, the Scottish ‘craft’ angle. Scotland, we’re told, now produces 70% of the gin consumed in the UK. Well… yes. Given that multinational Diageo produces market leader Gordon’s and number four-selling Tanqueray at Cameronbridge in Fife, that’s hardly surprising.
Add in Hendrick’s (made by William Grant at Girvan, south Ayrshire) and Glen’s (Loch Lomond’s Glen Catrine, also Ayrshire) and that’s roughly half the UK gin market taken care of. None of the companies named could realistically lay claim to being ‘craft’ operators, however you define the term. Nor would most people readily identify Gordon’s and Tanqueray with Scotland (they were initially distilled in Southwark and Bloomsbury respectively).
Beyond the hype of the ‘gin overtakes Scotch’ soundbite, however, there’s an underlying truth. Gin is hot in the UK right now, and the ever-expanding army of small-scale craft distillers in Scotland – while not troubling the market leadership of Gordon’s or Bombay Sapphire – are a crucial part of that resurgence.
But there’s another reason why some Scots have taken to infusing neutral grain spirit with bizarre botanicals: in many cases, these same distillers are also making Scotch – and gin is a nice source of short-term revenue while they wait at least three years (and often far longer) for their whisky to mature.
Far from being threatened by the craft spirits zeitgeist, Scotch whisky is, in fact, part of it. Strathearn distillery released a number of gins before recently selling its first bottle of Scotch whisky (aged three years and a day) for an eye-watering £4,150 at auction; demand for immature spirit made by Ardnamurchan has outstripped supply by more than three times.
Euromonitor’s predictions are honest ones, and based on the experience and knowledge of their analysts. But that’s all they are – predictions – and I know of at least one rival company whose forecasts directly contradict them.
In the end, while these figures are a useful generator of (sometimes misleading) headlines, I’d give them as much weight as – to pluck an example out of the air – pre-election opinion polls.
14 December 2016
Brown-Forman, the company that owns Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve Bourbon and, since earlier this year, BenRiach, makes its own barrels. A lot of barrels. About 600,000 barrels a year, to be precise.
Why so many? Because, whether each barrel is filled with new make Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, or with Woodford Reserve or any of the company’s other Bourbon brands, it can only be used once. By law.
American whiskey is on fire right now. Spearheaded by Jack, it’s sexier than ever in its home US market, but also finding new fans around the globe, from Berlin to Brisbane. More demand means more production, and more new barrels from the Brown-Forman cooperage.
Both financially and environmentally, it makes obvious sense to recycle these once-used casks and find a fresh purpose for them once they’ve been emptied of Jack, or Woodford: typically, that means selling them on to Scotch whisky distillers to mature their own spirit.
This is a nice extra source of cash for Brown-Forman and other US distillers; nice enough for the sale of used barrels to account for about 2% of the company’s revenues in its last financial year. If my sums are correct, that’s about US$80m.
But there’s a problem: just as Brown-Forman is producing more barrels to surf the whiskey renaissance, the makers of blended Scotch are buying fewer of them because their own market has softened.
Brighter prospect: Falling cask prices offer good news for distillers like Glenmorangie
It’s a lesson in the rigours of supply and demand: more supply of used whiskey barrels coinciding with less demand from the Scotch whisky company. Result? Used barrel prices down more than 10% over the past year, and still falling.
It’s concerning enough for Brown-Forman executives to spend some time discussing the issue at the company’s recent second quarter results announcement – hardly surprising if several million dollars has been wiped off your top line.
It’s also a commentary on the current fragility of the blended Scotch market around the world, thanks to a number of issues including macroeconomic factors and, in some countries, an unhelpful pro-malts, anti-blends prejudice.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Bad news for Brown-Forman means a brighter prospect for Diageo, Chivas Brothers and the Scotch whisky industry in general. There’s a plentiful supply of casks out there, they don’t cost as much as they did – and it’s a buyer’s market.
Something to be cheerful about at the end of a trying year…
09 November 2016
It’s International Sherry Week this week, so naturally I want to talk about Port – because what’s happening in the spectacular vineyards of the Douro Valley might have resonance for Scotch.
Gripped by misty-eyed nostalgia, Port anoraks will rhapsodise about the superlative vintage Ports made during the early 20th century…
‘Sure, this 1994 is nice, but did you ever taste the 1931? And what about the 1912? Before the big companies took over and standardised everything? They don’t make ’em like that any more…’
Any of this sound familiar?
It’s easy to dismiss such fond remembrances as yearnings for a world that never existed – the Olde England of unlocked doors, affable British bobbies and honey still for tea. But even a cynic like me is beginning to wonder…
Port vineyards are historically anarchic; even today, more than 100 grape varieties are permitted, and the vines planted in the late 19th century, after the phylloxera plague wiped out nearly everything, were done so haphazardly and at high density. And yet these packed, chaotic terraces were the source of some of the greatest wines ever made.
Come the 1970s, rationality and science coughed politely, tapped the anarchic wine farmers on the shoulder and suggested a more logical approach. Focus on the ‘best’ grape varieties (five in particular were identified), plant them in separate blocks, pick them at optimal ripeness and make each one into wine before blending them all together.
The reasoning, it seemed, was faultless: use only the finest ingredients, maximise the potential of those ingredients, then use your blending skills to create the best wine possible. In terms of vineyard management, it was cost-effective too.
A river runs through it: Do the vineyards of the Douro hold a lesson for Scotch?
But, about 10 years ago, some began to question this received wisdom. A new generation making unfortified table wines in the Douro noticed that the neglected old vineyards, in which dozens of different grape varieties were sprinkled at random, were making more characterful, complex, simply better wines.
Now the scent of revisionism is in the air. All but forgotten grape varieties replanted, mixed vineyards acquiring a renewed appreciation, different grapes fermented together. No, not everything will be perfectly ripe when it’s picked – but those imperfections, when moulded with skill and experience, only add to the final wine’s quality.
What’s this got to do with Scotch? Listen to David Guimaraens, head winemaker at The Fladgate Partnership, producer of Taylor’s, Fonseca and Croft Ports. He reckons the changes in the Douro during the 1970s did their job in terms of achieving greater consistency – but at a price.
‘We pulled the bottom up,’ he says. ‘But we also believe that we have pulled the top down… we have lost some of the complexity and we have certainly lost the diversity.’
Did this happen to Scotch? The entirely rational drive for greater efficiency and consistency may well have improved the average quality of blends – ‘pulled the bottom up’, in other words – but in the process, was something precious mislaid?
The chaos of distillery floor maltings, different strains of yeast and manual operation undoubtedly resulted in some pretty inconsistent spirit – but, when the whisky gods conspired, did that chaos also create lasting greatness?
And, if it did, how can we get it back?
02 November 2016
How much would you pay for a bottle of whisky? Nearly US$200 for a 16-year-old Longmorn? More than £7,000 for four single cask single malts from an independent bottler? How about £16,000 for a Black Bowmore 50 Year Old?
The fact of whisky price inflation has become as predictable as the outrage that greets it on the blogosphere. Assessing true value in this age of ‘whisky investment’ and flipping has never been more challenging.
But, rather than throw up your hands and mutter dark things about ‘capitalism gone crazy’, how about using a bit of old-fashioned common sense?
For two of these three launches – Golden Decanters and Black Bowmore – forget any noble notions of ‘pure’ value based simply on the quality of the liquid.
Releases at this level of the stratosphere are more bets on future monetary value than assessments of current worth; the trick for those selling them is to pitch them at a level low enough to attract buyers, but high enough to maximise returns – rather than seeing the same bottle sold on for twice the original price one month after release.
Getting this right is – to judge from these two examples – not easy. No quarrel with the Black Bowmore 50 Year Old release price of £16,000. Given that the 29-year-old 1st Edition is now offered at £12,000, it seems fair enough (if you’re really happy to spend more on a bottle of whisky than I’ve ever spent on a car).
Last in line: The final Black Bowmore bottling will set you back £16,000
But Golden Decanters? Four single cask single malts, including a Glenlivet 34-year-old, a Bowmore 26-year-old, an Auchentoshan 22-year-old and a Ben Nevis 19-year-old. You have to buy all four, and they’ll set you back £7,250.
Yes, the gorgeously tactile packaging from Scottish design studio Timorous Beasties more than lives up to its luxury brief. But the company’s claim that collectors are now ‘a little tired of tartan and twee’…?
Really? What tartan and twee? At this level of the market, bagpipers yielded the stage long ago to Lalique crystal and handmade oak. And anyway, Golden Decanters’ rejection of Scottish cliché might hold more weight if the company hadn’t identified its whiskies with, er, fishing, shooting, golf and Highland coos. Can the deep-fried Mars bar expression be far away?
Luxury look: But does that make Golden Decanters’ whiskies worth the money?
Single cask whiskies like these also involve more than the usual level of trust on the part of the purchaser. More than £7,000 for four malts is pushing it for an independent bottler with a long and distinguished reputation; for a debut range, it’s frankly astonishing.
However, I’m not remotely angry (unlike a number of people on the internet) about the Golden Decanters release – just utterly bemused by its wild optimism. If it works, and the whiskies sell, it’ll certainly tell us something about the current state of whisky collecting and investing.
But Longmorn? Pricing the 23-year-old north of US$1,000 is ambitious enough. But almost doubling the price of the entry-level (in age stated terms) 16-year-old single malt to US$189 on the pretext that it’s been ‘reinterpreted’ is breathtakingly cheeky. They might at least have had the decency to up it to an 18-year-old (after all, The Age Matters, doesn’t it?).
‘Breathtakingly cheeky’: Longmorn’s 16yo has nearly doubled in price
Rare whiskies aimed at collectors and investors are playing a different game to the Longmorns of this world. Succeed or fail, will Golden Decanters have any significant impact on the overall Scotch whisky market? I seriously doubt it.
But you can’t say the same about a more mainstream whisky such as Longmorn, and the range revamp reads like an exercise in market-led cynicism. Not so long ago, its 15-year-old bottling was replaced by the now ‘old’ 16yo, accompanied by howls of anguish on the internet about the concomitant price rise.
Now the price (but not the age) has gone up again, while the lower bracket has been filled by NAS expression Longmorn The Distiller’s Choice, introduced last January.
Price hikes and NAS whisky… There’s an awful lot of ill-judged, knee-jerk hysteria about both subjects on the internet, but on this occasion I have more than a little sympathy with it. Sometimes this industry does itself no favours at all.
30 September 2016
9.21pm, Wednesday, 21 September, One Marylebone, London; Diageo Special Releases tasting:
‘Have you done the maths?... I’m sure you have.’
The last question I was asked at Diageo’s Special Releases tasting was also the most perplexing (but, when you’ve just tasted 10 cask strength whiskies, perhaps that’s not surprising).
Had I done the maths? Well, I’d worked out that the nine age-stated whiskies among this year’s 10 Special Releases (barring Cragganmore) had a collective minimum age of 250 years-plus. Was that what my fellow taster meant?
‘No no no. The Port Ellen. Less than 3,000 bottles for £2,500 a pop. That’s nearly £7.5m!’
As Oscar Wilde once wrote, a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. So – for just a moment – let’s be cynical.
If we strip out Caol Ila and Lagavulin from this year’s Special Releases (unknown, but ‘limited’, quantities available), we have eight whiskies, 32,618 bottles, worth £22,551,020. Average price per bottle? £691.37.
Lucrative line-up: Secondary market trends have forced up Special Releases pricing
How did we get here? Simple. If you sell a product for a few hundred quid, then see the person who buys it flip it shortly afterwards for a few thousand, you might want to rethink your pricing strategy. This year’s Port Ellen takes a bit longer to sell out? So be it.
I get that. The confusion kicks in when I taste the whisky. Not because it’s bad. Not because it’s anything other than excellent, in fact. It is, indeed, special, in almost every case. But that beguiling Auchroisk 25-year-old that wouldn’t let me go? It’s £280 and it’s my bargain of the tasting. I still can’t afford it.
At the end of the room, the salivating masses jostling for a drop of the latest four-figure Brora and Port Ellen might have been queuing for a thimbleful of the latest en primeur Lafite or Latour.
And why shouldn’t it? If we can agree that the finest Scotch offers a transformative, transcendent sensory experience, why would the monetary value placed on it differ from fine wine, designer fashion, classic cars or luxury watches?
I left Brora and Port Ellen, and went back to the near-deserted Auchroisk table, and was happy. But it’s still £280, and I have a toddler, a house that needs work and a mortgage, so I’ll buy the Lagavulin – or, more likely, nothing at all.
11.58am, Tuesday, 20 September, The Union Club, Soho, London; White Horse retrospective tasting:
‘How good is that? Seriously, how good is that?’
Spirits entrepreneur Marcin Miller has the air of a proud father as he contemplates the glass in his hand. We’re not sure quite how old this whisky of his is, but best guess is it’s a pre-war bottling of White Horse. And it is, on its own terms, without even a thought of its age and provenance, stunning.
Tasting old bottlings is a hugely entertaining (when they’re not yours) game of Russian roulette. Of the six on show, three are at various stages of decrepitude thanks to closure imperfections; three, including this pre-war bottling, are simply beautiful.
Russian roulette: Tasting old bottlings is a fascinating and entertaining exercise
Their combined value, at current prices, is roughly equivalent to a bottle of the 2016 Special Release Brora. When they were purchased… Well, they were somewhat cheaper. And, even when they’re not perfect, they are huge fun to open.
So yes, I have done the maths. I loved the Special Releases, and it was a privilege to taste them, but that particular market has left me, and most people I know, behind. I’m a little sad about that, but not bitter or angry, because I’ve seen fine Bordeaux and Burgundy do the same in my lifetime, and these whiskies deserve that kind of billing.
And yes, I could go back again to that near-deserted Auchroisk table, and be happy. But: £280; toddler; house; mortgage. So I’ll buy some early 1980s White Horse instead. And be happier still.
26 July 2016
The best-selling whisky brand in the UK isn’t The Famous Grouse any more. It isn’t Bell’s, or Whyte and Mackay, or Grant’s. Instead, it’s that most American of drinks products, Jack Daniel’s of Lynchburg, Tennessee.
How should Scotch react to this? First of all, it’s important to remember that the figures released last week by The Grocer refer to value, not volume (Grouse still leads on that score, although possibly not for much longer). We’re also talking Nielsen statistics, which cover the supermarkets and other major retailers, but not pubs and bars.
And now we also discover – adding still further to the intrigue – that Jack’s figures also include sales of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, which is not a whiskey at all, but a honey liqueur ‘infused’ with the real thing. Oh, and also the brand’s RTD products, such as its cans of ready-mixed Jack Daniel’s and Cola.
Be that as it may, it’s clear from the comparative figures and anecdotal evidence that, while Jack is hot in the UK, blended Scotch – including its leading brand, Grouse – is most definitely not.
Given Scotch’s long-term overseas success story – only partly undermined by the last three years of export declines – do producers care that much about what happens in their own back yard? After all, Cognac exports 97.5% of its production, and you’d hardly say that Hennessy was on its knees.
Some coverage of the story extrapolated Jack’s success into a broader trend of American whiskey supplanting Scotch in the nation’s affections, arguing that consumers are turning their backs on the blends their fathers and grandfathers enjoyed in favour of a little Americana.
From Lynchburg with love: Jack Daniel’s sells more than 1m cases in the UK
There’s some truth in that, but let’s not get carried away. This is the story of one brand’s success, not that of an entire category: American whiskey sells more than 1.5m cases in the UK every year, but roughly three-quarters of that is Jack. Compare that to blended Scotch at about 5m cases, plus malts at approaching 1m cases, and the picture doesn’t look quite so bleak.
So everything’s all right, then? Not quite. Leaving aside the question of pride – that distillers would really like their fellow countrymen and women to drink more of their product – the UK is a large and dynamic market, in which any spirits category worth its salt would like to be doing considerably more business.
It also offers a microcosm of the malaise afflicting Scotch in a number of its more mature markets now (and especially in the US): the ‘malts are better than blends’ consumer mentality, a prejudice that Scotch producers did much to encourage, and which they are now belatedly trying to reverse.
But more specifically, it is Jack Daniel’s accomplishments which should be closely scrutinised. This is a whiskey that has long understood – and exploited – its essential DNA, mining a seam of retro-Americana and beneficial celebrity endorsements to create a brand with a broad demographic appeal.
Furthermore, having once recognised the power of that appeal, it has stayed true to its winning strategy, keeping its brand message clear and consistent. Young and old, male and female, whatever your socio-economic group – everyone, it seems, loves Jack.
Can any Scotch whisky brand operating in the UK today make a similar claim?
08 June 2016
In December 2005, when spirit first ran from the stills at Kilchoman, it became Islay’s eighth working distillery, and the first new one in about 120 years. Now there are plans, at various stages of development, for at least three more.
It’s a picture repeated across Scotland, around the world. We live in an era of whisky renaissance, where anyone with a dream and a beneficent investor can become a distiller. Exciting – but risky – times.
Anthony Wills had a dream when he drew up plans for Kilchoman soon after the millennium. Fast-forward to the distillery’s open day at this year’s Fèis Ìle, when long queues for the superb festival bottling snaked out of the shop and into the grounds, and you might think that the previous decade or so had been one long upward curve. Far from it.
‘I never imagined that within 10 years of starting this distillery we would be where we are now,’ an emotional Wills told a Fèis masterclass audience. ‘My dream was to start a distillery and put [the whisky] on the market at a relatively young age.’
Events conspired to fuel his early doubts. The need to raise more cash, the falling-out with the adjacent landowner, the fire that put the maltings out of commission for a year… The burst pipes, the temperamental boilers… Things go wrong at distilleries, particularly new distilleries, and they’re generally not cheap or easy to fix.
All valuable lessons for any wannabe whisky-maker. Wills has previously said that, if you think you need £5m in funding, you really need £10m. But things can go right, as well as wrong.
Uniquely Islay: Kilchoman has had its ups and downs over the past decade and more
Kilchoman bought the adjacent farm in November last year, ending those rows over the garden fence. Controlling the land means the business can plant more barley for its flagship 100% Islay product – 150 tons this year, up from 100 tons previously – and there are plans for a new malting floor and kiln to be operational by next spring. Total production will be close to 200,000 litres this year; in 2006, it was just 50,000 litres.
Through all of these ups and downs, the central message of the spirit – created and reinforced by Jim Swan and the late John MacLellan – has remained constant. Small stills, narrow neck to the spirit still, ploughing cash into cask sourcing and letting top-quality wood work its magic.
And it’s paid off. That exuberant young spirit has shaken off its puppy fat and become something richer and more complex, even in less than a decade: this year’s outstanding Fèis bottling is well under nine years old, and cask samples suggest it is no one-off.
That, in turn, has given Wills a dilemma: what to release and what to hold on to. ‘We will keep stock back for older bottlings,’ he promises. ‘That’s crucial to the long-term future of the distillery.’
That said, he doesn’t see Kilchoman releasing a 25- or 30-year-old bottling in the 2030s, reckoning that sweet, floral spirit will hit its peak somewhere between eight and 14 years. I’m not so sure he’s right, but it’ll be fun finding out.
Wills reckons he could write a book on what not to do when building a distillery which, by its nature, would also be a valuable guide on how to do it right. Part cautionary tale and part inspiration, the Kilchoman self-help manual ought be a best-seller among the emerging new generation of whisky-makers.
31 May 2016
Looking back on my first Fèis Ìle, I think two things in particular surprised me: the funnels; and the abundant sunshine. For anyone who visited the festival this year, the latter – barring one damp, midgy afternoon on Jura – needs no explanation. We’ll get to the funnels later.
Even Jura had its moment in the sun. The decision to split its distillery day in two paid off with a glorious Wednesday. Everywhere else, from the exuberant birthday celebrations at Lagavulin to the practically tropical Ardbeg Night shindig a week later, had no reason to complain. ‘You should have been here last year,’ said one veteran Fèisophile with a sad shake of the head. ‘Hideous. Absolutely hideous.’
Every distillery does it slightly differently during Fèis. As ever, there were queues, most notably at Bowmore, where the fervour to get hold of this year’s bottlings had the dizzy air of the January sales or the first day at Wimbledon. Manager David Turner left the distillery on Tuesday night at about 9.45pm, to be greeted by a dozen hardened Bowmore groupies, desperate to get their hands on one of the 200 Vintage Edition bottles the following morning.
Others played it differently; there were queues at Lagavulin and Kilchoman, sure, but there were also sufficient quantities of whisky available to satisfy everyone (I think). Ardbeg and Bunnahabhain put their Fèis bottlings up for sale on the Monday; Ardbeg’s and Jura’s will also be sold more widely afterwards.
There’s a debate to be had here: at one end of the spectrum, the desire to give festival-goers something special and exclusive – but what if you end up disappointing hundreds, who queue for hours only to come away with a bottling from the core range, a fridge magnet and a baseball cap?
On the other hand, why bother to come all the way to Islay to snag that Fèis bottling if you can order it off the internet a few days later? Somewhere between these two poles, a happy medium must exist.
Night and day: Ardbeg’s open day was perhaps the most inventive and original
There were one or two other gripes among the dedicated festival-goers. While some distilleries made a clear effort to innovate and offer new attractions and activities to keep things fresh for long-time visitors – Ardbeg being perhaps the most shining example – others stuck to the same formula as before. There’s a fine line between ‘tried and tested’ and tedium.
Contrast this feeling with the buzz surrounding this year’s Spirit of Speyside festival, where visitors were spoilt for choice, with hundreds more events taking place in a much shorter period than the Fèis. Is it just that more distilleries = greater competition = more creativity and dynamism?
Accommodation is another issue. Of course Ileach business owners want to make the most of their busiest week of the year, but when the punters decide that hiring a camper van is a cheaper and better option than taking a room, something’s gone slightly awry. Reports of vacancies and cancellations reinforce the point, as does the sight of mobile homes trying to edge past each other on the narrow roads to Kilchoman or Bunnahabhain.
At the end of what was almost entirely a joyous and sun-filled week, these might sound like ungracious quibbles, but an event like Fèis has to keep asking itself difficult and searching questions to become even better than before, and to keep those utterly passionate whisky nuts flocking to this small island from all over the world.
And the funnels? I first spotted them at Jura, then they resurfaced at Bunnahabhain when, as a masterclass concluded, the two people either side of me surreptitiously decanted the remains of their cask samples into sample bottles (always best to use a funnel when you’ve had a few drams), carefully inscribing them with a handy marker pen.
Beyond recalling Islay's proud smuggling heritage, it also prompted me to wonder what will become of these whiskies. Retasted later, at leisure? Or taken home to Germany, Finland and South Africa, to be squirrelled away and then dug out again at some future date – Islay malt's bootleg tapes?
Either way, it illustrates the kind of near-obsessive fascination that this annual whisky extravaganza inspires. Only at Fèis…
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