From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Where’s all the beer-finished whisky?

    01 September 2016

    I recently discovered there are around 10 breweries in Brighton and the surrounding area. For a city that’s penned in by the sea and the South Downs, it’s remarkable they managed to fit so many in. Then again, at least one is situated in a restaurant’s basement and another is operated out of a garage, its beers home delivered to the local community by bicycle. That’s resourcefulness for you.

    Brighton is a city big on drinking – we have one of the highest number of pubs per capita in the UK, which coupled with our Green-voting, sustainability-loving culture, means we lap up local beers like tap water. It’s no wonder our breweries seem to be thriving, but their success is driven by a more widespread love affair with beer taking hold of the entire drinking population of the UK, and that of the rest of the world too.

    In his book, The Ale Trail, beer writer Roger Protz noted that in 1994 there were ‘fewer than a dozen draught beers called IPA’ in the UK, and fewer than 400 craft breweries in the US. In 2015 – some 20 years later ­– America now has 4,269 breweries, 99% of which are small and independent operations, such as microbreweries, brewpubs and regional craft breweries. Here in the UK, as in the US, pubs are featuring new guest IPAs and ales every week.

    Our choice now has never been greater. Experimentation with various hop varieties (there are over 80), kilning temperatures, yeast strains and fermentation times is yielding a rainbow of flavours that’s continuing to swell as interest grows. It really is an exciting time for beer drinkers, but craft beer’s renaissance should also be sparking a fire of intrigue among whisky lovers as well.

    Beer’s characteristic flavours – which range from light citrus and tropical fruits through to malt and sweet oak – are also inherent to Scotch whisky, which started life as a beer after all. The two beverages are a match made in heaven, yet when most people talk about pairing beer and whisky they think of the hauf and hauf, or boilermaker – a dram of whisky accompanied by a beer chaser. Sadly, despite sharing so many complementary qualities, there seems to have been little thought given to beer’s potential use in the maturation process.

    Beer and whisky: so many similarities yet a partnership explored so little

    Cask finishing may be a relatively new practice in Scotch whisky’s timeline, but it has been dominated thus far by wine, particularly the fortified variety. Such is its popularity that just 30 years after its inception, talk is already surfacing of innovation in cask finishing running dry, but beer has barely been given the chance to gift itself to whisky. Many distillers renowned for exploring finishes are still to even experiment with beer casks. I can’t be the only one to think this is a shame.

    So far there have been a measly two releases of Scotch finished in beer casks, and both from the same company: Grant’s Ale Cask in 2001, and now Glenfiddich IPA Experiment, released just this month (edit: thanks to Chris Cussiter for bringing a third occurence, the independently bottled Polly's Casks, to my attention). Earlier this week I had the opportunity to taste the latter, which forms part of Glenfiddich’s new Experimental Collection.

    The IPA, a bespoke beer created by Speyside Craft Brewery (SCB), was barely distinguishable from Glenfiddich’s signature pear, vanilla and citrus character, such was the seamlessness of its pairing. If it weren’t for a slight hoppy note and acidic edge you wouldn’t have known a beer was involved at all, though according to malt master Brian Kinsman that’s the idea. ‘It’s my view that a cask finish shouldn’t dominate,’ he said. ‘If all you’re smelling is IPA, that’s a failure’.

    As with any cask finish, the imparted flavours must complement the whisky rather than dominate it, and above all else be subtle enough to ensure the liquid is still recognisable as Scotch.

    Kinsman and SCB trialled three different brews of varying strengths and hop intensities in American oak casks of different char levels for varying lengths of time, before emptying them and refilling with Glenfiddich. In the end, Target and Challenger hops were used – US hops that have made American IPAs so popular were deemed too sharp to complement the whisky – while the IPA was best left in cask for four weeks, and the whisky finished for three months. A lot of trial and error, as with any good experiment, is key, but is that long process why so few distillers today are interested in beer?

    Surprisingly, considering the lengthy relationship between beer and whisky, this is new territory for modern distillers. While publicans would have historically stored their whisky in whatever casks they could get hold of – beer included – distillers today are more concerned with the quality of cask, and the flavour its indrink imparts.

    To pair an already established cask-conditioned beer with a whisky in the first place, let alone succeed at marrying the two together through the complex process of secondary maturation, is not a simple feat. If distillers must invest in collaborating with a brewery on a bespoke beer to ensure a perfect finish, then so be it. They certainly won’t be short of a brewer or two to work with.

  • Rediscovering Bobby Burns

    03 August 2016

    When you’re ordering a drink at a bar, which Scotch cocktails come to mind first? The Highball perhaps, or even a Scotch Old Fashioned, Whisky Sour or Blood and Sand? How about a Manhattan or Sazerac made with a feisty malt? There is one classic, that if you live outside of the US at least, you’re less likely to be familiar with.

    It’s a drink I’m sad to say I only discovered recently upon a stopover in New York, despite its publication in Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930 (sadly I don’t have a copy but it’s now on my Christmas list). I’m disappointed because it turns out this particular cocktail has to be one of my all-time favourite ways to drink Scotch, and I’ve been missing out until now.

    New York is one of the two leading cocktail capitals of the world (the second being London), so of course one of my priorities was to try to ‘complete’ as many bars as possible during my four-day stay. This sounds like an easy task, considering the state’s 4am last orders legislation (they can start serving again at 7am Mon-Sat, should you be so inclined to pickle your liver – I don’t recommend it). I managed seven bars, at a rather responsible average of 1.75 per night.

    Bobby Burns: it's time for a revival of the classic Scotch cocktail

    Each bar had it’s own unique vibe and character. The clientele varied from place to place, and the drinks list always a mixture of bespoke specialities and fond classics. Despite the diversity, something you can always rely on in New York, there was one particular Scotch cocktail that cropped up time and again, even at establishments that forwent menus altogether (I’m looking at you, Attaboy).

    The Bobby Burns, named after Scotland’s favourite bard and the patron poet of Scotch whisky, is such a simple yet deliciously warming drink it’s a wonder it sits on the side lines while contemporaries such as the Sour (messy egg whites) or Old Fashioned (stir until your arm falls off), are more frequently ordered – in the UK at least.

    It’s a modest mix of equal parts Scotch and sweet vermouth with a few dashes of Bénédictine, stirred down over ice and garnished with a citrus twist. Behind the veil of its simplicity however, lies a depth of flavour that can be dialled up or down depending on the drinker’s preference, simply by adjusting the whisky used.

    One of the best: Harry Craddocks Bobby Burns recipe as printed in The Savoy Cocktail Book, 1930

    A light blend such as Dewar’s 12 Year Old or The Famous Grouse makes for a refreshing drink with vanilla and citrus notes laced with spice. Use a first-fill American oak-matured malt such as Glenlivet Nadurra or Glenfiddich Bourbon Barrel Reserve for a sweeter experience, or alternatively take a feisty, meaty dram such as Dailuaine 16 Year Old, Mortlach Rare Old or Craigellachie 13 Year Old to create a viscous texture and robustness. Some go so far as to substitute the Bénédictine for Scotch whisky-based liqueur Drambuie, which creates a sweeter, and more Scottish, drink still.

    Craddock – who opted to shake and strain the drink and garnish with lemon peel – described the Bobby Burns as: ‘one of the very best Whisky Cocktails. A very fast mover on Saint Andrew’s Day.’

    Once so popular in 1930s London, easily replicable at home and a certain crowd-pleaser, it’s time the Bobby Burns made a definite comeback, and not just in New York. 

  • Welcome to the new malt order

    06 July 2016

    ‘To make a quality cocktail you need to start with quality ingredients,’ a bartender explained to me at Imbibe Live in London this week. ‘Of course,’ I agreed, ‘it goes without saying that a drink is only as good as the sum of its parts.’

    Imbibe Live was not short of quality ingredients – or boozed-up bartenders taking advantage of free entry and over 100 exhibitor stands for that matter. The UK’s largest – and loudest – bar show showcases spirits of every ilk from around the world, from Japanese-inspired American whiskey to Spanish vermouth, sweet potato spiced rum and German vodka, as well as beer, wine, sake, juices, purees and barware. Quite simply, this was bartender heaven. An all-you-can-drink (responsibly, of course) buffet.

    Though something was missing. One particular spirit didn’t seem worthy of a place among the cocktail ingredient elite, despite being arguably the most aspirational, high quality spirit in the world.

    It was easier to inadvertently bump into a new brand of tonic water than it was to track down a Scotch whisky. Where had all the Scotch brands gone? Either they’d spent their annual budget on stands at consumer whisky shows, or British consumers have become so entrenched in Scotch snobbery that brands have given up promoting their place in cocktail culture. Is Scotch forever fated to be sipped neat from cut crystal tumblers while imbibers bemoan the lack of an age statement?

    Auchentoshan's bartenders represent Scotch cocktails at Imbibe Live

    Auchentoshan’s UK brand manager told me a focus group with UK consumers found they weren’t interested in malts at the moment (need I say the G word?). If that is the case, some serious work needs to be done – by brands and bars – to bring malts back into the minds of consumers, particularly when they’re ordering cocktails. They are the vessels that will encourage a new generation of whisky drinkers to the category.

    Blends have become the defunct option when making cocktails, even though malts offer so much diversity of flavour, and are often so much more robust.

    But, I hear you gasp, why waste a perfectly good single malt Scotch in a cocktail? We’ve established that to make a quality drink you need to start with quality ingredients, and be honest, you weren’t really going to drink that NAS anyway, were you? (Generally) youthful, flavoursome and affordable, NAS is as good a place to start as any, though the chaps at Whisky Blasphemy over in Philly are using top shelf expressions in their Old Fashioneds and jelly shots.

    Made in Glasgow: Drygate stout and Auchentoshan malt shake up Imbibe Live

    We’ve grown so obsessed with putting single malt on a pedestal that it’s become taboo to taint it with anything (just ask Dave Broom and Colin Dunn about the virtues of mixing Lagavulin 16 with Coke).

    Of the three Scotch exhibitors with their own stand at Imbibe Live (we counted only an additional three brands hidden among the confines of distributors’ sprawling portfolios), only one proudly promoted whisky’s mixability in cocktails. Auchentoshan – which was showcasing its relatively new American Oak expression – went so far as to mix stout and IPA (from Drygate Brewery) with its single malt.

    ‘Welcome to the new malt order’ the bartenders’ T-shirts stated. If this is the new way of things, I thought, sipping on my Scotch ’n’ Stout cocktail, you can count me in.

  • Re-imagining the single malt drinker

    29 June 2016

    Pretending to be something you’re not hasn’t worked out well for anyone in the past. Some good examples include Top Gear’s new presenters, Chris Evans and Matt Le Blanc (who are they kidding trying to be anything other than a radio presenter and Joey Tribbiani?), Donald Trump as a serious politician, and Boris Johnson as likeable…

    It’s concerning then when one of the world’s best-selling single malt Scotch whiskies – in fact one of the first malts to be exported from Scotland in 1963 – begins taking its marketing cues from American whiskey.

    So much so that at first glance Glenfiddich’s new Rethink Whisky campaign for its 14-year-old Bourbon Barrel Reserve could easily be mistaken for an advert for Jack Daniel’s, what with its American bluegrass score and backyard BBQs.

    The next generation of single malt drinkers need to be tempted away from Bourbon

    ‘Think America’s next big whisky is from Kentucky?’ a deep, gravely American voice asks. ‘Introducing the smooth sophistication of Scotland, with the sweet kick of Kentucky.’

    The product itself is still Scotch whisky both legally and organoleptically – it’s matured in Speyside for 14 years in ex-Bourbon casks, before finishing in virgin American oak. However, the expression is described as ‘a true celebration of the American spirit, and the American whisky industry’s contribution to Scottish single malt.’ The truth is, if it were marketed any other way the comparison wouldn’t have arisen.

    As a US exclusive, Glenfiddich has positioned its ‘rich, sweet and vibrant’ Bourbon Barrel Reserve to appeal to American whiskey drinkers. How some can still claim Scotch whisky’s Bourbonisation doesn’t exist I can’t fathom, when this is a clear example.

    As I’ve previously stated on the subject, this is potentially dangerous territory. Scotch has a long-established flavour profile and reputation of its own; the second it starts masquerading as another popular style of whisky it loses that identity. Trends come and go, and in a centuries-old industry like Scotch whisky, a reliance on piggybacking onto other whiskies’ popularity could damage its reputation in the long term.

    However, I’m sticking my neck out here by saying this campaign is something to be applauded. Considering the risks of Bourbonisation to an established brand, it’s courageous of Glenfiddich to break the boundaries of convention to attract a new generation of single malt drinkers.

    Whisky as a whole has done a fine job of shrugging off its stereotype as an older man’s drink (the gains seen on Bourbon (5% according to Discus) and Irish whiskey (16%) in the US over the past few years are in some part testament to this), but single malt Scotch, as arguably the most aspirational whisky in the world, still has some way to go, despite growth of 7% to 1.46m nine-litre cases last year. Ironically, in the UK the brand is still peddling itself to the male elite, through the launch of a ‘gentleman’s whisky lounge’ at a Knightsbridge hotel.

    Stateside, however – the world’s largest malt market by volume – Glenfiddich is using its Bourbon Barrel Reserve to tempt young, modern Bourbon and American whiskey drinkers to try malt. This segment, after all, is key to the future of the category.

    Rethink whisky, the campaign says (really meaning ‘rethink single malt Scotch’), while visibly eschewing every convention associated with the product.

    In the series of four themed digital shorts that are being posted across social media, Scotch is poured not daintily but sloppily into rocks glasses that don’t match; Aunt Evie pours more than a responsible two fingers worth; and a good slug is poured over ice and handed to a woman tending the BBQ. Could Scotch get more radical?

    Next we’ll be seeing limited edition summer bottlings packaged in leather biker jackets and sporting hipster beards.

    And why not?

  • Expensive but poor cocktails can jog on

    01 June 2016

    One of the most memorable cocktails I ever had – one that honestly gave me a ‘wow’ moment and, dear readers, a single malt-based drink – was From Dusk Till Dawn at the The Gibson in London. It was one of those concoctions featuring such exotic ingredients I expected David Attenborough to sweep through the door with a camera crew: Capuacu butter wash Craigellachie 13 Year Old, Valerian root and tamari soya, black garlic honey, millet amazake and fresh lemon. Yeah, I only recognised the whisky and the lemon juice too, and thought Valerian root was a Game of Thrones reference.

    Often enough bars get carried away listing ingredients with unpronounceable names and elaborate garnishes without a thought for flavour. Not this drink. This was sublime. One of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting to know, and great value for money at £11.

    No, journalism does not pay enough to warrant a Gibson visit very often, but on the rare occasion I do shell out for a cocktail I want a good one.

    From Dusk Till Dawn: a cocktail worth parting with your money for​

    Now, I’ve had the fortune of drinking in some of the best bars in the world, most of them destination bars for good reason – they create cocktails worth a thousand mile trip and a £10-20 hole in my pocket. Others, unfortunately, are more like the Kardashians – beautiful to behold but lacking substance.

    The price of a cocktail – or wine, whisky or beer for that matter – in a high end bar includes the pleasure of sitting in beautiful surroundings, enjoying an ’elite’ experience, but surely the quality of the drink comes into play as well?

    While on my holidays last week, a friend recommended I pop into the most extravagant and historic hotel in Marrakech for a drink in their bar – named after a famous British Prime Minister, and rumoured to be an experience I wouldn’t want to miss.

    Unfortunately the live jazz pianist and charms of the bartender weren’t enough to make up for the poor quality of the drinks: an eggy and unbalanced ‘Lapsang Souchong-smoked’ sour made with Laphroaig 10 Year Old and a watery Old Fashioned (made Pendennis Club-style) with Luxardo maraschino liqueur instead of a cherry. At £20 each, these were more expensive than most London bars. More so than a cocktail at London’s Artesian, the luxurious hotel bar voted the world’s best by Drinks International several times over.

    Now I understand Marrakech is hardly London or New York – the two great cocktail capitals of the world – and this is hardly the first time I’ve been disappointed by an excessively-priced drink in a five-star hotel, but some perspective must be heeded where pricing is concerned. That, or bartenders need to up their game.

    Bars needn’t be elaborate with their drinks to gain favour – simple classic cocktails executed with precision are enough to put a smile on my face, despite a high price tag. I’d happily hand over a tenner for a sumptuous Old Fashioned (made with Scotch, of course), down my local boozer, so long as it was made well.

    Incidentally, you can still try From Dusk Till Dawn at The Gibson (and I recommend you do). Meanwhile, my ‘friend’ with less trustworthy recommendations will be buying the next round.

  • Confusion over ‘single estate’ whisky

    11 May 2016

    Have you ever considered the multitude of coffee that’s available? There are over 30 different drinks, from espresso to Americano, plus options to go skinny, Mocha, iced and now even the trendy cold brew.

    Starbucks UK sells 19 different types of coffee bean including blends, flavoured batches and single origin varieties from exotic countries. I couldn’t be bothered to count all of Starbucks USA’s offerings, but help yourself – the list is endless. Just calculating the number of options available at the chain’s UK outlets alone you’re looking at around 2,000 coffee combinations, and that’s without factoring in syrups. There are 152 varieties of latté alone; has anyone tried them all?

    This isn’t a free advert for Starbucks – far from it. Having too much choice is overwhelming, and according to American psychologist Barry Schwartz in his book, The Paradox of Choice, can actually make consumers feel less satisfied with their decision than if they were given fewer options.

    Ironically most people choose the same coffee regularly (mine’s a white Americano if anyone’s buying), perhaps as a result of this coffee besiegement and a lack of comprehension of the various styles – anyone know the difference between a latté and a flat white?

    Coffee confusion: can too much choice be a bad thing? (Image: Starbucks)

    The same confusion exists over single origin coffee and single estate. Unless you’re a hipster or coffee buff you probably won’t know the difference, which is why some Scotch whisky producers’ recent adoption of the latter term could be a dangerous move.

    During the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival I was given a tour of the relatively new Ballindalloch distillery by owner Guy Macpherson-Grant, whose family owns several acres of arable land and the nearby Ballindalloch Castle. Since its inception in 2014, Ballindalloch has maintained a USP as a ‘single estate’ distillery. In Macpherson-Grant’s view, because the distillery processes barley grown on the family’s estate it qualifies as single estate. Except for the fact that the site doesn’t malt its own barley. Neither does Arbikie in Angus, which has recently begun distilling barley for its own ‘single estate’ whisky. One might argue that malting is the first step in the whisky production process and if it’s conducted elsewhere then how can a distillery claim to be single estate? (NB to Ballindalloch’s credit it doesn’t mask the fact that its malting is done elsewhere).

    This is just an example of two separate Scottish farming families moving into whisky distilling using crops that already belong to them. However, with the number of small, artisanal farm distillery planning applications on the rise, the Scotch whisky industry could very easily be joined by a wave of ‘single estate’ distilleries soon.

    Single estate? Ballidalloch's barley is harvested from the estate, but not malted on-site

    As far as whisky is concerned, the term ‘single estate’ hasn’t been defined (the new ‘craft’, perhaps?). In respect of tea, coffee and cocoa it refers to produce grown on one single plantation, or a collective of local farms. And therein lies the problem.

    If consumers, eventually, come to understand single estate as referring to produce from one farm, how can it be applied to a distillery, and even then, to a distillery which doesn’t control 100% of the process? Particularly when new distilleries that do malt their own barley come online. 

    Furthermore, if the debate surrounding the effect barley terroir has on flavour continues (and it will), we could eventually see an influx of farm-specific whisky on the shelves. Bruichladdich from Sunnydale Farm, anyone?

    I’m all for innovation and broadening choice of flavour, but it must be done with purpose and not simply for the sake of establishing a USP. Even so, the danger of inaugurating too many ‘single estate’ whiskies that have varying definitions could – like coffee – end up overwhelming consumers and encourage them to stick with what they know, ultimately leading to – in Schwarz’s view – dissatisfaction with their choice.

  • Gluten-free garbage

    22 March 2016

    There’s a scary marketing trend gathering pace in America that could have a (slight) negative impact on Scotch whisky sales.

    Over the past 10 years there’s been a rise in the number of American consumers choosing a gluten-free diet, regardless of whether they suffer from gluten intolerance or, worse, coeliac disease.

    According to a recent Gallup poll, 20% of Americans now include gluten-free products in their diet, from natural foods that don’t contain gluten, to modified GF breads and pasta.

    For those who are unaware, gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye that some people can be intolerant to. Symptoms include fatigue and depression. In worst cases, the body reacts to the digestion of gluten as if it were poison, making sufferers very ill. This is called Coeliac disease.

    It’s not necessarily the rise in the number of Americans going gluten-free that’s the issue. The problem is the rise of gluten-free vodka. Now bear with me.

    Bread is usually made from gluten-containing wheat, and can be dangerous if eaten by someone with Coeliac disease.​

    Distilled spirits do NOT contain gluten. The process of distillation removes the protein from the grain, so all you’re left with in your glass is alcohol, water and a few congeners that contribute flavour (unless it’s a liqueur then add sugar and flavourings to that list. And botanicals if it’s gin).

    According to glutenfreeliving.com: ‘Vinegar is accepted as gluten free by major celiac disease centers and support groups. In the United States most distilled white vinegar is made from corn. And even when it is made from wheat, which does happen often, the distillation process removes the gluten protein. Donald Kasarda, Ph. D., a grain scientist who is now retired from the USDA and who has a specific interest in gluten free grains, said there is no scientific evidence for gluten peptides in vinegar. Further, he said he does not know of a single chemist who thinks there are gluten peptides in distilled products.’

    So why are there more and more ‘specialist’ vodkas purporting to be gluten-free when all distilled spirits are such?

    The American Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which is a department of the US Treasury responsible for making sure alcoholic beverages are labelled correctly, identifies a gluten-free spirit as being a product produced from raw material that does not naturally contain gluten (such as brandy or rum), or that has been modified to remove gluten.

    As corn does not naturally contain gluten, any vodka made from it is permitted to use the term ‘gluten-free’ in large letters across its bottle.

    However whisky – single malt Scotch, blended Scotch, American rye, even Bourbon with a mashbill that contains rye or barley in addition to corn – is exempt from this permission.

    In a ruling posted in February 2014, the TTB stated: ‘TTB does not believe that this provision [as outlined above] will generally be relevant to malt beverages fermented from malted barley and other gluten-containing grains, or distilled spirits distilled from gluten-containing grains, as these products are usually made from the grains themselves, not from ingredients such as wheat starch or barley starch.’

    Stoli Gluten Free – it's made from 88% corn and 12% buckwheat, so of course it's gluten-free.

    What does this mean for Scotch whisky? Well for starters while the rest of the world can identify it as gluten-free, it is not considered as such in the eyes of American Federal law. This is a country that’s close to putting a fascist, racist bureaucrat in the White House after all.

    According to research conducted by Stoli vodka (who incidentally has launched its new gluten-free product this month), 56% of people don’t know that vodka is naturally free from gluten anyway.

    Here’s the punchline: producers know spirits are gluten-free, but in order to educate consumers they have to create an entirely different product that conforms to the TTB’s inaccurate definition. Americans with an intolerance or coeliac disease are under the impression they can ONLY consume products labelled as such. That is simply not true.

    Essentially this TTB ruling is ignoring scientific research and preying on the naivety of consumers. As all Scotch whisky sold in America cannot legally be labelled as gluten-free (as it must contain an element of malted barley), the entire category is going to struggle to gain the attention of this consumer segment if the trend toward gluten-free living and selective marketing of a handful of spirits continues to grow.

  • The whisky bar that’s a game changer

    09 March 2016

    It’s tough to admit that there is still, after so many years of marketing to millennials, a lingering perception of whisky as elitist and an ‘acquired taste’. One needs only to read the countless Buzzfeed and HuffPost articles on the ‘26 Ways To Impress Your Boss/Girlfriend/Mates With Your Whisky Knowledge’ to realise whisky maintains an air of exclusivity. You won’t see Buzzfeed publish ‘26 Ways To Impress Your Boss/Girlfriend/Mates With Your Tea Knowledge’ any time soon. Everyone drinks tea; it has no secrets.

    Brands often talk of ‘demystifying’ whisky for consumers to make it more accessible, but just how complicated is whisky, really?

    Whisky drinkers – real whisky drinkers, not the ones absorbing clickbait internet articles in a bid to look intellectual or cultured – are spoilt for choice. There are hundreds of brands and styles within Scotch whisky alone, never mind the vastness of American whiskey or burgeoning – and in my opinion extremely exciting – Irish whiskey.

    Imagine walking into a whisky bar or specialist retailer anywhere in the world and coming face-to-face with so many bottles it seems the walls are made from them. One section contains Kentucky Bourbon; another features single pot still Irish whiskey. Each purports unique maturation or production techniques and many have unpronounceable names. Some have ages, others don’t.

    For whisky lovers it’s a haven, but if you were a newcomer wouldn’t you be overwhelmed? Where to even start?

    Whisky is a flexible beast that can be as complicated or as simple as need be, offering enough variables in its production to keep the fact geeks happy, while – at its most basic level – tasting fucking great. The problem is that too many whisky bars and retailers have neglected to address the needs of the new consumer, who just wants to understand whether or not they'll enjoy the flavour of what they're drinking.

    Black Rock: Whisky bar meets minimalist hip-hop den where flavour is king

    That is why the opening of Black Rock in London’s Shoreditch this week is a breath of fresh air. From Tristan Stephenson and Thomas Aske, the same team that introduced progressive cocktail bar Worship Street Whistling Shop, comes a whisky bar with a twist. This is a space geared toward blowing away whisky’s complications and perceptions – gone are the Scottish tweed and hunting lodge décor in favour of a minimalist, hip-hop vibe (how very Shoreditch). At Black Rock the focus is on flavour as the core communicator.

    Here it doesn’t matter whether your whisky hails from Dublin or Dufftown – if it shares the same flavour profile, it shares the same shelf. Age and price are also irrelevant in a space where the raison d’être is to actually demystify whisky in a meaningful way that consumers with zero experience can understand.

    ‘Our aim entirely is to simplify whisky so our guests are the ones feeling as though they’ve discovered whisky.’ Aske told me. ‘We don’t want to be too clever; everything we're doing is designed to simplify whisky as much as possible.’

    Whisky aficionados are still catered for – among the bar's 250-odd bottles there may be an appearance from the guys’ personal Karuizawa stocks – but one thing is for sure: Black Rock is a game changer.  

    In London at least, navigating the whisky landscape just got a whole lot easier for the newcomer.

  • The importance of regional styles

    27 January 2016

    Scotch whisky regions have become increasingly insignificant as indicators of flavour.

    This is not a new trend. As a general global interest in whisky has spread, and Scottish producers have found themselves competing against their American, Irish and Japanese brothers, a desperate need to innovate and diversify has sprouted.

    This has led to unpeated Islay whiskies, heavily Sherried and robust Speysides and light, fruity Highlanders, not to mention the tidal wave of experimental cask finishes that have altered traditional regional flavour profiles beyond all recognition.

    The Scotch whisky regional map is often used by educators such as The Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh to communicate flavour to new drinkers. Photo: Tripadvisor.

    For the seasoned whisky enthusiast this is no big deal – they moved beyond judging a whisky’s style by its regional provenance long ago. Factors such as age, wood type, distillery reputation and even filtration are much more accurate representations of flavour than provenance. It’s led many to believe categorising Scotch styles into geographical regions is an outdated method of communicating flavour, and they’re correct to an extent, but it also provides an expedient map for the Scotch newbie.

    Whisky educators consistently use the regional map as a tool to break down the admittedly overwhelming spectrum of Scotch whisky styles for new drinkers. It’s clear, easy to navigate and stands true for the vast majority of entry-level malts on the market.

    Grouping Scotland’s 115-odd distilleries into five geographical areas makes the category so much easier to digest. You like a light and fruity dram? Great, explore Speyside. Is your preference for something smokier? Islay is for you.

    Some 34 whiskies were blind tasted at the 2016 Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival Whisky Awards.

    Last week I had the pleasure of judging the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival Whisky Awards, a mouthful of a competition that’s open exclusively to distilleries from the region. A newcomer to the category might expect glass upon glass of fruity and floral liquid, but that was far from being the case.

    If the whiskies entered give a snapshot of their region, one could only conclude that Speyside is home to the most diverse range in Scotland. Sherry monsters, wine cask finishes and even peated whiskies made an appearance, all of which combined to challenge the concept that regional variation still exists, for Speyside at least.

    It’s all well and good to give whisky drinkers some choice and variety – innovation is the key to driving the category forward. However experimenting with flavour beyond any recognition of a region’s historical style will make Scotch whisky as a whole more intimidating and tough to navigate for newcomers. It’s all about balance.

    If you want to realise Speyside’s diversity for yourself, get along to the Spirit of Speyside festival on 28 April – 2 May (tickets on sale on 2 February). There you will also have the oppotunity to pick the winner of the whisky awards.

  • Precision beats power

    16 December 2015

    Thirteen seconds! Anyone watching Conor McGregor’s takedown of Jose Aldo this weekend was either thoroughly disappointed by the brevity of the fight or left gaping at the power and accuracy of the Irishman’s left jab. Or both.

    After just 13 seconds McGregor walked away as the new UFC featherweight champion, chalking up a claim to the fastest UFC championship victory, and an extra US$500,000 in his pocket to boot.

    His calm, confident yet matter-of-fact attitude and loose fighting style makes earning half a million dollars in the same time it takes to read this sentence seem easy [click here for more #thingsthatlastlongerthanAldo].

    McGregor puts his success down to the fact that ‘nobody can take that left hand shot,’ but adds, ‘he’s powerful and he’s fast, but precision beats power and timing beats speed’.

    The same can be said of Kilchoman’s rapid success. In 2005, founder Anthony Wills could have built a behemoth to match Kilchoman’s Islay cousins, but a decision to strictly focus the distillery’s USP as a small-scale farm operation has allowed the company to carve itself a niche. Similarly, an unwavering dedication to select only quality casks for maturation enabled the distillery to release its first whisky at just three years’ old. The first run of 8,000 bottles sold out within two weeks. Even its flagship Machir Bay bottling is a vatting of whisky aged just five to six years.

    Even now, 10 years on from the date Kilchoman’s stills came to life, Wills and his team, including master distiller John MacLellan, are not rushing to compete against the capacity and marketing might of other single malt brands. Yes an expansion of the plant is underway, but Wills is reluctant to add any more stills to retain that farm distillery character Kilchoman is so renowned for.

    At the same time, the distillery’s first mainstream 10-year-old bottling – an exclusive one-off expression was sold at a charity auction just this week – is likely to be a few years in the making yet.

    It’s Wills’ determination to operate Kilchoman at a slow, steady pace and expand in a way that’s right for the brand that has cemented the distillery’s place among Islay’s whisky set.

    Much like McGregor, Wills is taking a measured approach and as we learned from this weekend’s fight, precision beats power; timing beats speed.

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