The Glenlivet Captain’s Reserve is said to be the first major single malt finished in Cognac casks.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
09 October 2019
What was created to be a fun, novel way to approach Scotch whisky cocktails rapidly turned into a PR storm for The Glenlivet this week.
In celebration of London Cocktail Week’s 10th anniversary, the Speyside single malt brand created a range of edible/drinkable cocktail capsules in collaboration with Alex Kratena and Monica Berg of London’s Tayēr + Elementary, rated one of the world’s best bars after just nine months of operation, and capsule designer Notpla.
Three original cocktails ‘inspired by the elements and flavours of The Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve’ – Citrus, Wood and Spice – are filled into a biodegradable casing made from seaweed extract (called ‘oohos’) and presented to patrons in a bespoke gold box.
‘The cocktail capsules are unique and push the boundaries of how drinks can be served,’ said Kratena, who, alongside Berg, is known within the industry for an evolutionary approach to cocktail creation.
Whisky wrath: Three little Scotch-based cocktails have somehow caused mass outrage
Twitter users, on the other hand, weren’t so sure, particularly those in the US who still recall the fall-out of the Tide pod craze, a thankfully short-lived YouTube trend that saw young people film themselves biting into laundry detergent capsules.
While Outlander’s Sam Heughan, who is launching his own whisky brand, remained unconvinced by the innovation, one of the more hysterical over-reactions came from ABC’s foreign affairs reporter Julia Macfarlane, who described it as a ‘sick joke’ and an ‘abomination’, calling on Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to ‘do something’.
Other reactions have gone so far as to label the capsules a ‘public health hazard’, prompting warnings by Twitter users that ‘teens are going to put these in their butts’, despite the fact they are only available at Tayēr + Elementary, where alcohol is not served to minors, let alone to anyone attempting to shove anything up their rectal passage.
The capsules were described by one publication as ‘weird shit’, despite the fact that spherification, the technique pioneered by El Bulli chef Ferran Adrià to create spheres of liquid contained in an algae-based casing, has been used and celebrated by chefs the world over for a good 15 years; and despite the fact that oohos filled with Lucozade were handed out to runners during this year’s Virgin Money London Marathon to cut back on plastic waste – without so much as an outraged hashtag from the Twitterati.
Apparently, the universe can rest easy if these biodegradable, ingestible pouches are filled with anything other than Scotch whisky.
It begs the question: what if the cocktails contained rum, or that darling of the British press, gin? Would the capsules still have received such widespread criticism?
Crime scene: Tayēr is serving the capsules throughout London Cocktail Week (Photo: Bernard Zeija)
Wine writer Nina Caplan missed the point in her succinct op-ed for The Guardian: ‘Multinationals such as Pernod Ricard (which owns The Glenlivet) are fixated on novelty, which has nothing to do with the slow enjoyment of good whisky. If we want people to drink responsibly, it isn’t enough to put anodyne health warnings on websites and bottles. What is needed is an education in appreciation, and that doesn’t come in a consumable capsule.’
Surely the enjoyment of a ‘good’ whisky is down to a person’s individual preference – fast, slow, neat, mixed, in a glass or seaweed casing, the choice is subjective. Sticking with the old adage that whisky appreciation can only be attained by ‘slow enjoyment’ actually throws whisky education back into the dark ages.
The capsules each contain 23ml of liquid, and are served chilled, directly from the fridge to be popped into the mouth in one go. Biting down on the capsule releases the cocktail inside, and consumers are free to roll that liquid around the mouth for as long as they like.
As far as drinking responsibly goes, each capsule contains less alcohol by volume than a standard 25ml shot (as defined by the British Weights and Measures Act) of 40% abv Tequila, vodka, etc, which is, incidentally, more liquid volume than contained in a Glenlivet capsule.
The capsules were devised as a light-hearted exploration of the possibilities of how whisky can be enjoyed, although (assumingly playfully) the press release asking whether they mark the ‘death of the whisky tumbler’ may have been a step too far. However, as Miriam Eceolaza, director of The Glenlivet, said: ‘As a brand that celebrates originality, we are always looking to break the conventions that have determined how single malt Scotch has historically been enjoyed.’
In the face of an ageing consumer base, Scotch has been trying to shake off its dusty image of tartan and tweed to appeal to a younger audience, with varying degrees of success. They may be marketing buzzwords, but innovation, craft and stories with substance are what excite new whisky drinkers, and unless Scotch appeals to their cravings it risks becoming the dusty, uncool spirit of past generations, languishing on the top shelf as the more relevant Bourbons, rums and Irish whiskeys swagger in.
Divisive cocktail capsules aren’t enough on their own to change the public’s perception about mixing Scotch, but at least The Glenlivet is trying. The saga goes to show Scotch is caught in a Catch-22 situation – it’s damned if it doesn’t innovate; ridiculed if it does.
ABC’s Macfarlane is, however, at least partially correct: Nicola Sturgeon should do something – get down to Tayēr and try the capsules, and show that drinking a Scotch-based cocktail in a different way needn’t be a cause for mass outrage.
The Glenlivet cocktail capsules will be available at Tayēr + Elementary for the duration of London Cocktail Week (4-13 October).
18 September 2019
The spinning speakers gave the impression of a frenzied air raid. The noise – I can only describe it as ‘noise’ – bounced off the red brick walls and dusty chalkboard as we looked on, dumbfounded. ‘What does it mean though?’ my friend asked, equally confused by the eerie starkness of the classroom. We crossed the corridor and ventured into another room. Plastic chairs lined one wall facing a giant projection of a film showing an animated interview of a designer discussing the merits of Minecraft, of all things. Was this really a nightclub, or had we blindly wandered into a Dutch post-modernist Bauhaus revival?
De School has a reputation as the trendiest nightclub in Amsterdam. Situated in a former school in the west of the city, it’s become a destination for locals and tourists looking to dance into the early hours. But what’s kept behind the school gates is a secret – strictly no cameras are allowed (so sorry folks, no photos of the spinning speakers).
We’d strolled down from the more touristy Leidseplein with its piles of Old Amsterdam cheese and overpriced beer, via a vibrant street party in Jordaan blaring a classic combination of traditional Dutch folk songs and techno. A short queue was beginning to form in the playground as we arrived at our designated venue.
De School: The Amsterdam institution is an arts venue, restaurant and nightclub
‘Hey guys, welcome to De School,’ the doorman said to the three English guys ahead of us, eyeing them closely. ‘Do you know who’s playing here tonight?’
The English guys shook their heads, IDs in hand, faces beaming with anticipation. ‘Not really, we just know this is the best club in town!’
‘Oh, well, I’m sorry gentlemen. If you can’t be bothered to find out what we’re playing, then we can’t be bothered to let you in.’ Say what? ‘Thank you very much gentlemen, goodnight. Please leave.’
It wasn’t just their faces painted with shock. The entire queue fell silent at such an absurd reason for refusing entry. Was he serious?
‘But we’ve just walked all the way across Amsterdam to get here!’ they cried, their frustrations falling on the young Dutchman’s shrugging, ambivalent shoulders. Hospitality obviously wasn’t ‘hip’ in this über-cool establishment.
We stepped forward; it was our turn to be judged. Would we be deemed cool enough to get in? Considering the pejorative attitude, did we even want to? Drawing on our experience of the Jordaan street party, we guessed the club would be playing techno (what else, Amsterdam?). The doorman sighed and almost reluctantly stepped aside to let us through, his face showing a look of contemptuous disappointment. How dare we get the answer right.
We were informed by some of the other patrons lucky enough to make it past the reproachful child on the door that De School takes a similar approach to the famous Berlin nightclub Berghain. Its operators have a strict policy to refuse entry to those they believed wouldn’t enjoy the evening. The club’s house rules state: ‘Our visitors should be aware of De School’s musical identity. People may be denied entry to the club when we think this is not the case.’ Other grounds for being asked to leave include wearing a suit, or a shirt.
De School claims its strict door policy is designed to give patrons the very best possible experience, although a cynic might say it veers heavily towards discrimination on the basis of someone’s musical and clothing preferences, for the sake of infamy.
Free for all: Drams of Craigellachie 51 Year Old were given to anybody interested in trying it
As I stood watching the Bauhaus speakers whizz around it occurred to me that although I wasn’t the biggest fan of techno, although the doorman would have made a snap judgement about my perception of the club if I’d been honest, I was in fact enjoying myself. De School was fascinating in a twisted, surreal kind of way: the music was alright, actually, the local beer pretty good and I discovered Club-Mate. Turning someone away from a new experience just because they’re uninitiated robs them of an opportunity to discover something different, and potentially transform a novice into a life-long devotee.
Much in the same way, whisky can also sometimes fall into the trap of adopting discriminatory ‘house rules’, whether it’s a brand ambassador directing newcomers away from heavily-peated whiskies and toward the ‘easy-going’ Speysiders, or a bartender suggesting a lady may wish to top her dram up with cola, despite ordering it neat.
Brand ambassadors and bartenders are the doormen of the whisky world. They shouldn’t be afraid to pour old, rare and unique whiskies for newcomers in the hope of igniting new passions. They should be encouraging novices – young and old, male and female – to sample everything, even the bold, peaty and funky whiskies.
Over the last year Craigellachie has been hosting free tastings of its new 51-year-old single malt across the world. Tickets have been allocated via ballot, not on the basis of whether a potential guest had tried a whisky of that age before, knew what it tasted like or had done their research into the distillery’s spirit cut points and yeast pitch rate. Craigellachie simply wanted to share its oldest and rarest whisky with everyone in the belief that whisky is in fact for everyone.
Proof of familiarity or fandom shouldn’t be a prerequisite to experiencing something new, just as a person’s appearance is no indication of their personal taste, be that in music or whisky.
If the operators of De School had a more open mind perhaps the three English guys wouldn’t have been turned away, and could well have fallen in love with techno, and possibly also Club-Mate. But I guess they’ll never know.
28 August 2019
It’s only 7.30am and yet this intense, dark liquid has cast a spell over me, its aroma of juicy, tropical fruits set against a subtle smokiness inviting my mouth to water. Juicy and slightly oily, with a hint of caramel and stone fruits, it’s the perfect antidote to an early start. Elegant yet bold, it’s a real enlivener… though that may have something to do with the caffeine.
I’ve been a tea devotee all my life but this was my eureka moment. The morning I unexpectedly tumbled down the coffee rabbit hole. Not into just any coffee warren either – this one led to a wonderland of filters and brews, a realm of infinite flavour combinations.
Until recently, filter coffee has had an infamously insipid reputation in the UK. I blame the movies. And McDonald’s. In fact, any chain of 1990s fast-service restaurants that served lukewarm pots of pathetic, anaemic liquid resembling pond water in polystyrene cups. It’s a reputation that, in part, propelled the rapid popularity of espresso. Like many others, I was stuck in the habitual routine of ordering my same old coffee – a black Americano, blissfully ignorant of coffee’s more intricate flavours and aromas I’d been missing out on.
Finding flavour: Filtration accentuates more intricate coffee aromas and flavours than espresso
It began in Brighton, at the Flour Pot café in the North Laine, and is all thanks to a passionate barista (they only exist in the local, independent establishments, where training is usually free, incidentally) who persuaded me to swap my usual for a chance on filter. ‘It’s got more flavour, it’s cheaper, and is served in a bigger mug.’ Always one for a bargain, I was sold.
The coffee was delicious – bold, citrusy and oilier than my usual Americano. However the epiphany arrived a few weeks later with an early London meeting at Ozone in Shoreditch. The roaster is a New Zealand export, where coffee culture is taken as seriously as rugby or cricket, and the sentiment is just as strong in Ozone’s always-lively London outpost.
I’m keen to continue my newfound interest in filter coffee, so ask the waitress if they serve any. Her face lights up. She hands me a menu. ‘These are all the filter coffee options we have on today’.
Brew Bar: For novices, Ozone’s filter coffee options can seem overwhelming
‘Umm…’ I look at her blank-faced as the panic sets in. ‘What’s V60?’ Filter coffee just got complicated.
The café is buzzing. A queue is forming out of the door. The pressure to swiftly select an option from a menu that may as well be written in Greek is overwhelming. I’m tempted to quit while I’m ahead and revert to the safety of my usual. Yet the waitress smiles warmly, and patiently explains. V60, Aeropress, Syphon… all different types of equipment used to brew filter coffees, each extracting different qualities from the grind. Each coffee option is single estate, the three today hailing from Rwanda or Bolivia. If you’re still not sure, here are some flavour cues to help you decide.
Feeling the heat, I hastily opt for the ‘Batch Filter’ of the day, which I’m informed is Bolivia La Llama. Peach, orange juice, caramel. Fine. This is way too complicated for me; I’m clearly out of my depth, and in the midst of trendy Shoreditch, far too intimidated for my liking. I can see now why people stick to their regular cappuccino. And yet… The friendly waitress returns with my coffee – a good-sized mug – and a piece of card. ‘Enjoy,’ she says. ‘Any questions, let me know.’
And here it is. The epiphany. In this one card, all my anxiety about how scary and complex the rabbit hole might be, has faded into excitement. Here is a full explanation of what’s in my mug, something to peruse and absorb while I enjoy my coffee.
The location of the farm where the coffee is grown is laid out clearly, pinpointed on a wee map of Bolivia. I know nothing about coffee varieties or processing, but I discover that this coffee is a Yellow Caturra variety, it has been grown at an altitude of 1650masl (meters above sea level), harvested in July 2018 and has been washed. As a complete newb, none of that means anything to me. But the coffee is delicious, and just as described in the tasting notes, it’s fruity, juicy and beautifully smooth.
Brewing enthusiasm: Ozone’s simple information cards help patrons explore the world of coffee
I feel grateful for that card. Without it I would have been lost in a sea of jargon, my filter coffee journey halted. This is a speciality coffee roaster, and yet Ozone makes the effort to break down the complexities of coffee for every patron, even novices like myself. Why are speciality bars not doing this with whisky?
It is just as intimidating, arguably even more so, with scientific terms and production processes creating a perceivably insurmountable barrier for beginners.
Visit a bar serving any manner of whisky selection and you’ll likely be handed a tome listing every bottle available, usually arranged by region. It’s easy for the well-versed to navigate, but what does region, or age, matter to a newcomer? If my first filter coffee experience was tantamount to ordering a Monkey Shoulder in my local pub – intriguing, simple, no fuss – furthering my whisky journey by visiting a speciality joint where options are limitless, jargon-filled and ill-explained would have been frankly scary, overwhelming and discouraging.
A simple note, clearly detailing the whisky’s key aromas and flavours, the distillery’s location, and a few facts about how it’s made – cask type, peated or not, single malt or blend – could spell the difference between being blindly overwhelmed and tentatively intrigued. Accompany that information with warm, patient and enthusiastic service, and chances are even the most novice of drinkers will be started on their own journey of whisky discovery.
A little information can be so empowering. As I sipped my La Llama I felt a sense of attachment to that small farm in Bolivia, gratitude for its beans, and enthusiasm to explore the coffee rabbit hole further. Imagine what a little information could do for whisky.
15 May 2019
It’s been 10 years, almost to the day, that I first saw Mumford & Sons play. It was my first Great Escape, the largest festival for new music in Europe that just happens to take place in my hometown of Brighton.
For three days the seaside city is overwhelmed by a throng of trendy, skinny jeans-wearing industry delegates and music lovers, all out to uncover emerging talent, whether that be a gritty, pop-rock indie duo or 16-piece Swedish folk band.
Now in its 13th year, it’s become a popular platform for emerging artists from all over the world to showcase their work; many that perform during The Great Escape often go on to a Brit Award nomination, or a chart-topping hit at least. Past acts have included the likes of Adele, Tinie Tempah, Paolo Nutini, Vampire Weekend, Foals, The XX, The Kooks, Alt-J, Anne-Marie, Rag ‘n’ Bone Man, Stormzy… all unknown acts at the time, performing in their infancy.
Emerging talent: The Great Escape festival attracts new musical acts from around the world (Photo: Victor Frankowski)
Unlike other music festivals, there’s no muddy field, hot, smelly tents or long queues for grubby Portaloos. The Great Escape’s performances are split among Brighton’s many pubs, clubs, theatres and churches (if you’ve never heard The Staves perform in a church, you haven’t lived). There are street performances, acoustic sets in quiet cafes and, in the last couple of years, a pop-up beach club with food vendors and multiple stages for those missing the traditional festival atmosphere. Most of these venues have tiny capacities, and it was on one of the smaller stages in May 2009 that a relatively obscure four-piece band from London played.
Mumford & Sons weren’t even headlining. I’d turned up to see Laura Marling (another Brit Award winner) perform at the Sallis Benney Theatre for her final gig with her band, Noah and the Whale. Mumford were the warm-up act, having been Marling’s backing musicians on the award-winning Alas I Cannot Swim, but their catchy, upbeat folky sound and progressive anthemic numbers were refreshingly rousing for this new genre of west-London folk.
The following year they played Brighton again, this time in a small room above the Prince Albert pub just down from the train station. There were so few people in the audience, no more than about 20, and we ended up having a drink with the band at the bar afterwards. These really were Mumford’s early years.
From tiny local pubs they quickly began selling out theatres and arenas nationwide, with mosh pits (yes – really!) a common occurrence. Their sound manoeuvred from fresh, toe-tapping folk to sell-out pop, and were frustratingly overplayed across radio and television. I’d call it the Ed Sheeran effect but Mumford got there first. Their early music is still perfectly enjoyable, but for me the thrill of discovering a relatively unknown band, in a genre largely unrecognised at that time, had been blown apart by overzealous disc jockeys and a thirsty record label with dollar signs in their eyes. Mumford had become mainstream, their fresh, quirky edge watered down to appeal to the masses.
Sell-out success: Mumford & Sons went from playing in pubs to selling out arenas
Like so many others, I’d shared my discovery of this fun new folk band with friends. In doing so I’d contributed to the mass-appreciation of Mumford and their evolution into something unrecognisable from the humble four-piece I’d shared a beer with in a room above a Brighton pub. I have no regrets. The thought of keeping them to myself, playing them quietly on my iPod rather than aloud among friends at a party, is saddening. A lonely experience.
There’s nothing quite as exciting as being among the first to discover something new, which is a major draw of The Great Escape. It’s the same for whisky shows where new expressions – particularly those ‘under the counter’ – and little-known distilleries are discovered. It’s the new that keeps us returning year after year. Curiosity gets the better of us all.
But imagine discovering that gem, that wonderful, sublime, ethereal whisky that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stick up, only to keep it to yourself. God forbid that others might enjoy it too and snap it all up, or allow it to become so mainstream that it’s not trendy anymore.
It’s the joy of sharing that glass with a friend – ‘you have got to try this’ – that unites us in a moment of mutual realisation that you’ve stumbled onto greatness. You’re in it together. The bursting pride of seeing something you love, loved by another is far more rewarding than keeping it a secret.
Mutual passion: There’s greater joy in sharing whisky with friends
Yet stock shortages and a finite number of old and rare bottlings have created a sense of defensiveness among some whisky enthusiasts intent on clinging tightly to their own discovered gems. ‘Whisky newcomers are welcome to try the mass-produced brands, but stay away from my beloved rare/limited edition/collectible whiskies. They’re far too good for your mainstream palate.’
But everyone has that light bulb moment when it comes to discovering new whisky, or a new band. Even the most die-hard malt enthusiasts among us. That thrill of tasting something new that blows your mind and makes you realise why whisky is so beloved by so many. ‘This is what everyone’s been talking about.’ It’s that momentary spark that ignites a lifelong passion for whisky, and turns a dabbler into a devotee.
Rather than lamenting the fact more people are being turned on to whisky, let’s welcome them and share our passion in the hope of witnessing their own light bulb moment. After all, through sharing we can rediscover some of that joy that made us fall in love with whisky in the first place too.
In the spirit of sharing, I’ve created a playlist of my top Great Escape finds this year. Enjoy.
05 March 2019
‘Is this fake news?’
Texts and Facebook notifications have been lighting up my phone in the last week, all from enthusiastic whisky-loving friends questioning whether an eight-year-old blend from a budget supermarket could really have just been named the ‘best whisky in the world’.
At least, that’s what the national press were reporting. In a world of ever-inflating whisky prices, where a bottle of Macallan 1926 recently sold for over £1 million, at just £13 a bottle the headlines sounded too good to be true.
You see, Queen Margot, a budget blended Scotch bottled for German supermarket chain Lidl, had indeed been named ‘best whisky’ at the World Whiskies Awards, but it was within the ‘blended whisky aged under 12 years’ category. It was judged in its competitive set against the likes of Label 5 12-year-old, Scottish Leader 12, Dewar’s 12 and Johnnie Walker Black Label, which sells for twice the price.
All hail?: Queen Margot eight-year-old has not been declared the ‘world’s best whisky’ after all
According to judges, more than 120 whiskies won their respective category; Queen Margot eight-year-old was just one of them.
In fact there were four blended Scotch whisky categories: aged 12 years and under, aged 13-20 years, aged 21 years and over, and no age statement. Just one will be named overall ‘best blended Scotch’, and even that will go head-to-head against the winners of the American, Irish and Japanese blended whisky categories to determine the world’s best blend.
When you consider Lidl’s entrant is up against the likes of Royal Salute 21-year-old and Johnnie Walker 18-year-old, the chances of the humble Queen Margot winning are slim.
So how did we get here? Lidl, being rightly proud of its award for ‘best blended Scotch aged under 12 years’, issued a press release celebrating its win. But somewhere along the way that award was adapted by a number of media titles from ‘one of the best whiskies in the world’ to a definitive ‘best whisky in the world’. Cue hysteria among whisky fans and stampedes in Lidl’s wine and spirits aisles.
The depressing truth is that some – not all – perfunctory journalists are under pressure from their publishers to increase web traffic with engaging, eye-catching headlines. The least offensive of articles merely exaggerate for effect; the worst amount to outright erroneous reporting, aka ‘fake news’. But when writers are under pressure from a rapidly descending deadline there’s too much temptation to simply copy and paste a story, especially when it’s printed by a usually respected title. Yet journalists are trained to question everything, to always seek a story from the source. To report the truth.
Budget brands: German supermarket chain Lidl is known for its affordable own-label goods
Whisky is a popular subject for the international press these days, so sadly occurrences like this are becoming more common, whether the ‘news’ is an ‘award-winning’ budget dram or the ‘discovery’ of fake rare whisky. Especially irksome are the ‘Become A Whisky Expert In 5 Minutes’ features that are littered with more inaccuracies than even the best-researched Donald Trump speech.
Some news titles have since amended their claims following pressure from Lidl and the World Whiskies Awards, although those who have purchased a bottle of Queen Margot likely won’t be too disappointed by the revelation. It may not be the ‘world’s best’ but the expression was still voted by a tasting panel above its contemporaries, which include some of the world’s best-selling blends.
If there have been any positive repercussions we can always hope that the offending journalists have had their knuckles (figuratively) rapped by their editors and assigned to write out 100 lines: ‘I must not copy and paste’. Though perhaps also the frenzy has gone some way to not only highlight a previously obscure brand, but also the value to be found in blended Scotch. Could the headlines have serendipitously encouraged malt purists to give blends a try?
14 November 2018
I serendipitously discovered my favourite painting in Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado last week. I’d been told the art museum was just full of ‘old paintings’ and wasn’t worth my time, but it was a beautiful building and, with a day to kill in the city following the opening of Johnnie Walker’s new whisky store on Calle Serrano, I didn’t see the harm. Culture is good for the soul, after all.
Two things surprised me that day. Firstly, the discovery of Diego Velázquez’s towering seminal work, Las Meninas, hanging in the Prado’s lofty labyrinthine halls. The second was how much the discovery reminded me of a scene in Bean: The Movie (no, I didn’t sneeze on the painting!).
Depicting the young Princess Margarita Theresa being tended to by her babysitters as Velázquez himself looks on, Las Meninas has been described as one of the most important paintings in the history of Western art, and even as embodying the ‘theology of painting’.
The babysitters: Velázquez’s royal portrait (left) has been adapted multiple times by others, including Picasso (right)
The 1656 work has been studied, critiqued and even mimicked and explored by a string of artists since, most notably by Pablo Picasso, who painted 58 recreations of Las Meninas and its characters in 1957 alone. They now reside in Barcelona’s Museu Picasso, if you’re interested.
But it wasn’t the painting’s importance in the sinews of art history that drew me in. Not Velázquez’s delicate brushstrokes, the princess’ doll-like stature, nor the fact this work is considered a ‘Master’. I just like it. It spoke to me. And that was enough to keep me enthralled until a soft, authoritative (English) voice broke me out of my trance.
Narrating the painting’s importance to a crowd of tourists all sporting earphones, the guide explained: ‘See how the composition of the characters and the way they interact with one another, and even ourselves as viewers, makes us question the relationship between illusion and reality. But the true meaning of Las Meninas has eluded scholars until this day.’
Naturally, the elusiveness of meaning invites curiosity, as the tireless reproductions of the work can attest. According to Velázquez expert Jonathan Brown, who studied Las Meninas meticulously, ‘few paintings in the history of art have generated so many and varied interpretations as this’.
But Brown also added during a lecture in 2014: ‘I feel in my bones that I may be suffering from the early stages of LMFS – Las Meninas Fatigue Syndrome.’ Scholars could study and study one of the greatest pieces of art the world has known and still be none the wiser as to its meaning. The devoted, magnified study of a single subject without any meaningful conclusion is endless, ineffective and ultimately exhausting. Something that was once loved so affectionately becomes tiresome to embrace.
Look closer?: Mr Bean’s appreciation of art [here with Whistler’s Mother] exists on a basic level, but it’s appreciation nonetheless
It was this sentiment that reminded me of an exchange in Bean: The Movie. The haphazard Mr Bean, an incompetent art gallery security guard who continuously falls asleep on the job, is mistaken for an eminent art professor on a visit to the fictional Grierson Art Gallery in Los Angeles, much to Bean’s obliviousness.
Curator: ‘Tell me, Dr, what exactly is your position at the gallery?’
Bean: ‘Well I sit in the corner, and look at the paintings.’
Curator: ‘Ugh, that is brilliant. If only more scholars would do that – you know, just sit and look. Not lecture and write and argue. Just sit and look at the paintings themselves.’
Sometimes, all that’s needed is a simple reminder of what’s important. The same sentiment is true of whisky. How often has a cult bottling been dissected, analysed, tasted, reviewed and scored, discussed, debated and argued over to the point that we have lost sight of what its purpose is in the first place? Like art, whisky is there to be enjoyed.
The whisky world is throbbing with the noise of so many critical voices and opinions. We’re so busy arguing whether whisky should be chill-filtered, if malts from the ’60s are unparalleled, or drilling down into the intricacies of flavour creation that we stop appreciating whisky for the sake of pure enjoyment. How many of us have felt early-onset WFS – Whisky Fatigue Syndrome – settle in?
Ultimately, whisky’s meaning lies in our enjoyment of what’s in our glass. It’s time we were all a little bit more Bean, and took a step back to just enjoy the beauty in front of us.
24 October 2018
‘What’s the difference between a first-fill cask, an ex-Bourbon cask and a fine oak cask?’ This seemingly complex question, posted by a curious mind in one of Facebook’s many whisky groups recently, along with its equally confused responses, couldn’t be more appropriate in its timing.
‘What’s a fine oak cask?’
‘Some have fine oak written on the label.’
‘That’s not really a thing.’
‘Isn’t it the opposite of coarse oak?’
If you weren’t already aware, ‘Fine Oak’ was the name given to a line of Macallan expressions matured in a combination of Sherry-seasoned European and American oak casks, and ex-Bourbon casks. The range was renamed in April 2018 as Macallan Triple Cask to reflect the three types of cask used during maturation, and as a means to simplify whisky terminology for puzzled consumers.
It’s no wonder we’re confused. The whisky industry uses so many different terms for cask types, and several even to describe exactly the same thing – first-fill, ex-Bourbon, American oak, whisky cask, traditional cask – all apparently denote a barrel used once by America’s Bourbon industry and shipped to Scotland to be filled with Scotch. Yet perky marketing departments continue to believe there’s a need to invent new ways to describe an ex-Bourbon cask, presumably because us whisky drinkers don’t understand the concept of refilling a barrel.
For well-heeled whisky enthusiasts, navigating this minefield of ‘clever’ marketing terminology has become second nature (do you guys understand what all these terms mean, or are you making educated guesses?). But wouldn’t it be nice to be able to purchase a whisky without having to consult a thesaurus?
For beginners: Aerstone’s Sea Cask and Land Cask are designed to demystify language associated with Scotch
Every few weeks Scotchwhisky.com hears about a new malt or blend introduced for a ‘millennial’ audience who are new to whisky. The flavour profile is inoffensive, the branding bright and engaging, and occasionally some ‘witty’ new way to explain whisky is introduced for obtuse shoppers who don’t go to bars, use Google, or have a mind of their own. All this with the aim of simplifying what has become infamously known as an ‘intimidating’ drink.
The latest attempt at recruiting the new whisky drinker comes from William Grant & Sons’ new single malt brand, Aerstone – a fictional name fusing the Gaelic word for ‘air’ and the word stone, denoting the earth. Two expressions have been launched as Tesco exclusives in the UK, with names designed to represent the flavours found within the whisky: Sea Cask and Land Cask.
‘A lot of people new to single malt are confused and intimidated by all the language around it,’ Kevin Abrook, global whisky specialist for William Grant told me. ‘They want to know more but they find it a bit overwhelming, so we wanted to launch a single malt that appealed to those people breaking down the barriers, focusing very much on flavour.’
Although both expressions are distilled at the Ailsa Bay distillery in Ayrshire, one is peated, the other isn’t. One might assume that because many coastal distilleries produce a smoky malt, the Sea Cask expression is the peated one, but not so. Peat comes from the land don’t you know, so Land Cask is the peaty one. So what does Sea Cask mean? Surely it’s not matured under the sea… ‘This whisky develops its character from the time spent ageing in warehouses located close to the sea on the Ayrshire coast, giving the whisky a subtle salty note on the finish,’ says the press release. However the casks used for Land Cask are also matured at the same site at Girvan, albeit slightly further inland where the salty sea air supposedly has less of an impact on the cask.
OK, so what we’re really talking about here is terroir, that the location of a cask has an impact on a whisky’s flavour, even if it’s a few metres apart. Individual casks mature differently, even within the same warehouse, imparting unique flavours depending on the cask’s size, prior filling, treatment, age, location at the top or bottom of the warehouse or – in Aerstone’s case – its proximity to the sea. That’s pretty in-depth stuff, isn’t it? For a new whisky drinker cask terroir represents a new world of whisky geekery that has to be intimidating, surely.
Cask terroir: A maturing cask’s location affects whisky’s flavour, but is it the most important factor?
Furthermore, by only communicating the location of a cask as a signpost for flavour (alongside a 10-year-old age statement I should add), William Grant & Sons – perhaps inadvertently – is telling new whisky drinkers that terroir is a cask’s most important contribution to flavour.
In its defence, Sea Cask and Land Cask feature flavour notes in smaller typeface on each bottle, respectively ‘smooth and easy’ and ‘rich and smoky’. This I understand – this is easy for anyone to understand (let’s not start a debate on the loose meaning of the term ‘smooth’ though). Why confuse things by inventing whisky names that could be mistaken for new cask types?
When I, like many others, began my whisky journey I was initially taught how the two main types of cask used to mature Scotch – ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry – influence flavour. One gives it vanilla fudge flavours, the other spicy, dried fruit and Christmas cake notes. Simple enough to understand, and any blender, distiller, whisky maker will agree the cask type has an impact on flavour. By prioritising cask terroir as the primary flavour contributor, and introducing new ‘cask types’, Aerstone is arguably starting new whisky drinkers off on the wrong foot. Soon Facebook forums will be filled with questions about why other distilleries aren’t using ‘land’ or ‘sea’ casks. Perhaps, as Brian Kinsman, master blender for William Grant told me, the whisky landscape ‘would be bland if everybody says this is Bourbon and it gives you vanilla, and this is a peated malt and that gives you smoke’.
From conversations I’ve had with new drinkers, many believe whisky is distilled in barrels, without really understanding what distillation is. Those of us fluent in Scotch have to remember beginners’ level of knowledge is low – ultimately the only thing they’re looking for when choosing a whisky is ‘what does it taste like’? ‘Will I enjoy it?’ The industry needs to appeal to consumers’ fundamental understanding of flavour with a uniform approach to common whisky terms that doesn’t lead to confusion later down the line. The invention of marketing gumpf to promote a single brand is short sighted.
But maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe I’m the one over-complicating things.
08 August 2018
Sometimes we can get so immersed in our own interests that we forget the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily have the same level of knowledge or experience. Many readers of Scotchwhisky.com will no doubt be able to explain the simplest differences between Bourbon and single malt, but – as Glenfiddich’s Jennifer Wren can attest – ask a stranger in the street and you’ll likely be met with a blank face.
That said, general knowledge of whisky is increasing – we’re a curious bunch, and whisky naturally encourages exploration, what with all its complexities and scientific wonders that seemingly stray into the realms of magic.
They say toddlers are like sponges, soaking up every word and fact, including the most surprising (and random) pieces of information, but I think the same is true of whisky enthusiasts; frankly anyone who’s fascinated by a particular subject. When we’re inspired by something, when a topic ignites our curiosity and leads us down that rabbit hole, our thirst for knowledge can be insatiable.
For the most part, we also have a tendency to believe what we read or are told by authoritative sources – the ‘experts’, be they lecturers, brand ambassadors, tour guides or journalists – why wouldn’t we? But it’s this element of trust that makes it so vitally important that these educators are educated themselves, and teach the truth.
One of the most explosive responses to an article published by Scotchwhisky.com – coincidentally almost a year to the day – was to an exploration of the role brand ambassadors have in dispelling whisky myths and clichés. Yes, I’m going there again. But before the trolling commences, bear with me.
Truth or propaganda?: Whisky enthusiasts put their trust in experts’ assumed knowledge
One cross-category myth that is arguably perpetuated more than any other is that Irish whiskey is more accessible to new drinkers than Scotch, because it isn’t peated. Never mind the fact that Ireland also produces peated whiskey, and the more glaringly obvious fact that around 90% of all Scotch is unpeated. I’ve heard this statement several times in the past 12 months, including during a tour at the Jameson Bow Street experience in Dublin, and most recently in a whisky seminar at the Tales of the Cocktail bartender conference in New Orleans just last month.
When a respected figure – tour guide, writer or ambassador – tells an audience of eager, novice drinkers that all Scotch whisky is peated, they are going to be believed, regardless of whether that statement is true or not. Those listeners are then going to tell their friends, their bar’s patrons, and thus the message spreads like an ‘alternative fact’ on Facebook.
In the heart of Dublin’s old town, Jameson Bow St. is one of the largest whisky attractions in the world, drawing thousands of visitors every year. It’s a powerful mouthpiece for showcasing Irish whiskey to global visitors, and – quite worryingly – it’s my understanding that that particular mistruth is part of the tour guides’ script. Bizarre for a company that’s also the world’s second-largest Scotch whisky producer.
In the same Tales seminar, whisky enthusiasts were also told by one ‘craft’ American distiller that ‘Scotch whisky producers don’t think barley has any flavour, but we do,’ and, ‘we’ve used 10 barley varietals in the past year, which is more than the Scotch industry combined.’ Perhaps most disconcertingly, that ‘none of the Scotch producers believe the strain of yeast matters – why would you not care about the quality of your ingredients?’
Whisky Mecca: Jameson Bow St. is one of the most-visited whisky attractions in the world
Not one of these statements is true, yet when the educator is a respected figure they are more likely to be taken as fact. There is no excuse for category or brand bashing to make an ambassador’s own appear more revolutionary, unique or interesting. The cynic in me would say it’s basic propaganda designed to improve image and increase sales.
Perhaps, however, part of the issue is a lack of knowledge from the educators themselves. Some are trapped in their own category bubble – because their world is comprised of Irish whiskey, or Bourbon, or American single malt, or Scotch for that matter, the fundamentals of other categories are elusive. Yet in order to teach you need to be able to see the whole picture, rather than inflate an opinion based on the one piece of the jigsaw in your hand.
At the recent World Whisky Forum held in the Cotswolds, various distillers from across the world spoke of their plans to distil rye whisky, but not one communicated their story in a way that denigrated another distillery or country. There’s a real sense of collectiveness among global distillers, a sense of sharing experiences and innovations for the benefit of the entire whisky world. That’s the spirit of the global industry, and something every educator needs to remember.
This isn’t ‘Brand Ambassador Bashing: Season 2’, but rather a timely reminder that as consumers we need to keep our minds open, and that the industry needs to be more aware of the entire whisky universe, rather than just what’s happening in their own backyard.
27 June 2018
Whisky producers are visionary by their very nature. They spend every day looking to the future, forecasting what demand will be like in 10, 20, 30 years’ time. This constant crystal ball gazing shapes how they think about whisky – what flavours will consumers be craving next, what lifestyle choices will influence their spending decisions?
With the future on their minds, distillers, blenders, marketers and owners congregated at the Cotswolds distillery last week for the second World Whisky Forum, a space for sharing ideas with the common goal of developing the gloal whisky category. International producers rubbed shoulders with small ‘craft’ operations, while innovative Asian distillers shared insights with traditional Scottish blenders. With such openness, it’s hard to imagine there once was a time when distillers were forbidden from speaking to rival companies.
Developing the whisky category is not just about looking forward and predicting the future, it’s also about being cognisant – aware of what developments are occurring right now, within and without the sector.
With 13 speakers from the likes of Johnnie Walker and Irish Distillers through to New York’s Kings County and Finland’s Kyrö, the Forum was a hotbed of discussion for what trends will shape the future of whisky. The following areas were the most commonly raised, from the global growth of ‘single rye whisky’ to the death of craft.
Safe space: The World Whisky Forum is a trade-only conference for producers to share insights
Challenge everything; ignore the dogma
One of the key issues challenging Scotch whisky in particular is how to innovate sufficiently to stay relevant and appeal to whisky consumers’ changing palates, while remaining within the strict legal guidelines. However Ian Palmer, managing director of InchDairnie distillery, was resolute that the existing guidelines allow sufficient headroom for innovation. ‘The definition isn’t the problem,’ said Palmer. ‘Working within the definition takes imagination – challenge everything and everybody.’
The new Lowlands site became one of the first in Scotland to begin distilling rye (more on that later), and one of only two in the country to use a mash filter instead of a mash tun. Last year InchDairnie used seven different types of yeast, and is introducing two new strains this year. They’re all ways the distillery is experimenting with flavour while staying true to Scotch whisky’s identity, even if sometimes that boundary is blurred. ‘We’re happy to produce whiskies that taste like they should have an ‘e’ in the name,’ he said.
From Scotland’s perspective the rest of the world’s whisky producing countries seemingly bask in looser regulations that allow for greater innovation. ‘Should Scotch be worried?’ challenged moderator Dave Broom. There was a moment of reflective silence before Cotswolds head distiller Nick Franchino replied: ‘Scotch or not, if you make it badly you should be worried.’
Have courage; take risks
Similarly, having the courage to challenge the status quo was a common theme from speakers, one raised early on by Simon Coughlin’s tale of Murray McDavid’s purchase of Bruichladdich distillery in 2000. With only limited stocks of whisky and no new spirit since the mid-1990s, the team began bottling whisky from other distilleries under independent labels. ‘The fringe IB business was doing better than the Bruichladdich brand,’ he said. Realising they were in difficulty, the team was forced to do something daring. ‘We launched the Botanist gin, and it saved our bacon,’ Coughlin said. Never before had a gin been produced on Islay, but using an old still sourced from Dumbarton’s Lomond distillery, the Botanist was born. ‘We had to take the risk,’ Coughlin said.
Honesty and truthfulness
‘Today’s consumer is inquisitive, knowledgable and noisy,’ InchDairnie’s Palmer noted. ‘A thin veneer will be very quickly exposed.’ Foresight indeed from a man whose first whisky won’t be released for at least another 10 years, but it’s an insight that many speakers identified as being a cornerstone of success. ‘You need to believe in something in this industry,’ commented Coughlin. ‘If it’s all built on marketing bullshit you’ll be found out.’
The Cotswolds’ Franchino agreed. ‘There are too many gimmicks going on. When people try to weave something like that into their brand story that shouldn’t be there, it devalues it.’ Similarly, he said, releasing too many expressions in a short space of time that have no correlation to a genuine brand story is confusing for consumers. ‘If you only have one layer and someone scratches below it, you’re in trouble. You don’t have a coherent brand.’
The death of ‘craft’
‘There’s a craft distilling bubble coming if we carry on this way,’ Colin Spoelman of Kings County said. According to his presentation, just five ‘craft’ distilleries were operational in the US in 1990. ‘Now there are more distilleries in New York State than in Scotland.’ Kings County, he pointed out, is smaller than Scotland’s second-smallest distillery, Edradour. But although his operation in Brooklyn pales in size next to some of its global industry peers at the Forum, he claimed that ‘craft distilleries should just be called small distilleries.’ Every distiller and their mouser refers to itself as craft these days, even Irish Distillers’ Brian Nation, whose photograph of Midleton’s sizeable 1,500 litre ‘micro distillery’ stills generated laughter from the room.
There has been much talk of barley terroir, of a distillery’s sense of place, its unique water qualities and climate which contributes to maturing whisky’s flavour. Far less is said of social terroir, of the people who make it, who influence the whisky with their personalities, experiences and skill.
Every speaker spoke of the people that makes their product great. ‘Our area is important to the distillery and the quality of our whisky, but so are the people,’ said Kavalan’s Ian Chang.
Country conference: Some 60 delegates packed into the Cotswolds distillery for the Forum (Photo: Tristan Stephenson)
Age hangups will become obsolete
Greater education is already shifting consumers’ preconceptions that age equals quality, but advances in warehousing technology is likely to drive the conversation toward other signifiers of quality and flavour. Spoelman of Kings County, said: ‘Over the years the focus on age will diminish, but not entirely – the use of controlled warehousing will change it, lower the emphasis on age and allow consumers to focus on other elements.’
On the other hand, the question of how important rapid ageing technology will be in whisky’s future was raised, and very quickly shot down. ‘There are lots of processes that earn a lot of press, but it isn’t interesting to most distillers,’ Spoelman added.
Rye will be a global phenomenon
The majority of speakers at the World Whisky Forum spoke of distilling rye, and not all from countries typically associated with that style of whisky. The explosion in popularity of American rye whiskey, coupled with a resurgence in rye-based cocktails such as the Sazerac, has inspired global distilleries to give it a shot. Under current Scotch whisky legislation a rye whisky would be classed as ‘grain whisky’, but should the category continue to grow around the world a movement to establish a ‘Scotch rye’ or ‘single rye’ definition could take shape. After all, Bruichladdich’s Coughlin spoke of purchasing an adjacent farm on Islay on which to – possibly – grow a rye crop. Miika Lipiäinen and Kalle Valkonen from Finland’s Kyrö distillery are already working on the establishment of a Nordic rye and single malt rye category. Could it be just a matter of time before Scotland catches up?
Meanwhile Hiram Walker’s Don Livermore believes the future of the category won’t include questions about the content of mashbills. ‘Rye has the highest lignin content of all grains, which is the world’s most unappreciated molecule. Don’t ask me how much rye is in my whisky, ask me how much 4-ethylguaiacol it contains.’
Keep moving forward
One of the final takeaways, which not only encapsulated the mood of the Forum but spoke of an ongoing theme driving the global industry, was a need for progression. Not just from the Scotch producers, who are often – perhaps mistakenly – perceived to be behind the curve when it comes to innovation, but for world whisky as well. Not just for individual operations, but for the entire industry as one. A need to continue speaking to one another, to share ideas and collaborate. To look to other industries, take inspiration from bartenders and brewers, chocolatiers and coffee roasters (guest distilling was one, wonderfully exciting, suggestion).
Palmer said: ‘The Scotch industry is weak; they all just talk to each other and so the spiral [of knowledge] is closing in.’ InchDairnie is taking its inspiration from distilleries around the world, as well as other producers across the food and drink sector. ‘We’re even looking at the world of chocolate to see how they create flavour,’ he said.
05 June 2018
Eight full days of dramming, dancing, socialising and eating can take their toll on the hardiest of festival-goers, which is why it’s always best to go in prepared. This was my second Islay Festival, and possibly the most hectic (as anyone who’s followed our journey on Scotchwhisky.com the last week or so can understand). Exhausted, elated and armed with the power of hindsight, here are a few lessons I’ve picked up along the way:
We are Islay: The distillery open days are a chance to meet festival visitors and island residents
People are friendly – talk to them
Right at the heart of Fèis Ìle is its community, the people who make the whisky and welcome the rest of us to their island with open arms, but also those who regularly join them for one extraordinary week a year. It’s only now, having returned for a second year, that I really ‘get’ it.
Seeing familiar faces, catching up with old friends and sharing outstanding whiskies is an experience you don’t come across often. Those attending Fèis are united in their passion for whisky. It becomes one giant, global family.
To make the most of the festival, you simply must immerse yourself in that community spirit. Say hello to strangers, share your experiences and stories, pick up hitch-hikers. You’re on Islay now.
Leave the distilleries and go somewhere – anywhere – else. Whether that’s across to Jura to visit Barnhill, George Orwell’s cottage where 1984 was written, or up to Gruinart where they land those famous Islay oysters.
Check out the glorious white sandy beach beneath the airport, which is largely untouched and completely secluded. Visit the far reaches of Portnahaven and take a trip past Ardbeg to the Kildalton Cross. There’s so much to see and do on Islay that to just stick to whisky will only contribute to festival fatigue.
Attending every distillery open day (as we did) will only result in exhaustion by the end of the week. Choose your favourite distilleries and spend the other days doing something a bit different. Go for a walk, a bike ride or chill out on the beach. You could even go on a fishing trip or go horse riding on the beach.
Chill out: You’re on Islay time now, and that means taking things at a relaxed pace
Quite why Calmac decided to take one of Islay’s two ferries offline for planned maintenance during the island’s busiest fortnight is a mystery. It was eventually reinstated, but the confusion meant crossing times were severely restricted.
Even when both ferries run, they get full very quickly. Book your place early (the 2019 festival runs 24 May – 1 June), particularly if you’re driving. The same goes for your flights, accommodation and car hire.
The festival is only going to get busier and more popular in future – judging by the number of film crews on the island – so to avoid disappointment you need to plan ahead.
The increasing number of camper vans on the island’s narrow roads are becoming a concern for residents, so drive slowly and carefully, and take care to park vehicles in designated areas. Free camping is allowed in Scotland, but with such freedom comes a responsibility to preserve the countryside.
Navigating Islay’s many single-track roads is also an art form. Make sure to use passing places on your side of the road to allow traffic to pass by, and reverse to the nearest one if you have just missed it.
Don’t forget the indies
Queues for limited-edition festival bottlings can begin very early in the morning (sometimes in the preceding afternoon), and create a lot of chatter both on Islay and online as they are quickly – sadly – flipped over.
Both the SMWS stand in the grounds of Islay House, and Hunter Laing’s shop in Islay House Square were steadily busy, but those collecting festival editions barely mentioned either bottler. In fact, the indie whiskies were among the finest created for the festival, and at extremely reasonable prices. Best keep your eye on what the indies are doing next time.
Independent gems: Don’t forget about the unofficial distillery bottlings during Islay Festival
To flip, or not to flip?
It’s individuals’ prerogative to do what they like with their whisky, but it was also sad to see adverts encouraging flipping on the Finlaggan ferry across from Kennacraig, with the Whisky Auctioneer van parked up outside the distilleries, ready to collect bottles the moment they were bought.
Over the week many visitors lamented the increasing price of festival bottlings, some of which have been driven up by demand on the secondary market. It’s a shame for those who really want to drink the whisky, open a bottle and enjoy it.
One question to consider is: with Fèis Ìle being all about community spirit, is making a quick few bucks at the expense of others’ wallets really worth it?
If you’re vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free, bring your own packed lunch to the distillery open days. Options are limited and nearly always restricted to oysters, seafood and burgers, although a pizza stand does appear from time to time.
The Islay Festival is a manic, hectic, crazy eight days. Finding accommodation is hard, the restaurants are fully booked, and getting a taxi is nigh-on impossible if you’ve not pre-booked. This is Islay at its busiest, but to get a real sense of the island, of its people, its pace, come back and visit another time. It’s not going anywhere.
It’s going to grow
Ardnahoe wasn’t quite ready to open in time for Fèis, but that didn’t stop Hunter Laing giving scenic tours to curious passers-by. It will be operational soon, and by next year will get involved in the fun – as will, no doubt, the handful of gin distilleries being planned for the island.
With Port Ellen and Elixir Distillers’ projects also planned for 2020, and David Cameron’s father-in-law reportedly building a site on Jura, you’d better plan a visit over the next few years. The festival is about to get busier and more exciting than ever.
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Latest news 23 March 2018
The distillery has released a new single malt with no cask information or tasting notes.
Latest news 13 February 2018
The single malt expression will be available on shelves once more after a three-year absence.
Latest news 02 October 2017
The £30,000 bottling is claimed to be one of the rarest single malts in the world.
Latest news 05 September 2017
The withdrawal of The Glenlivet expression shocked whisky fans, but plans are afoot for its return.