From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Top 10 tips for surviving Fèis Ìle

    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.

    Explore

    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.

    Be picky

    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

    Book early

    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.

    Drive carefully

    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.

    The routes leading to Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain and Ardnahoe, and Kilchoman can become exceptionally busy with traffic (for Islay) on the distillery open days. Oh, and get used to doing the Islay wave!

    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.

    However, while there was still a lot of interest, demand for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and Hunter Laing Fèis bottlings – both sold at Islay House during the week – paled in comparison.

    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?

    Eat well

    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.

    Come back

    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.

  • The perennial nature of love and whisky

    14 February 2018

    It’s that time of year that has us panic-booking a table in an over-crowded restaurant only to find everywhere except Greggs filled up months in advance (actually, I believe the pasty chain has become an unlikely popular romantic destination). It’s the day devoted to splashing the cash on tacky greetings cards, red roses and stuffed bears holding hearts that declare ‘You’re Mine’, and heaven forbid you buy too small a card, or forget to buy one at all. It’s pressured, painful and expensive, but all this, of course, is suffered in the name of love.

    Cue public displays of Facebook affection from sickeningly loved-up couples who would rather whisper their sweet nothings across social media than face-to-face, as Instagram feeds fill up with pictures of wine, candles and flowers.

    It’s a funny thing, our modern perception of Saint Valentine’s Day. What began as a religious commemoration associated with romantic love by the poets and playwrights of 14th century England, has today become one of the most commercialised annual diary events in the world.

    Great poet: Geoffrey Chaucer penned the first written reference to Valentine's Day 

    Geoffrey Chaucer, the revered English poet known for his Canterbury Tales, is immortalised for penning one of the first written associations of St Valentine’s Day with love, in his poem Parlement of Foules, penned in the mid-to-late-14th century: For this was on seynt Valentynes day/ Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make (For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day/ When every bird came there to choose his mate).

    Chaucer’s Valentynes Day was thought to have referred to 14 February, when two Christian saints are commemorated – Valentine of Terni and Valentine of Rome, although very little is known about either.

    By the 18th century Valentine’s Day had grown to possess its own traditions, including the giving of hand-written love letters. By the early 1800s, the advent of ‘paper Valentines’, featuring pre-printed declarations of love on embossed paper lace, and the affordable postage that came with the introduction of the Penny Black, catapulted Valentine’s Day into a worldwide phenomenon. Today, the touching magic of receiving a hand-written note has given way to mass-produced greetings cards and supermarket-bought boxed chocolates. Thanks to social media, now you don’t even have to go to the bother of buying a card when you can just send a message through Facebook. So romantic.

    Lifetime love: Whisky is for life, not just for International Scotch Day

    I’m not doubting the sentiment – the desire to express one’s love for another is one of the most fundamental and cherished of human emotions, however it’s articulated. But must we restrict our demonstration of love to just one day a year?

    The same can be said of the handful of Days that have emerged urging us to celebrate whisky. Last week’s International Scotch Day may be one day of the year Diageo asks us to celebrate whisky, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed all the year round. Those suggestions to visit a whisky bar, try a bottle you’ve never heard of before, or host a tasting with friends are all things that can be enjoyed throughout the year. Why only show our appreciation of a good dram in an over-romanticised day of pressure to attain a perfect moment?

    Rather than cram an entire year’s worth of sentiment into 24 hours, International Scotch Day, as well as World Whisky Day, International Whisk(e)y Day and any other kind of Day, should be a time to reflect on our appreciation for the whisky we love.

    Go visit a distillery at another time of year, make whisky pancakes in the autumn, drink Highballs in winter. Experiment, discover and learn, because the more you get to know the thing (or person) you love, the stronger that love will grow.

    What am I doing this Valentine’s Day? I’m spending the day celebrating the big love of my life – I’ll be at a distillery drinking whiskey.

  • Time’s up for sexism in whisky and beer

    17 January 2018

    Thankfully beers named Morning Glory, Deep Throat and (this is ridiculous) Thong Remover are few and far between these days, but as an article featured on the BBC News website this week attests, sexism continues to plague the beer industry.

    It’s an issue that doesn’t simply lurk on the leery labels of some poorly conceived craft beers, but according to many women working across the trade, transcends the entire industry. Uncomfortable tales of sexual harassment and misogyny are rife, and far too common. Take beer writer Melissa Cole’s experience of being groped at an industry event by a guy whose only excuse was that he’s ‘a silly old man’. Or the unnamed ‘old-fashioned’ brewery that hires women to work behind its bars as an ‘attraction’ for its male patrons.

    While vulgar labels and product names aren’t prevalent in Scotch, the BBC’s article could just as well have been talking about whisky. Our industry is just as full of misogyny, as one would assume is the case with any male-dominated sector. Too many times I’ve been referred to as ‘that woman’ in a condescending tone, or told I can’t possibly like whisky or know anything about it because it’s a ‘man’s drink’ (this last comment most recently from a stranger while queuing at a Waitrose checkout). Last month a man even asked if he could stroke me.

    Whisky pin-ups: Women have been exploited to sell whisky and beer for too long, says Paskin

    Incidents like these aren’t a daily occurrence, not for me at least, but they are a reality for many women working in whisky, and beer. It’s partially the result of decades of women being exploited in advertising campaigns as a supporting act to the male lead.

    With the fallout from Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual misconduct, and the publication of major companies’ gender pay differences, the issue of sex discrimination is at the forefront of international news just now. The spotlight on women’s issues will only get brighter this year, which makes the proposed new whisky release from Johnnie Walker all the more perplexing.

    According to labels submitted for approval to the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) this month, the world’s largest Scotch whisky brand is soon to introduce a Jane Walker edition, featuring a female Striding Man.

    As Diageo, the brand’s owner, is yet to reveal full details of its new Jane Walker edition, it’s too early to comment on its intentions, though perhaps the release is a defiant statement about the power of women, and is being timed to coincide with International Women’s Day on 8 March. Perhaps a proportion of sales are to be generously donated to women’s charities around the world.

    Diageo is a staunch supporter of gender equality in the workplace, having been voted one of the top FTSE100 companies for featuring women on boards and in leadership roles. It operates schemes to train, employ and empower women in emerging markets, and has been a sponsor of a women’s literary prize.

    Ban ahead?: Many voices in brewing have called for sexist beer labels like these to be prohibited

    Considering its credentials, one would hope the expression is a demonstration of the iconic brand’s support for gender equality, rather than an ill-judged attempt at attracting female drinkers by sticking a woman’s name on the bottle. Anyone remember the sweet, pink, bizarrely named Qream liqueur (it's a cream liqueur but also the 'Q' is for queen, apparently) launched by Diageo in collaboration with Pharrell Williams? Designed to ‘celebrate the beautiful, independent and sophisticated women of today,’ Qream bombed, and resulted in a multi-million dollar lawsuit.

    People are individuals, and have their own likes and dislikes not pertinent to their sex. Despite the lingering everyday sexism, the whisky and beer world has come far in establishing gender equality in the industry. The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) will now only select businesses as its Pub of the Year if they ‘avoid causing offence to any sections of society’, while sexist beers are set to be banned at many UK festivals and competitions. Meanwhile, more women than ever are working in leading roles in brewing and distilling.

    Crass beer labels, gender-appropriate drinks and general misogyny have no place in today’s world of #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. It’s time to change.

  • Why aren’t bartenders excited by Scotch?

    08 January 2018

    ‘I got a really lush whisky for Christmas,’ a friend told me last week. ‘I can’t remember the name but it’s got these little monkeys stuck on the bottle.’ I wonder what that could be. Perhaps it’s the eye-catching bottle design, the accessible price point or the brand’s laid-back ‘street’ personality, but I bet a pound my whisky-drinking friend wasn’t alone in receiving a bottle of Monkey Shoulder for Christmas. The blended malt has become so popular among new whisky drinkers, that it’s been named the trendiest Scotch whisky brand by trade magazine Drinks International for four years running.

    Each year the magazine polls the global bar industry’s ‘inner circle of influencers’ – award-winning bartenders and bar owners frequenting various awards lists such as The World’s 50 Best Bars, Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards and various local Time Out awards – on their favourite spirits to work with, most popular classic cocktails and best-selling brands.

    Three Monkeys: The blended malt’s eye-catching bottle has helped it gain recognition among consumers 

    Monkey Shoulder, it turns out, is the most requested Scotch whisky at the world’s leading bars, trumping the likes of best-selling Scotch Johnnie Walker, and luxury malts such as Macallan. Kudos to Monkey Shoulder, but despite its popularity among guests and advent of quirky bar tools for the trade, bartenders overlooked it as a spirit they love to work with. In fact, not a single Scotch whisky featured among the 10 top ‘Bartenders’ Choice’ brands – the trade’s so-called desert island spirits.

    It’s no surprise that in the midst of the current gin craze a premium gin like Tanqueray was named the most popular spirit among cocktail bartenders. The list reads like a who’s-who of the spirits world – rum, Tequila, mezcal and even Japanese whisky get a mention – but Scotch appears to be the unpopular kid no one wants in their team. The Macallan ranked in 11th place, a position largely attributed to its popularity among the strong Asian contingent surveyed for the report (Asia comprised 28% of respondents).

    Scotch’s absence from the 10 most popular brands may be a symptom of the dearth of classic Scotch cocktails served in the world’s best bars – only three (Blood & Sand, Penicillin, Rob Roy) featured among the top 50 best-selling classics in the last year. Sadly no Bobby Burns in sight, to my dismay. Meanwhile the Bourbon-based Old Fashioned, Whiskey Sour and Manhattan all made the top 10 (that said, no American whiskey made the Bartenders’ Choice ranks either).

    Have Scotch cocktails become ‘uncool’, or is their absence a result of a deficiency in brand-led education? Report editor Hamish Smith believes there to be a ‘lack of investment behind bars and bartenders that you don't see in other brown spirit categories’, which hasn’t helped change the belief in some countries that Scotch whisky shouldn’t be mixed.

    Modern classic: The Penicillin was the best-selling Scotch cocktail at the world's best bars

    As with all sectors, new trends begin with innovators and key influencers, and gradually trickle down to the mainstream. Much of a drink’s success starts with these bartenders, who pass on recommendations to their guests. The bar is a playground for consumers to experiment with tasting new drinks and flavours without the financial commitment of buying a full bottle, and in many ways the world’s high street bartenders look up to the world’s best. If they aren’t excited by Scotch, their peers won’t be, and they certainly won’t be recommending it to their guests. It’s up to Scotch brands to excite bartenders in the first place. That’s where education begins, and that’s where change will happen.

    The more brands invest in assisting the creativity of the world’s best bartenders, the sooner we will see a resurgence in Scotch-led cocktails, and even an improvement in the quality of whisky serves in mainstream bars, an issue Scotchwhisky.com raised just last week.

    Perennial events such as Old Fashioned Week are a welcome step forward in encouraging bartenders to use Scotch in traditionally American whiskey cocktails (an event Monkey Shoulder sponsors), but to really turn heads the industry needs to get behind a best seller that’s owned by Scotch. Could the Penicillin be Scotch whisky’s Old Fashioned? A short, shaken drink consisting of blended Scotch, lemon juice, honey-ginger syrup and smoky Islay whisky, the cocktail is a crowd-pleaser that appears to be gaining in the popularity stakes – Drinks International ranked it as the 15th best-selling cocktail, having risen four places this year alone.

    If ever there was a cocktail a trendy Scotch whisky like Monkey Shoulder should get behind, the Penicillin is it. The brand has just launched a peated expression exclusively for bartenders after all. I know what I'll be ordering.

  • Peated whisky’s missed opportunity

    07 November 2017

    A friend of mine loves hot sauce so much he’ll drink it out of the bottle. Seriously. His worrying love for spice moved him to establish a hot sauce subscription service, delivering carefully selected products to other insane heat-seekers. Inevitably, I now have a collection of scary-sounding, unopened bottles at the back of my kitchen cupboards named ‘Ass Reaper’, ‘Rectum Ripper’ and ‘Annihilation’. All selected for their complex flavour rather than their crude names, of course.

    Of the hottest varieties a handful proudly state the sauce’s spiciness in Scoville heat units (SHU), a measurement of capsaicin concentration. The higher the number, the spicier the sauce. The SHU varies due to the types of chilli used, how said chillis have been prepared, how much is contained in each bottle and the amount of dilution.

    In many ways, peat is the chilli of whisky. It’s polarising, some can only handle it in small quantities, and brands often brag about being ‘the peatiest’, with bold names to match. It’s become a contest of sorts: the higher the ppm, the more street cred earned among peatheads. But there is one striking difference between whisky and hot sauce: the latter gives its capsicum measurement as a reading of the liquid itself, not of the base ingredient.

    Scoville scares: Chilli extracts will communicate the capsaicin content of the liquid, rather than the pepper (Photo: Grim Reaper Foods)

    Imagine if hot sauce manufacturers adopted whisky’s approach, and only stated the SHU of the original chilli pepper used to make the sauce. Very little of that pepper may actually be in the bottle, resulting in a mild-tasting product that hardly reflects the impressive SHU on the label. Said product would be misleading to consumers, no? So why do we continue to perpetuate the practice in Scotch?

    As we’ve covered many times before on Scotchwhisky.com, a whisky’s ppm figure relates to the degree to which the barley is peated. Phenols that attach themselves to the barley grain during malting are lost throughout the rest of the whisky production process – in the mash tun, the washback, the still and during maturation. Barley that’s peated to, say, 40ppm will simply not appear in your glass at home at that level.

    Up until this week, anCnoc was one of only a couple of Scotch brands stating its ppm as a reading of the phenols in the bottled whisky itself, rather than the barley. News this week, then, that the brand had abandoned its laudable stance was nothing short of disappointing, particularly as the change was made to ‘fall in line with industry standards’.

    A spokesperson told us: ‘We were one of the only brands to communicate the ppm of the whisky as opposed to the barley, yet the consumer understands the industry standard better, which is the ppm of the barley.’ The situation reminds me of that classic parental one-liner, put best by Mike’s dad in the first episode of Stranger Things 2: ‘If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?’

    AnCnoc Peatheart: The single malt brand has changed its ppm stance to ‘fall in line’ with industry standards

    In ‘falling in line’, anCnoc has missed a massive opportunity to educate consumers about how peated whisky gains its smoky flavour; an extremely important aspect to communicate when peated single malts are growing in popularity among whisky fans, and bartenders are increasingly requesting peated malts behind the bar.

    At the same time, the response from our readers to peat-related articles on Scotchwhisky.com lately has demonstrated an alarming lack of knowledge of phenols and smoke, and precisely what that ppm figure refers to. Continuing down a path of miseducation will only be more difficult to claw back from, as transparency becomes a major concern among consumers. There is a massive opportunity here for a brand to step up and become the real champion of peat education. To lead the way.

    How best to explain to the uninitiated what it all means? Our Whisky Professor has suggested brands lose the ppm figure altogether, describing whiskies instead as light-, medium- or heavily-peated – just like the three chilli peppers used to denote spice. Another option would be to print both the reading of the barley and the liquid on the label (in the spirit of transparency, right?). Of course our perception of ‘smokiness’ is subjective, but some form of signpost – whether a figure or relative marker – will only aid whisky drinkers in their navigation of peated Scotch.

    Whatever the approach, the Scotch industry could learn a thing or two from the hot sauce guys. But please, just leave the ‘ass ripping’ references to them. 

  • Collaboration is key to whisky innovation

    04 October 2017

    ‘I have a couple dozen experiments going on at any one time,’ shrugs John Glaser, as a table of enthralled whisky enthusiasts look on, ears bent forwards, eyes barely blinking. Compass Box’s whisky maker is known for challenging the establishment, seeing how far he can push the regulations – while staying within them – and exploring the whisky landscape to its furthest echelons. Right now, at The Whisky Show at London’s Old Billingsgate, his latest invention has an entire room dazed in wonderment and fixed on a bottle he’s had stashed in an old plastic supermarket Bag for Life.

    ‘Oh, this is just something I’ve been working on for a few years,’ he says, pulling out the bottle which is labelled simply, but ominously, as ‘Project Overlord’. It sounds like a special bottling on order for Darth Vader, though I hear he’s a bigger fan of gin, particularly Sip-Sith.

    In the glass it’s like freshly-pressed apple juice, all bitter skin and sour pulp, a fresh fruity sweetness with a softly spiced backbone – think golden crumble topping laced with a pinch of cinnamon and clove. It’s remarkable; there’s no Scotch on earth with such an intense apple character as this. I suspect other spirits at play here.

    ‘History buffs will understand what this is,’ Glaser beams. Overlord is a reference to Operation Overlord, the codename for the Battle of Normandy that launched with the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944. D-Day. The French region is also renowned for its apple orchards, and in more modern times, calvados producer Distillerie Dupont.

    Project Overlord: John Glaser introduces an apple-forward Scotch-calvados blend

    Project Overlord then is a blend of 50% Dupont calvados with Scotch matured in Spice Tree casks, and Sherried malt whisky from Benrinnes. It’s an absolute delight, but likely will never be a product released onto shelf. ‘There’s never really much demand for this kind of thing,’ Glaser shrugs. ‘It’s just something I’ve been tinkering with in my office.’ Shame. This would make a killer Highball or Hot Toddy.

    I’ve been listening so intently that I almost forget to sound the horn that signals the end of the session. This is Whisky Speed Dating, a fast-paced event featuring five whisky experts and the ‘innovative, interesting’ bottles they were requested to bring. Held on the show’s trade day, each legend has 10 minutes at a table to talk about their bottle, and answer any questions guests might have before moving on to the next cluster of eager faces. It’s a fun, intimate hour of discovery and learning, and not just for the guests. I’m scribbling away in my notebook so fast I’m forgetting my hosting duties.

    Each legend has brought something unique. Ashok Chokalingam from India’s Amrut distillery whips out a bottle of Naarangi (meaning orange in Hindi), a three-year-old single malt given a second maturation in orange-infused Sherry casks for a further three years. The result is an intense, Sherried whisky with deep sweet orange notes. Under EU regulations, adding anything to whisky aside from caramel colour and water disqualifies it from being a whisky. However Amrut has devised an ingenious way to imbue rich orange notes into its malt without angering the suits in Brussels.

    Meanwhile, Roger Melander, distillery manager and blender for Sweden’s Box distillery, is showing off the first expression in its new Quercus range, a series of single malts aged in different species of oak. This first edition, Robur, is matured for around four years in ex-Bourbon barrels, and given an intense flash-finish in virgin 40-litre Swedish robur oak casks for seven months. Robur is a species common to much of Europe, particularly in Burgundy and Limousin where it’s used by the wine and Cognac industries. It’s naturally high in tannins and wood spice, though curiously the Swedish variety, which grows as far north as Stockholm, imparts more clove characteristics than its southern cousins.

    Box Quercus I Robur is shipping around the world right now, and will be followed next year by further expressions finished in American alba (white oak) and Hungarian petraea. With such pronounced differences between French, Hungarian and Swedish oak, and indeed varieties too, could we soon see a cask’s provenance further refined beyond the traditional catch-all of American or European oak?

    Oak exploration: Could Box distillery's work with various oak species influence the global whisky industry?

    We’re beginning to nerd out now. Conversations turn to wood treatment, specifically the temperature the late Dr Jim Swan specified oak be toasted to in his proprietary STR process (between 140-180C, in case you’re wondering). Ian Chang, Kavalan’s master blender, explains how important the process is to the Taiwan distillery’s signature style. Meanwhile, Diageo ambassador Colin Dunn reveals why Golden Promise is no longer widely utilised as a barley variety by Scotch distillers (it’s prone to disease), and why a fantastically rich and chewy 38-year-old Linkwood is still regarded by blenders as ‘not ready’. It will likely be blended away into Johnnie Walker Blue Label in a few years time, much to the table’s dismay. ‘Unfortunately my company doesn’t bottle single casks,’ Dunn informs his dates.

    Whisky festivals may be a microcosm for the general whisky landscape, but this one room represents a snapshot of what the future holds in terms of whisky innovation and diversity. These are just a handful of the producers working within or outwith the regulations to discover new ways to enhance whisky’s natural flavour. Nothing is forced here; the quality of the liquid is testament to the skill and creativity of these distillers and blenders.

    Orange whisky: Amrut Naraangi uses a unique method of imbueing flavour into whisky without added ingredients

    Speed Dating over, the whisky experts gather – unprompted – to sample each other’s bottles, speaking in excited tones about methods used, swapping ideas and nodding with passionate understanding. Around 30 years ago these guys wouldn’t have been allowed to talk to each other, their company’s processes and blenders’ skills kept strictly secret from the competition. Perhaps in a way, it’s this freedom to discuss and share ideas that have helped spur on the wave of innovation in whisky, not just in Scotland but also, to a greater extent, around the world.

    Back on the exhibition floor are even further examples of innovation: Nikka’s Coffey Malt, Glenfiddich Winter Storm, a malt finished in Canadian icewine casks, the first English rye whisky, Norfolk Malt ‘N’ Rye (35% rye, 65% barley mash). Compass Box’s Glaser may be juggling several experiments at once, but if every forward-thinking producer across the world does the same, and continues to share knowledge, the next generation of whisky drinkers have a lot to be excited about.

  • What are whisky brand ambassadors good for?

    18 August 2017

    I’ve never met two brand ambassadors the same – their responsibilities differ from company to company, from personality to personality and market to market. Some have backgrounds in blending or distilling, while others have been bartenders, writers or enthusiasts in past lives.

    Some have qualifications in whisky production, while others are just beginning their whisky journey. Where one ambassador can make a killer Whisky Sour or quote The Savoy Cocktail Book verbatim, another can intricately explain the continuous distillation process or name all of the enzymes involved in saccharification.

    Usually, thanks to some form of in-house training and years already spent loving whisky, their presentations are informative and engaging. On occasion they can be blindingly brilliant – innovative, entertaining and eye-opening – but sadly from time to time – and thankfully it’s relatively rare – our beloved ambassadors can get it wrong. Perpetuating tired marketing language, enforcing ways to hold a glass or drink a whisky, asserting opinion as fact – this is one way myths are spread.

    Nobody’s perfect; everyone has a different approach and there’s always something you won’t know the answer to. Even David Stewart, Balvenie’s master distiller who at the age of 70 received an MBE for services to whisky, will tell you he still hasn’t learned it all.

    Inclusive message: Ambassadors have a duty to represent whisky as a whole, not just their brand

    No two are the same, but the one thing all brand ambassadors have in common? They’re educators. They are whisky’s mouthpieces. Whatever their knowledge, background or brand alliance, ambassadors have a direct link to consumers, bartenders, the trade and press. Their voices are powerful. They are listened to.

    A cynic would argue that a brand ambassador’s only job is to sell their company’s whisky through any means possible. However an ambassador is not just a messenger for their brand, but for whisky as a whole. One cannot exist without the other.

    You wouldn’t expect an ambassador to bite the hand that feeds them and deliver a presentation that didn’t support their brand’s story, but allegiance should be with the industry, not just the brand. It would be foolish of them to communicate a message that’s unbeneficial or, worse, damaging to the industry as a whole.

    I’m proud to say I’ve never heard an ambassador disrespect their competitors (although I once had a rival brand’s pen confiscated on a press trip – I got it back at the end. It was a nice pen). Those who do brand-bash eventually become blacklisted by their peers. For the majority the message is never ‘our brand is better because’, always ‘our brand is different because’, and surely variety is part of what makes whisky so fascinating and globally popular.

    What are brand ambassadors good for? It always comes back to education, engagement and enjoyment. They ignite our interest, our curiosity, our passion. 

    They are responsible for dispelling myths, particularly those damaging whisky’s image as accessible and enjoyable, but they can also be responsible for spreading them too. The conversation should always come from a sound knowledge base, and never, ever turn to why one brand or style is better than another.

    Varying USPs and brand marketing approaches, and contrasting viewpoints on production processes and maturation styles inspire debate and discussion. Are worm tubs better than shell-and-tube condensers? Do single malts offer more flavour than blends? Is terroir really a thing? They’re provocative questions, and I hope nobody ever really agrees, because the day people stop talking about whisky is the day that whisky gets dull.

  • The importance of whisky archives

    20 February 2017

    Hands up who went to visit Diageo’s mysterious snake in a bottle the other week? It’s a rarity for the Johnnie Walker owner to open its Menstrie archive to the public (in celebration of International Scotch Day on 10 February), but exceptional to see a 19th-century bottle of whisky containing a pickled snake.

    Yet Diageo’s archive is full of curiosities – 500,000 of them – from historic bottlings (complete with resident spirits, sans snake) to ledgers, paintings, photographs, vintage adverts, life-size horse sculptures and even a replica hot air balloon. Some day David Beckham’s distant ancestors may visit Menstrie for an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? to dig out the memorabilia associated with his launch of Haig Club.

    It’s one of the most comprehensive catalogues of a whisky company’s history in existence, and takes a team of six archivists to maintain and grow. Sadly such a thorough and tenderly curated archive is extremely rare in Scotch, which is shocking when you consider the wealth of heritage in the category dating back hundreds of years.

    Whisky log: Chivas Brothers’ archive at Strathisla contains details of the company’s past bottlings and whisky recipes

    Scotland’s largest whisky companies all began collating serious archives during the 1980s and ’90s. Chivas Brothers’ archive at Strathisla is in the hands of senior archivist Chris Brousseau, Dewar’s is curated by Jacqui Seargeant in Glasgow, The Glenmorangie Company’s history lies under the care of Iain Russell in Livingston, while Glasgow University Archives houses records from Laphroaig, deposited when Whitbread’s spirits division was sold to Allied Lyons in 1989.

    Despite the applaudable efforts of some parties, frustratingly too many whisky producers keep no record of their brands’ histories at all. Not even for those produced as recently as the 1970s or 1980s. No details of when they were first produced, no visual reminders of packaging designs, and no log of blending recipes. Their bottlings are produced, sent out the door and promptly forgotten.

    Would you raise a family without logging your children’s first words, their first steps, or without taking photographs of ridiculous hairstyles for their future offspring to ridicule? We compile photographs of family celebrations, diaries and birth and death certificates to remind us of our own faded memories, but also to show our future generations who we were. What we did.

    The credit for the Diageo archive’s meticulousness goes firstly to the group’s predecessors at the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL), who had the foresight to hold onto material relating to many of today’s oldest brands, such as Johnnie Walker, Buchanan’s and White Horse. It helped that the brands were the creations of some of the most prolific and successful marketers in the industry, people like James Buchanan and Peter Mackie, who nurtured their whiskies like children of their own.

    Following the takeover of DCL by Guinness in 1986, the resulting company, United Distillers, enlisted the assistance of archivist and historian Dr Nick Morgan to establish an archive for the company’s history. Afraid of losing some of its history as a result of the merger, Morgan was entrusted to compile as many artefacts relating to the companies’ history as he could find. In two years he filled three floors of an old warehouse with memorabilia.

    Alexander Walker’s blending book: records of past blends can help inspire the whiskies of the future​Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed our Whiskypedia section expanding lately. Very soon this section will include details of almost every Scotch whisky distillery, brand and company over the last 200 years or so. It will become the largest information resource for Scotch whisky online. It’s not an easy job compiling thousands of pages of company and brand histories, but it’s made that much harder, often venturing into the realms of the impossible, when producers keep no records of their own.

    Keeping an archive not only helps journalists like us build something as in-depth and historically accurate as Whiskypedia, but it also enables companies to draw on their rich past, resurrect brands or production techniques, or bring vintage marketing material or labels back to life. It helps create lineage for brands, and a sense of heritage which, apparently, is what millennials seek in their purchases these days.

    My globetrotting colleague Dave Broom returned from the inaugural World Whisky Forum in Sweden last week with reports of the whisky fraternity – large and small producers alike – sharing experiences and advice.

    I was thrilled to hear that among the discussions of innovation and traditional production techniques, Ludo Ducrocq, head of ambassador advocacy at Glenfiddich owner William Grant & Sons, had stressed the importance of new distillers establishing their own archive from the off. ‘It will save money in the long term,’ he said. ‘An archive protects your legacy, it tells the story, it adds value and allows you to learn from mistakes.’

    Not all brands have been lucky enough to have meticulous owners like the DCL or United Distillers. Many were passed from owner to owner with any collection of past marketing material or notes lost along the way, if they ever existed at all. One company may have started an archive, only for it to be considered superfluous by its next owner.

    Archives should be considered as important as the distilleries brands are produced in, and in this digital age there is really no excuse. My hope is that all whisky producers, not just this new wave of distillers, start documenting material right now. Understanding our past is what helps us to move forward.

    After all, curating an archive is like setting a footprint in stone. Without it, the past is simply washed away with the sands of time.

    Archives to visit:

    While the Chivas Brothers archive is not open to visitors, and Diageo’s Menstrie archive allows public pilgrimages just one day a year, there are several attractions across Scotland that welcome history buffs to immerse themselves in whisky heritage.

    The largest public collection of whisky, with bottles dating back to 1897, is at the Scotch Whisky Experience on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. It’s a fascinating, somewhat magical experience to be surrounded by so much whisky history, with tours preceded by an equally fun barrel ride.

    Meanwhile, some distillery visitor centres do do their brands justice, such as the Dewar’s experience at Aberfeldy in Perthshire, The Famous Grouse Experience at Glenturret distillery in Crieff and The Glenlivet distillery in Moray, each of which have interactive tours designed to bring the brand’s storied past to life.

  • Groundhog Day for Scotch distillery boom?

    06 January 2017

    It seems new Scotch whisky distilleries are like buses. In the last two years, five have begun distilling single malt – Arbikie, Harris and Glasgow in 2015, and Inchdairnie and Torabhaig in 2016 – while, over the next two years, we can expect a flurry of them. More than 20 if all go to plan.

    Increasing interest in single malt Scotch, particularly from the US and Europe, is driving investment in maturing stocks, rare bottlings and – on a larger scale – new distillery builds.

    It’s an exciting time for the single malt drinker, especially for those who have been concerned that newcomers to Scotch would ‘drink all our whisky’. Give it a few years, and we will never have had more choice of single malt Scotch.

    The last time there was a distillery boom of this scale was in the 1890s. Around 40 new distilleries were built in that decade alone to cope with overwhelming demand for malt whisky for use in blends, but by 1912 the same number had closed. Although a major contributor to their decline was the Pattisons’ crash of 1898 – an unfortunate incident of fraud and betrayal that led to the downfall of many distilleries and blenders – there are still many parallels to be drawn between the boom periods of the 1890s and 2010s.

    Torabhaig distillery: One of the newest distilleries to open in Scotland this century

    In Victorian Britain, blends, which had a softer appeal for more delicate palates, found favour south of the border so that by the mid-1880s it was an established spirit style for grocers and public houses.

    Major blending houses opened flagship stores in London, and introduced brand names for their blends, such as White Horse by Mackie & Co, and Pinch by Haig & Haig, for mass appeal. Blends and malts were also sold to grocers who blended and bottled them under their own labels, and in turn set up further outlets in overseas markets. John Walker & Sons established a hub in Sydney in 1887, succeeding in making Old Highland, the precursor to the Johnnie Walker range, the best seller in Australia.

    Marketing exploded in a way it never had before. Adverts were placed in periodicals, attractive mirrors, ceramics, miniatures and jugs were produced, all bearing the names of blends, distilleries and whisky companies. In 1897 Dewar’s produced the first advert screened in cinemas, at what must have been a huge cost at the time, and went on to erect the largest mechanical neon sign in Europe on the Thames Embankment in 1911. Quite simply, whisky advertising spend was huge.

    Perhaps now we are at the cusp of our first parallel between the 1890s and 2010s, where marketing in the present day means pumping millions into global advertising campaigns, TV commercials and huge billboards, and enlisting the faces of celebrities like ex-footballers David Beckham and Michael Owen. 

    As a result, back at the end of the 19th century liquid was becoming difficult to procure, and so investment was piled into building new distilleries and expanding existing ones. New distilleries built in the 1890s included Craigellachie, Strathmill (then called Glenisla-Glenlivet), Glen Mhor, Balvenie, Benriach, Imperial and Knockdhu, while those rebuilt and extended included Clynelish (Brora), Cragganmore, Glenkinchie, Glenlossie and Macallan.

    Sound familiar? Malt whisky may have been destined for fillings in blends, but the level of investment in the industry was at an unprecedented level, much as it is now. Moss and Hume remark in The Making of Scotch Whisky that: ‘After 1895, when it became clear that real growth, rather than recovery, was taking place, investment in whisky became fashionable.’

    Investment in whisky became fashionable. The rise of whisky investment vehicles and auction websites is proof of the same trend recurring more than 120 years on. Everyone wants a slice of the Scotch whisky pie.

    Crowdfunded: Phil and Simon Thomson used crowdfunding to finance the build of Dornoch distillery last year

    Back then, the majority of new distillery builds eschewed traditional locations on the west coast and Islay in favour of sites in Speyside. The shift reflected the trend in blending – Speyside malts offered a different spectrum of flavours than could be typically found elsewhere in Scotland. Barley from Speyside was also plentiful and exhibited a high yield, while peat and coal were easy to obtain. By the 1890s the local railways were efficiently run, making the transportation of coal cheaper and easier. Speyside distilleries moved from drying their barley with peat to coal, thereby establishing a new regional style.

    Note now the locations of many new distilleries being planned in 2017-19: islands with no previous history of legal distilling; the Borders and major cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh where malt distilling has been extinct for several decades; remote farmsteads in the Highlands. Not one of the seven new distilleries planned for 2017 will be in Speyside – all part of a necessity for each to boast its individuality. In a modern market where single malt is becoming crowded, USP has never been more important.

    By 1899 the amount of whisky stored in Scotland’s warehouses had grown by more than 575% to 13.5m gallons. The Pattisons’ crash was disastrous, and signalled the end of the boom in malt distilling, the First World War then sealing the fate of many. Malt whisky output fell from a high of 16m gallons in 1898 to 10m gallons just two years later. The industry was arguably heading for a bust anyway, as growing stocks far outweighed the value of whisky at the time.

    Will this be where we draw our last parallel? In recent years a decline in Scotch exports led some distilleries to reduce output to regulate their stocks five to 10 years down the line – in 2014 Diageo announced a freeze on its planned £1bn investment in increasing capacity at its distilleries, including shelving a new distillery build at Teaninich and expansion of Clynelish and Mortlach distilleries. A strategy designed to avoid repeating the same mistakes as their Victorian forbears.

    Stock management is the lynchpin of Scotch whisky’s success – get it right and value and demand remain happy bedfellows, whereas overproduction in a saturated market could see a repeat of the 1900s crash. It’s all a game of crystal ball-gazing, predicting the popularity of single malt in the future. Unlike the 1890s stills, most of these new builds are aimed at the single malt market, not blends.

    An influx of new distilleries may signal greater consumer choice (particularly where flavour experimentation is concerned) and a vibrant, ‘fashionable’ industry to invest in now, but their success hangs on whether the industry can learn from the mistakes of the past.

    That said, there are several trump cards modern distilleries have that their Victorian ancestors lacked, including a thriving gin market, whisky tourists, and social media. 

  • Keepers of the Quaich: honouring the many

    19 October 2016

    When it comes to drinks awards ceremonies, it’s always the recognisable names called to the stage: the celebrity distillers and blenders, the globally-renowned brand ambassadors, the trend-setting bartenders. It’s often those already in the limelight that are given recognition for their achievements, as is the nature of the awards beast. You have to be known to be nominated.

    That’s not to say their praise is undeserved. These are people who give themselves over completely to their work, for the promotion and sustenance of the drinks industry, all for our enjoyment and the enjoyment of future generations. These are the drivers of innovation and keepers of tradition, the passionate high achievers who go above and beyond. They are the practitioners of craft and skill on a never-ending quest for perfection. But they aren’t the only ones.

    Some awards can only be bestowed upon one recipient each year, making it near-impossible to recognise the achievements of all those deserving praise. The Scotch whisky industry, however, has developed its own tradition of ensuring that all those demonstrating dedication and outstanding achievements are given apt acknowledgement.

    The Keepers of the Quaich (pronounced ‘quake’) is a semi-secret society that you may only join if invited. You don’t choose it; it chooses you. To be inducted as a Keeper is recognition of an outstanding contribution to the Scotch whisky industry for at least five years and anyone, anywhere, in any manner of role within the industry, can be nominated to join – as long as they’re worthy. There are now more than 2,500 Keepers and 150 Masters of the Quaich (who have at least 10 years’ service as a Keeper), hailing from all over the world.

    Raise your cups: The bi-annual Keepers of the Quaich toasts the success of many Scotch whisky contributors

    Inductions take place during one of the society’s grand, bi-annual ceremonies, held at the imposing Blair Castle in Pitlochry. It’s a Scottish Cinderella’s ball, complete with red carpet, ball gowns, kilts, pipers and plenty of toasts, all presided over by Sarah Troughton, Lord Lieutenant of Wiltshire and grandmaster of Keepers of the Quaich, and the Atholl Highlanders – Europe’s only private army.

    This autumn’s ceremony, held on Monday evening (17 October), inducted 47 new Keepers and five Masters. Among them were master blenders and distillers, but also independent bottlers, event organisers, whisky retailers, still makers and regional directors, many of whom have been a part of the industry for several years, quietly making their mark without fanfare.

    Among them was Alison Morton, head of Asia market access for the Scotch Whisky Association, whose work has been instrumental to the support of many Scotch brands launching in the region.

    Niall MacGinnis, director of corporate security at Diageo, has for the past seven years provided vital support to the world’s largest Scotch producer on improving cyber and physical security.

    Jean-Baptiste Mouton, who recently became general manager at Pernod Ricard Chile, had for the past four years founded the whisky producer’s first office in Angola, ensuring the company’s Scotches, such as Chivas Regal and Ballantine's, reached consumers in the region.

    Johnnie Walker, the world’s largest blended Scotch whisky, is used to attracting awards for its liquid and the talent of its master blenders. Rarely does its global brand director, Guy Escolme, who has 14 years’ experience working in whisky, gain recognition for his dedication to the Scotch industry.

    Eduardo Heusi Pereira is the global head of liquor at travel retailer Dufry in Spain; Julie Fortin is owner of Importation Epicurienne in Quebec, Canada; Thomas Ewers the owner of independent bottler Malts of Scotland in Paderborn, Germany. I could go on, but you’d be reading this all day.

    Medal of honour: Keepers of the Quaich receive a medal and are eligible to wear the society's registered tartan

    The Keepers of the Quaich are from all walks of life and devote the same level of enthusiasm to the promotion of Scotch whisky as any whisky ‘celebrity’. We should never overlook them, or the work they do to ensure Scotch remains a drink loved by people from Beijing to Birmingham.

    Scotch whisky’s success hinges on the dedication of thousands of people, not a select few names in lights.

    It is a huge honour to be selected as a Keeper. I should know; I was made one on Monday as well, although when surrounded by so much talent and achievement, often by many with infinitely broader experience and knowledge than myself, it’s also a remarkably humbling occasion. 

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