Has there ever been a more exciting time for whisky? Probably not, says Richard Woodard.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 futureEagle-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.
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Five minutes with... 15 March 2018
The distillery’s co-founder explains why his family home moved from rock ‘n’ roll into whiskey.
The debate 22 June 2017
As the Irish whiskey boom continues, will pot still ever challenge single malt Scotch?
From the editors 01 March 2017
It’s time for Scotchwhisky.com to branch out into the wider whisky realm, says Dave Broom.
Ask the professor 23 March 2016
The Whisky Professor tackles triple distillation in answer to another reader question.