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From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • The joy of sharing music and whisky

    15 May 2019

    It’s been 10 years, almost to the day, that I first saw Mumford & Sons play. It was my first Great Escape, the largest festival for new music in Europe that just happens to take place in my hometown of Brighton.

    For three days the seaside city is overwhelmed by a throng of trendy, skinny jeans-wearing industry delegates and music lovers, all out to uncover emerging talent, whether that be a gritty, pop-rock indie duo or 16-piece Swedish folk band.

    Now in its 13th year, it’s become a popular platform for emerging artists from all over the world to showcase their work; many that perform during The Great Escape often go on to a Brit Award nomination, or a chart-topping hit at least. Past acts have included the likes of Adele, Tinie Tempah, Paolo Nutini, Vampire Weekend, Foals, The XX, The Kooks, Alt-J, Anne-Marie, Rag ‘n’ Bone Man, Stormzy… all unknown acts at the time, performing in their infancy.

    Emerging talent: The Great Escape festival attracts new musical acts from around the world (Photo: Victor Frankowski)

    Unlike other music festivals, there’s no muddy field, hot, smelly tents or long queues for grubby Portaloos. The Great Escape’s performances are split among Brighton’s many pubs, clubs, theatres and churches (if you’ve never heard The Staves perform in a church, you haven’t lived). There are street performances, acoustic sets in quiet cafes and, in the last couple of years, a pop-up beach club with food vendors and multiple stages for those missing the traditional festival atmosphere. Most of these venues have tiny capacities, and it was on one of the smaller stages in May 2009 that a relatively obscure four-piece band from London played.

    Mumford & Sons weren’t even headlining. I’d turned up to see Laura Marling (another Brit Award winner) perform at the Sallis Benney Theatre for her final gig with her band, Noah and the Whale. Mumford were the warm-up act, having been Marling’s backing musicians on the award-winning Alas I Cannot Swim, but their catchy, upbeat folky sound and progressive anthemic numbers were refreshingly rousing for this new genre of west-London folk.

    The following year they played Brighton again, this time in a small room above the Prince Albert pub just down from the train station. There were so few people in the audience, no more than about 20, and we ended up having a drink with the band at the bar afterwards. These really were Mumford’s early years.

    From tiny local pubs they quickly began selling out theatres and arenas nationwide, with mosh pits (yes – really!) a common occurrence. Their sound manoeuvred from fresh, toe-tapping folk to sell-out pop, and were frustratingly overplayed across radio and television. I’d call it the Ed Sheeran effect but Mumford got there first. Their early music is still perfectly enjoyable, but for me the thrill of discovering a relatively unknown band, in a genre largely unrecognised at that time, had been blown apart by overzealous disc jockeys and a thirsty record label with dollar signs in their eyes. Mumford had become mainstream, their fresh, quirky edge watered down to appeal to the masses.

    Sell-out success: Mumford & Sons went from playing in pubs to selling out arenas

    Like so many others, I’d shared my discovery of this fun new folk band with friends. In doing so I’d contributed to the mass-appreciation of Mumford and their evolution into something unrecognisable from the humble four-piece I’d shared a beer with in a room above a Brighton pub. I have no regrets. The thought of keeping them to myself, playing them quietly on my iPod rather than aloud among friends at a party, is saddening. A lonely experience.

    There’s nothing quite as exciting as being among the first to discover something new, which is a major draw of The Great Escape. It’s the same for whisky shows where new expressions – particularly those ‘under the counter’ – and little-known distilleries are discovered. It’s the new that keeps us returning year after year. Curiosity gets the better of us all.

    But imagine discovering that gem, that wonderful, sublime, ethereal whisky that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stick up, only to keep it to yourself. God forbid that others might enjoy it too and snap it all up, or allow it to become so mainstream that it’s not trendy anymore.

    It’s the joy of sharing that glass with a friend – ‘you have got to try this’ – that unites us in a moment of mutual realisation that you’ve stumbled onto greatness. You’re in it together. The bursting pride of seeing something you love loved by another is far more rewarding than keeping that love a secret.

    Mutual passion: There’s greater joy in sharing whisky with friends

    Yet stock shortages and a finite number of old and rare bottlings have created a sense of defensiveness among some whisky enthusiasts intent on clinging tightly to their own discovered gems. ‘Whisky newcomers are welcome to try the mass-produced brands, but stay away from my beloved rare/limited edition/collectible whiskies. They’re far too good for your mainstream palate.’

    But everyone has that light bulb moment when it comes to discovering new whisky, or a new band. Even the most die-hard malt enthusiasts among us. That thrill of tasting something new that blows your mind and makes you realise why whisky is so beloved by so many. ‘This is what everyone’s been talking about.’ It’s that momentary spark that ignites a lifelong passion for whisky, and turns a dabbler into a devotee.

    Rather than lamenting the fact more people are being turned on to whisky, let’s welcome them and share our passion in the hope of witnessing their own light bulb moment. After all, through sharing we can rediscover some of that joy that made us fall in love with whisky in the first place too.

    In the spirit of sharing, I’ve created a playlist of my top Great Escape finds this year. Enjoy.

  • The fake news fallout of Lidl’s Queen Margot

    05 March 2019

    ‘Is this fake news?’

    Texts and Facebook notifications have been lighting up my phone in the last week, all from enthusiastic whisky-loving friends questioning whether an eight-year-old blend from a budget supermarket could really have just been named the ‘best whisky in the world’.

    At least, that’s what the national press were reporting. In a world of ever-inflating whisky prices, where a bottle of Macallan 1926 recently sold for over £1 million, at just £13 a bottle the headlines sounded too good to be true.

    They were.

    You see, Queen Margot, a budget blended Scotch bottled for German supermarket chain Lidl, had indeed been named ‘best whisky’ at the World Whiskies Awards, but it was within the ‘blended whisky aged under 12 years’ category. It was judged in its competitive set against the likes of Label 5 12-year-old, Scottish Leader 12, Dewar’s 12 and Johnnie Walker Black Label, which sells for twice the price.

    All hail?: Queen Margot eight-year-old has not been declared the ‘world’s best whisky’ after all

    According to judges, more than 120 whiskies won their respective category; Queen Margot eight-year-old was just one of them.

    In fact there were four blended Scotch whisky categories: aged 12 years and under, aged 13-20 years, aged 21 years and over, and no age statement. Just one will be named overall ‘best blended Scotch’, and even that will go head-to-head against the winners of the American, Irish and Japanese blended whisky categories to determine the world’s best blend.

    When you consider Lidl’s entrant is up against the likes of Royal Salute 21-year-old and Johnnie Walker 18-year-old, the chances of the humble Queen Margot winning are slim.

    So how did we get here? Lidl, being rightly proud of its award for ‘best blended Scotch aged under 12 years’, issued a press release celebrating its win. But somewhere along the way that award was adapted by a number of media titles from ‘one of the best whiskies in the world’ to a definitive ‘best whisky in the world’. Cue hysteria among whisky fans and stampedes in Lidl’s wine and spirits aisles.

    The depressing truth is that some – not all – perfunctory journalists are under pressure from their publishers to increase web traffic with engaging, eye-catching headlines. The least offensive of articles merely exaggerate for effect; the worst amount to outright erroneous reporting, aka ‘fake news’. But when writers are under pressure from a rapidly descending deadline there’s too much temptation to simply copy and paste a story, especially when it’s printed by a usually respected title. Yet journalists are trained to question everything, to always seek a story from the source. To report the truth.

    Budget brands: German supermarket chain Lidl is known for its affordable own-label goods

    Whisky is a popular subject for the international press these days, so sadly occurrences like this are becoming more common, whether the ‘news’ is an ‘award-winning’ budget dram or the ‘discovery’ of fake rare whisky. Especially irksome are the ‘Become A Whisky Expert In 5 Minutes’ features that are littered with more inaccuracies than even the best-researched Donald Trump speech.

    Some news titles have since amended their claims following pressure from Lidl and the World Whiskies Awards, although those who have purchased a bottle of Queen Margot likely won’t be too disappointed by the revelation. It may not be the ‘world’s best’ but the expression was still voted by a tasting panel above its contemporaries, which include some of the world’s best-selling blends.

    If there have been any positive repercussions we can always hope that the offending journalists have had their knuckles (figuratively) rapped by their editors and assigned to write out 100 lines: ‘I must not copy and paste’. Though perhaps also the frenzy has gone some way to not only highlight a previously obscure brand, but also the value to be found in blended Scotch. Could the headlines have serendipitously encouraged malt purists to give blends a try?

  • Stop analysing whisky and just enjoy it

    14 November 2018

    I serendipitously discovered my favourite painting in Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado last week. I’d been told the art museum was just full of ‘old paintings’ and wasn’t worth my time, but it was a beautiful building and, with a day to kill in the city following the opening of Johnnie Walker’s new whisky store on Calle Serrano, I didn’t see the harm. Culture is good for the soul, after all.

    Two things surprised me that day. Firstly, the discovery of Diego Velázquez’s towering seminal work, Las Meninas, hanging in the Prado’s lofty labyrinthine halls. The second was how much the discovery reminded me of a scene in Bean: The Movie (no, I didn’t sneeze on the painting!).

    Depicting the young Princess Margarita Theresa being tended to by her babysitters as Velázquez himself looks on, Las Meninas has been described as one of the most important paintings in the history of Western art, and even as embodying the ‘theology of painting’.

    The babysitters: Velázquez’s royal portrait (left) has been adapted multiple times by others, including Picasso (right)

    The 1656 work has been studied, critiqued and even mimicked and explored by a string of artists since, most notably by Pablo Picasso, who painted 58 recreations of Las Meninas and its characters in 1957 alone. They now reside in Barcelona’s Museu Picasso, if you’re interested.

    But it wasn’t the painting’s importance in the sinews of art history that drew me in. Not Velázquez’s delicate brushstrokes, the princess’ doll-like stature, nor the fact this work is considered a ‘Master’. I just like it. It spoke to me. And that was enough to keep me enthralled until a soft, authoritative (English) voice broke me out of my trance.

    Narrating the painting’s importance to a crowd of tourists all sporting earphones, the guide explained: ‘See how the composition of the characters and the way they interact with one another, and even ourselves as viewers, makes us question the relationship between illusion and reality. But the true meaning of Las Meninas has eluded scholars until this day.’

    Naturally, the elusiveness of meaning invites curiosity, as the tireless reproductions of the work can attest. According to Velázquez expert Jonathan Brown, who studied Las Meninas meticulously, ‘few paintings in the history of art have generated so many and varied interpretations as this’.

    But Brown also added during a lecture in 2014: ‘I feel in my bones that I may be suffering from the early stages of LMFS – Las Meninas Fatigue Syndrome.’ Scholars could study and study one of the greatest pieces of art the world has known and still be none the wiser as to its meaning. The devoted, magnified study of a single subject without any meaningful conclusion is endless, ineffective and ultimately exhausting. Something that was once loved so affectionately becomes tiresome to embrace.

    Look closer?: Mr Bean’s appreciation of art [here with Whistler’s Mother] exists on a basic level, but it’s appreciation nonetheless

    It was this sentiment that reminded me of an exchange in Bean: The Movie. The haphazard Mr Bean, an incompetent art gallery security guard who continuously falls asleep on the job, is mistaken for an eminent art professor on a visit to the fictional Grierson Art Gallery in Los Angeles, much to Bean’s obliviousness.

    Curator: ‘Tell me, Dr, what exactly is your position at the gallery?’

    Bean: ‘Well I sit in the corner, and look at the paintings.’

    Curator: ‘Ugh, that is brilliant. If only more scholars would do that – you know, just sit and look. Not lecture and write and argue. Just sit and look at the paintings themselves.’

    Sometimes, all that’s needed is a simple reminder of what’s important. The same sentiment is true of whisky. How often has a cult bottling been dissected, analysed, tasted, reviewed and scored, discussed, debated and argued over to the point that we have lost sight of what its purpose is in the first place? Like art, whisky is there to be enjoyed.

    The whisky world is throbbing with the noise of so many critical voices and opinions. We’re so busy arguing whether whisky should be chill-filtered, if malts from the ’60s are unparalleled, or drilling down into the intricacies of flavour creation that we stop appreciating whisky for the sake of pure enjoyment. How many of us have felt early-onset WFS – Whisky Fatigue Syndrome – settle in?

    Ultimately, whisky’s meaning lies in our enjoyment of what’s in our glass. It’s time we were all a little bit more Bean, and took a step back to just enjoy the beauty in front of us.

  • Whisky is becoming over-complicated

    24 October 2018

    ‘What’s the difference between a first-fill cask, an ex-Bourbon cask and a fine oak cask?’ This seemingly complex question, posted by a curious mind in one of Facebook’s many whisky groups recently, along with its equally confused responses, couldn’t be more appropriate in its timing.

    ‘What’s a fine oak cask?’
    ‘Some have fine oak written on the label.’
    ‘That’s not really a thing.’
    ‘Isn’t it the opposite of coarse oak?’

    If you weren’t already aware, ‘Fine Oak’ was the name given to a line of Macallan expressions matured in a combination of Sherry-seasoned European and American oak casks, and ex-Bourbon casks. The range was renamed in April 2018 as Macallan Triple Cask to reflect the three types of cask used during maturation, and as a means to simplify whisky terminology for puzzled consumers.

    It’s no wonder we’re confused. The whisky industry uses so many different terms for cask types, and several even to describe exactly the same thing – first-fill, ex-Bourbon, American oak, whisky cask, traditional cask – all apparently denote a barrel used once by America’s Bourbon industry and shipped to Scotland to be filled with Scotch. Yet perky marketing departments continue to believe there’s a need to invent new ways to describe an ex-Bourbon cask, presumably because us whisky drinkers don’t understand the concept of refilling a barrel.

    For well-heeled whisky enthusiasts, navigating this minefield of ‘clever’ marketing terminology has become second nature (do you guys understand what all these terms mean, or are you making educated guesses?). But wouldn’t it be nice to be able to purchase a whisky without having to consult a thesaurus?

    For beginners: Aerstone’s Sea Cask and Land Cask are designed to demystify language associated with Scotch

    Every few weeks Scotchwhisky.com hears about a new malt or blend introduced for a ‘millennial’ audience who are new to whisky. The flavour profile is inoffensive, the branding bright and engaging, and occasionally some ‘witty’ new way to explain whisky is introduced for obtuse shoppers who don’t go to bars, use Google, or have a mind of their own. All this with the aim of simplifying what has become infamously known as an ‘intimidating’ drink.

    The latest attempt at recruiting the new whisky drinker comes from William Grant & Sons’ new single malt brand, Aerstone – a fictional name fusing the Gaelic word for ‘air’ and the word stone, denoting the earth. Two expressions have been launched as Tesco exclusives in the UK, with names designed to represent the flavours found within the whisky: Sea Cask and Land Cask.

    ‘A lot of people new to single malt are confused and intimidated by all the language around it,’ Kevin Abrook, global whisky specialist for William Grant told me. ‘They want to know more but they find it a bit overwhelming, so we wanted to launch a single malt that appealed to those people breaking down the barriers, focusing very much on flavour.’

    Although both expressions are distilled at the Ailsa Bay distillery in Ayrshire, one is peated, the other isn’t. One might assume that because many coastal distilleries produce a smoky malt, the Sea Cask expression is the peated one, but not so. Peat comes from the land don’t you know, so Land Cask is the peaty one. So what does Sea Cask mean? Surely it’s not matured under the sea… ‘This whisky develops its character from the time spent ageing in warehouses located close to the sea on the Ayrshire coast, giving the whisky a subtle salty note on the finish,’ says the press release. However the casks used for Land Cask are also matured at the same site at Girvan, albeit slightly further inland where the salty sea air supposedly has less of an impact on the cask.

    OK, so what we’re really talking about here is terroir, that the location of a cask has an impact on a whisky’s flavour, even if it’s a few metres apart. Individual casks mature differently, even within the same warehouse, imparting unique flavours depending on the cask’s size, prior filling, treatment, age, location at the top or bottom of the warehouse or – in Aerstone’s case – its proximity to the sea. That’s pretty in-depth stuff, isn’t it? For a new whisky drinker cask terroir represents a new world of whisky geekery that has to be intimidating, surely.

    Cask terroir: A maturing cask’s location affects whisky’s flavour, but is it the most important factor?

    Furthermore, by only communicating the location of a cask as a signpost for flavour (alongside a 10-year-old age statement I should add), William Grant & Sons – perhaps inadvertently – is telling new whisky drinkers that terroir is a cask’s most important contribution to flavour.

    In its defence, Sea Cask and Land Cask feature flavour notes in smaller typeface on each bottle, respectively ‘smooth and easy’ and ‘rich and smoky’. This I understand – this is easy for anyone to understand (let’s not start a debate on the loose meaning of the term ‘smooth’ though). Why confuse things by inventing whisky names that could be mistaken for new cask types?

    When I, like many others, began my whisky journey I was initially taught how the two main types of cask used to mature Scotch – ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry – influence flavour. One gives it vanilla fudge flavours, the other spicy, dried fruit and Christmas cake notes. Simple enough to understand, and any blender, distiller, whisky maker will agree the cask type has an impact on flavour. By prioritising cask terroir as the primary flavour contributor, and introducing new ‘cask types’, Aerstone is arguably starting new whisky drinkers off on the wrong foot. Soon Facebook forums will be filled with questions about why other distilleries aren’t using ‘land’ or ‘sea’ casks. Perhaps, as Brian Kinsman, master blender for William Grant told me, the whisky landscape ‘would be bland if everybody says this is Bourbon and it gives you vanilla, and this is a peated malt and that gives you smoke’.

    From conversations I’ve had with new drinkers, many believe whisky is distilled in barrels, without really understanding what distillation is. Those of us fluent in Scotch have to remember beginners’ level of knowledge is low – ultimately the only thing they’re looking for when choosing a whisky is ‘what does it taste like’? ‘Will I enjoy it?’ The industry needs to appeal to consumers’ fundamental understanding of flavour with a uniform approach to common whisky terms that doesn’t lead to confusion later down the line. The invention of marketing gumpf to promote a single brand is short sighted.

    But maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe I’m the one over-complicating things.

  • Propaganda is harming whisky education

    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.

  • What’s the future of whisky?

    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.

    Social terroir

    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.

  • 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.

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