From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • The importance of regional styles

    27 January 2016

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

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

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

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

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 It’s led many to believe categorising Scotch styles into geographical regions is an outdated method of communicating flavour, and they’re correct to an extent, but it also provides an expedient map for the Scotch newbie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Precision beats power

    16 December 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Stop discouraging female drinkers

    18 November 2015

    I’m not an active feminist. I get more worked up over the correct pronunciation of ‘Bourbon’ (it’s not a bloody biscuit!) than I do women’s rights, not that I’m not in favour of them of course. It’s just that I actively choose to focus my frustrations elsewhere.

    However two instances of thoughtless marketing in the past couple of weeks have lit a feminist fire inside of me strong enough to burn a bra or two (okay I probably wouldn’t go that far, they’re way too expensive).

    I’d dismiss the first as a throwaway comment if it weren’t for the fact it was widely distributed in a press release to communicate the launch of a new product:

    ‘Ballantine’s Hard Fired is a modern, masculine expression that responds to current trends in the whisky market…’

    What does a ‘masculine expression’ mean exactly? And surely if it’s modern and responding to current trends it shouldn’t be masculine as everyone knows more women than ever are enjoying whisky?

    I had the opportunity to ask Peter Moore, global brand director for Ballantine’s, precisely what he meant by the comment.

    ‘We saw that [Ballantine’s Hard Fired] reached into a male interest in fire and smoke and craft, which made it a little bit more masculine,’ he told me. ‘What man doesn’t love going out there and letting off fireworks and having bonfires and things?’

    Personally I love the seduction of a roaring fire, the scent of burning wood and the glowing warmth that threatens to blister your skin. How is that experience masculine? Are fireworks a pastime only men are privy to now? In fact it should be men who are more pissed off at Moore’s dated generalisation of themselves as primordial pyromaniacs.

    ‘We do not want to suggest in anyway this won’t be enjoyed by women, he added. ‘The French have this wonderful thing of calling things male or female, well this has a much more masculine character than a lot of other Ballantine’s which tend to be unisex.’

    Unisex whisky? Never heard of it but there he has hit the nail on the head. Flavour is subjective. There is no such thing as a female palate or a male palate, only an experienced and inexperienced one. Marketing to a certain sex on flavour preference alone is generalist and insulting.

    No women allowed: by adhering to outdated stereotypes companies are inadvertently alienating the female sex.

    I said there were two instances of thoughtless marketing, and the second bout came in the form this week of a more upsetting, apparently exclusive whisky fan club.

    Beam Suntory Germany needed a new name for its Signature Malts fan club to integrate the portfolios of both companies following Suntory’s acquisition of Beam. Unfortunately the group chose to name their club ‘Men of Malts’, an insensitive moniker that seemed to exclude the membership of women.

    I say 'apparently exclusive', because Beam Suntory Germany later claimed the term ‘men’ had been used to mean ‘humanity rather than the male sex’. While there was no strict rule listing the ownership of a phallus as a condition of entry, females coming across this group would almost certainly have been discouraged from joining up.

    The name is now being changed, thanks to the eagle eye of a female blogger and a few words from Scotchwhisky.com, but whisky companies need to be more careful not to deter women.

    If we want to encourage more women to discover whisky we need to move away from dated stereotypes and quit attaching these archaic and sexist sentiments to it.

    For a category that’s desperately trying to attract a growing demographic of whisky-drinking women through concocting light and sweet innovations, taking the time to consider whether its marketing initiatives are in fact a deterrent to the very consumer they’re hoping to entice would do no harm.

    Otherwise we may as well hang a big sign around bottle necks saying ‘Hands off ladies, this is a real man’s drink’, while offering a slap on the bum and leery smirk free with every purchase.

  • Is Whiskey Union breaking with tradition?

    13 November 2015

    What exactly is the most ‘unorthodox and weird’ thing about Diageo’s new Whiskey Union range?

    Could it be the seemingly whimsical way these whiskies have been assembled and launched? It took the group just six months to create the concept – an unusually brief period considering most NPDs are on the table for two years before they come to fruition.

    Or is it the fact that Diageo has in the past insisted Bourbon is not taking market share from Scotch, but its Smoky Goat is now strategically placed to appeal to Bourbon drinkers with its ‘sweet’ flavour profile and deliberately competitive price point? It’s a strategy that Diageo is not alone in following.

    The Mobsprey: the new face of Scotch whisky? 

    Perhaps it’s Huxley's bizarre description as a ‘rare genus whiskey’, which is not only spelled rather confusingly with an ‘e’ when it contains multiple types of whiskies, it’s also such a bewildering term that even Wikipedia’s definition is dizzying to follow.

    Furthermore, instead of taking its branding cues from a particular region’s geography, heritage or weather, Huxley is more aligned with a macabre Victorian fascination in taxidermy, featuring a nightmarish chimera of a moose, bobcat and osprey, named Mobsprey, on its label. Is Diageo developing a morbid side?

    Meanwhile, adding hops to a whisky mash is not necessarily a brand new concept – several independent distilleries in Canada and America have been experimenting for at least a decade (see Charbray, Sons of Liberty, Corsair and JP Wiser’s) – but never before has there been a hopped ‘Scotch’ in the form of Boxing Hares (admit it, ‘hopped Scotch’ has a certain ring to it, even if it moves the SWA to pull out its rulebook and wagging finger as it’s technically incorrect).

    The entire concept is so far outside Diageo’s comfort zone that it’s unorthodox by its very nature. The world’s biggest drinks group launching a new product, let alone three, before it’s been properly tested and considered? Blow me down.

    The drinks industry is well aware that most new product developments (NPDs) are doomed to fail, but for the first time, a large drinks group is openly admitting it expects that. Is this transparency a way for Diageo to appeal to Joe public who has lost faith in sinister large corporations?

    Bourbon, beer and hipster: Covering all consumer trends with Whiskey Union.

    A more cynical person than myself might suggest Whiskey Union smacks of desperation to claw back declining sales for Diageo’s Scotch category by covering all current trend bases in one swoop. It’s become a case of chasing consumer spend rather than investing in doing Scotch better.

    Craft products? Check. Millennials targeted? Check. Transparency? Check. Combatting interest in Bourbon and beer? Check. Enticing new entrants to the category? Oh yes.

    But on the other hand, Diageo is addressing a factor that has long been missing from Scotch whisky but is present in every other major brown spirits category – fun. Aside from William Grant’s Monkey Shoulder, which other Scotch brands meet the needs of the younger consumer who’s out to party?

    It’s all very well having an aspirational brand such as Johnnie Walker or Buchanan’s as an entry level Scotch, but where is Diageo’s answer to Jack Daniel’s or spiced rum, that party spirit that can be mixed with coke without stigma attached? Diageo may be driving Smoky Goat on the rocks, but its sweet and smoky flavour profile is perfectly suited to cola, while its cheeky, quirky personality positions it nicely as a trendy, fun serve.

    Ultimately, the most unusual thing about Whiskey Union is that with it Diageo is finally addressing a gap in the market that its prior preoccupation with tradition and heritage in Scotch whisky blinded it to.

  • Back to the Future Day

    21 October 2015

    Great Scott! Bust out those self-tying sneakers, hop onto your hoverboard and switch on some Frankie Goes to Hollywood, for today is Back to the Future Day.

    Yes, we have finally arrived at the date in time Marty McFly and Doc Brown broke through the space-time continuum to in their Delorean, in the smash-hit 1989 film sequel.

    The day Marty McFly travels back to the future is now a reality.

    For our favourite time travellers 21 October 2015 was a fantastical world apart from the familiar shoulder pads and big hair of the 1980s, though director Robert Zemeckis did accurately predict several innovations.

    Hoverboards are now scarily real, as is 3D cinema and video chat. Heck, Zemeckis even predicted the invention of the Google Glass.

    Certainly technology has evolved in the last 26 years, as has the Scotch whisky industry, which rose from the ashes of a crash in the 1980s to export 1.19bn bottles a year all over the world.

    Even distilleries have implemented new technologies that have streamlined production, yielding more liquid faster than ever before, while biomass plants that convert waste product into energy are now par the course.

    In celebration of Back to the Future Day here’s a look back at some of the highlights occurring in Scotch whisky in 1989.

    'Hey McFly you Bojo! Those boards don't work on water!'

    Ben Nevis. In 1989, Long John International – the whisky arm of brewer Whitbread – sold Ben Nevis distillery to Japanese distiller Nikka, a long-term customer of the business.

    Lagavulin. The now iconic Lagavulin 16 Year Old joined Diageo’s Classic Malts portfolio in 1989.

    Bowmore. Japanese drinks group Suntory bought a stake in Islay distillery, Bowmore, in 1989, going onto acquire the site fully in 1994.

    Glentauchers. United Distillers sold the mothballed distillery to rival Allied Distillers (later purchased by Pernod Richard) in 1989 and became a named component of Ballantine’s.

    Imperial. The mothballed distillery is sold to Allied Distillers in 1989 but not reopened for another two years. Eventually the site was demolished to make way for Chivas Brothers’ gleaming new Dalmunach plant.

    Glenrothes. While much of the whisky industry was struggling under a fall in demand, Glenrothes swam against the tide of closures and increased its distillery capacity with the installation of two new stills, bringing its total to 10.

  • Let's hear it for the ladies

    09 October 2015

    ‘Do you actually like whisky then?’ ‘This can’t be your real job.’ ‘Let me buy you a vodka and coke instead,’ are just a handful of phrases I, and many other women working in the whisky industry, encounter daily.

    Granted the thoughtless misogynistic comments are spouted by the minority but still, with more women than ever enjoying a wee dram why does gender stereotyping still exist at all?

    According to a 2012 Simons Market Report, 30% of whisky drinkers are female, while some of the most talented master blenders in the Scotch whisky industry are women – Maureen Robinson at Diageo, Rachel Barrie at Morrison Bowmore and Kirsty McCallum at Burn Stewart (who is now in an ambassadorial role) to name a few. Heck, one of the largest Scotch whisky-producing companies is led by a female CEO.

    Indeed, women have been distilling Scotch since the 19th century when it was commonplace for farmhouses to operate a still – illicit or otherwise – for domestic consumption. Some distilleries would not be here today if it weren’t for the pioneering resilience of female distillers like Elizabeth Cumming (Cardow, now Cardhu) and Bessie Williamson (Laphroaig). As Fred Minnick says in his book Whiskey Women: The Untold story of how Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskey: ‘For a business steeped in tradition and history, whiskey has forgotten its better half. Women have always been a part of whiskey history; they’ve just never received credit.’

    Women working in the Chivas Brothers bottling hall in the 19th centuryWomen working in the Chivas Brothers bottling hall in the 19th century

    Even now women are referencing whisky in popular culture more than ever. Christina Hendricks may have kick-started the renaissance through her tough, whisky-swigging character in Mad Men, but you needn’t look much further to find female whisky drinkers in film, music and art: Rihanna, The Staves, Mila Kunis, Lady Gaga, Aisha Tyler... the list goes on.

    Stardom aside, taking in The Whisky Exchange Whisky Show in London this week also dispelled the myth that Scotch is exclusively a man’s drink – ladies poured in to try a dram with as much passion and interest as their male counterparts.

    So next time you see a lady drinking a dram at a bar, working at a whisky exhibition or even making whisky in a distillery, she doesn’t need saving with a vodka and coke. Instead she needs thanking for her contribution to the industry. 

    Women's contribution to the whisky industry is even making national news in America:

  • Laphroaig's spontaneous combustion

    01 October 2015

    There’s beauty in spontaneity. The honesty of an unscripted moment feels endearingly charming and reassuring, and serves as a reminder of our humanity. Which is why Laphroaig’s #OpinionsWelcome campaign, created to celebrate the Islay Scotch whisky distillery’s 200th anniversary, is one of the finest whisky marketing initiatives ever.

    This post may seem belated – the campaign launched in the summer last year – but in light of Johnnie Walker’s new ‘Joy Will Take You Further’ promotion it’s worth revisiting.

    Last month Diageo unveiled the new campaign for its leading blend based on years of research into consumer behaviour. Joy, it seems, is now a bigger measure of success than money or fast cars.

    Both these campaigns, at first glance, purport to be bringing whisky back to a human level, but how many of us can really relate to a stiletto-wearing motorcyclist wearing a jetpack? The image is more terrifying than joyful.

    Which brings me to my point about Laphroaig’s campaign, which features real people giving their honest, unscripted opinions on the whisky. It’s relatable. It isn’t rehearsed or convoluted or showing off. It’s real, and while they may be beatnik poets or Islay locals rather than movie stars or race car drivers, they are convincing and utterly entertaining.

    More than that though, this series of videos and tweets illuminated on the side of the Laphroig distillery is doing something much greater than simply promoting the whisky. It’s reassuring us that there is no right or wrong when it comes to drinking whisky. Think it tastes like burnt knickers? That’s okay, but a bit gross. If this industry is to encourage more consumers to try Scotch, this is precisely the approach that’s needed.

    We may not like to hear it, but Scotch whisky still carries an air of unattainable sophistication that’s off-putting to some people. This association needs to change if the category is going to compete against American and Irish whiskey in the future.

    So Bravo Laphroaig, and thank you for showing us that it’s okay to have an opinion on what’s in the glass, no matter how weird.

  • A jolly good(wood) drive

    20 August 2015

    I could probably spend hours concocting a tedious link to explain why spending a full day driving Morgans around Goodwood race track has anything to do with whisky, but let’s be honest – it was what we journos like to call a jolly.

    In my defence I was invited along with some of the UK’s most renowned bartenders and bar owners by Balvenie, who have developed a strong partnership with the Morgan Motor Company over the last few years. According to the Speyside single malt brand the two companies share the same values of craftsmanship, heritage and family-ownership, and have cemented their relationship through the commission of four Balvenie Morgan 4-seater Roadsters, which can be spotted roaming around the US and UK.

    The UK's only Balvenie Morgan.

    Unfortunately only a handful of William Grant & Sons staff are insured to drive the cars, but that didn’t stop us road-testing a sample of Morgan’s core fleet at Goodwood in West Sussex.

    The Malvern-based car manufacturer, through its dealer Bell and Colvill, kindly – and very trustingly – lent several of its vehicles to us liquor lovers with which to tear up Goodwood’s famous corners, though of course, very sensibly, the whisky was absent.

    For those who are unfamiliar with Morgan's cars, here are a few facts:

    • The Morgan Motor Company was established in 1909.
    • Every car is handmade from an aluminium chassis with a wooden (ash) body.
    • The top speed of the Plus 8 model is 155mph.
    • Each car is open-topped.
    • Don't even think about crashing one.

    Four cars were made available for us to drive ourselves – with an instructor present – around the track: a 4/4, V6 Roadster, 3-wheeler and a Plus 8. Now I’m an ace behind the wheel when safely playing Need for Speed at home, but in reality I’m a coward when it comes to wooden cars, speed and corners. Thankfully I had the highly experienced racing pro – and former Coronation Street and Hollyoaks actor, Tony Hirst, to show me around the track, albeit in his own ARV6 Roadster which has a top speed of 150mph.

    Another thing to note about a Morgan – the seats are low, which means if you’re a short-arse like me you won’t see far over the dashboard, particularly if you’re cowering at the speed at which Hirst nonchalantly takes his corners. But of course this calm and experienced attitude is why he won the Morgan Challenge Race at Silverstone the previous weekend.

    Speed demon: Tony Hirst and I get a dressing down for making too much noise.

    Thankfully by the time it came to my turn round the track the heavens had opened, which meant I ended up in the slowest and safest car in the fleet – the 4/4, and had some useful advice from Hirst to consider:

    • Look ahead through the corners and not at the front of the car.
    • Don’t trust your instincts – your brain will tell you to steer one way but you must resist.
    • Brake gently.
    • Accelerate gently.
    • Only accelerate and brake on the straights, and never on a corner.
    • Have fun.

    Accelerating gently? I’m not ashamed to admit I only hit a top speed of 65mph – some way off Hirst’s best I’m sure, but at least the car was delivered safely back in one piece despite the downpour. That’s a win in my book.

    Admittedly, reaching for a dram once arriving home just to settle my frazzled nerves is really the only part whisky plays in this little excursion, but experiencing the thrill of driving a handmade car does lend a healthy insight into the high level of craftsmanship and attention to detail that’s needed to keep its driver and passengers comfortable and safe. It’s understandable that Balvenie sympathises with these values, it being one of the few remaining Scottish distilleries with its own floor maltings and cooperage. But all that’s better explained by them in this video, which was produced by the group earlier this year, although the extent to which Balvenie is really the ‘last handcrafted whisky in the world’ is debateable. 

    Now, don’t suppose any other whisky brand fancies partnering with a luxury Bahamas tour operator?

    All in a day's work: Tony Hirst makes driving a Morgan at up to 150mph seem easy.

  • The benefits of whisky-scented moustache wax

    08 July 2015

    What better way for a whisky brand to grab the attention of a hipster than to talk about the one thing that matters to them the most?

    The moustache, that universal symbol of hispterdom, now has a new friend in the Johnnie Walker wax collection – a range of three scented moustache waxes each designed to enhance the flavour of the brand’s signature Johnnie and Ginger serve.

    Exclusively available at Huckle the Barber in East London, the pocket-sized collection – available in Piperine Pepper, Citrus Essence or Ginger Root flavours – is designed to increase brand awareness among millennials, or more specifically, hairy male hipsters.

    Wax your 'tache in three delicious flavours.

    This is the third example of Johnnie Walker’s attempt to capture this demographic’s attention through diversifying its range with whisky-related wearables. First came the Heriot Watt-developed Harris tweed infused with the aroma of Johnnie Walker, then the pair of Oliver Sweeney brogues with a secret compartment just the right size for a miniature of Johnnie Walker in the heel.

    At first glance each of these creations may seem like a novelty, but could branching its range out into non-consumables that appeal to a growing millennial audience be a clever approach to stemming declining sales in Western markets?

    Volumes of Johnnie Walker declined by 3% in North America and Western Europe in 2014, a trend that analysts claim ‘highlights the urgent need for a fresh positioning’.

    Quirky innovations like the Johnnie Walker moustache wax may gain column inches in the consumer press – as well as this website – and perhaps result in a handful of sales of the three waxy scents, but a deeper and more substantial appeal to millennials is key if brands like Johnnie Walker are to turn the tide in western markets.

    As Spiros Malandrakis, senior alcoholics drink analyst at Euromonitor, says: ‘Overoptimistically succumbing to the now defunct emerging market mantra, [Johnnie Walker] was being quietly left behind its Irish and American siblings as well as the myriad micro offerings in its core western markets.’

    He adds that expanding the brand’s appeal to encompass several drinking occasions, cocktail serves – that are easy to recreate at home – and even extended product lines will ‘make or break key mainstream brands going forward’. The warning has far more urgency for blended Scotch than other whisky categories, which is suffering from a tired image in the shadow of aspirational single malts and Bourbons.

    However he warns that brand diversification needs to offer more substance than simple novelty if it’s to have any real effect on falling volumes.

    ‘Attempting to re-establish relevance to an alienated younger demographic is and will remain important but appearances can only go that far,’ he says. ‘It’s time for radical changes in substance.’

    Hairy hipsters: the focus of Johnnie Walker innovations

    If it’s really the millennial audience JW is reaching for, surely with increasing numbers of female whisky drinkers, who incidentally are driving cocktail sales in western markets, expanding the brand focus from purely hairy hipsters to include a younger female audience is one path declining whisky brands could benefit from?

    Although it’s unlikely whisky-infused jewellery will drastically alter the brand’s sales for the better, it sure would be nice for female whisky drinkers to be recognised as a key demographic alongside hairy hipsters. After all, we may be more difficult to spot without the obvious facial cues, but there are no doubt just as many of us.

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