From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Is perfume the new whisky?

    13 September 2017

    Late night, slick pavements, walking past bags in doorways and orange peel littering the gutter. The scene shifts to peeling cucumber and making melon balls next to starched linen.

    Shake the head. I can hear the creak of leather as I get off the bike next to an old-growth forest, filled with redwood and sandalwood, resin oozing from trunks, a distant camp fire and sage smoke lifting off from the hogans in the desert, the rustle of dry corn husks under my feet.

    Open my eyes. I’m not on some lost Californian highway, but in London’s Somerset House, halfway through the hallucinatory experience in 10 acts that comprises Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent.

    Each of the installations in this sense-expanding experience presents you with a different setting: white scarves tied to a bench, or an unmade bed reeking of last night’s lovemaking.

    They are cues, or clues perhaps, which lead to a certain degree of auto-suggestion. It’s hard not to think of chainsaw oil, cut timber and campfires fires when you’re sitting on a log, but Lyn Harris’ Charcoal does exactly that even away from the installation.

    The exhibition showcases how perfume is currently being driven by ‘experimental’ brands which are pushing what was a lucrative but safe luxury market in a new and radical direction.

    Perfume, in this reading, is no longer about smelling good, or sexy, or elegant. Today’s scents are about telling a story, taking you on an olfactory journey.

    Perfume installation: Antoine Lie’s Secretions Magnifiques

    Some demonstrate a shift from the exotic to the explicitly erotic: Antoine Lie’s Secretions Magnifiques combines the aromas of semen, blood, sweat, saliva and breast milk.

    Others seem more abstract: a white cube containing Geza Shoen’s Molecule 01 (made from a single molecule) conjures up a picture of weeping while reading a newly-printed book; my night-time city was Mark Buxton’s CDG2, the brief for which was ‘the smell of a swimming pool of ink’.

    Then there are those which are olfactory dioramas of place: my desert highway is David Seth Moltz’s El Cosmico, while Harris’ Charcoal is inspired by her Scottish grandfather. I’d willingly wear either of those every day.

    All of this is bound up in the belief that for perfume to remain relevant it has to change its frame of reference and be experiential, not simply aromatically complex. We demand stories. We can now wear them on our skin, like scented, molecular tattoos.

    Olfactory diorama: Mark Buxton’s CGD2 has notes of ‘night-time city’

    There has been an equally dramatic shift in the way in which perfumers, rather than being the person behind the curtain, are now the focal point; and also how these new scents are open about the science behind their creation.

    Yes, these are synthetic molecules, they say, but look at how they are used creatively and artistically. The ‘disruption' caused by the arrival of these new scents isn’t making perfume more luxurious. By incorporating the wonders of the apparently mundane, it is making it real.

    In the accompanying catalogue, perfume writer/consultant Lizzie Ostrom has written one of those essays which should be mandatory reading for anyone involved in the making, selling or drinking of whisky – and not just because she uses the drink as an example.

    ‘Perfume is becoming less like fashion and more like food and drink,’ she writes. ‘…We are being invited to pay attention when we smell our scents, just as we might pay attention while tasting a whisky.’ You don’t just wear a scent, the argument goes – you are a participant in it.

    It’s ironic, then, that as the perfume industry moves away from an over-reliance on packaging and image towards this idea of experience, whisky is moving in the opposite direction.

    One reason for perfume’s shift is a rejection of the old school belief that because aroma was so difficult to talk about, the only way to describe (and sell) a perfume was through its look. It was about surface, not content. Now, it would seem, there is a realisation that you can engage with people by talking about aroma, function, and the creative process.

    Visitors were encouraged to smell the perfumes, then write down their impressions. The responses were fascinating to read. Because no-one was trained in the language of perfumery, they weren’t constrained by orthodoxy.

    No top, middle, or base notes, there was precious little ‘sillage’, and no-one seemed concerned with ‘dry down’. In its place were impressions, jokes, doodles, likes and dislikes. Honest responses.

    All of this made me wonder about the formulaic way we talk about whisky. If the flavour wheel has been turned on its head, does the tasting note also need a reappraisal? Nose, palate, finish, this, then this, then this… Now, repeat. Yes, there are advantages in having an agreed method, but are our responses not also constrained by its formulaic nature?

    Being able to see the difference between a ‘fruity’, a ‘fragrant’, and a ‘smoky’ whisky gives people confidence, but what comes next? Dare to try something more radical? Can the tasting note not be about what this whisky speaks of at this precise moment, can it not tell a story of place, or of memory? Seen this way, and tasting becomes a phenomenological experience, not an analytical one.

    The exhibition also made me wonder whether you can put a story within a blend? Should we think of ‘wearing’ whisky as well as drinking it? Perhaps that form of disruption and freeing of language can help to put you in a different creative space as a whisky maker and consumer. 

    Re-reading Ostrom’s and co-curator Claire Catterall’s introductions, I started to replace ‘perfume’ with ‘whisky’. Catterall’s essay then read as follows: ‘It is precisely whisky’s position as an object of material culture that makes it compelling.

    ‘Whisky appeals to us on many levels, not just the abstract or artistic. It signifies who we are and what we aspire to, where we come from and where we want to go, and of our time and place in the world.’

    Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent runs until 17 September.

  • Remembering Michael Jackson 10 years on

    30 August 2017

    Hard to believe that it’s been a decade. Not simply because time appears to speed up as you age, but because it is as if he is still there. Even now, I pause and think, ‘what would Michael do?’ The reply is immediate, delivered with lugubrious Yorkshire tones. ‘Avoid cliché.’ I see him, at his desk, looking over his specs at me, a quizzical, amused light in his eyes. A look that still contained a warning. Michael might have taught me about whisky, but more importantly he taught me about writing.

    I first came across him on television as The Beer Hunter, a series on the infant Channel 4, where he toured the breweries of Europe discovering beers which none of us had heard of. It seemed a dream job. As importantly, in those days when wine was still seen as being beyond our social reach, he showed that the humblest drink – the one we supped in sticky-floored boozers – had history, heritage and an array of flavours every bit as fascinating and complex.

    Legendary writer: Michael Jackson helped elevate whisky’s status

    When, years later, I had to do a wheat beer feature for the paper I was working on, I had the brilliant idea of doing a panel tasting. I knew little about the subject. [Michael raises an eyebrow]. OK, I knew nothing about the subject, so could deflect my ignorance by hosting and hopefully learning at the same time. I asked him because he was famous, never thinking he’d turn up. Of course he did. He talked, and tasted. We all listened and learned. Our friendship started at that point.

    I remember visits to the Dickensian chaos of his office where you negotiated your way to the desk, through shattered columns of ancient press releases, magazines, and quite probably old rugby league programmes. He seemed to be deliberately building his legacy physically around him. [Another look. I know, Michael. My room is in much the same state].

    There were the trips to Scotland and Japan. On my first overnight to Tokyo, he charmed the stewardess – what a way he had with the ladies – to get an upgrade because ‘I need to plug in my laptop. I’m a writer.’ On arrival, his first words to me were: ‘Japanese vending machines are amazing. You can get beer from them.’ Another look, that gentle grin. I hurried off. Returned and picked up his extra bags, or tried to. ‘Books, buddy. Never trust your publisher to send them, or send enough.’ Bag carrier to Michael Jackson. That was something for the CV.

    The extra books made perfect sense. He was famous by then. The boy from Huddersfield, who had started on the local paper, worked on The Daily Herald and then founded Campaign, had not just made his name by being the first serious writer about beer but had also by then helped elevate whisky – single malt, especially – from an oddity consumed by landed gentry and obscure Scottish poets, into a drink with a new following.

    Would there be a single malt category without his work? Undoubtedly yes. Would it have evolved in the same way? Probably not. His words helped to craft the way in which this new phenomenon – single malt, small batch Bourbon, Japanese whisky – was appreciated, talked about... and therefore sold.

    Funny, isn’t it, that the decade since his death has seen the biggest changes globally that whisky has ever encountered, while ‘whisky writing’ has become, if not a career, then something which is commonplace [‘Ahead of the curve, buddy’] even if hardly any of the new generation will have heard of him, or read his works. [He smiles. Shrugs]

    Although he always dismissed himself as a hack [‘We’re all hacks. Don’t forget it. It’s the story which matters’] his prose was remarkable. Clear, concise, wearing its knowledge lightly, yet capable of eloquence and a profundity rare in this subject. Here’s the opening paragraph from his 1987 book, The World Guide to Whisky:

    ‘Some spirits are timorous, others feel the need for disguise, but whisky is bold and proud. There are spirits of such aimless material origin that they must be distilled to the point of breathlessness: driven by a colourless, tasteless submission that passes in the West for vodka. They are for drinkers who suffer from Fear of Flavour, an affliction of our times… In its nobility, its profundity, its bigness, its complexity, whisky of either spelling is a pleasure meant for men and women who enjoy drink, and probably food.’

    I like that ‘probably food’. Makes me smile. The rest? It should be enough to make people want to read more, and writers to either give up, or perhaps try that little bit harder. He was the best because he was a writer and wrote with a journalist’s eye for detail – and an understanding that he would never know everything.

    ‘You’ve been here before, Michael,’ said one distillery manager to him when we were visiting. ‘Why are you taking notes?’

    ‘Because you always learn something new,’ Michael replied, decades into his work.

    He was seriously ill for the last few years of his life, but never stopped writing. If anything, he seemed to be liberated from the treadmill, the hack work. The result was a remarkable flaring of pieces about his early days for Slow Food, and a witty farewell in Whisky Advocate, explaining the different ‘Michaels’ who emerged, depending on the symptoms and what drugs he was on at the time. Read them, read it all, if you can find it. 

    He was my mentor. More importantly he was my friend.

    [He looks at me again. ‘This is getting maudlin. Let’s just talk about jazz’].

    OK… Coltrane or Dexter Gordon? You first.

  • Is it time to reinvent the flavour wheel?

    30 August 2017

    I’ve had a slightly strange relationship with flavour wheels. Obviously they make sense, otherwise they wouldn’t be so widely used. I use them myself, albeit carefully. The research paper which gave us the current Scotch whisky flavour wheel remains a go-to for me when I’m trying to get a fix on not just what aromas are there, but where they come from.

    When I’m out and about teaching, I get folk to look at the standard Scotch wheel while I (try to) explain how it works, from the bullseye of cardinal aromas in the centre and the subdivisions of aroma/flavour in each outward ring, to the creative space of your own memories which exists in the white space beyond. Then I ask them to put it away, as having a flavour wheel next to you when you are tasting is too much of a temptation. You can’t help glancing at it, but the moment you do, the words on it inveigle their way into your brain – driving you towards a potentially inaccurate and less personal analysis.

    So, a flavour wheel is useful before a tasting, and certainly after, and as a way of showing whisky’s diversity of flavour, it remains invaluable. But while it is a handy tool, it is not one (it’s fair to say) which has been front of mind.

    Until, that is, I had the distinct honour to sit recently on a panel with Dr Don Livermore, master blender at Canada’s Corby distillery; and my old buddy the Canadian whisky guru Davin de Kergommeaux.

    The class was a fascinating exploration of the flavour profiles of the different grains and distillation processes at Dr Don’s distillery. He did all of the heavy lifting, while Davin and I chipped in with tasting notes for all of the new makes.

    Canadian version: Click the image to view Dr Don's whisky wheel in more detail

    Central to it was Dr Don’s new Canadian whisky flavour wheel. ‘I’d looked at the old one for years and always wondered what wasn’t quite right about it,’ he explained. ‘Then I realised, the issue is that it has flavour at the centre. From a blender’s perspective, that’s not the starting point. What if, I wondered, you put the three drivers of flavour – grain, yeast, and wood – there instead and then look at what flavours they produce?’

    So, he did – and it makes sense. Now you can see what yeast adds (fruity, floral, soapy, sulphur), what wood contributes (cask notes, ‘finish’ notes) or what each grain type can give. This being Canada, the range is wider than is (currently) used in Scotland. All of these building blocks are further subdivided and then, to please geeks such as myself, the outermost ring is a breakdown of which chemical compound each of these is made from. Finally, he then uses the flavour wheel to make graphic fingerprints of each of his new makes or blends.

    For me, it has opened up a new understanding of the complexities of whisky – and is a beautifully simple explanation of what a distiller and/or blender has to play with. While giving a more scientific analysis, it remains focused on flavour, which it strikes me to have been the theme for this holiday season as far as I’m concerned.

    Cataloguing how flavours arise is a way of easing ourselves away from the (over)reliance on regionality. The two are hard to reconcile, y’see. The drinker who has started with Glenlivet or Glenfiddich may well feel confident to then try something else from Speyside and wander unwittingly into the meaty power of Mortlach. Likewise, the lover of smoky Islay might be bemused by the unpeated Bruichladdich, or vice versa. The drinker exploring the Highlands (and how amorphous is that ‘region’?) will wonder why Glenmorangie isn’t like Dalmore, or Aberfeldy isn’t the same at Ben Nevis, if they are ostensibly from the same area. You get my drift.

    Dr Don’s fingerprints are one way to show not only where flavour comes from, but the variety which exists within the possibilities. The Single Malt Flavour Map [full disclosure: I’m still involved in its management] does the same. Both demonstrate how individuality is key.

    We can’t however expect everyone to have a flavour wheel (or map) to hand when they walk into a shop or bar. If we are to shift thinking away from region to flavour, then we also need whisky lists to be organised in terms of flavour or style rather than where the distillery is located (it would also allow blends to be included, by the way). Wines have been arranged in this fashion for years, so why not whisky? The wheel and map are the starting point for this new(er) recategorisation.

    I’m writing this during a brief sojourn in London when, in need of wine, I discovered the truly excellent Theatre of Wine. For a second or two, it was hard to work out how the wines were arranged. There wasn’t the normal division into countries, internal regions, and price. Instead the world’s wines sat next to each other. It seemed that the higher up the shelves you went, the more expensive things became, which made sense. Then it became apparent. All the light reds were in one column, medium bodied in the next, etc. The same applied to whites. It worked a treat, throwing new wines, styles, and countries at me (and I might have passed over the Georgian red if it had been hidden away in an ‘others’ section). In some ways it’s an approach akin to that taken by London whisky bar Black Rock, but not by many other bars or retailers.

    Wheels, maps, lists and shelves arranged by flavour help to communicate diversity. Because consumers understand flavour as a concept, this gives them confidence, which in turn makes them relax. And when that happens, they enjoy exploring. Simple, really.

  • Whisky rules are there to be challenged

    23 August 2017

    After my recent musings about usquebaugh, some helpful soul wrote in, pointing out that such a drink couldn’t be called ‘whisky’ under the Scotch Whisky Act. Well, duh… They also added obligingly that ‘...if it were labelled “usquebaugh”, then it would be banned under reg. 6(2): “A person must not label, package, sell, advertise or promote any drink in any other way that creates a likelihood of confusion on the part of the public as to whether the drink is Scotch Whisky”.’

    Well, I’d say that this was open to interpretation. As they themselves admitted, Dewar’s Honey was out there, as was J&B’s equivalent (quite why they called it Urban Honey, rather than J&Bee is beyond me), so a precedent has been set even if, as my mystery correspondent said, ‘certain elements of the industry (and the SWA) were very unhappy about that one.’ Stir in a brand such as Compass Box Orangerie and you can see that Scotch-based flavoured spirits are out there already.

    Floral scent: Unlike Scotch whisky, usquebaugh traditionally featured local botanicals

    I could of course fall back on history and point out (again) that usquebaugh never tried to pass itself off as ‘whisky’, but was regarded as a separate style of drink for about 400 years. Creating new usquebaughs, a clever Edinburgh lawyer could argue, is simply a continuation of an old, established, craft.

    Also, most of these usquebaughs were ‘dulcified’ – sweetened either with sugar for the high-class variants, or more commonly, honey. In other words, they were liqueur-like. Drambuie started life as an usquebaugh and no-one seems to be moaning about its existence. So, should anyone want to explore the botanical angle, I believe that there are ways around this apparent legislative block. 

    Will anyone do it? Who knows? One distiller called my extravagant notions ‘provocative’ (I think in a positive way) though I figured they were just logical and grounded in whisky heritage. While it would be interesting to see a new generation of usquebaughs appearing, if they don’t it won’t be because producers are scared of innovation.

    The Scotch industry isn’t naive, and while innovation and contrivance often go hand-in-hand, and clumsy appropriation of other spirits’ clothes does take place, that doesn’t mean that Scotch cannot learn and adapt to a changing market. Indeed, I would argue that to survive and prosper that it has to – as long as it does not lose its sense of identity.

    The idea that there is nothing going on in terms of new product development in whisky is fantasy. There are experiments underway which would make jaws drop in astonishment. Not all will make it to market, but questions about ‘what is Scotch, and what else can it be?’ are being asked constantly. Boundaries are being pushed in ways which we haven’t seen for years.

    Cereal question: Could more types of grain be used in Scotch?

    Moving away from usquebaugh for the moment, as last year’s series on Scotch whisky regulations outlined, there are many flex points within the regulations where new flavours and characters could be introduced. Could you smoke barley over a wood fire for example? What would a heather-smoked whisky be like?

    Scotch is currently made from barley, or corn, or wheat, but what of what of other cereals – some of which were used in Scotland in the past – which are being used successfully by other whisky makers around the world?

    If the reaction to modest proposals such as these is, ‘we can’t envisage doing that because it is possibly against the rules’, it is pretty much an admission of defeat from the outset. Rules – or to be more precise the interpretation of these rules – are open to debate and challenge. Accepting the need for change is why rules and regulations are always in a state of slow, steady adjustment. Whisky today doesn’t operate under exactly the same legislation as it did in the 1990s, never mind the 1920s.

    Asking what can Scotch become shouldn’t be interpreted as a cry for mass disobedience, but as a continuation of this natural process of incremental change. This world is full of flavour possibilities. It is also fluid.  

  • What are whisky brand ambassadors good for?

    18 August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Why can’t whisky be like usquebaugh?

    16 August 2017

    ‘When my ancestors were determined of a set purpose to be merie, they used a kind of aquavite, void of all spice, and onelie consisting of such herbs and roots as grew in their own gardens.'

    Hector Boece's words, written in 1526, swam up from memory. I quickly refocused. Botswana Dave was still talking: ‘…but don’t get this one, hemlock, confused with this one, wild carrot. Hemlock will kill you. Wild carrot won’t.’ Handy to know.

    We were on a nature walk at the RSPB Gruinart reserve on Islay. There were few birds around, so Dave, like any good guide, had switched to flora, including a diversion into the world of lichen and fungi when we came across trees draped in lungwort, before we returned to mugwort, pineapple weed, gorse flower and meadowsweet, and others, many of which go into The Botanist gin, produced by Bruichladdich.

    Scotland’s west coast is hoaching with gins these days. The Botanist led the way, but in the past few months, Islay has been joined by gins distilled on Jura (Lussa), Kintyre (Beinn an Tuirc), and Harris (er… Harris). Colonsay has plans to make its gin on the island, as does Tiree.

    All make a big play about using local botanicals. The Botanist uses 22 from Islay, Harris has sugar kelp; Icelandic moss and sheep sorrel are in Beinn an Tuirc’s botanical recipe, while Lussa uses ground elder, honeysuckle, rosehip, bog myrtle, sea lettuce and Scots pine among others.

    Machair Tiree

    Floral flavours: Is there a place in whisky for the larder of the machair?

    Gin, the world’s first global spirit in terms of ingredients, is now becoming increasingly terroir-fixated. It’s no longer sufficient to say your gin comes from a place, it has to somehow taste of that place as well.

    This is all good news, when it works. Gin is a fiendishly difficult spirit to get right. Each botanical has to be there for a reason. There’s no point in making a gin with an added botanical which you then can’t notice, or one where the unusual botanical has been dialled up to such an extent that the gin is unbalanced. That said, this aspect of terroir suits gin perfectly.

    Why then did Boece’s words keep nagging away at me as I stravaiged up the west coast from island to island, finding a gin at every corner? Could whisky play in this area as well?

    He shows that a Scottish-distilled spirit – probably made from cereal – was flavoured from the word go. It became known as usquebaugh, and it and ‘usky' co-existed for centuries, the former flavoured, the latter a straight distillate (which in turn was usually drunk as a punch or toddy).

    The ‘herbs and roots as grew in their own garden’ would have included hyssop, marjoram, lavender fennel, hyssop, lemon balm, sweet marjoram, sage, rue, wormwood, horehound, lovage and pennyroyal. The hills would have provided wild thyme, rosemary, rowan berry, and heather, maybe in the form of honey. These early usquebaughs were as much distillates of place as the whiskies.

    On Colonsay, I picked up a reprint of a 1903 book by Murdoch McNeill on the flora of the island. Lurking there was an entry for ‘heath vetch, aka bitter-vetch [Lathyrus montanus]… which was used for flavouring whisky’. The dried and roasted vetch tubers have a slight anise flavour and were also used as a hangover cure, a way to offset drunkenness, and as an appetite suppressant. Hebridean coca! I’ve ordered some seeds.

    Tiree beach: With plenty of space and time for some ‘extravagant thinking’

    I’m writing this on Tiree. Outside, the machair is filled with buttercup and red clover, knapweed, birds foot trefoil, ragged robin, tormentil, tansy, wild thyme and harebell. Its beaches are a larder of different seaweeds. Little has changed since Boece’s day. It’s all out there still. From this perspective there is an argument that whisky can play in this field as confidently as gin.

    Whisky already has the remarkable ability to somehow distil what surrounds it. Is it not possible, then, to extend this property to reflect terroir by using the flora of the place, either in terms of new usquebaughs, home flavouring, or in bartending? After all, Thomas Pennant wrote in 1772: ‘The people of the Hebrides extract an acid for [whisky] punch from the berries of the mountain ash [rowan].’

    The west coast does this to you. The wide skies, the open seas, the wind bringing the sweet-smelling machair hissing through the marram grass. The Scottish poet Kenneth White calls it ‘extravagant thinking’, but what is whisky if not a drink which welcomes that?  

  • A postcard from Islay

    09 August 2017

    ‘It’s at its best like this.’ The glasses were raised at Clàs Uig. Perhaps in memory of the audacious German U-boat commander who slid into its waters to steal sheep, maybe just to the landscape, or to the wildlife we’d seen, to the waves, or just for being there and alive at this moment.

    I hadn’t been deliberately depriving myself of whisky, but neither had I actively sought it out. Maybe that’s the nature of a holiday – you do the things you don’t normally get the chance to – so for me it’s rambles rather than drambles.

    Clàs Uig: Dave Broom raises a glass to 'U-boat Bay', Islay

    ‘You’re here… on Islay… on holiday?’ say some when I meet them in the Co-op, the pub, or the ferry. ‘A working holiday?’ And they smile slightly and look at my wife and daughter as if to say, ‘Poor you – ­what a bastard he must be, dragging you round distilleries when you’re meant to be relaxing’.

    But it’s true, we come here because we can switch off and not work (he said, writing this piece while they sleep, but the relentless nature of the web dictates against not remaining silent for too long).

    Anyway, the glasses were raised. It seemed saltier, more attuned to the environment, the slow slither of seaweed mirroring the gentle viscimetry taking place in the glass. A hint of the moorland, a bracing gasp as if, on that first sip, you were immersing yourself in the waters of the bay. As thick as the sodden peat bog, as gentle as the curve of the seal on the rocks. Salt on the lips, an encapsulation of place.

    The day after, we headed north through the islands of the sea, then onwards to Tiree, birds careening in our wake. Shearwaters ­– those enigmatic, wave-dancing acrobats, in the Sound of Islay the week before. If gannets take issue with the water, punching holes in its surface, shearwaters and fulmars caress it, using the updrafts lifting off the crests to help them in their endless loop of the oceans. There is no battle here, rather a fusion of mind, intuition and understanding.

    For a second, it seemed as if my mind had pulled them into being. I’d been reading Adam Nicolson’s The Seabird’s Cry and had just finished the chapter on shearwaters. As I put the book down, there they were.

    Shearwaters are sea wanderers, cousins to albatrosses and fulmars. It’s long been wondered how they navigate themselves on their pelagic roamings, how they can find their way home to their chicks, or to food. Recent research has given a surprising answer. With larger than normal olfactory systems compared to other birds, these members of the tube-nose family achieve the seemingly miraculous by their sense of smell.

    Prof. Nancy Devitt of UC Davis had long believed this to be the case but could never find the clincher to her theory until, in conversation with another scientist working in a different discipline, the topic of dimethylsulfoniopropionate – DMSP to its friends – arose. As it does.

    It is emitted by dying phytoplankton and smells, Devitt realised, of newly-opened oysters. DMSP means phytoplankton has been eaten by krill, and the krill is being eaten by larger fish. The tube-noses, drifting above the waves, pick up the aroma of DMSP clouds at levels of 1 part in 10 billion and use them to find their food source.

    For them, it is the smell of home. The birds flying up the Sound were impregnated in it; their chicks, cocooned in their burrows, would smell little but for the first weeks of their lives. An aroma lesson: ‘this smell means comfort and a full belly, seek it out’. It operates, albeit in a more intense way, in the same fashion as our own olfactory memories which are triggered when we smell a glass of whisky and the childhood memory – a snack, a sweetie on the way back from school, our grandmother’s house – snaps into focus. Our first navigations around the world are embedded in smell memory.

    It would appear that aroma doesn’t simply show the shearwaters and their relatives where food is, but plays the vital element in how they navigate. Shearwater research by Prof Anna Gagliardo posits that different parts of the ocean have distinctive smells. What to us is ‘sea smell’ is in fact complex and multifaceted – each part as identifiable as a rose is from an orange. Aromas guide them, warn them, act as markers. A landscape which to our eyes is hard to read, whose only constant is that its features are forever in flux, is to a shearwater a tapestry of aroma, with each thread of scent redolent with meaning. Some tugging them home, others suggesting danger.

    Briny minerals: The aroma of Islay whisky is often reminiscent of the Hebridean seaWe can get a sniff of that when we stand on the shoreline, or on the deck of a boat, maybe with a glass of Islay whisky. That briny smell, the minerality is also the aroma of those shucked oysters and scallops. For a second, we are like the birds. As they dip their wing tips into the sea, so we raise the glass to our noses. The sea doesn’t smell like the sea, but of the elements within it – the death pulses of phytoplankton and algae, seaweed pheromones and much more. And the same elements are detectable in the glass.

    That whisky smells best here because it’s where that fusing of liquid and place is at its strongest – thanks partly to emotion, but also a literal (or littoral) link to place. It’s also there, ready to be drawn out, when we sit at home or in bars thousands of miles away across the oceans. A filament of aroma, bringing us back home. 

  • Let’s hear it for cheap blended Scotch

    02 August 2017

    For lovers of ‘rare’ Scotch whisky, these are rich times indeed – provided, that is, that their passion for the spirit is matched by the thickness of their wallet.

    In the past couple of weeks alone, we’ve seen whisky at UK auctions clearing £2m a month, with the average bottle of Scotch single malt fetching £286; a new Dalmore 40-year-old expression with a £6,000 asking price; a 50-year-old blended grain from Angus Dundee for close to £900; and, my personal favourite, a 12-year-old Port Charlotte reduced with some iceberg water that’s attracting auction bids of ‘upwards of £1,000’.

    But it’s a big world out there, and these scarce bottlings attract a hugely disproportionate share of the headlines. Taken together, the Dalmore, the Angus Dundee and the iced Port Charlotte account for less than 1,250 bottles of Scotch whisky. For an industry that sells well over one billion bottles a year, that’s a drop in the proverbial ocean – or the merest chip off an iceberg.

    The results recently announced by leading Scotch producer Diageo amply illustrate this fact. It was no surprise to see that the company’s Scotch whisky sales had risen during the year to the end of June – but the manner in which that growth was achieved might give us pause for thought.

    The company’s stable of single malts – including The Singleton, Talisker, Lagavulin and Oban – increased their sales, but not as much as Diageo’s formidable roster of blends, spearheaded by the remarkable Johnnie Walker.

    At this rate, it won’t be long before Scotch’s most famous name shifts 20m cases of product a year, meaning that more than one in five bottles of Scotch sold around the world will have a striding man on its label.

    But Walker wasn’t (for me, at least) the big story that emerged from the figures. Instead, the unlikely hero of Diageo’s whisky year was a low-priced blend with a label featuring a pair of lovable/sickly (delete as appropriate) canines: Black & White.

    Black and White

    Top dog: Black & White has successfully recruited people into Scotch whisky

    A brand of Scotch conceived by James Buchanan while on his way back from an 1890s dog show, Black & White is now Diageo’s tactical, affordable blend designed to drive recruitment into the Scotch category in emerging markets such as Mexico and India.

    That’s working well, but a new use was found for Black & White during the past year. Brazil, previously a golden market that drained more than 2m cases of Johnnie Walker a year as recently as 2013, is now beset by economic woes and political scandals.

    When that happens, people tend to have less money to throw around on fripperies – and expensive Scotch whisky, however great its joys, is almost the definition of a frippery. If large numbers of Brazilians can’t afford a bottle of Black or Red Label, you either sell them something less expensive, or they go back to the cheap cachaça they were buying before, perhaps never to return to Scotch.

    This is the lucrative (relatively – the profit margins are much slimmer than Walker’s) furrow that Black & White is ploughing in Brazil right now. And, if we broaden our gaze to a global perspective, it isn’t alone.

    Diageo has White Horse, Old Parr and VAT 69 also inhabiting what company boss Ivan Menezes calls the ‘primary Scotch’ hinterland, and together they sell something like 8m cases of Scotch whisky a year – and all have had a decent time of it in the last 12 months.

    Outside Diageo, there’s Passport, 100 Pipers and Clan Campbell (Pernod Ricard/Chivas Brothers); there’s William Lawson’s (Dewar’s/Bacardi); there’s William Peel, Label 5, Sir Edward’s.

    Passport

    Foot soldier: Chivas’ Passport is one of a number of less heralded blends

    These aren’t necessarily household names (you may not even have heard of some of them), but they all sell more than leading single malts Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet, even if at substantially lower prices.

    They are the foot soldiers of the Scotch whisky industry, doing the hard yards by combining a low price with an acceptable quality level to create a product that somebody wants to buy. It may be that person’s first foray into the world of Scotch, or it may be a way for them to stay in that world when the good times recede and cutbacks have to be made.

    These blends are the products that may have provided us with that often terrifying first sip of Scotch whisky at 15 or 50, drawing us into the tantalising web of single malt, aged grain, of Islay, Campbeltown and Speyside. Given this pivotal role, it’d be nice if they were celebrated more and shown a little greater respect and gratitude by all of us who love Scotch whisky.

    After all, despite their modest price tags, they form the bedrock of the industry, and without them no rare single malt or self-indulgent ‘limited release’ would exist in the first place. 

  • Port casks: what’s in a name?

    26 July 2017

    As a huge Port fan, the headline of the press release was enough to grab my attention: ‘Port X Whisky: The Dalmore Releases Unique Vintage Port Collection.’ It even distracted me (briefly) from the clichéd, ‘press release bingo’ terminology that followed, with all of its ‘luxury’, ‘ground-breaking’, ‘iconic’ and ‘crafted’ marketing BS.

    Anticipation, however, soon changed to mystification and then frustration. Yes, the first sentence of the release talked of a ‘three-bottle, limited edition collection of whiskies matured in vintage Port casks’, but the truth was hidden several paragraphs further down.

    ‘Tawny Port pipes from Graham’s vineyard in [the] Douro, Portugal, add the finishing touches…’ Eh? Tawny Port? Turns out that the ‘Vintage’ in the name of the range refers to the whisky, not the Port. Dalmore 1996, 1998 and 2001, matured in ex-Bourbon casks, then finished in ex-tawny Port pipes.

    Confused? I certainly was. And so, it seems, was the person who wrote (and signed off) the press release. But the differences here are glaring.

    Graham's Vintage Port

    Long wait: vintage Port is often matured in bottle for decades before consumption

    Vintage is the zenith of Port, the product of a single ‘declared’ year taken from the finest vineyards and bottled within two years of the harvest. Cask maturation – such as it is – takes place more often than not in huge, vertical wooden vats known as balseiros, and sometimes in stainless steel or cement. So sourcing an ex-vintage Port cask to mature whisky in would be rather tricky.

    While vintage Port is a dark, fiercely tannic wine, typically allowed to age in bottle for decades before reaching its peak, tawny Ports are – as the name suggests – gold-coloured and softly oxidative in style.

    Tawnies are matured in wood, sometimes for just a few years, sometimes for a decade or more, and bottled when ready to drink. They are almost always a blend of different years and often bear an age statement of 10, 20, 30 or 40 years (there are ‘vintage’ tawny Ports, usually called colheitas, but let’s not make an already confusing situation utterly bewildering.)

    In either case, it’s important to note that the wood is primarily a vessel, not a contributor to character. New oak plays almost no part in Port ageing and, instead, older wood is wanted to provide a secure, neutral environment, allowing a gentle, gradual oxidation in the case of tawny Port.

    What does this mean to the distiller? Essentially, that what was previously in the cask is far more important than the cask itself. Important, then, to make it clear that that cask contained Graham’s tawny Port, rather than Graham’s vintage – because the influence from the wine leached into the wood will be entirely different.

    Graham's Port balseiros

    Vast vats: Huge balseiros used to mature Port in Graham’s lodge at Vila Nova de Gaia

    There’s no doubt that the Scotch whisky industry has made massive strides in analysing and understanding the myriad effects of various cask types on spirit, from the ‘standard’ vessels acquired from the Bourbon and Sherry industries to the more esoteric wood sourced from Madeira and the fine wine world.

    But there’s still some laziness about in the way in which this is communicated. It’s all very well to talk of a single malt being ‘Sherry cask-matured’, but (without even getting into the American/European oak question) what kind of Sherry? A bone-dry fino? A nutty amontillado? A darkly unctuous Pedro Ximénez or PX?

    Most likely it’ll be the dried fruit and rich spiciness of an oloroso, for which ‘Sherry cask’ has become shorthand in whisky circles, but the imprecision is irritating and potentially confusing.

    When drinkers do discover a whisky matured or ‘finished’ in ex-amontillado casks (for instance, Glenmorangie Dornoch), or one that has seen the inside of an ex-fino cask (see Glenfarclas 1966 47-year-old), it won’t taste like most ex-Sherry drams they’ve tried. Just compare that Glenfarclas with most of the distillery’s regular output.

    Dalmore Vintage Port Collection

    Source of confusion: The vintage here refers to the whisky, not the Port

    There’s an opportunity here. Single malt Scotch is a disarmingly simple product in terms of ingredients (water, barley, yeast); one that creates a blank sheet of paper on which to tell a tale of distillery character and geographical place.

    The cask adds another layer to that back-story, enables Scotch to piggyback on the heritage of another of the world’s greatest drinks, whether that be Port or Sherry (or Madeira, or a winemaking region).

    It also adds to the broader discussion of flavour creation and the preservation, enhancement or obscuration of distillery character, but for that discussion to carry weight and credbility, let’s make sure we get our facts straight in the first place.

    And knowing the difference between vintage and tawny Port would be a good place to start.

  • Whisky’s age of uncertainty

    19 July 2017

    Britain is currently gripped by the era of über-uncertainty, according to Gary Keogh, marketing director of William Grant & Sons UK. And, just to be clear, we’re not agonising about where our next taxi is coming from.

    Brexit, Trump, terrorism, the General Election result… The one thing we can rely on, it seems, is the unreliability of forecasts, predictions and polls.

    This was quite a brave opening gambit from Keogh, coming as it did at a company presentation outlining the likely dominant trends in the UK drinks market for the year ahead.

    How is Scotch doing in this slightly scary environment? Well, I could give you all the facts and figures, but anyone with a passing acquaintance of the UK drinks scene won’t find anything to shock them. Blends declining, malts growing, American and Irish whiskey more dynamic (but still much smaller).

    That, at least, was predictable. The greater interest for me lies in the consumer psychology that underpins the unexpected series of events of the past year or so. This is complex, sometimes contradictory, but for anyone wanting to sell more stuff to more people for more money, vital.

    Bottles on shop shelves

    Dizzying array: ‘Repertoire drinkers’ no longer stick to just one favoured brand

    We often live in an echo chamber of our own making, where our social media algorithms bounce our own opinions and prejudices back at us; and yet, it seems, we increasingly crave authenticity and provenance in the products we choose to buy and the brands with which we wish to interact.

    We value loyalty and expect those favoured brands to stay ‘true’ to us; but we have become fickle, restless consumers, flitting from one gin/whisky/wine/craft beer to the next in search of yet another new experience. Keogh reckons that Glenfiddich drinkers consume an average of 18 other spirits brands.

    Eighteen?! Growing up – and yes, I appreciate that this was a fair while ago – my parents drank Bell’s and, sometimes, Gordon’s, plus Cockburn’s and Emva Cream (the latter for the grandparents) at Christmas. I well remember the shift from Bell’s to The Famous Grouse in the 1980s – a seismic event.

    My dad’s in his 80s now, and he drinks Smoky Black Grouse – or Black Bottle – or Bowmore, Jura, Talisker, Balvenie or any number of other single malt brands he comes across at the right price, or is given at Christmas, birthday or Father’s Day.

    He’s clearly not a ‘Millennial’, to use the marketing term applied to those in their 20s or 30s, but in his ‘repertoire drinking’ he exhibits some of the traits associated with that demographic grouping. And he’s far from alone.

    If nothing else, this shows just how nonsensical these lazy labels are – or ‘meaningless’ and ‘worthless’, to quote Keogh. There are 11m so-called Millennials – people aged between 21 and 40 – in the UK, and does anyone seriously think they have a ‘shared’ and common character? Or, if they do, that it mirrors the life view of the urban hipster elite that is all too often viewed as encapsulating the Millennial psyche?

    These shifts in consumer behaviour may prompt broader social concerns – people living in an echo chamber don’t tend to be the most tolerant or empathetic creatures on the planet – but what do they mean for the future of Scotch?

    Adventurous – or fickle – consumers are, in theory at least, more easily persuaded to try your product; but getting them to buy another bottle – and another, and another – is the tough one.

    Traditionally, times of uncertainty are thought to be good for big, established brands, as people take refuge from a chaotic world in the names they know and trust. There may still be some truth in that, but it increasingly runs counter to what is becoming established consumer behaviour – flitting from product to product like frenzied butterflies.

    If Scotch is to thrive in this brave new world, its standard-bearers need to forge a deeper understanding of this fast-evolving consumer mindset than ever before – and stop relying on lazy demographic labels to get it out of trouble.

    That, at least, is a certainty.

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