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From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • The Glenlivet capsules: why the hysteria?

    09 October 2019

    What was created to be a fun, novel way to approach Scotch whisky cocktails rapidly turned into a PR storm for The Glenlivet this week.

    In celebration of London Cocktail Week’s 10th anniversary, the Speyside single malt brand created a range of edible/drinkable cocktail capsules in collaboration with Alex Kratena and Monica Berg of London’s Tayēr + Elementary, rated one of the world’s best bars after just nine months of operation, and capsule designer Notpla.

    Three original cocktails ‘inspired by the elements and flavours of The Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve’ – Citrus, Wood and Spice – are filled into a biodegradable casing made from seaweed extract (called ‘oohos’) and presented to patrons in a bespoke gold box.

    ‘The cocktail capsules are unique and push the boundaries of how drinks can be served,’ said Kratena, who, alongside Berg, is known within the industry for an evolutionary approach to cocktail creation.

    Whisky wrath: Three little Scotch-based cocktails have somehow caused mass outrage

    Twitter users, on the other hand, weren’t so sure, particularly those in the US who still recall the fall-out of the Tide pod craze, a thankfully short-lived YouTube trend that saw young people film themselves biting into laundry detergent capsules.

    While Outlander’s Sam Heughan, who is launching his own whisky brand, remained unconvinced by the innovation, one of the more hysterical over-reactions came from ABC’s foreign affairs reporter Julia Macfarlane, who described it as a ‘sick joke’ and an ‘abomination’, calling on Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to ‘do something’.

    Other reactions have gone so far as to label the capsules a ‘public health hazard’, prompting warnings by Twitter users that ‘teens are going to put these in their butts’, despite the fact they are only available at Tayēr + Elementary, where alcohol is not served to minors, let alone to anyone attempting to shove anything up their rectal passage.

    The capsules were described by one publication as ‘weird shit’, despite the fact that spherification, the technique pioneered by El Bulli chef Ferran Adrià to create spheres of liquid contained in an algae-based casing, has been used and celebrated by chefs the world over for a good 15 years; and despite the fact that oohos filled with Lucozade were handed out to runners during this year’s Virgin Money London Marathon to cut back on plastic waste – without so much as an outraged hashtag from the Twitterati.

    Apparently, the universe can rest easy if these biodegradable, ingestible pouches are filled with anything other than Scotch whisky.

    It begs the question: what if the cocktails contained rum, or that darling of the British press, gin? Would the capsules still have received such widespread criticism?

    Crime scene: Tayēr is serving the capsules throughout London Cocktail Week (Photo: Bernard Zeija)

    Wine writer Nina Caplan missed the point in her succinct op-ed for The Guardian: ‘Multinationals such as Pernod Ricard (which owns The Glenlivet) are fixated on novelty, which has nothing to do with the slow enjoyment of good whisky. If we want people to drink responsibly, it isn’t enough to put anodyne health warnings on websites and bottles. What is needed is an education in appreciation, and that doesn’t come in a consumable capsule.’

    Surely the enjoyment of a ‘good’ whisky is down to a person’s individual preference – fast, slow, neat, mixed, in a glass or seaweed casing, the choice is subjective. Sticking with the old adage that whisky appreciation can only be attained by ‘slow enjoyment’ actually throws whisky education back into the dark ages.

    The capsules each contain 23ml of liquid, and are served chilled, directly from the fridge to be popped into the mouth in one go. Biting down on the capsule releases the cocktail inside, and consumers are free to roll that liquid around the mouth for as long as they like.

    As far as drinking responsibly goes, each capsule contains less alcohol by volume than a standard 25ml shot (as defined by the British Weights and Measures Act) of 40% abv Tequila, vodka, etc, which is, incidentally, more liquid volume than contained in a Glenlivet capsule. 

    The capsules were devised as a light-hearted exploration of the possibilities of how whisky can be enjoyed, although (assumingly playfully) the press release asking whether they mark the ‘death of the whisky tumbler’ may have been a step too far. However, as Miriam Eceolaza, director of The Glenlivet, said: ‘As a brand that celebrates originality, we are always looking to break the conventions that have determined how single malt Scotch has historically been enjoyed.’

    In the face of an ageing consumer base, Scotch has been trying to shake off its dusty image of tartan and tweed to appeal to a younger audience, with varying degrees of success. They may be marketing buzzwords, but innovation, craft and stories with substance are what excite new whisky drinkers, and unless Scotch appeals to their cravings it risks becoming the dusty, uncool spirit of past generations, languishing on the top shelf as the more relevant Bourbons, rums and Irish whiskeys swagger in.

    Divisive cocktail capsules aren’t enough on their own to change the public’s perception about mixing Scotch, but at least The Glenlivet is trying. The saga goes to show Scotch is caught in a Catch-22 situation – it’s damned if it doesn’t innovate; ridiculed if it does.

    ABC’s Macfarlane is, however, at least partially correct: Nicola Sturgeon should do something – get down to Tayēr and try the capsules, and show that drinking a Scotch-based cocktail in a different way needn’t be a cause for mass outrage.

    The Glenlivet cocktail capsules will be available at Tayēr + Elementary for the duration of London Cocktail Week (4-13 October).

  • Scotch whisky’s World Class evolution

    02 October 2019

    For once in Glasgow the taps were on. ‘What beer do you have?’ came the question.

    ‘None tonight pal, it’s only whisky down here.’ The questioner looked bemused.

    ‘Smoky Cokeys on three taps – you can have one made with Caol Ila, Lagavulin, or Talisker’.

    There’s a moment’s hesitation, to see if this is a wind-up – it is Glasgow after all, a city where even the simple act of asking for a drink can be the start of a comedy routine. ‘Which one would you recommend?’

    ‘Well, Lagavulin is considered the classic mix.’ Another slightly quizzical glance.

    ‘Sure… OK. I’ll have four.’

    …and so it started. Frank Murphy (of the Pot Still) and I in a pop-up whisky bar situated in the basement of Finnieston’s superb Kelvingrove Café (is a basement takeover a pop down? Answers on a postcard please).

    Cocktail evolution: The Singleton challenge required a solid or gaseous element 

    There were was an extensive range of malts behind us – arranged by flavour, mixers on the shelves and a steady stream of punters.

    Perhaps some context is required. This was an evening’s entertainment within Diageo’s World Class global finals, the Olympics of the bartending world (full disclosure: I am one of the judges). This year the finalists, representing 55 countries (and selected from 10,000 entries), were put through five days of challenges, which tested their product knowledge, bartending skills, storytelling ability and quick wits.

    Whisky has been slowly becoming more prominent. In the early days it was an option (and one rarely taken). Then it got its own challenge. This year, there were three: one at Talisker with a mystery box of ingredients which had to be transformed into a drink, then one each for Singleton and Johnnie Walker Black in Glasgow. 

    The last two were deceptively simple. The Singleton challenge asked for two drinks, one using two liquids – one of which was homemade, the other creating an ‘experience’ with the malt served either neat or on the rocks – accompanied by two ingredients, either in solid or gaseous state. It’s how I ended up toasting the duck fat marshmallows made by Canada’s Jeff Savage over a fire of flaming spices and beeswax. Did it work? Of course it did, the duck fat softening the potentially nippy whisky, the aromas taking you into a new space.

    The Johnnie Walker ‘Striding Can’ (geddit?) Challenge asked for a fizz aligned with occasion and place followed by a canned cocktail (which the bartender had to design) containing a Highball made from one part home-made cordial, one part whisky and three parts mineral water – also made to fit an occasion.

    Simply effective: Canned Highballs prompted bartenders to consider whisky’s flavours

    The challenges were about the drinks – of course they were – but what was more significant for me was the thinking which lay behind them. The simplicity of the task at hand means that there was nowhere for the bartender to hide. It demanded that they focus on a deep understanding of the whisky’s flavours and showing how they could be tweaked, elevated and transformed.

    This wasn’t a shot of amber liquid in a glass. Neither was it an overcomplicated drink made to showcase a mastery of technique, but a way to show a deeper understanding of whisky and flavour – the sort of thinking which sticks in the bartenders’ minds.

    Back in Frank & Dave’s basement, we were running out of Highball glasses as the Smoky Cokey orders kept flooding in. The Linkwood and Glen Elgin and Mortlach were taking a hammering (though the Royal Lochnagar distillery team remained resolutely brand loyal) – and that’s the point. Nips, Highballs, mixed drinks: whisky can play in each area.

    The same was being repeated across the city, whose top bars and pubs all featured global bartending luminaries doing a guest slot. In The Gate, Tristan Stephenson (of Black Rock fame) was putting in his hardest bar shift of the last few years just to keep up with demand, while across The Gallowgate, Crucible’s Stu Bale had taken over The Cabin (Glasgow’s smallest pub), turned up its karaoke machine and started rocking out Roe & Coe mixes. Whisky was running through Glasgow’s veins (in a responsible fashion of course).

    No-one is taking away your right to have a neat dram or add a little water. Equally, no-one is saying that cocktails are now the only way to drink it. The days of a blind adherence to the ‘right’ way are over. Instead, slowly and steadily whisky’s possibilities are being widened – not just how to drink it, but when to enjoy it as well.  

  • A good story just adds to whisky’s pleasure

    25 September 2019

    London’s former fish market will be filled with the rather more appealing aroma of several hundred different whiskies this weekend, when The Whisky Exchange Whisky Show returns to Old Billingsgate.

    If you’re going, you’re probably already fine-tuning your strategy for the event: the must-taste drams, the distillery stands you simply have to look in on, the seminars and tastings that stand out in the schedule.

    Sometimes it’s the whiskies you didn’t see coming that make the biggest impression: that spur-of-the-moment pour from a distillery you’ve never heard of; the passing friend who thrusts a glass under your nose and and says: ‘Try this.’

    For the most part, because of the nature of the event, you won’t be tasting blind. You’ll know the distillery, the age (if there’s one on the label), and perhaps the cask type. You may also have the marketing spiel ringing in your ears as that nice person behind the stand pours you a measure.

    Does any of that matter? Try as we might to be objective, we all have our preconceptions – positive and negative – about the names on the bottles, the professed style of the whisky inside and even the design of the packaging.

    Sometimes, if we allow them to, these inner voices can drown out the true sound of the whisky in front of us. ‘I don’t like Sherried whiskies’ … ‘Eight years old is just too young’ … ‘My friends all sneer at this distillery.’

    Man tasting whisky

    Inner voices: It’s hard to cast aside preconceptions when we know what we’re tasting

    Such internal influences can create a negative force, skewing our honest opinion of the liquid we’re looking at, nosing and tasting. The empiricism of blind tasting removes such destructive thoughts.

    However, blind tasting also has its limitations, not least because that’s not the way we normally drink whisky. We make a conscious choice in a bar or a shop, or at home, whether the bottle we select is an old friend or a new acquaintance.

    That decision is influenced, to a greater or lesser extent, by the story that lies behind the liquid inside the bottle. It may be the whisky’s story, but often it will be our own: recollections of a memorable distillery visit; a night spent with friends or family; a moment of discovery in the frenetic atmosphere of a packed whisky event.

    When the whisky tells the story, it should be an engaging one, and one that is rooted in authenticity. Not, however, the empty, dead linguistic template of ‘luxury’ and ‘craft’, where distillery identity is sacrificed in favour of a one-size-fits-all false narrative, and historical fact treated as an inconvenience to be twisted into a new, alternative ‘truth’.

    Sometimes, rather than relying on a press release or some back-label scribblings, we can discover the best stories through our own efforts: reading around the subject, listening to what informed people have to say or, if you’re lucky enough to write about whisky for a living, conducting research for an article.

    Cardhu distillery

    Rich history: Cardhu’s compelling heritage can add an extra layer to tasting its whisky

    Now, when I taste Cardhu, lurking at the back of my brain are thoughts of the two remarkable women who did so much to shape that distillery’s early history, Helen and Elizabeth Cumming: Helen, or ‘Granny Cumming’, selling bottles of whisky out of her kitchen window for a shilling a pop; the shrewd business dealings of Elizabeth, which did so much to secure the family fortune (we’ll be featuring the Cummings on Scotchwhisky.com soon).

    If I pick up a glass of Bruichladdich Bere Barley (or track down the Arran bere bottling from a few years back), I’ll be thinking of an idiosyncratic barley variety that has survived in some of Scotland’s remotest outposts for up to 6,000 years, nearly became extinct 20 years ago, and is now undergoing a resurgence.

    Will Cardhu’s history or bere’s survivor status be any consolation if the whisky I’m tasting is crap? Of course not. The aromas, flavours, texture, balance and complexity will always remain the ultimate arbiters of quality.

    But do those anecdotes add an extra dimension to the pleasure when there’s a good drop in your glass? You bet they do. Enjoy the whiskies this weekend – and listen to their stories.

  • Whisky should be accessible for everyone

    18 September 2019

    The spinning speakers gave the impression of a frenzied air raid. The noise – I can only describe it as ‘noise’ – bounced off the red brick walls and dusty chalkboard as we looked on, dumbfounded. ‘What does it mean though?’ my friend asked, equally confused by the eerie starkness of the classroom. We crossed the corridor and ventured into another room. Plastic chairs lined one wall facing a giant projection of a film showing an animated interview of a designer discussing the merits of Minecraft, of all things. Was this really a nightclub, or had we blindly wandered into a Dutch post-modernist Bauhaus revival?

    De School has a reputation as the trendiest nightclub in Amsterdam. Situated in a former school in the west of the city, it’s become a destination for locals and tourists looking to dance into the early hours. But what’s kept behind the school gates is a secret – strictly no cameras are allowed (so sorry folks, no photos of the spinning speakers).

    We’d strolled down from the more touristy Leidseplein with its piles of Old Amsterdam cheese and overpriced beer, via a vibrant street party in Jordaan blaring a classic combination of traditional Dutch folk songs and techno. A short queue was beginning to form in the playground as we arrived at our designated venue.

    De School: The Amsterdam institution is an arts venue, restaurant and nightclub

    ‘Hey guys, welcome to De School,’ the doorman said to the three English guys ahead of us, eyeing them closely. ‘Do you know who’s playing here tonight?’

    The English guys shook their heads, IDs in hand, faces beaming with anticipation. ‘Not really, we just know this is the best club in town!’

    ‘Oh, well, I’m sorry gentlemen. If you can’t be bothered to find out what we’re playing, then we can’t be bothered to let you in.’ Say what? ‘Thank you very much gentlemen, goodnight. Please leave.’

    It wasn’t just their faces painted with shock. The entire queue fell silent at such an absurd reason for refusing entry. Was he serious?

    ‘But we’ve just walked all the way across Amsterdam to get here!’ they cried, their frustrations falling on the young Dutchman’s shrugging, ambivalent shoulders. Hospitality obviously wasn’t ‘hip’ in this über-cool establishment.

    We stepped forward; it was our turn to be judged. Would we be deemed cool enough to get in? Considering the pejorative attitude, did we even want to? Drawing on our experience of the Jordaan street party, we guessed the club would be playing techno (what else, Amsterdam?). The doorman sighed and almost reluctantly stepped aside to let us through, his face showing a look of contemptuous disappointment. How dare we get the answer right.

    We were informed by some of the other patrons lucky enough to make it past the reproachful child on the door that De School takes a similar approach to the famous Berlin nightclub Berghain. Its operators have a strict policy to refuse entry to those they believed wouldn’t enjoy the evening. The club’s house rules state: ‘Our visitors should be aware of De School’s musical identity. People may be denied entry to the club when we think this is not the case.’ Other grounds for being asked to leave include wearing a suit, or a shirt.

    De School claims its strict door policy is designed to give patrons the very best possible experience, although a cynic might say it veers heavily towards discrimination on the basis of someone’s musical and clothing preferences, for the sake of infamy.

    Free for all: Drams of Craigellachie 51 Year Old were given to anybody interested in trying it

    As I stood watching the Bauhaus speakers whizz around it occurred to me that although I wasn’t the biggest fan of techno, although the doorman would have made a snap judgement about my perception of the club if I’d been honest, I was in fact enjoying myself. De School was fascinating in a twisted, surreal kind of way: the music was alright, actually, the local beer pretty good and I discovered Club-Mate. Turning someone away from a new experience just because they’re uninitiated robs them of an opportunity to discover something different, and potentially transform a novice into a life-long devotee.

    Much in the same way, whisky can also sometimes fall into the trap of adopting discriminatory ‘house rules’, whether it’s a brand ambassador directing newcomers away from heavily-peated whiskies and toward the ‘easy-going’ Speysiders, or a bartender suggesting a lady may wish to top her dram up with cola, despite ordering it neat.

    Brand ambassadors and bartenders are the doormen of the whisky world. They shouldn’t be afraid to pour old, rare and unique whiskies for newcomers in the hope of igniting new passions. They should be encouraging novices – young and old, male and female – to sample everything, even the bold, peaty and funky whiskies.

    Over the last year Craigellachie has been hosting free tastings of its new 51-year-old single malt across the world. Tickets have been allocated via ballot, not on the basis of whether a potential guest had tried a whisky of that age before, knew what it tasted like or had done their research into the distillery’s spirit cut points and yeast pitch rate. Craigellachie simply wanted to share its oldest and rarest whisky with everyone in the belief that whisky is in fact for everyone.

    Proof of familiarity or fandom shouldn’t be a prerequisite to experiencing something new, just as a person’s appearance is no indication of their personal taste, be that in music or whisky.

    If the operators of De School had a more open mind perhaps the three English guys wouldn’t have been turned away, and could well have fallen in love with techno, and possibly also Club-Mate. But I guess they’ll never know. 

  • How can a simple Highball cause offence?

    11 September 2019

    I was amused by the linguistic convolutions that Willie Grant’s has had to go through with regard to identifying the type of cask used for their newie (which I haven’t yet tried, just sayin’ guys…). ‘French cuvée casks that once contained the liquid that goes on to become some of the world’s most extraordinary sparkling wines,’ which, let’s face it, is a lot to try and fit onto a label.

    I know why they have done it. After all, Bunnahabhain rightly got a polite warning earlier this year for naming said cask type. The Voldemort of wines is not aged in wood, meaning that there can be no such thing as a ‘that which shall not be named’ cask.

    It does make me wonder whether this could be the start of something. Rather than simply saying what cask type has been used, give the punters clues instead. ‘A red wine which has been fortified before it is fully fermented’, ‘a fortified wine from the largest island in the Mediterranean, allegedly created by an English wine merchant’, and so on. Now that the industry is brimming with a new spirit of honesty maybe we can now name correctly the ‘Sherry’ casks which have been seasoned with wines from outside of the delimited region.

    Glenfiddich Grand Cru: The new whisky is finished in casks used to ferment a wine which should not be named

    I was musing on this and other things on the way to the pub the other night. I wanted a long refreshing drink that wasn’t beer, or still wine, or even liquid that goes on to become one of the world’s most extraordinary sparkling wines. There had been enough of that the night before. A Highball would be perfect.

    I scanned the back bar. Smoky whisky and soda, that would do. It’s a great combination – all to do with the way in which dilution heightens smokiness while the mineral element of soda latches on to any salinity. Highballs work – but I suspect you might have heard me say that before.

    ‘A Caol Ila Highball, if that’s OK,’ I said to the generous person buying. The conversation turned to Brexit and whether David Frost had been as good a negotiator for the Scotch Whisky Association as he is being for Boris. The drinks were taking a while. Eventually my friend returned.

    ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘they refused to make you a Highball. Said that they never allow malt whisky to be mixed’. This took me by surprise. Especially as he then handed me a Highball. ‘I had to buy a dram and then a soda water and do it myself.’

    ‘Haud me back!’ cried one of the party. ‘I’ll sort him out.’ We calmed him down. No need to make a fuss. After all, we had drinks. 

    Scotch and soda: Is serving malt whisky in a Highball really such an affront?

    In my time, I’ve had a number of discussions with barmen over the Highball, but have never been refused one. Sometimes it’s led to a chat about why the mix works, sometimes it’s just a raised eyebrow and an infinitesimal shake of the head, but I get the drink. The customer is always right… or thinks they are always right as I used to tell staff. 

    So, this was an exception, but it made me pause. Any resistance I’ve met over the Highball has come in the UK, and more so in Scotland and yet one reason whisky has long struggled in this country is because generations have been inculcated with the belief that whisky has to be taken drunk neat. If they tried it for the first time that way, I’ll wager that most didn’t like the taste and never tried it again. You get one shot at this if you pardon the pun. If it doesn’t work you’ve lost a drinker for life.

    I looked round the bar. The tourists were all on drams (served neat) while the locals were on anything else. Yes, you are seeing more Highballs being served and becoming bartenders’ favourite mixed drink. It’s all heartening news, but we are only at the start of a long road to get whisky seen as a drink that is a versatile as its competitors.

    Standing there arms folded, saying: ‘No. This is the only way you can drink it,’ will not help whisky’s cause. Making one while being obviously irritated by the effrontery of someone asking for their whisky to be lengthened, while gaily serving gin and tonics hardly sends out a positive message either.

    If whisky is to make new converts, if it is to show that a Highball is as good a drink as a gin and tonic, then Scotland should be leading the way in demonstrating whisky’s versatility rather than being a bastion of outmoded and reactionary thinking. The fight continues… Next time I’m going to ask for a Smoky Cokey and see what happens. There might be a small explosion.

  • The unpredictable world of new distilleries

    10 September 2019

    If it comes in on budget, Pernod Ricard’s new malt whisky distillery in China will cost US$150 million, or roughly £120m – almost as much as Macallan’s much-vaunted new home on Speyside. The owner of Ballantine’s and The Glenlivet is not so much dipping its toe in the water of Chinese whisky, more plunging into the deep end head-first from the 10-metre diving board.

    That first word – if – is a big one. After all, Macallan’s theme park-meets-production facility was originally meant to cost £100m, but delays sent that figure spiralling to £140m. Then again, what’s the odd £40m between friends?

    Even for those well-versed in their construction and commissioning, new distilleries are funny things; independent life forms with the unnerving ability to stretch timelines and strain budgets, and to create difficulties unforeseen in the most pragmatically Eeyore-ish of business plans.

    That’s as true of boutique start-ups as it is of ventures with the heft of Pernod’s Emeishan – something I was reminded of last week, as our minibus bumped along the single-track road to the Drimnin Estate on Scotland’s remote Morvern peninsula, home to Ncn’ean distillery. Somewhere to the left of us sat Mull and Tobermory, although we had to take that on trust thanks to the weather, which was distinctly dreich.

    ‘I could write a book about what not to do when you’re opening a distillery,’ said Ncn’ean CEO and founder Annabel Thomas, echoing the experience of many others before her. ‘It’s not the really big stuff that makes you lose sleep at night. It’s the little things that you never really thought about.’

    Artist's impression of Emeishan distillery

    Taking the plunge: Pernod’s new malt whisky distillery in China will cost about £120m

    It can be a long list. Even for a project with a spend roughly one-twenty-fourth the size of Emeishan, there’s raising the cash in the first place. Then there’s the question of what you can get up and down a long single-track road: so Ncn’ean’s set-up revolves around the reality of its barley intake arriving in one-tonne bags.

    You want to be as sustainable as possible? At Ncn’ean, the options for steam creation were oil, or a biomass boiler fuelled by woodchips. With 2,000 acres of commercial forestry on the distillery’s doorstep, that decision was relatively simple – but, at £500,000, the boiler cost half as much as all the kit in the distillery. And, at times, it’s been a temperamental beast.

    But not all the surprises are unpleasant ones. Determined to use only organic barley, Thomas was told to expect ‘horror stories’ in terms of grain size and nitrogen levels; horror stories that, so far at least, have failed to materialise.

    Then there’s the serendipitous spike in fruity esters that comes at the end of the summer, when Ncn’ean switches from its ‘old’ spirit style (about one-tenth of production, distiller’s yeast, lower spirit cut) to ‘new’ (wine and distiller’s yeasts, higher cut), accentuating its signature high-toned, early-maturing spirit style.

    Ncn’ean’s first whisky is due for release in 2020. In the meantime, the distillery has been selling its Botanical Spirit – and the story behind it encapsulates the vagaries of starting up a new distillery.

    The original Ncn’ean business plan featured a gin still. Then Thomas abandoned the idea, reasoning that the company was ‘a bit late’ into an already overcrowded market.

    Ncn'ean Botanical Spirit bottle and glass

    Life of its own: Botanical Spirit wasn’t an original part of Ncn’ean’s business plan

    Time passed. People tried the Ncn’ean new make, loved it and told Thomas to bottle it, but she reckoned that new make occupies the geekiest niche of the whisky market and would only appeal to an extremely limited audience; instead, following much experimentation and foraging of mainly local ingredients such as bog myrtle, Ncn’ean Botanical Spirit was born. Not whisky, not gin, but something in between – an unconscious modern recreation of usquebaugh.

    Now Ncn’ean is preparing the second batch of Botanical Spirit, supplementing this with a quirky and very limited run of three cask-aged variants – Bounty bar-accented ex-Bourbon; savoury/celery ex-Spanish vermut (vermouth); and caraway/herbal ex-Mondino (organic German amaro). Something that wasn’t even mentioned in the original business plan has taken on a life of its own.

    You might think that there are few parallels between a small, independent distillery starting up in a remote corner of the Scottish Highlands, and a hugely ambitious, money-no-object venture on the other side of the world. But you can bet that Emeishan will have its surprises and setbacks, leading its creators down twisting paths that, at the moment, don’t even feature on their maps.

    Ncn’ean was originally going to be called Drimnin but, to make it distinct from the estate owned by Thomas’s parents, it took an abbreviated form of the name of the witch-queen Neachneohain. Now Thomas has decided to shift the apostrophe one space – Nc’nean – to make it easier to pronounce.

    If whisky-making is an iterative process, the same can be said for the creation and operation of new distilleries and their products. Whether you’re working out of a converted farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, or in a temple to the lure of the emerging wealth of the Chinese consumer, it’s a fascinatingly unpredictable ride.

  • Scottish oak’s bright yet uncertain future

    04 September 2019

    ‘Let the light in,’ says George Broadhurst. ‘Light is life in a forest. It feeds biodiversity.’ Somewhere deeper in the grove, a woodpecker drills, while the eyes of young deer warily regard us from their shelter. We’re in a managed plantation at Killearn, near Glasgow, where George is the forester, gazing up the trunk of an oak tree selected for potential felling. If the wood is suitable, it will be used to make a cask for Whyte & Mackay.

    Time expands when you look at a tree, unravelling backwards to when it was planted – this tree would have gone into the ground in 1880 – then leaps forwards to an unimaginable future. The oak saplings which will be planted here this year won’t be harvested until 2140. Laying down whisky for use in 30 years is nothing compared to planning and managing a forest.

    I started to thinking of all I’d been told about Scottish oak: some folks said that there wasn’t any, others claimed that, if there was, it was unsuitable for whisky. And yet, here it is being felled, seasoned and coopered, one element in a wide-ranging project initiated by Whyte & Mackay’s blender Gregg Glass.

    Forest Folklore: Scottish oak does exist, but its presence in the whisky world will only ever be modest

    Each forest is part of a complex network of roots and fungi, a mycorrhiza, sharing food, nutrients, and resources, communicating and warning. A forest is not a collection of trees and plants, but a single organism -– the Wood Wide Web.

    This linkage has not been mirrored above the leaf litter. Symbioses have been fractured as economics and warfare impinged on Scotland’s ancient hardwood forests. As they have declined (replaced by faster-growing softwood monocultures) so sawmills have disappeared, and cooperages have become places for repair rather than cask construction. Building a sustainable future for Scottish oak necessitates creating new connections.

    For Glass to find the oak, he first must speak with landowners and foresters, seek out the dwindling number of small-scale specialist sawmills, explaining the specific requirements needed for building a cask which they may have not encountered before, then work out which cooperages can process the wood.

    There’s also the matter of what to do with the rest of the tree. Only a small amount of the wood can be used for casks, so on a long night drive to Invermoriston we try to think up other ways of using oak (other than firewood). There’s alliances with furniture- and cabinet-makers, but what of ink, dyes, perfume, tanning, cocktail bitters, tiny cups made from acorns (it was getting late by the time that one emerged)?

    If it had been light outside we’d have been revelling in the wildness and emptiness of our surroundings, the bare hills, the heather, the isolated lochs, those solitary pines. Instead we should turn that on its head and see it as an unnatural landscape, rather than a natural one; a desert, denuded and devastated by deer and sheep.

    Giving back: Replanting schemes like Trees for Life are vital to maintaining Scottish oak forests

    ‘This is what a Scottish woodland should look like,’ says Alex Baxter the next morning. We’re at Dundreggan where the charity Trees For Life (for which he’s corporate development officer) is revitalising the Scottish wild forest. We’re standing beneath a waterfall among a rich layering of bracken and heather, juniper, birch, oak and pine. Trees For Life shows what is possible and by also working with them, Glass has shifted the project away from being for commercial gain – a gimmick, a PR exercise – into something richer.

    Later that day, we’re at the Speyside Cooperage to see its apprentices assembling Scottish oak casks and ends. ‘Scottish oak?’ says general manager Andrew Russell. ‘It’s interesting… because it’s Scottish. There’s no reason not to do it, and we’re the only ones able to do it because we have the equipment.’ He is now amassing a reserve of oak for the future – and the wider industry.

    Though the species may be the same [Q.petraea and Q. robur] as in mainland Europe, how will each express itself in terms of flavour? Only time will tell. Perhaps the aroma might not be substantially different, but that wouldn’t negate the need to use and plant oak in Scotland. It should be done because it is good for biodiversity, because it is the right thing to do.

    ‘You don’t find out until you open it,’ Kenny Brodie, sawmill owner and bespoke joinery specialist had told me as we looked at the inside of a trunk the day before. ‘What looks promising might be unuseable.’ The same applies here. You don’t know what might happen until you try it, but that’s not reason not to do it.

    Scottish oak won’t compete in volume terms with the US or mainland Europe, but that’s not the point. This isn’t whisky riding into town saying ‘we will save you’, but being another element in the slow, precarious revival of the country’s forests as they move away from the dark blanket of Velcro-needled Sitka spruce and return to a richer biodiversity. It is a reconnection. Let the light in.

  • Whisky doesn’t need to be intimidating

    28 August 2019

    It’s only 7.30am and yet this intense, dark liquid has cast a spell over me, its aroma of juicy, tropical fruits set against a subtle smokiness inviting my mouth to water. Juicy and slightly oily, with a hint of caramel and stone fruits, it’s the perfect antidote to an early start. Elegant yet bold, it’s a real enlivener… though that may have something to do with the caffeine.

    I’ve been a tea devotee all my life but this was my eureka moment. The morning I unexpectedly tumbled down the coffee rabbit hole. Not into just any coffee warren either – this one led to a wonderland of filters and brews, a realm of infinite flavour combinations.

    Until recently, filter coffee has had an infamously insipid reputation in the UK. I blame the movies. And McDonald’s. In fact, any chain of 1990s fast-service restaurants that served lukewarm pots of pathetic, anaemic liquid resembling pond water in polystyrene cups. It’s a reputation that, in part, propelled the rapid popularity of espresso. Like many others, I was stuck in the habitual routine of ordering my same old coffee – a black Americano, blissfully ignorant of coffee’s more intricate flavours and aromas I’d been missing out on.

    Finding flavour: Filtration accentuates more intricate coffee aromas and flavours than espresso

    It began in Brighton, at the Flour Pot café in the North Laine, and is all thanks to a passionate barista (they only exist in the local, independent establishments, where training is usually free, incidentally) who persuaded me to swap my usual for a chance on filter. ‘It’s got more flavour, it’s cheaper, and is served in a bigger mug.’ Always one for a bargain, I was sold.

    The coffee was delicious – bold, citrusy and oilier than my usual Americano. However the epiphany arrived a few weeks later with an early London meeting at Ozone in Shoreditch. The roaster is a New Zealand export, where coffee culture is taken as seriously as rugby or cricket, and the sentiment is just as strong in Ozone’s always-lively London outpost.

    I’m keen to continue my newfound interest in filter coffee, so ask the waitress if they serve any. Her face lights up. She hands me a menu. ‘These are all the filter coffee options we have on today’.

    Brew Bar: For novices, Ozone’s filter coffee options can seem overwhelming

    ‘Umm…’ I look at her blank-faced as the panic sets in. ‘What’s V60?’ Filter coffee just got complicated.

    The café is buzzing. A queue is forming out of the door. The pressure to swiftly select an option from a menu that may as well be written in Greek is overwhelming. I’m tempted to quit while I’m ahead and revert to the safety of my usual. Yet the waitress smiles warmly, and patiently explains. V60, Aeropress, Syphon… all different types of equipment used to brew filter coffees, each extracting different qualities from the grind. Each coffee option is single estate, the three today hailing from Rwanda or Bolivia. If you’re still not sure, here are some flavour cues to help you decide.

    Feeling the heat, I hastily opt for the ‘Batch Filter’ of the day, which I’m informed is Bolivia La Llama. Peach, orange juice, caramel. Fine. This is way too complicated for me; I’m clearly out of my depth, and in the midst of trendy Shoreditch, far too intimidated for my liking. I can see now why people stick to their regular cappuccino. And yet… The friendly waitress returns with my coffee – a good-sized mug – and a piece of card. ‘Enjoy,’ she says. ‘Any questions, let me know.’

    And here it is. The epiphany. In this one card, all my anxiety about how scary and complex the rabbit hole might be, has faded into excitement. Here is a full explanation of what’s in my mug, something to peruse and absorb while I enjoy my coffee.

    The location of the farm where the coffee is grown is laid out clearly, pinpointed on a wee map of Bolivia. I know nothing about coffee varieties or processing, but I discover that this coffee is a Yellow Caturra variety, it has been grown at an altitude of 1650masl (meters above sea level), harvested in July 2018 and has been washed. As a complete newb, none of that means anything to me. But the coffee is delicious, and just as described in the tasting notes, it’s fruity, juicy and beautifully smooth.

    Brewing enthusiasm: Ozone’s simple information cards help patrons explore the world of coffee

    I feel grateful for that card. Without it I would have been lost in a sea of jargon, my filter coffee journey halted. This is a speciality coffee roaster, and yet Ozone makes the effort to break down the complexities of coffee for every patron, even novices like myself. Why are speciality bars not doing this with whisky?

    It is just as intimidating, arguably even more so, with scientific terms and production processes creating a perceivably insurmountable barrier for beginners.

    Visit a bar serving any manner of whisky selection and you’ll likely be handed a tome listing every bottle available, usually arranged by region. It’s easy for the well-versed to navigate, but what does region, or age, matter to a newcomer? If my first filter coffee experience was tantamount to ordering a Monkey Shoulder in my local pub – intriguing, simple, no fuss – furthering my whisky journey by visiting a speciality joint where options are limitless, jargon-filled and ill-explained would have been frankly scary, overwhelming and discouraging.

    A simple note, clearly detailing the whisky’s key aromas and flavours, the distillery’s location, and a few facts about how it’s made – cask type, peated or not, single malt or blend – could spell the difference between being blindly overwhelmed and tentatively intrigued. Accompany that information with warm, patient and enthusiastic service, and chances are even the most novice of drinkers will be started on their own journey of whisky discovery.

    A little information can be so empowering. As I sipped my La Llama I felt a sense of attachment to that small farm in Bolivia, gratitude for its beans, and enthusiasm to explore the coffee rabbit hole further. Imagine what a little information could do for whisky.

  • Malts must stay rooted in locality

    21 August 2019

    The office has a distinct smell of juniper. In fact, I’m pretty convinced my skin smells of it as well. That comes from deciding to make 300-plus serves from 80 different gins. It’s been a long day, but I wanted to get to grips with what has happened to the gin market in recent years – and the change is noticeable.

    Gin started life as the first global spirit, though in a manner different to how we use the term these days. It was the first social spirit whose character came from ingredients obtained from around the world; the offspring of the mercantile empires of the Netherlands and Britain; the first manifestation of the world shrinking, an exotic distillation of trade routes.

    Local spirits spoke in a different way. If gin was expansive, they looked to their soils, earth, and air. They looked inwards. In time although Cognac and single malt Scotch became global in reach, they remained rooted to place. Gin stayed global in flavour… until now.

    As gin has become reborn, so its new distillers have begun to make spirits which reflect more clearly the scents of the place: South Africa’s fynbos or the Australian outback, the shores and moors of Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and England; the mountains of Norway, the hillsides and forests of Japan. Pepperberry and lemon myrtle, yuzu, sencha and hinoki; bog myrtle and horseradish, rowan berries, elderflower, milk thistle, and seaweed. Yes, the botanical mix still has global reach, but many gins are now more determinedly distillates of a specific environment.

    Sense of place: Single malts like Talisker are rooted in their locality and individual identity

    Blended Scotch has long been moving in the opposite direction. By their nature, global brands become – or can become – stateless, not so much the product of a place than a concept with a tangential relationship to origins. The brand becomes the focal point; its place of manufacture is secondary.

    Maybe blends’ success is down to them being malleable, their ability to adapt to the needs of different occasions and markets, having the versatility to be served in numerous ways. This fluidity of image and usage makes it easier for people to relate to. It becomes theirs, but as a consequence it loses touch with its roots.

    Blends’ biggest challenge in a world where the local is becoming a more important motivation for purchase is to try and reinforce their Scottish roots. It’s a tricky manoeuvre, and one which can easily slip into cliché and sentimentality. But the majors are trying – the Johnnie Walker Experience in Edinburgh is at the forefront of this recalibration.

    If the blend world is one of amenability, flex and inclusiveness, single malt’s point of difference is being an intense expression of a singular identity. Each single malt will always be different to its neighbour. Why? Because blenders need that to be the case. It means that the malt world is one of variety and exploration.

    Global-local: Johnnie Walker’s Edinburgh Experience fuses the locality of malts with the global reach of blends

    It may chafe with the globalist views of marketing departments, but malts do what blends can’t – and vice versa.

    If single malts begin to try and wear the same garments as blends in an attempt to become global brands their essence is eroded. Malts are defined by location and the specificity of their flavour. The distiller has to balance being true to that distillery character while still finding new ways of expressing it.

    The danger lies in forgetting that and trying to imitate what other malts are doing. ‘There’s a backlash against Sherry? OK we’ll do a volte face and take it out.’

    ‘Consumers like vanilla? We can do that as well.’

    ‘Some folks don’t care for smoke? We can hide it.’

    In each case, the distillery’s foundations are being chipped away, individuality being replaced by standardisation. Malts can become brands, they just can’t become brands in the same way as blends. Malts are local.

  • Whisky innovation depends on drinkers

    14 August 2019

    As you may know, for reasons which are too tedious to go into here, I’m not the greatest for social media. I do however occasionally dabble in the world of Instagram in the belief that pictures are less open to misinterpretation, and less of a bully pulpit than 140 characters.

    Many of the folks I follow will post shots of cocktails and bottles. Hey, it’s the world I (and they) live in. Some people prefer brows and pouts. I’m not judging. Anyhow, one recent posting concerned the arrival of the new trio of whiskies from Bruichladdich (to be reviewed on these pages soon) which looks at the influence of barley on flavour.

    For once, rather than just likes and emojis, the image attracted comments. The person who posted the shot was enthusiastic about this latest development in the debate, though it wasn’t a position that was universally shared. One of the responses stated (and I paraphrase), ‘Who cares about all of that? All I want to know is, do they taste good?’

    Whisky debate: Bruichladdich’s barley studies attracted attention on Instagram

    My initial reaction was: ‘Of course it feckin’ matters. This is an interesting – and significant – area of development in whisky.’ My sanctimonious thumb was poised to painfully tap out a response. Then I stopped. He was right. Does it matter if the whiskies aren’t any good? What does any of this experimentation mean if the result is less than compelling? The consumer might buy into the concept on a theoretical level, but it can only be considered a success if the whisky is good.

    In fact, if a new area is to be opened up, ‘good’ isn’t sufficient. The whisky has to be head-turningly, goose-pimple-stimulating, eyeballs on stalks amazing. If it isn’t, then people will, rightly, move on.

    If whisky is to genuinely innovate rather than just being like some heritage rock act hauling their saggy arses around halls playing the hits one last time – ‘Remember this one from the ’90s? It’s Port finish!’ – it has to be bold and make new whiskies which are not just different, but extraordinary.

    The retailer will only stock the whisky if they know it will be sold. The distiller will only move to a new lower-yielding model if it still proves to be profitable. The farmer will only plant the barley if he makes a return. It’s a chain, with us at one end.

    Stand-out spirit: Innovations should lead to bold new whiskies for drinkers

    This means that as a distiller you have to be honest and open. Not all the new ideas will work. Some innovations will fail, but others will stick. Those will be the ones which have serious thinking behind them, which look at the long-term rather than the quick fix, innovations which show a path rather than just leaping on whatever influencers’ goldfish minds have decided is this minute’s hot thing. It’s the whole lipstick on a pig thing all over again.

    It means trying to move things along while also understanding, deeply, the style, character and the templates which have been laid down over the years. Then putting your liquid findings out there in the hope that someone finds it as interesting as you do. As a writer you do something similar, putting your suggestions out there to be considered, then more often than not, rejected. It’s all you can do. You make the whisky, or you write about it, then you hand it all over to the drinker and it becomes theirs. They make the decision. You move on.

    As I was writing this I was listening to David Berman’s new (and, heartbreakingly, final) album Purple Mountains. One verse jumped out:

    Songs build little rooms in time
    And housed within the song’s design
    Is the ghost the host has left behind
    To greet and sweep the guest inside
    Stoke the fire and sing his lines.

    All we can do is keep on creating those new spaces.

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