The search is on to find the most creative, humorous and honest views about the whisky brand.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
20 July 2016
Long-haul flights, while tedious, do at least allow some time for contemplation. On the latest, still musing on the insights which Yumi Yoshikawa gave me, my mind turned to Scotchwhisky.com, nearly 10 months on from launch. Where are we? Getting there. We’re happy with the positive feedback that has come our way while, more importantly, we have all taken on board any constructive suggestions – because it’s only by listening to those that we improve.
While I was never fooled into thinking we could please everyone all the time, what has surprised me is the amount of intemperate rage that is out there. I wrote once in a different place about how the debate around whisky has become coarsened. Sadly, nothing has altered since. We are now in the fairly remarkable position of having passionate whisky lovers and passionate whisky makers hating each other while both loving the spirit, even if that love – as Yumi pointed out – is often expressed in slightly peculiar ways.
Positions on any number of issues have become entrenched: the growth of NAS, the very existence of blends, pricing, the alleged deterioration of whisky quality – with neither side being willing to engage in reasoned debate with the other.
Small gift: Scotchwhisky.com gave away miniature bottles at its official launch during the 2015 Whisky Show in London
Oh, you want my opinion on the matter? Ok, in order...
NAS: Necessary and an opportunity for creativity. I’ve no problem with it per se as long as the new NAS expressions are as good as, or preferably better than, those they are replacing. It’s about quality. It’s always about quality.
Pricing: Yes, there are prices at the top end which baffle me. But never forget there are fantastic whiskies at affordable levels at entry and the middle ground, where many prices have barely shifted for a decade. It’s all about the quality:price ratio.
Blends: Catch yourself on. The industry is built on blends and the greatest represent the height of whisky making craftsmanship. Quality, again.
Whiskies of the old days were better: I bet some people in the ’70s said the whiskies from the ’50s were greater than the ones they were drinking. There are extraordinary old drams, but there are also some dreadful ones. Equally, there are some extraordinary drams being made today, while there are others I’d rather pass on. Guess what? It’s about quality.
Is that fence-sitting? A cop-out? I’d prefer to call it nuanced. Whatever term you prefer, it is where a site such as this has to be. It’s occasionally an uncomfortable place to be, as we will be criticised from both sides (often at the same time), but our shoulders are broad.
It is important to try to present news and analysis in a fair and unbiased fashion. Our opinions (in From The Editors) are personal, but also hopefully cogently argued. I’m happy if you disagree – my colleagues disagree with me on some points – but what won’t happen is any watering down of what we believe to be the right things to discuss, write about and debate.
We love this spirit and want to celebrate it in all its forms. We want to talk to the people who make it, serve it, teach about it and drink it. We want to show how whisky is bigger than a product or a share price; a manifestation of a culture in all of its glorious complexities and contradictions. We want more people to learn how to enjoy it.
That does not mean, however, that we will avoid asking the tough questions – though some in the industry would prefer us not to – while, hopefully, always being cognisant of the wider picture, history and context. Not writing about some of the issues surrounding Scotch would be a derogation of our duty.
Having a blinkered view of the realities of the world is what brought about the Scotch whisky crash of the late ’70s and early ’80s, from which the industry has only recently fully recovered. This means that it is absurd to think everything in the world of whisky is perfect, just as it is absurd to suggest we get things right all the time on this site.
This might irritate those who would prefer to keep things in the world of PR fluff, but we will continue to write about all aspects of whisky in an even-handed manner. Sometimes that might place us in a different position to the industry. Sometimes we might be on the wrong side of whisky maniacs.
Should that happen, we’d expect there to be a grown up debate – there is always space here for considered (but not intemperate) opinion. Maybe in some small way we can get both sides to talk in an adult fashion.
We all believe in whisky. Sometimes we all need to remember that.
07 July 2016
The texts started coming in from my wife when I was in Japan. ‘We’re moving to Scotland… or Ireland.' My daughter, who I had always considered a paragon of innocence, was demonstrating a remarkable mastery of Anglo-Saxon demotic with her Instagram posts. Brexit was a reality. My Japanese friends expressed amazement.
The next day, the country’s press contained interviews with industrialists, all of whom were saying they would have to consider whether to close their UK operations and move them to Europe. (Irony alert no.1: included in this were Hitachi and Nissan, both based in Sunderland, which voted Leave).
For light relief, on the flight back, I watched The Revenant. A man mauled, betrayed, left for dead trying to find a path through a new, strange and hostile landscape. No matter where you looked, there was Brexit.
What will happen? The blithe suggestion that we simply become like Norway or Switzerland is unlikely. This would necessitate that Britain would still have to pay into the EU budget and accept freedom of movement. As the Brexit campaign was rooted in the quasi-racist allegation that immigrants were stealing ‘our jobs’, you can imagine what the political repercussions of such a move might be. (Irony alert no.2: Switzerland and Norway have higher per capita levels of immigrants than the rest of the EU).
Keep calm and sail on: meandering the rocky waters post-Brexit has turned into an ironic up-stream battleAll of the EU laws which have become UK laws will have to be unravelled. Treaties will need to be renegotiated. In a perceptive piece in the London Review of Books, Sionaidh Douglas-Scott wrote: ‘Parliament will have to vote in favour of all of this, which cannot be taken for granted. There will be huge gaps in the law, because much EU law is, in the legal jargon, directly effective, which means if the treaties no longer apply, the law no longer applies. So in many important areas…the UK will have to formulate its own replacements very quickly.’
Can Britain even start to disentangle EU law from the British legal system and simultaneously renegotiate every free trade deal? No. It’s accepted that we have insufficient negotiators. The people who told us not to listen to experts now need… experts (that’s irony alert no.3 folks).
As we have been part of the EU for 40 years, we didn’t need a huge number of specialists to work on trade deals. Meanwhile (irony alert no.4), the Government’s brilliant austerity programme has cut departments to the bone so there will be insufficient civil servants to administer all of the revised regulations (nice work Gideon).
What then might this mean for Scotch? The major firms came out for Remain, as did the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), which has been its diplomatic self since the result was announced. ‘Keep calm and sail on,’ is the message even if we are heading towards the rapids like Hugh Glass in The Revenant.
Remember, it is the EU that has helped to recently ease tariff levels and, in recent times, negotiate trade agreements for Scotch with South Korea, Vietnam and Colombia. There are ongoing negotiations with many others, including India and China. All of that will now be handed to the (non-existent) UK mediators and civil servants.
Nicola Sturgeon could be in a strong political position if she plays her post-Brexit cards right
As a result of Brexit, Scotch could be looking at higher tariffs being imposed across the EU and conceivably will have to renegotiate all others. As a piece in the FT from 22 April underlined, Britain will now have to negotiate with the EU to allow goods (such as Scotch) into Europe tariff-free, (aka the Turkish option). As the article pointed out, while Britain might want this option, there is no guarantee the rest of the EU will agree. It concluded: ‘Via the EU, Britain currently has favourable terms with at least 60 nations. These would have to be revisited.’ All of this could impact negatively on Scotch’s global presence.
What does it mean for Scotland as a whole? The only politician I can see who is emerging from the current chaos with a clear-headed strategy is Nicola Sturgeon, who has everything to gain if she handles the situation carefully. As Douglas-Scott points out: ‘In order for EU law to cease to apply domestically, provisions in the devolution statutes, such as the Scotland Act 1998, will have to be repealed to remove the requirement that these legislatures comply with EU law.
‘But the Sewel Convention states that devolved legislatures must give their consent to the repeal, and Nicola Sturgeon has made clear this will not be forthcoming.’
Could this be a bargaining chip for Sturgeon either to start negotiations to ensure Scotland (and conceivably Northern Ireland) stay in the EU, while England leaves (aka the reverse Greenland option), or to push for a second independence referendum? Perhaps. What is clear is that Brexit has further frayed the ties that bind together what is now laughably called the United Kingdom.
Scotland, it strikes me, by voting remain has already taken a huge stride down the road to full independence, while remaining within the EU. Should another referendum take place, expect the £4bn raised by the whisky industry to play a more prominent role. The ‘Scotland’s oil’ gambit has faltered. ’Scotland’s whisky’ however, has a tempting ring to it.
The Scotch whisky industry voted for Remain in both referendums. It won one. Now that momentum appears to be swinging behind Scottish independence within Europe, the industry needs to reconsider its options – and future.
Most commentators agree that all of this will take time, but that is the very thing we don’t have.
All the while, the roar of the rapids gets louder.
06 July 2016
‘To make a quality cocktail you need to start with quality ingredients,’ a bartender explained to me at Imbibe Live in London this week. ‘Of course,’ I agreed, ‘it goes without saying that a drink is only as good as the sum of its parts.’
Imbibe Live was not short of quality ingredients – or boozed-up bartenders taking advantage of free entry and over 100 exhibitor stands for that matter. The UK’s largest – and loudest – bar show showcases spirits of every ilk from around the world, from Japanese-inspired American whiskey to Spanish vermouth, sweet potato spiced rum and German vodka, as well as beer, wine, sake, juices, purees and barware. Quite simply, this was bartender heaven. An all-you-can-drink (responsibly, of course) buffet.
Though something was missing. One particular spirit didn’t seem worthy of a place among the cocktail ingredient elite, despite being arguably the most aspirational, high quality spirit in the world.
It was easier to inadvertently bump into a new brand of tonic water than it was to track down a Scotch whisky. Where had all the Scotch brands gone? Either they’d spent their annual budget on stands at consumer whisky shows, or British consumers have become so entrenched in Scotch snobbery that brands have given up promoting their place in cocktail culture. Is Scotch forever fated to be sipped neat from cut crystal tumblers while imbibers bemoan the lack of an age statement?
Auchentoshan's bartenders represent Scotch cocktails at Imbibe Live
Auchentoshan’s UK brand manager told me a focus group with UK consumers found they weren’t interested in malts at the moment (need I say the G word?). If that is the case, some serious work needs to be done – by brands and bars – to bring malts back into the minds of consumers, particularly when they’re ordering cocktails. They are the vessels that will encourage a new generation of whisky drinkers to the category.
Blends have become the defunct option when making cocktails, even though malts offer so much diversity of flavour, and are often so much more robust.
But, I hear you gasp, why waste a perfectly good single malt Scotch in a cocktail? We’ve established that to make a quality drink you need to start with quality ingredients, and be honest, you weren’t really going to drink that NAS anyway, were you? (Generally) youthful, flavoursome and affordable, NAS is as good a place to start as any, though the chaps at Whisky Blasphemy over in Philly are using top shelf expressions in their Old Fashioneds and jelly shots.
Made in Glasgow: Drygate stout and Auchentoshan malt shake up Imbibe Live
We’ve grown so obsessed with putting single malt on a pedestal that it’s become taboo to taint it with anything (just ask Dave Broom and Colin Dunn about the virtues of mixing Lagavulin 16 with Coke).
Of the three Scotch exhibitors with their own stand at Imbibe Live (we counted only an additional three brands hidden among the confines of distributors’ sprawling portfolios), only one proudly promoted whisky’s mixability in cocktails. Auchentoshan – which was showcasing its relatively new American Oak expression – went so far as to mix stout and IPA (from Drygate Brewery) with its single malt.
‘Welcome to the new malt order’ the bartenders’ T-shirts stated. If this is the new way of things, I thought, sipping on my Scotch ’n’ Stout cocktail, you can count me in.
29 June 2016
Pretending to be something you’re not hasn’t worked out well for anyone in the past. Some good examples include Top Gear’s new presenters, Chris Evans and Matt Le Blanc (who are they kidding trying to be anything other than a radio presenter and Joey Tribbiani?), Donald Trump as a serious politician, and Boris Johnson as likeable…
It’s concerning then when one of the world’s best-selling single malt Scotch whiskies – in fact one of the first malts to be exported from Scotland in 1963 – begins taking its marketing cues from American whiskey.
So much so that at first glance Glenfiddich’s new Rethink Whisky campaign for its 14-year-old Bourbon Barrel Reserve could easily be mistaken for an advert for Jack Daniel’s, what with its American bluegrass score and backyard BBQs.
The next generation of single malt drinkers need to be tempted away from Bourbon
‘Think America’s next big whisky is from Kentucky?’ a deep, gravely American voice asks. ‘Introducing the smooth sophistication of Scotland, with the sweet kick of Kentucky.’
The product itself is still Scotch whisky both legally and organoleptically – it’s matured in Speyside for 14 years in ex-Bourbon casks, before finishing in virgin American oak. However, the expression is described as ‘a true celebration of the American spirit, and the American whisky industry’s contribution to Scottish single malt.’ The truth is, if it were marketed any other way the comparison wouldn’t have arisen.
As a US exclusive, Glenfiddich has positioned its ‘rich, sweet and vibrant’ Bourbon Barrel Reserve to appeal to American whiskey drinkers. How some can still claim Scotch whisky’s Bourbonisation doesn’t exist I can’t fathom, when this is a clear example.
As I’ve previously stated on the subject, this is potentially dangerous territory. Scotch has a long-established flavour profile and reputation of its own; the second it starts masquerading as another popular style of whisky it loses that identity. Trends come and go, and in a centuries-old industry like Scotch whisky, a reliance on piggybacking onto other whiskies’ popularity could damage its reputation in the long term.
However, I’m sticking my neck out here by saying this campaign is something to be applauded. Considering the risks of Bourbonisation to an established brand, it’s courageous of Glenfiddich to break the boundaries of convention to attract a new generation of single malt drinkers.
Whisky as a whole has done a fine job of shrugging off its stereotype as an older man’s drink (the gains seen on Bourbon (5% according to Discus) and Irish whiskey (16%) in the US over the past few years are in some part testament to this), but single malt Scotch, as arguably the most aspirational whisky in the world, still has some way to go, despite growth of 7% to 1.46m nine-litre cases last year. Ironically, in the UK the brand is still peddling itself to the male elite, through the launch of a ‘gentleman’s whisky lounge’ at a Knightsbridge hotel.
Stateside, however – the world’s largest malt market by volume – Glenfiddich is using its Bourbon Barrel Reserve to tempt young, modern Bourbon and American whiskey drinkers to try malt. This segment, after all, is key to the future of the category.
Rethink whisky, the campaign says (really meaning ‘rethink single malt Scotch’), while visibly eschewing every convention associated with the product.
In the series of four themed digital shorts that are being posted across social media, Scotch is poured not daintily but sloppily into rocks glasses that don’t match; Aunt Evie pours more than a responsible two fingers worth; and a good slug is poured over ice and handed to a woman tending the BBQ. Could Scotch get more radical?
Next we’ll be seeing limited edition summer bottlings packaged in leather biker jackets and sporting hipster beards.
And why not?
22 June 2016
So there I was driving through Chichibu with Yumi Yoshikawa, as you do. We’d been round the distillery (she’s its brand ambassador) and were heading for what was to prove a wild and entertaining evening with the team at the town’s top whisky bar, Te Airigh [aka Terry’s Bar].
The discussion had drifted from mizunara to Craigellachie’s Highlander Inn (where she had worked), country life, the differences between Scotland and rural Japan, and then somehow landed on how there is a branch of whisky connoisseurs who seem to hate the spirit.
They’re the ones who, in chat rooms and at whisky shows, steer the conversation to how things were always better in the old days, who hate every new release especially if it doesn’t have an age statement on it, resent grain, lauter tuns, steam coils, and shell and tube condensers. Whisky would be better if it were made by noble Highland heroes in bothies hidden in the heather. Until that happens it will continue to be driven ever closer to the edge of a precipice by unscrupulous large distillers (there’s a scale of approval in this mindset which works in inverse proportion to the size of the producer – those who set themselves up as 21st century Highland Heroes in the Heather are safe from scorn).
I worry about them, and on occasion have mused why if whisky is so bad they don’t move to rum, or Cognac, or Armagnac. Not that I want them to go away – every bottle of Scotch sold is a good thing. I do wonder where the rage comes from, however.
I finished my rant. Then Yumi said: ‘Maybe people who care passionately about whisky express it in the same way as you do with a lover: you want them to be perfect, ideal, to fit your own idea of what they should be and reflect your love of them. Because they don’t always meet your expectations you complain about them, but it’s only because you love them.’
Love knows no boundaries when it comes to whisky
It made perfect sense. In any case, am I any different with my rants about the need for a wider range of yeasts and worries about direct fire being taken out of some distilleries leading to a loss of character? (The latter is top of mind as I’m currently in a country where direct fire has been reinstalled in distilleries because it gives character). I wasn’t giving up though.
‘Surely though, love can also be possessive and jealous? You know, “I want you to myself and no-one else can get you. I am the only one who can understand you.” It starts out as a love story and ends up with a bunny in a pot.’
Passion is one thing and is something we all have for this spirit, but passion can easily tip over into antagonism. The solution, surely, is tolerance. There is, as the Persuaders once sang, a thin line between love and hate and the latter is never surely the solution to any debate.
I’m with Yumi, but I’m keeping a weather eye on what’s cooking in the kitchen.
14 June 2016
‘Glenfiddich single malt: made in Italy.’ Can you imagine that on a label? If you can, then can you also envisage the stooshie that would ensue?
Just before lawyers start sharpening their quills and calculating their fees, this has not happened. Neither will it happen. It won’t, because Scotch is one of the most tightly regulated spirits in the world. It has controls and laws covering everything from production to labelling.
Some firms may occasionally chafe against the limits of these rules, but they are there for a good reason – such as stopping people making ‘Glenfiddich’ anywhere other than in Scotland.
It sounds an absurd notion that an internationally recognised brand would have its name stolen by another firm, which then placed it on one of its own bottles. I mean to say, old boy, there’re things called trademarks. It’s just not done to steal another chap’s rights in this fashion. To which I say: welcome to the happy world of rum.
Just two weeks ago, Bacardi announced the US-wide distribution of a brand called ‘Havana Club’, but made in Puerto Rico. Yes, I know. Havana is in Cuba. What’s more, Havana Club is a trademarked Cuban rum brand. Even the US recognises this. Bacardi, however, doesn’t accept this state of affairs.
The launch of Puerto Rican ‘Havana Club’ is the firm’s latest attempt to ensure that Cuban rum cannot enter the United States and has more to do with spite and a fear of the erosion of brand share than it has of upholding any noble legal position.
Rum do: Bacardi’s Havana Club is produced in Puerto Rico
A Scotch whisky site isn’t the place to enter into the intricacies of the long-running case – which is making various lawyers very rich – but it is evidence of how important strong regulations are in protecting brand rights.
The current argument in rum – which has acquired the same heat as NAS in Scotch – is over sugar addition. In some countries adding sugar is banned, in others it is legal. Neither is there an upper limit on how much sugar can be added – as there is with cachaça or Cognac – or whether it should be declared on the label.
Those who add sugar (and other additives such as vanilla and citrus) say it isn’t illegal, and anyway it has been common practice for centuries (which is true). Those who are against it say it fools drinkers into thinking rum is sweet, covers up immaturity and erodes distillery and national rum character. Can you imagine a similar debate in Scotch? No. Because the sugar issue wouldn’t arise.
Rum has another issue, this time over age statements. In some countries – Cuba and Puerto Rico, for example – the new distillate has to spend a minimum amount of time in cask before it can be called rum. In others it’s rum as soon as it appears in the spirit safe.
In some countries – Cuba, the English- and French-speaking Caribbean – the age declared on the label is defined by the youngest component in the blend. In others, where solera aging is practised, an average age is calculated. Some firms simply put a number on the bottle. Result: confusion. Again, could this happen in Scotch? No.
Most rum producers agree that tighter regulations are needed and look at Scotch with a certain degree of envy, but it is difficult to achieve consensus as rum is already governed by various and occasionally conflicting national regulations. It is unlikely that global regulations could ever be applied.
The result is that a major part of rum education involves trying to explain all of these differing ways of making the product and cutting a clear path through the confusion – before you can even start talking about the spirit in a balanced, generic fashion.
So for those who rail against Scotch’s rules – be careful what you wish for.
08 June 2016
In December 2005, when spirit first ran from the stills at Kilchoman, it became Islay’s eighth working distillery, and the first new one in about 120 years. Now there are plans, at various stages of development, for at least three more.
It’s a picture repeated across Scotland, around the world. We live in an era of whisky renaissance, where anyone with a dream and a beneficent investor can become a distiller. Exciting – but risky – times.
Anthony Wills had a dream when he drew up plans for Kilchoman soon after the millennium. Fast-forward to the distillery’s open day at this year’s Fèis Ìle, when long queues for the superb festival bottling snaked out of the shop and into the grounds, and you might think that the previous decade or so had been one long upward curve. Far from it.
‘I never imagined that within 10 years of starting this distillery we would be where we are now,’ an emotional Wills told a Fèis masterclass audience. ‘My dream was to start a distillery and put [the whisky] on the market at a relatively young age.’
Events conspired to fuel his early doubts. The need to raise more cash, the falling-out with the adjacent landowner, the fire that put the maltings out of commission for a year… The burst pipes, the temperamental boilers… Things go wrong at distilleries, particularly new distilleries, and they’re generally not cheap or easy to fix.
All valuable lessons for any wannabe whisky-maker. Wills has previously said that, if you think you need £5m in funding, you really need £10m. But things can go right, as well as wrong.
Uniquely Islay: Kilchoman has had its ups and downs over the past decade and more
Kilchoman bought the adjacent farm in November last year, ending those rows over the garden fence. Controlling the land means the business can plant more barley for its flagship 100% Islay product – 150 tons this year, up from 100 tons previously – and there are plans for a new malting floor and kiln to be operational by next spring. Total production will be close to 200,000 litres this year; in 2006, it was just 50,000 litres.
Through all of these ups and downs, the central message of the spirit – created and reinforced by Jim Swan and the late John MacLellan – has remained constant. Small stills, narrow neck to the spirit still, ploughing cash into cask sourcing and letting top-quality wood work its magic.
And it’s paid off. That exuberant young spirit has shaken off its puppy fat and become something richer and more complex, even in less than a decade: this year’s outstanding Fèis bottling is well under nine years old, and cask samples suggest it is no one-off.
That, in turn, has given Wills a dilemma: what to release and what to hold on to. ‘We will keep stock back for older bottlings,’ he promises. ‘That’s crucial to the long-term future of the distillery.’
That said, he doesn’t see Kilchoman releasing a 25- or 30-year-old bottling in the 2030s, reckoning that sweet, floral spirit will hit its peak somewhere between eight and 14 years. I’m not so sure he’s right, but it’ll be fun finding out.
Wills reckons he could write a book on what not to do when building a distillery which, by its nature, would also be a valuable guide on how to do it right. Part cautionary tale and part inspiration, the Kilchoman self-help manual ought be a best-seller among the emerging new generation of whisky-makers.
01 June 2016
One of the most memorable cocktails I ever had – one that honestly gave me a ‘wow’ moment and, dear readers, a single malt-based drink – was From Dusk Till Dawn at the The Gibson in London. It was one of those concoctions featuring such exotic ingredients I expected David Attenborough to sweep through the door with a camera crew: Capuacu butter wash Craigellachie 13 Year Old, Valerian root and tamari soya, black garlic honey, millet amazake and fresh lemon. Yeah, I only recognised the whisky and the lemon juice too, and thought Valerian root was a Game of Thrones reference.
Often enough bars get carried away listing ingredients with unpronounceable names and elaborate garnishes without a thought for flavour. Not this drink. This was sublime. One of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting to know, and great value for money at £11.
No, journalism does not pay enough to warrant a Gibson visit very often, but on the rare occasion I do shell out for a cocktail I want a good one.
From Dusk Till Dawn: a cocktail worth parting with your money for
Now, I’ve had the fortune of drinking in some of the best bars in the world, most of them destination bars for good reason – they create cocktails worth a thousand mile trip and a £10-20 hole in my pocket. Others, unfortunately, are more like the Kardashians – beautiful to behold but lacking substance.
The price of a cocktail – or wine, whisky or beer for that matter – in a high end bar includes the pleasure of sitting in beautiful surroundings, enjoying an ’elite’ experience, but surely the quality of the drink comes into play as well?
While on my holidays last week, a friend recommended I pop into the most extravagant and historic hotel in Marrakech for a drink in their bar – named after a famous British Prime Minister, and rumoured to be an experience I wouldn’t want to miss.
Unfortunately the live jazz pianist and charms of the bartender weren’t enough to make up for the poor quality of the drinks: an eggy and unbalanced ‘Lapsang Souchong-smoked’ sour made with Laphroaig 10 Year Old and a watery Old Fashioned (made Pendennis Club-style) with Luxardo maraschino liqueur instead of a cherry. At £20 each, these were more expensive than most London bars. More so than a cocktail at London’s Artesian, the luxurious hotel bar voted the world’s best by Drinks International several times over.
Now I understand Marrakech is hardly London or New York – the two great cocktail capitals of the world – and this is hardly the first time I’ve been disappointed by an excessively-priced drink in a five-star hotel, but some perspective must be heeded where pricing is concerned. That, or bartenders need to up their game.
Bars needn’t be elaborate with their drinks to gain favour – simple classic cocktails executed with precision are enough to put a smile on my face, despite a high price tag. I’d happily hand over a tenner for a sumptuous Old Fashioned (made with Scotch, of course), down my local boozer, so long as it was made well.
Incidentally, you can still try From Dusk Till Dawn at The Gibson (and I recommend you do). Meanwhile, my ‘friend’ with less trustworthy recommendations will be buying the next round.
31 May 2016
Looking back on my first Fèis Ìle, I think two things in particular surprised me: the funnels; and the abundant sunshine. For anyone who visited the festival this year, the latter – barring one damp, midgy afternoon on Jura – needs no explanation. We’ll get to the funnels later.
Even Jura had its moment in the sun. The decision to split its distillery day in two paid off with a glorious Wednesday. Everywhere else, from the exuberant birthday celebrations at Lagavulin to the practically tropical Ardbeg Night shindig a week later, had no reason to complain. ‘You should have been here last year,’ said one veteran Fèisophile with a sad shake of the head. ‘Hideous. Absolutely hideous.’
Every distillery does it slightly differently during Fèis. As ever, there were queues, most notably at Bowmore, where the fervour to get hold of this year’s bottlings had the dizzy air of the January sales or the first day at Wimbledon. Manager David Turner left the distillery on Tuesday night at about 9.45pm, to be greeted by a dozen hardened Bowmore groupies, desperate to get their hands on one of the 200 Vintage Edition bottles the following morning.
Others played it differently; there were queues at Lagavulin and Kilchoman, sure, but there were also sufficient quantities of whisky available to satisfy everyone (I think). Ardbeg and Bunnahabhain put their Fèis bottlings up for sale on the Monday; Ardbeg’s and Jura’s will also be sold more widely afterwards.
There’s a debate to be had here: at one end of the spectrum, the desire to give festival-goers something special and exclusive – but what if you end up disappointing hundreds, who queue for hours only to come away with a bottling from the core range, a fridge magnet and a baseball cap?
On the other hand, why bother to come all the way to Islay to snag that Fèis bottling if you can order it off the internet a few days later? Somewhere between these two poles, a happy medium must exist.
Night and day: Ardbeg’s open day was perhaps the most inventive and original
There were one or two other gripes among the dedicated festival-goers. While some distilleries made a clear effort to innovate and offer new attractions and activities to keep things fresh for long-time visitors – Ardbeg being perhaps the most shining example – others stuck to the same formula as before. There’s a fine line between ‘tried and tested’ and tedium.
Contrast this feeling with the buzz surrounding this year’s Spirit of Speyside festival, where visitors were spoilt for choice, with hundreds more events taking place in a much shorter period than the Fèis. Is it just that more distilleries = greater competition = more creativity and dynamism?
Accommodation is another issue. Of course Ileach business owners want to make the most of their busiest week of the year, but when the punters decide that hiring a camper van is a cheaper and better option than taking a room, something’s gone slightly awry. Reports of vacancies and cancellations reinforce the point, as does the sight of mobile homes trying to edge past each other on the narrow roads to Kilchoman or Bunnahabhain.
At the end of what was almost entirely a joyous and sun-filled week, these might sound like ungracious quibbles, but an event like Fèis has to keep asking itself difficult and searching questions to become even better than before, and to keep those utterly passionate whisky nuts flocking to this small island from all over the world.
And the funnels? I first spotted them at Jura, then they resurfaced at Bunnahabhain when, as a masterclass concluded, the two people either side of me surreptitiously decanted the remains of their cask samples into sample bottles (always best to use a funnel when you’ve had a few drams), carefully inscribing them with a handy marker pen.
Beyond recalling Islay's proud smuggling heritage, it also prompted me to wonder what will become of these whiskies. Retasted later, at leisure? Or taken home to Germany, Finland and South Africa, to be squirrelled away and then dug out again at some future date – Islay malt's bootleg tapes?
Either way, it illustrates the kind of near-obsessive fascination that this annual whisky extravaganza inspires. Only at Fèis…
24 May 2016
‘There’s a slow food festival in the Burren next weekend.’ Leslie Williams was giving me the hard sell. ‘You should come…’ The last night of talk at Ballymaloe followed the same pattern as always when gently lubricated friends sit round the table. You don’t want things to end… a few more days are needed to finish conversations and deepen relationships. Time runs away from our plotting and scheming.
His idea was a good one – stopping off at the festival, then hiring a boat and bobbing under the Cliffs of Moher eating the Burren Smokehouse’s wild salmon and sipping whiskey. It might have been the wonderful, and rare, Alicante wine he was dosing me with, but for more than a second I swithered.
Islay was calling though, and I had to get there as quickly as I could, which turned out to be not as quickly as you might imagine. Drive to Cork, train to Dublin, bus to Dublin airport… and a wait. Things did take a turn for the better when I asked for a Bloody Mary at the bar and got two. Maybe it’s the accent – and you can take that whatever way you wish.
In any case, I slept all the way from Dublin to Glasgow. As I sat waiting for FlyBe to consult their Bumper Book of Excuses and choose one to apply to the inevitable delay to the Islay flight, I mused that with a bit more planning I could have grazed my way up the Wild Atlantic Way trail to Ballycastle, then get a RIB across to Islay. Next year.
It would have been appropriate. The sea was the great roadway of the past, carrying wisdom, goods, warfare and the gospel. Islay’s place names are a mix of Norse and Gaelic, evidence of the meeting of sea-faring cultures from the north and south.
Distilling could have nipped across from Ballycastle to Islay with the Macbeathas at the start of the 14th century. Islay is not remote, or isolated, but a crossroads, a fulcrum in terms of geography, politics and knowledge.
When I finally reached Port Ellen, I looked down the street to where the red ‘T’ of the Ardview shone in the gloaming like a blood stain, beckoning me. I like the Ardview: it’s one of those old west coast pubs which seems to be part boat, a place of creaking wood and hidden rooms, its windows battened down, sheltering the drinking crew from the storms of life raging outside. The door to the lounge bar is painted shut as if to say: ‘This is a public place.’
Final destination: The pink-and-blue dawn at a revitalised Port Ellen
Big Margaret’s curry house has been transformed into the very smart SeaSalt Bistro. Soon there was a clattering midden of scallop shells beside me. All for a minuscule price, with free hairdressing advice thrown in.
Men in kilts wander past – a sure sign of overseas visitors. The bar of the Islay Hotel is bouncing with music as drams are drunk and elbows are bent again and again, the fumes of peat wreathing themselves around the room. Port Ellen, after years of decline, is alive once more.
Now it’s morning. The loch is calm, a pink-and-blue dawn as housemartins and jackdaws fuss about the eaves. In a few hours I’ll wander along the road to Laphroaig and then up to Lagavulin, where I’ve been promised some unusual cocktails.
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- Islay’s single malt expansion
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