From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Ardbeg moments with Mickey Heads

    08 March 2017

    For me, memories of Ardbeg and of its inimitable manager, Mickey Heads (now celebrating a decade in the job), are inevitably coloured by the Islay weather – but not in the way that you might think.

    Encounter number one: September 2010. A couple of glorious Indian summer days, when the Corryvreckan whirlpool off Jura was reduced to a millpond and we all blinked into the sunlit dazzle of the waves as Mickey communicated his whisky passion as only Mickey can.

    Encounter number two: the Islay half marathon in August 2013, which a bunch of drinks journalists ran in memory of our late colleague Alan Lodge, whose favourite spot (and dram) happened to be Ardbeg.

    Post-run, post-lunch, whisky in hand, sunbathing on the shore in front of the distillery. It might not be the approved Mo Farah post-race warmdown, but it worked for us, and Mickey was there to pour the drams.

    And encounter number three: Ardbeg Day during last year’s Fèis Ìle, when a semi-tropical slice of summer invaded the changeable Islay spring. Mickey was busy – as are all the distillery staff during Ardbeg Day – and a brief sighting suggested that he may also have been slowly melting, dressed in what appeared to heavy priest’s robes as part of the Ardbeg Night smuggling theme.

    This trinity of visits suggests two things to me: one, that the sun always shines at Ardbeg; two, that in Mickey Heads, this world-famous but historically fragile distillery has a manager that it richly merits.

    Ardbeg Mickey Heads

    Whisky passion: Over the past decade, Mickey Heads has become inextricably linked to Ardbeg

    There’s a pleasing numerical symmetry to Mickey’s tenure at Ardbeg: the 20th manager of the distillery, marking 10 years in 2017, having joined almost exactly 10 years after Glenmorangie bought the distillery.

    That acquisition ended an uncertain period during which Ardbeg could have become another Port Ellen after a stop-start period of production (it was silent from 1981-9 and 1996-7, and scarcely running at full speed at other times).

    Apt, then, that its management should pass to a true Ileach, one born just a few miles from Ardbeg and whose father (a stillman) and grandfather (head maltman at Port Ellen) were also closely involved in the industry. Arguably all the more important to reinforce those local links when the distillery’s current owner (luxury goods corporation LVMH) has its offices in faraway Paris.

    That said, Mickey’s career path – or ‘meander’ as he has modestly described it – appeared at first to be taking him further away from Ardbeg, rather than closer to it. From cutting peat for Laphroaig to becoming the distillery’s brewer (during which time he also helped out at Ardbeg, then owned by the same company), then hopping across to run Jura between 1999 and 2007.

    But then came the call back to Islay, and Ardbeg. And now, 10 years on, Ardbeggians all over the world are being encouraged to raise a glass, and three cheers, to Mickey.

    In a whisky world where hype and marketing cliché all too often overwhelm the truth of an essentially local product, it’s not hard to celebrate someone so down-to-earth, hard-working and humble, and someone whose connection to what he makes is so powerful.

    Corryvreckan in my glass, to recall that first Indian summer visit. Sláinte, Mickey.

  • There’s a big whisky world out there

    01 March 2017

    I’m reading a remarkable book about trees. It’s called The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and is one of those volumes that makes you view what you think is a familiar and known world in a completely new manner. You realise, in fact, that everything you thought about the natural world was too simplistic – or just plain wrong.

    A new path: It’s time for Scotchwhisky.com to explore other styles of whisky​

    Wohlleben’s opening premise is that ‘a tree isn’t a forest’, which seems pretty self-evident. We all know that lots of trees are a forest. He develops his argument – backed-up by rigorous science – to show that a forest is a not a collection of individual trees, but a complex interdependent system in which the trees help each other, communicate together, and even nurse sickly members of the community. They work together in ways which are quite extraordinary. 

    As he writes:

    ‘If every tree were looking out only for itself then quite a few would never reach old age... Every tree therefore is valuable to the whole community.’

    That got me thinking about whisky. In our increasingly compartmentalised world, we tend to see Scotch as one thing, Irish as another, etc. From a whisky production point of view this is a good thing.

    Each needs to be as distinct as a beech is from a birch, or an oak is from a pine – but that doesn’t mean each ‘species’ of whisky stands alone and apart from the others of its genus.

    Like the trees, they refer to each other and are part of one greater organism. Separating them and thinking one is better (rather than just different) from another eliminates any chance to compare and contrast, and have perspective.

    Which in turn brings us to Scotchwhisky.com. Not to write about other whiskies, producers, styles and approaches would be a dereliction of duty. Most of you will have some Japanese or Bourbon or Irish sitting at home. Should we write about them? Yes. And we will.

    Yes, we are still called Scotchwhisky.com and Scotch will remain the primary focus for the site, but it is time to widen the remit and write about everything that is happening out there in the world of whisky.

    It’s time for us to walk in the forest and see what we find.

  • The importance of whisky archives

    20 February 2017

    Hands up who went to visit Diageo’s mysterious snake in a bottle the other week? It’s a rarity for the Johnnie Walker owner to open its Menstrie archive to the public (in celebration of International Scotch Day on 10 February), but exceptional to discover a 19th-century bottle of whisky containing a pickled snake.

    Yet Diageo’s archive is full of curiosities, 500,000 of them, from historic bottlings (complete with resident spirits, sans snake) to ledgers, paintings, photographs, vintage adverts, life-size horse sculptures and even a replica hot air balloon. Some day David Beckham’s distant ancestors may visit Menstrie for an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? to dig out the memorabilia associated with his launch of Haig Club.

    It’s one of the most comprehensive catalogues of a whisky company’s history in existence, and takes a team of six archivists to maintain and grow. Sadly such a thorough and tenderly curated archive is extremely rare in Scotch, which is shocking when you consider the wealth of heritage in the category dating back hundreds of years.

    Whisky log: Chivas Brothers’ archive at Strathisla contains details of the company’s past bottlings and whisky recipes

    Scotland’s largest whisky companies all began collating serious archives during the 1980s and ’90s. Chivas Brothers’ archive at Strathisla is in the hands of senior archivist Chris Brousseau, Dewar’s is in the hands of Jacqui Seargeant in Glasgow, The Glenmorangie Company’s history is in the hands of Iain Russell in Livingston, while Glasgow University Archives has records from Laphroaig, deposited when Whitbread’s spirits division was sold to Allied Lyons in 1989.

    Despite the applaudable efforts of some parties, frustratingly too many whisky producers keep no record of their brands’ histories at all. Not even for those produced as recently as the 1970s or 1980s. No details of when they were first produced, no visual reminders of packaging designs, and no log of blending recipes. Their bottlings are produced, sent out the door and forgotten about.

    Would you raise a family without logging your children’s first words, their first steps, or without taking photographs of ridiculous hairstyles for their future offspring to ridicule? We compile photographs of family celebrations, diaries and birth and death certificates to remind us of our own faded memories, but also to show our future generations who we were. What we did.

    The credit for the Diageo archive’s meticulousness goes firstly to the group’s predecessors at the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL), which had the foresight to hold onto material relating to many of today’s oldest brands, such as Johnnie Walker, Buchanan’s and White Horse. It helped that the brands were the products of some of the most prolific and successful marketers in the industry, people like James Buchanan and Peter Mackie, who nurtured their creations like children.

    Following the takeover of DCL by Guinness in 1986, the resulting company, United Distillers, enlisted the assistance of archivist and historian Dr Nick Morgan to establish an archive for the company’s history. Afraid of losing some of its history as a result of the merger, Morgan was entrusted to compile as many artefacts relating to the companies’ history as he could find. In two years he filled three floors of an old warehouse with memorabilia.

    Alexander Walker’s blending book: records of past blends can help inspire the whiskies of the future​Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed our Whiskypedia section expanding lately. Very soon this section will include details of almost every Scotch whisky distillery, brand and company over the last 200 years or so. It will become the largest information resource for Scotch whisky online. It’s not an easy job compiling thousands of pages of company and brand histories, but it’s made that much harder, often venturing into the realms of the impossible, when producers keep no records of their own.

    Keeping an archive not only helps journalists like us build something as in-depth and historically accurate as Whiskypedia, but it also enables companies to draw on their rich past, resurrect brands or production techniques, or bring vintage marketing material or labels back to life. It helps create lineage for brands, and a sense of heritage which, apparently, is what millennials seek in their purchases these days.

    My globetrotting colleague Dave Broom returned from the inaugural World Whisky Forum in Sweden last week with reports of the whisky fraternity – large and small producers alike – sharing experiences and advice.

    I was thrilled to hear that among the discussions of innovation and traditional production techniques, Ludo Ducrocq, head of ambassador advocacy at Glenfiddich owner William Grant & Sons, had stressed the importance of new distillers establishing their own archive from the off. ‘It will save money in the long term,’ he said. ‘An archive protects your legacy, it tells the story, it adds value and allows you to learn from mistakes.’

    Not all brands have been lucky enough to have meticulous owners like the DCL or United Distillers. Many were passed from owner to owner with any collection of past marketing material or notes lost along the way, if they ever existed at all. One company may have started an archive, only for it to be considered superfluous by its next owner.

    Archives should be considered as important as the distilleries brands are produced in, and in this digital age there is really no excuse. My hope is that all whisky producers, not just this new wave of distillers, start documenting material right now. Understanding our past is what helps us to move forward.

    After all, curating an archive is like setting a footprint in stone. Without it, the past is simply washed away with the sands of time.

    Archives to visit:

    While the Chivas Brothers archive is not open to visitors, and Diageo’s Menstrie archive invites history buffs in just once day a year, there are several attractions across Scotland that welcome history buffs to immerse themselves in their whisky heritage.

    The largest public collection of whisky, with bottles dating back to 1897, is at the Scotch Whisky Experience on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. It’s a fascinating, somewhat magical experience to be surrounded by so much whisky history.

    Meanwhile, some distillery visitor centres do do their brands justice, such as the Dewar’s experience at Aberfeldy in Perthshire, The Famous Grouse Experience at Glenturret distillery in Crieff and The Glenlivet distillery in Moray, each of which have interactive tours designed to bring the brand’s past to life.

  • Thinking outside the whisky box

    15 February 2017

    It was only after a few minutes that I realised that my hand had stuck to my glass. ‘Can you feel your beard?’ Westland’s Matt Hofmann asked. ‘Mine’s beginning to freeze.’ He was right. A distinct crisping of the facial hair was taking place.

    A source of inspiration: The World Whisky Forum took place at Box distillery in Sweden

    Up the snowy slope, the steam from Box distillery mingled with the fog emanating from our mouths, as we huddled around the fires on the frozen lake, the whisky helping to heat the core. ‘It’s only -14˚C,’ said Box distiller Roger Melander. ‘It’s often -26˚C.’

    This was the start of the first World Whisky Forum, the brainchild of Box’s Jan Groth. A chance for distillers from around the world, irrespective of size, to come and talk and share. And, apparently, freeze.

    ‘Just as well we’re not in Finland,’ said Martin Tønder Smith from the Norwegian alcohol monopoly, ‘otherwise they’d also be getting us to jump in the lake.’ He didn’t look too worried about the possibility. Made of hard stuff, these Nordic folk.

    The temperature may have been cold, but the welcome and the talks over the next two days were anything but. Don’t get me wrong – debate was rarely heated, rather a warm glow of consensus and friendship began to suffuse the room.

    Non-attendees could glance at who was speaking and conclude that this was simply a chance for small(er) players to get together to moan about big firms, and about Scotch. It wasn’t.

    In fact, Scotch was praised, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) was praised, big companies were not seen as the enemy, but as another (important) facet of an increasingly complex whisky world. If you are true to your vision, the message seemed to be, then size does not matter. The issue was: how do we keep whisky moving onwards?

    World Whisky Forum 2017

    A Swedish sunrise: Debates at the World Whisky Forum were rarely heated, much like the surroundings

    Two topics kept re-appearing. There had been a passionate debate at the end of the first day’s sessions about the need for legislation, but also about how frustrating it could be to work within its idiosyncrasies and interpretations, and try to reconcile different interpretations of ‘tradition’.

    Lone Wolf’s Steven Kersley’s opening gambit of ‘challenge everything’ may have sounded like being radical for the sake of it, but his stance was more nuanced: accept the realities of Scotch and the need for big distilleries to make a consistent product, and learn from the experiments which have been created to achieve that consistency. At the same time, he saw a real need for Scotch to keep pace with developments elsewhere.

    ‘Why do we malt this way?’ he asked. ‘Why do we only use these grains, or those yeasts? What can we learn from brewing? Could we freeze-distil? If you don’t know the answers, then find out.’ That shouldn’t be seen as radical. It should be seen as normal.

    A different side of this notion of challenging norms came from Ichiro Akuto’s back-to-basics approach at Chichibu, where his staff have learned how to plant barley, cut peat, do floor malting and coopering; an involvement in the process leading to a more profound understanding – the same deep thinking which pervaded Hofmann’s inspiring talk about the importance and relevance of examining what ‘local’ means, and how it could be used in creating a new quality style of whisky.

    Yesterday’s innovation is today’s tradition. The reason Scotch whisky is where it is today is because distillers over hundreds of years have adapted and evolved that tradition. When something is fixed, it atrophies.

    World Whisky Forum‘Challenge everything’: Attendees were encouraged to embrace new ways of whisky-making to ensure its future

    The key is evolution, as long as that allows you to study older, perhaps forgotten, techniques and reinterpret them within today’s frame. The rules appear to permit flexibility, though their interpretation – wedded to an obdurate reading of ‘tradition’ – can appear to negate that.

    It’s why Ludo Ducrocq’s (William Grant & Sons) piece was so vital. If you are new, he said, learn from your mistakes (and don’t bottle them); leave written, tangible, evidence of having been there. Understand and protect your legacy, because your legacy is being created today. And, as he alluded subtly, pick your battles with legislators.

    I left inspired by the passion and dedication shown by all the attendees. Something happened in the frozen north, a coming together and the emergence of a common belief. Not necessarily a ‘movement’, but a new willingness to share and help, to find common purpose.

    Scotch needs to be part of those future discussions, it too needs to move on, writing its own future. At times, we all need to be thinking outside the box.

  • Scotch, symbols and ‘special friendships’

    02 February 2017

    I was sitting in frost-covered Forres thinking about symbols. Again. After all, whisky is rich in them and they continue to frame much of the debate over its future direction. More shortbread or less? Fewer kilts or more – or 21st-century ones? Is haggis outmoded? You get the drift.

    Symbols are shorthand, signifiers for deeper and more complex feelings, and beliefs. They are, as I’ve discovered recently, remarkably potent as well. We might dismiss the deployment of many of them as being lazy, but if they are misused then the reaction is rapid and surprisingly protective.

    ‘It might be a crap symbol, but it’s ours,’ we growl. I know, because it’s happened to me twice since last week.

    Quaich

    Symbol of friendship: The Quaich signifies a bond between giver and receiver

    The first was the report that locals in a village in Devon had complained that the design of a proposed whisky distillery in their burgh was inappropriate and, in the words of one resident: ‘More in keeping to a traditional Scottish distillery… Princetown is not Scotland and the looks are not in keeping to the local area.’

    The apparently anti-Scottish sentiment was engendered by the addition of a pagoda (or cupola, to be precise) on the top of the building.

    It was one of those stories – ‘clickbait’, I think the young people call them – guaranteed to raise the ire and make you wish to read more. I mean, I thought: ‘How dare they? Don’t they understand? The bloody arrogance of them, etc, etc.’ So, I clicked and read and, you know what? I’m on the objectors’ side.

    Who is being arrogant here? Why should a whisky distillery have to be in a ‘Scottish’ design? Why, if it’s not malting, does it have to have cupolas which were originally created for functional, not aesthetic, reasons?

    If England is becoming a whisky-making nation, then shouldn’t it perhaps develop its own whisky distillery vernacular? I’m with the locals. The design is lazy. Make something different. Make it Devonian. Maybe the architect could come to Scotland and have a look at Dalmunach or Macallan’s Hobbiton and see how it can be done.

    I was taken to task by a reader recently for mixing whisky and politics which, according to them, should be kept apart. Well, turn away my friend, we’re going in again.

    It would be lovely, I agree, if politics could be kept away from whisky, but it can’t because there are things like, oh I dunno… taxes and trade deals and, oh yes, business involved in the selling of the stuff.

    Politics influences price and availability – you just have to go to a Liquor Control Board shop in Canada to see what politics can do to a whisky selection.

    But that’s by the by. Politics and whisky intertwined themselves again last week when UK Prime Minister Theresa May went to Washington. On these occasions, it’s only polite to take a gift to your host. You can imagine the discussions in No 10 when the form of said gift was being debated.

    ‘Something gold?’

    ‘Maybe not.’

    ‘Something orange?’

    ‘Be quiet.’

    And so on, until some lonely Scottish voice says: ‘What about a quaich?’

    ‘A quiche? That’s a bit… French, isn’t it?’

    So then they go on to describe Scotland’s friendship cup. It makes sense. Trump is – I hang my head in shame – half-Scottish after all, even if the only love he has shown for the place is to ravage the shifting dunes of Foveran and harass the local residents. The sublime Karine Polwart put it better than I could at Celtic Connections last week.

    Yes, talks had to take place at some stage. It’s politics. There’s a pragmatic element to that game, which can involve a fair amount of holding your nose while talking to someone. It doesn’t mean leaving your morals at the door.

    Symbol of Scotch: Broom says it’s ‘arrogant’ to assume English distilleries should adopt a traditional Scottish shape

    Symbols are shorthand. For May, quaich = friendship = business. (You can imagine her frantic, imploring look as their eyes met over its brim…)

    But symbols are deep. The quaich is more than a friendship cup. The moment of its sharing creates a bond. Its use comes from a time when a community would gather together, sit in a circle and pass the cup around.

    It says: ‘We are equal.’

    It says: ‘We can talk freely.’

    It says: ‘Brotherhood.’

    It speaks of cohesiveness and an open-hearted view of the world, of community, understanding, sharing and peace. No wonder it and whisky go together. The quaich is a powerful symbol of humanity. It is everything that Trump’s regime rejects.

    May’s quaich says: ‘We can ignore the racism, bigotry and misogyny, the anti-environmentalism and willingness to gag the press. Not because we are compassionate and tolerant, but because we want to do business with you. The drinks are on us.’

    Mrs May would have done better to place a bulk order of quaichs to give to our former partners in Europe, because those are the friendship bonds we need to re-establish.

    News of the US immigration ban has made headlines and sparked protests around the country. The cup of friendship has been filled quickly enough with poison. Perhaps, if sharing was the underlying message, a long spoon might have been more appropriate.

  • Canada is a contender in the whisky game

    30 January 2017

    January and the first trip of the year: taking the Arctic route (in a plane, I hasten to add) to Vancouver Island for the truly wonderful Victoria Whisky Festival – which, as Davin de Kergommeaux wrote about last year, is not only run for charity, but they’ll even drive you home afterwards. Don’t you just love Canada?

    It also happened to coincide with the inauguration in the US, so there were lots of Americans shuffling around saying variations on the theme of: ‘It wasn’t me,’ and pausing a little too long when passing the windows of realtors.

    For me, it also meant a chance to catch up with my old friend and mentor ‘Sir’ Mike Nicolson, Scotch industry legend, third-generation distiller and who has settled here in retirement, or rather as retiring as a chap like Nicolson can be, given that he has a blues band and is consulting with a raft of new whisky distilleries across British Columbia, thanks to a (belated) relaxation in legislation allowing small-scale distilling.

    Victoria Caledonian distilleryVictoria Caledonian distillery: A memorable whisky for Broom from the Victoria Whisky Festival

    (I’m not using the c-word. Mark Gillespie of Whiskycast told me that my last rant about it had irritated some people. I don’t see why. ‘Craft’ is an attitude and approach; a philosophy influenced itself by a tradition passed down through generations. It is not determined by size, beard length, or complexity of tattoos. Not that I have anything against any of those things.)

    Of the small selection I tried – Shelter Point, Victoria Caledonian, deVine/Glen Saanich (watch out for that ‘Glen’, guys, the Scotch Whisky Association will be dumping bricks on your lawn) – the quality is clearly already there.

    The issue now, for them and their colleagues in the US, is defining what North American single malt whisky is. Does it need a definition? What grains can be used? Must it be aged, and only aged in oak, and should there be a minimum maturation time?

    As an increasing number of single malts appear, so the need for some sort of cohesive concept of what the term actually means becomes that little bit more pressing. It should be an interesting debate.

    Some might say no regulations are required. I say look at Japan, where distillers are now becoming, how shall I put this… somewhat exercised at trying to write a proper definition because, as it stands, the whole industry is open to abuse.

    The other highlight (other than finding an obscure Bunny Wailer Jamaican pressing) was being asked to give some thoughts on a new prestige range of Canadian whiskies from Corby, which is, just to remind you, the largest whisky distillery in North America. Hold that thought.

    The current master blender there is Dr Don Livermore (an appropriate name for a whisky maker, I always think) who is wholly geek, boffin, communicator and proselytiser for Canadian whisky.

    A quick recap: Canadian whiskies are, predominantly, single distillery blends. Different grains – corn, wheat, rye, triticale, sometimes barley – distilled separately in different still configurations and types, aged separately in a variety of different cask types and then blended. You look at that and say: ‘There’s the building blocks for making complex whiskies.’ (This is also why a definition for single malt is needed.)

    Corby whiskyCorby collection: The packs are not yet finished, but the whisky excites Broom

    And yet Canada has been noticeable by its absence from whisky’s recent growth as a premium spirit. For Dr Don and (Scottish) brand director Ross Hendry, enough was enough. It was time for Canadian whisky to stand up and say: ‘You know what, guys, we can do it too.’ The inspiration, Hendry freely admits, came from Classic/Rare Malts, Special Releases and Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection.

    Four of the existing range – Lot 40, Gooderham & Worts, Pike Creek 10-year-old and Wiser’s 18-year-old – have been given top-end extensions: Lot 40 100% rye into a robust, rosewater and clove cask strength; Gooderham & Worts as a gentle, complex, elegant 17-year-old, which is a masterclass in blending three different distillates (rye, corn and wheat); Pike Creek Speyside Finish 21-year-old, a fine-boned, refined corn & rye blend; and, finally, the mighty Wiser’s 37-year-old, a corn-based whisky with some old rye blended in that’s lusciously magnificent and complex, and already one of my whiskies of the year. Is Dr Don a craftsman? What do you think?

    If these don’t make people sit up and take notice, I don’t know what will. The only things I disagree with are the prices, which at around C$100 are too low. They say: ‘We are here, we need to be taken seriously, we are different and these whiskies are valid.’ Their emergence won’t just benefit Corby, but the category.

    ‘What’s this got to do with Scotch, Dave?’ Quite a lot, I’d say. Canada has always had quality – look at the ages of some of these – it just hasn’t had self-belief. Just as importantly, it also has volume (remember, Corby... biggest distillery etc, etc).

    It’s not the size of this new range that matters – there are only 350 cases of each – it is what it says and what it makes the educated drinker think. There is now another high-quality alternative. And there’s plenty more to come.

    Things in the world of whisky have just become that little bit more interesting.

  • Unearthing Islay’s hidden riches

    23 January 2017

    On his first visit to Islay, Professor Steven Mithen was a penniless young archaeologist who had to sleep in his car because even the local B&Bs were beyond his meagre budget.

    It wasn’t whisky that drew him to the island, but its vast array of historical sites, from evidence of the first Ice Age explorers 12,000 years ago to the deserted townships of the 19th century.

    As Prof Mithen continued his investigations, he needed funding – but who better to ask for a few hundred quid than the distillers who had brought Islay its modern-day fame?

    He wrote to them all. None replied. This was the 1980s, and a less than buoyant Scotch whisky industry had bigger things to worry about than helping an academic to dig holes in the ground.

    Much has changed since then. Prof Mithen is now an acclaimed authority on the origins of the first hunter-gatherers and farmers (among many other subjects), and is Professor of Archaeology and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Reading.

    His work has taken him, notably, to southern Jordan – but he has also returned regularly to Islay, where he now has a home. And, three decades on, he has finally secured some cash from a distiller: £310,000, to be precise, out of the proceeds of Lagavulin’s 1991 Single Cask release, the last of the expressions released to mark the distillery’s bicentenary last year.

    The money is going to Islay Heritage, the organisation of which Prof Mithen is a trustee, and into which he has channeled his personal research. The grant will be spent on the creation of an Islay Heritage Trail – Islay’s historic sites can be hard to access and there’s little to tell you what you’re looking at when you do find them – as well as the first detailed investigation of Dunyvaig Castle in Lagavulin Bay.

    Dunyvaig Castle Lagavulin

    Remarkable ruins: Dunyvaig Castle watches over the entry to Lagavulin Bay

    Most of what Prof Mithen and his colleagues are investigating predates Scotch whisky, but don’t for a moment imagine there’s no connection here – or, for that matter, with his researches in the Middle East.

    What were our ancestors doing in Jordan 12,000 years ago? Among other things, domesticating barley. Then look at a site such as the Giant’s Grave Neolithic burial cairn on the Rinns of Islay – what did those early settlers bring with them? Barley again.

    Then there’s the peat. The primal substance that gives Lagavulin and other Islay single malts their distinctive character also preserves many of the finds unearthed by archaeologists. From pre-history to today’s golden age of Islay whisky, the links run deep.

    This almost symbiotic relationship is implicitly recognised in the way that Islay Heritage is going about its work. This will be no tourist trail imposed on the local community, but a co-operative effort to identify and recognise the ‘Islay 100’ – the 100 most significant archaeological sites and monuments on the island.

    That number – 100 – is a sign both of the ambition of the initiative and the sheer depth of Islay’s history and heritage. And that heritage, says Prof Mithen, resounds far beyond the island’s shores, with a significance for the whole of north-western Europe.

    Whisky lovers don’t need to be told that Islay is a special place. Those lucky enough to have visited the island will know that that status extends beyond whisky to its culture, landscape and people. Now it seems that we’ve just barely touched the surface of what this small Hebridean paradise has to offer.

    Anyone interested in buying one of 520 bottles of Lagavulin 1991 available for purchase, priced at £1,494 each, can enter a special ballot on The Whisky Exchange website. This closes on 12 February and bottles will be allocated at random. By late last week, more than 6,000 people had registered their interest.

    Of the remaining two bottles, one will go to the Diageo Archive, and the other will be auctioned at Whisky.Auction from 26 February for 10 days, with the money raised also going to Islay Heritage.

  • ‘Bumbling’ Boris, India and Scotch

    19 January 2017

    When Boris Johnson, the supremely gaffe-prone Brexit campaigner, was appointed Foreign Secretary by new UK Prime Minister Theresa May, eyebrows arched heavenward. After all, wasn’t giving ‘bumbling’ Boris the job a bit like entrusting the country’s foreign relations to a combination of a golden retriever puppy and the Duke of Edinburgh?

    This week, Johnson has been in India talking up business as the UK contemplates a raft of international trade deals in the brave new post-EU world. In a speech to local business leaders, he decided that there was really only one subject with which to open.

    Scotch whisky.

    Not a bad idea, given the enormous tariffs on imported whisky which make it so hard for most Indians to be able to afford the likes of Johnnie Walker or Ballantine’s. Time, said the Foreign Secretary, to ‘tear these barriers down’.

    Boris Johnson

    Puppy meets Prince Philip: Boris Johnson may need to spend more time on Whiskypedia than Wikipedia

    Hard to argue with the thrust of Johnson’s message, but let’s take a look at the detail of his speech and… erm… Well, you be the judge.

    ‘I have come on several official trips [to India] now, as well as various family weddings, and we always try to remember to bring something for our Sikh relatives who live in both Delhi and Mumbai.

    ‘Can you guess what it is? That’s right – we tend to bring a bottle of whisky, Black Label whisky, to add to the astonishing 1.5bn litres of whisky that are consumed every year in this country.

    ‘And why do we bring a bottle of Scotch to our relatives in Mumbai and Delhi (normally Black Label, though I have just bought something called Green Label; I hope it isn’t crème de menthe)?

    ‘The reason, my friends, is that this wonderful country still sets a tariff of 150% on whisky imports, and I believe this matters.’

    And, later:

    ‘It is an extraordinary fact that no-one can deny, that even though Scotland is incontestably the home and progenitor of Scotch, the only place in the world where the water trickles through the peaty glen in exactly the right way to turn into liquid fire, even though whisky is itself a Gaelic word, uisge beatha. Does anyone know what it means? H2O – water of life.’

    I know, I know. But there’s more. The above is the official Foreign & Commonwealth Office transcript of the speech but, according to STV, the Foreign Secretary – as is his wont – departed slightly from the published text.

    ‘Uisge’ came out, rather unfortunately, as the Irish variant ‘uisce’, while ‘uisge beatha’ was mangled into ‘uisceaugh’, which more closely resembles a sneeze than the water of life.

    Worse still, where did he gain this somewhat flawed knowledge, by his own admission? Wikipedia.

    Yes, Wikipedia. The UK’s Foreign Secretary is relying on Wikipedia to provide the technical background to a keynote speech to a vital trading partner.

    If only, at times like this, he had someone in his entourage with a detailed knowledge of the subject on whom he could rely. A trusted special advisor. Someone like – oh, I don’t know – former Scotch Whisky Association chief executive David Frost?

  • Dave Broom’s 2017 whisky resolutions

    12 January 2017

    January. It’s a strange kind of month. You’d somehow expect people to return after the festive break going: ‘OK, last year was shit (and, my God, wasn’t it?), but let’s forget about the past and get stuck in.’ It should be a roll-up-the-sleeves sort of month, the time of year when everyone is energised.

    Instead, it seems to drag itself into life like a teenager on their way to school. ‘Must we? Again? I’ve done it already. What’s the point anyway?’ What you might expect to be a time of new ideas and fresh starts is instead a sulk of a month. There are no new whiskies, precious little news. A month, you’d think, perfect for turning to drink, were it not for the peer pressure-induced ban on such frivolity.

    Maybe January is psychologically the time we put aside for contemplation, a time to make plans, rather than put them into action. It’s normally a time for predictions, but this year there’s Brexit, the arrival of Trump’s cabinet of family members and kleptocrats, and the possibility of trade wars. All that I can predict with a degree of confidence is that we might need a drink or five.

    Still, at least with former Scotch Whisky Association chief executive David Frost now holding Boris’ hand, maybe the whisky industry might have a hotline to knowing what the thinking is in Westminster.

    Whisky wishes 2017: It’s time to take Scotch a bit less seriously, says Broom

    Ah… sorry…  I just read that again. No-one knows what might happen as the Government blunders and improvises its way towards the hard, soft, or flaccid uncoupling, and whether it will be premature or delayed. Hello again, Boris.

    So, as predictions are dangerous, here are some wishes for Scotch in 2017.

    Keep the faith. It might seem strange, but there needs to be confidence in what is being sold. It needs to be less – for me at least – about image and more about inherent product quality. Drinkers need to know what it is, why it is different, what the flavours are, and how does it stack up against all the challengers. Scotch should be proud of what it makes.

    Size doesn’t matter. If Scotch is to make a strong return to growth, then there needs to be an appreciation that there are different approaches. There always have been. Carping about the size of large companies is a distraction.

    Smaller-sized distillers need to cut through, but though Scotch is a noisy and cluttered category, there is room if they concentrate on making the best quality they can manage. The allegedly faceless big companies have whisky-makers every bit as dedicated as they are. Insulting them insults the whole category.

    Oh and by the way, they are as ‘craft’ as anyone in their dedication to their work, so let’s drop that term as shorthand for small-scale. Enough. Please.

    And, since we’re there…

    Call time on gibberish. It’s not just fake news which is troubling, but fake English. A new, utterly meaningless lexicon has sprung up around whisky in recent years. No press release, back label, menu or website is complete unless it is garnished with terms such as ‘traditional oak’, ‘masters’, ‘hand-crafted’, ‘extreme’, ‘grain to glass’, ‘cool’, ‘unique maturation methods’, ‘experts’, ‘bespoke’ and variations on ‘Rolls-Royce’. Enough! [Hang on… You’ve missed ‘artisanal’, ‘iconic’ and ‘boutique’ – Ed].

    Their tenuous grasp of language is matched by their lack of basic geography. In the last couple of weeks I got a press release claiming that an Orcadian distillery was ‘within reach of the Arctic Circle’ [as is everywhere else on the planet if you get on a fucking plane – Ed], and was told about how a Speyside brand was aligned to the region’s specialities like Isle of Mull scallops. I won’t get started on Bad History. Yet…

    Be open-minded. People are passionate about Scotch whisky. Because they are passionate, they will disagree. It’s the same with food, or music, or movies, or fashion… You get the idea. Unfortunately, in whisky, what should be a fun and energetic debate has become increasingly soured.

    Malts are best, blends are bad (unless it’s White Horse from the ’60s). Old is better than young. Old-style whiskies are better than new. Coal fires are better than steam. Neat is always better than mixed. Whisky can only either be serious, or a drink.

    In fact, it can be both. That’s why it’s a success. That’s what we should celebrate in 2017.

  • Groundhog Day for Scotch distillery boom?

    06 January 2017

    It seems new Scotch whisky distilleries are like buses. In the last two years, five have begun distilling single malt – Arbikie, Harris and Glasgow in 2015, and Inchdairnie and Torabhaig in 2016 – while, over the next two years, we can expect a flurry of them. More than 20 if all go to plan.

    Increasing interest in single malt Scotch, particularly from the US and Europe, is driving investment in maturing stocks, rare bottlings and – on a larger scale – new distillery builds.

    It’s an exciting time for the single malt drinker, especially for those who have been concerned that newcomers to Scotch would ‘drink all our whisky’. Give it a few years, and we will never have had more choice of single malt Scotch.

    The last time there was a distillery boom of this scale was in the 1890s. Around 40 new distilleries were built in that decade alone to cope with overwhelming demand for malt whisky for use in blends, but by 1912 the same number had closed. Although a major contributor to their decline was the Pattisons’ crash of 1898 – an unfortunate incident of fraud and betrayal that led to the downfall of many distilleries and blenders – there are still many parallels to be drawn between the boom periods of the 1890s and 2010s.

    Torabhaig distillery: One of the newest distilleries to open in Scotland this century

    In Victorian Britain, blends, which had a softer appeal for more delicate palates, found favour south of the border so that by the mid-1880s it was an established spirit style for grocers and public houses.

    Major blending houses opened flagship stores in London, and introduced brand names for their blends, such as White Horse by Mackie & Co, and Pinch by Haig & Haig, for mass appeal. Blends and malts were also sold to grocers who blended and bottled them under their own labels, and in turn set up further outlets in overseas markets. John Walker & Sons established a hub in Sydney in 1887, succeeding in making Old Highland, the precursor to the Johnnie Walker range, the best seller in Australia.

    Marketing exploded in a way it never had before. Adverts were placed in periodicals, attractive mirrors, ceramics, miniatures and jugs were produced, all bearing the names of blends, distilleries and whisky companies. In 1897 Dewar’s produced the first advert screened in cinemas, at what must have been a huge cost at the time, and went on to erect the largest mechanical neon sign in Europe on the Thames Embankment in 1911. Quite simply, whisky advertising spend was huge.

    Perhaps now we are at the cusp of our first parallel between the 1890s and 2010s, where marketing in the present day means pumping millions into global advertising campaigns, TV commercials and huge billboards, and enlisting the faces of celebrities like ex-footballers David Beckham and Michael Owen. 

    As a result, back at the end of the 19th century liquid was becoming difficult to procure, and so investment was piled into building new distilleries and expanding existing ones. New distilleries built in the 1890s included Craigellachie, Strathmill (then called Glenisla-Glenlivet), Glen Mhor, Balvenie, Benriach, Imperial and Knockdhu, while those rebuilt and extended included Clynelish (Brora), Cragganmore, Glenkinchie, Glenlossie and Macallan.

    Sound familiar? Malt whisky may have been destined for fillings in blends, but the level of investment in the industry was at an unprecedented level, much as it is now. Moss and Hume remark in The Making of Scotch Whisky that: ‘After 1895, when it became clear that real growth, rather than recovery, was taking place, investment in whisky became fashionable.’

    Investment in whisky became fashionable. The rise of whisky investment vehicles and auction websites is proof of the same trend recurring more than 120 years on. Everyone wants a slice of the Scotch whisky pie.

    Crowdfunded: Phil and Simon Thomson used crowdfunding to finance the build of Dornoch distillery last year

    Back then, the majority of new distillery builds eschewed traditional locations on the west coast and Islay in favour of sites in Speyside. The shift reflected the trend in blending – Speyside malts offered a different spectrum of flavours than could be typically found elsewhere in Scotland. Barley from Speyside was also plentiful and exhibited a high yield, while peat and coal were easy to obtain. By the 1890s the local railways were efficiently run, making the transportation of coal cheaper and easier. Speyside distilleries moved from drying their barley with peat to coal, thereby establishing a new regional style.

    Note now the locations of many new distilleries being planned in 2017-19: islands with no previous history of legal distilling; the Borders and major cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh where malt distilling has been extinct for several decades; remote farmsteads in the Highlands. Not one of the seven new distilleries planned for 2017 will be in Speyside – all part of a necessity for each to boast its individuality. In a modern market where single malt is becoming crowded, USP has never been more important.

    By 1899 the amount of whisky stored in Scotland’s warehouses had grown by more than 575% to 13.5m gallons. The Pattisons’ crash was disastrous, and signalled the end of the boom in malt distilling, the First World War then sealing the fate of many. Malt whisky output fell from a high of 16m gallons in 1898 to 10m gallons just two years later. The industry was arguably heading for a bust anyway, as growing stocks far outweighed the value of whisky at the time.

    Will this be where we draw our last parallel? In recent years a decline in Scotch exports led some distilleries to reduce output to regulate their stocks five to 10 years down the line – in 2014 Diageo announced a freeze on its planned £1bn investment in increasing capacity at its distilleries, including shelving a new distillery build at Teaninich and expansion of Clynelish and Mortlach distilleries. A strategy designed to avoid repeating the same mistakes as their Victorian forbears.

    Stock management is the lynchpin of Scotch whisky’s success – get it right and value and demand remain happy bedfellows, whereas overproduction in a saturated market could see a repeat of the 1900s crash. It’s all a game of crystal ball-gazing, predicting the popularity of single malt in the future. Unlike the 1890s stills, most of these new builds are aimed at the single malt market, not blends.

    An influx of new distilleries may signal greater consumer choice (particularly where flavour experimentation is concerned) and a vibrant, ‘fashionable’ industry to invest in now, but their success hangs on whether the industry can learn from the mistakes of the past.

    That said, there are several trump cards modern distilleries have that their Victorian ancestors lacked, including a thriving gin market, whisky tourists, and social media. 

The editors

Contributors

Explore more

Scroll To Top