The ‘mysterious’ whisky is the first expression in Hunter Laing’s new range.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
05 June 2019
They nip your head. Midges, that is. As does whisky come to think of it, should it be taken in less-than-responsible quantities. Not that anyone at Fèis Ìle would ever dream of doing that. The midges would be the only thing to blame for any ache in the bonce.
Anyway, we were all suffering from the latter having descended or maybe sneaked into (it was slightly vague) the back of Caol Ila at the precise moment that light misty rain (aka smirr) began to form around us. What had been set up as a garden with idyllic views over the sound where we could relax with a couple of Highballs was now revealed to be the nexus point of the island’s midge breeding grounds. We all sped off, sharpish, up the hill to the house.
It was all slightly reminiscent of my youth. West coast evenings would always culminate by being crammed into someone’s front room, music playing, whisky bottles being passed around among friends, strangers and hangers-on from the pub. Your role would shift: sometimes you’d be the host, other times the one kidnapped from the pub. No-one cared. All that mattered was the chat, the songs and the drink. Outside the midges would be raging at not getting their dinner.
This was much the same, albeit with considerably better food. Or to be precise… food. The noise level rose along with the laughter and conversations, in which whisky played a tangential role, simply existing as the glue which brought this random group together. Just as it is meant to be. Maybe there should be a warning on the label: ‘might cause hilarity and new friendships’.
The reason for the gathering might have been the launch of a new whisky by Atom Brands called Aerolite Lyndsay. If this was the case it was achieved very subtly, which might have been part of a very cunning plan, because at Kilchoman the next day, folks who had been in the house were still trying to make sense of what precisely had happened. People who weren’t there were pretending they’d attended, making it the Fèis equivalent of the Sex Pistols at Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976. I’ll write more on the whisky later this week, but I can say that, on the night, it was very toothsome indeed.
Whisky pilgrimage: A lone walker heads toward Kilchoman distillery to pay his respects
The following morning, heading back from the Kilchoman graveyard after paying my respects to the Beatons’ cross I began following a lone figure, bare-headed, wearing trainers and a thin jacket, walking down the middle of the road through the steadily falling rain towards the distillery. The loneliness of the long-distance whisky lover answering the call of the dram. We walked together, him from the coastguard cottages, me a blow-in, chatting about life and whisky, and weather.
The big warehouse at Kilchoman where Anthony Wills held his masterclass was dry however. It kicked off with four new makes, followed by five single cask samples. Each of the new makes had been fermented with a different yeast (barley variety, ferment time and distillation were the same for all). Each was distinct from the other: Mauri was clean and creamy; Kerry M drier, with more smoke; Kerry MX was fruitier, while an MX/Mauri blend had the greatest complexity.
The cask samples looked at the character differences between Kilchoman’s own malted barley (fresh, light smoke) compared to Port Ellen’s (phenolic) as well as the influence of the different cask types (ex-Bourbon, ex-Madeira, American oak, ex-Sherry hoggie and ex-European Sherry butt).
Signature flavour: Wills’ Kilchoman masterclass focused on developing distillery character
We talked of the fluctuations and different spins, discussing everything from the origins of foam bananas to how Sherry butts seem to push phenols. Geeks in sweetie shops swathed in smoke. The talk in the class (and after) was about how, while a signature distillery character is paramount, it doesn’t mean things are set in amber. Kilchoman is looking forward in a host of new ways while remaining true to itself.
Sheltering in the marquees in the courtyard, the hardcore whisky enthusiasts were enjoying themselves. Adverse conditions seem to bring out the best in them: there were drams, cocktails, the new, hugely-improved Islay Ales and music. What’s a bit of rain anyway? Some were still applying cream to the sunburn they’d got while waiting in queues at Caol Ila and Laphroaig two days earlier. Who cares if the plane didn’t leave (or indeed arrive) for two days? There was whisky to be drunk and people to see.
The midges began nipping away once again. No-one seemed overly concerned. Peaty whisky is a great repellant, so they say. Maybe if you drink just enough (in a responsible fashion of course) you simply don’t notice them.
By the time I’d reached Bunnahabhain, there were already folk queuing for the Champagne cask bottling, which wasn’t even being released until the following morning. Some, it transpired, had been there since the day before, which is either dedication or madness. Maybe a bit of both. Perhaps they’d heard that it was a one-off, as the Scotch Whisky Association had gently pointed out to the distiller that as there is no such thing as a ‘Champagne cask’ (*) the label was misleading. An easy mistake, and one which will add an extra level of interest whenever a bottle is brought out to share.
*Though the still wine may be fermented in cask, it only becomes Champagne by being given a secondary fermentation in bottle.
Time of change: Bunnahabhain's £10.5 million facelift is well underway (Photo: Rebecca Sneddon)
Songs were ringing inside Warehouse No. 9, courtesy of David Brodie, ex-bank manager, publican, hotel owner and now all-round entertainer and tour guide at Bunna’ as we ran through a set of three single casks (and the Moine French oak) comparing the same oak type with unpeated and peated whiskies, before tasting three more from different Sherry types. Oh, and the excellent Sauternes cask finish [reviewed among this year’s official Fèis Ìle releases]. I have a distinct feeling we ended up talking more about Sherry than whisky. But hey, that’s the way that conversation works, isn’t it?
The village of Bunnahabhain has gone, warehouses have been flattened and a new distillery complex is beginning to emerge. For all the talk of continuity and consistency, the truth is that Islay never stays still. It is as multifaceted as its weather, and its whiskies reflect it.
I thought back to the lone pilgrim trudging up the road. In his heart was hope. He knew things would change for the better. If Islay is the first place to get rain, it’s therefore the first place to get the sunshine.
29 May 2019
My life isn’t all swish launches and whisky festivals, you know. There’s a business to consider, which is how I ended up being invited to Edinburgh for the Scotch Whisky Association’s (SWA) annual Members Day. The theme this year was ‘The Changing World of Whisky’. As the SWA’s chief executive Karen Betts said in her keynote address, ‘Scotch whisky is the world’s number one internationally traded spirit, and more Scotch is enjoyed worldwide than American, Irish and Canadian whiskies combined.’ But that world is changing rapidly.
Let’s put this in some sort of context. In 1870, the world of aged spirits had four major players: Cognac, and Irish, Scotch and American whiskies. By 1900, the global battle was between the last three. By 1921, only Scotch was left and it remained that way for the rest of the century. Okay, American whiskey came back post-war, but never forget that Canadian whisky still outsold Bourbon in the United States until the end of the century.
Top dram: Will Scotch continue to be the most popular whisky in the future?
Since then, the whisky world has changed utterly. It’s worth remembering that Japan only started to export in any volume in 2000. At that point there were three whiskey distilleries in Ireland. Now there are 35, while there are 20 in England and… well, I could go on. All of that has happened in the last decade. The century of Scotch is over, as is its hegemony. To paraphrase Judy Garland: ‘Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore’ (though we perhaps should be aware of what is going on there).
As the SWA’s chairman Peter Gordon said in his opening remarks, ‘Whisky across the world has seen an increase in activity, but Scotch’s share has fallen… We have real and capable competitors across the world, and while I remain optimistic, there are headwinds to overcome.’
His cautious warning underpinned Betts’ vision of the state of Scotch in 2050, and the multifarious ways in which the SWA would be involved (something which I think isn’t as well-publicised as it should be): climate change and the aim for the industry to be carbon neutral, free trade, training and skills, taxation, gender balance and diversity, packaging, transportation, farming, social responsibility and… yes… Brexit, which might just be sorted by then.
Her belief is that ‘Scotch will remain the world’s pre-eminent whisky… its global competitors… will have done their best to knock us off our perch in the intervening years. But they will not have succeeded. Because Scotch whisky’s consistency, quality, diversity and authenticity, alongside its heritage and its stories, will win the day.’
Industry rebirth: New Irish whiskey distillers, such as Killowen, are opening
There is no reason to doubt this, but without wishing to diminish the importance of all of the elements in Betts’ perceptive analysis, for any of it to happen depends on the quality of the spirit and the ability of the industry to change with the times.
Whisky is a long-term industry where innovation, by necessity, takes time. Scotch, however, is having to learn how to be nimble and meet challenges it has never encountered before.
‘Our industry is good at change,’ Betts added, ‘and remarkably resilient in finding balance between continuity and change… By 2050 we will have innovated in our products, so too will we have innovated in the way that we make Scotch.’
This is no time for complacency and seeking comfort in the mistaken belief that just because Scotch is the biggest player it is automatically the best. It’s pretty easy to be the biggest and best in a field of one. Those days have gone.
For Scotch to retain its pre-eminent position it is important to understand the difference between pride and arrogance. The SWA has realised this; what about all of its members?
Star spirit: Japanese whisky continues to enjoy a surge in popularity
Delivering Betts’ vision will necessitate hard work and open minds. It will mean all of the industry understanding that Scotch’s competitors are every bit as obsessive about quality as it is. It involves tasting these new rivals and discovering why a new consumer might be excited by the new wave of Irish, Danish, Aussie or American whiskies. Whether their industries are smaller than Scotch is immaterial. How good is the juice, and what can Scotch do to compete, without losing its own identity? Those who don’t see the need for change are the ones who will suffer.
As the world of whisky evolves so too will people’s idea of what whisky is in terms of flavour, production, sustainability, occasion and method of consumption. That will mean that definitions will inevitably have to shift, another facet of Betts’ innovations in the way in which Scotch is made.
The arrival of a multiplicity of new, small, independent distillers also means that the SWA itself will have to change in order to accommodate their thinking, and understand their challenges – and I’d argue that it is best for all Scotch firms to be inside the tent (as the saying goes).
As Betts said, ‘2050 isn’t far away.’
22 May 2019
‘I use the Dewar’s to clean the shoes,’ Shingo tells me. We are standing next to the shoeshine stand on the staircase outside his bar, Sip. I suspect that sentence needs to be dissected. There’s just too much weirdness going on.
Shingo Gokan is a bartender who has worked in New York and Shanghai and now has his own joint, SG Club, in a surprisingly chilled part of the Shibuya district of Tokyo. The club, like a great cocktail, comes in three parts. At street level is Guzzle, a laid-back, busy, pub-style drinking den. Downstairs is Sip, a speakeasy-style den for the cocktail aficionado – there’s cunningly crafted whisky drinks galore in both places. On the first floor there’s a private members’ cigar lounge (there’s also a secret ‘ninja space’, but if I told you its location I’d have to kill you).
I suspect that doesn’t fully explain why there’s a shoeshine stand.
Cultural exchange: Japan sent a delegation of samurai to New York in 1860
‘I heard a story that when Japan was opening up to the West in the mid-19th century, some samurai went on an official visit to New York,’ Shingo continues. ‘It turns out they stayed close to where Jerry Thomas (author of the first cocktail book) had his bar. I wondered if they visited it and brought some of the ideas back to Japan.’
So, the whole of the club is an imagining of what a Japanese-influenced American bar of the 1860s might have looked like… or maybe it’s an American-influenced Japanese bar. Hard to tell when things blur. Anyway, it’s not beyond the realms of fantasy to believe that a samurai might have decided to hang up his sword and start slinging drinks instead – though it’s unlikely that he would have turned a margarita into a clear drink which tastes like Riesling… No, I’m not going to explain that one.
It seems like an outlandish story, but in 1860 a delegation of 70 samurai left Edo to travel to New York. It’s claimed that they were the first such group to leave Japan for 200 years. While it’s unclear what they drank, or whether they frequented Jerry Thomas’ bar, it was noted that they were prodigious shoppers.
Oh… the Dewar’s. Before Shingo gets a visit from an irate rep, let me tell you it’s there as a finish for the shoes, just to give them a bit of a sparkle. You can also get it in a slightly more conventional manner in Guzzle, infused with Earl Grey and served Highball-style.
Gokan’s gaff: Shingo opened Tokyo’s American-influenced SG Club in 2018
SG Club is an example of how different elements influence each other. In the bars, it is how design sets the mood and tells a story, but we can go deeper. Over the past couple of weeks, first in Elgin, and now in Tokyo, I’ve been doing blind tastings where drams are first tasted neat, and then re-tasted with one (or in Tokyo’s case two) pieces of music (much like the sensory evaluation sessions held in Scotchwhisky.com’s Future Trends Lab at The Whisky Show last year).
The remarkable thing is the manner in which the taste of the whisky changes, often dramatically, when music is included. Take Kilchoman’s smoke. In Tokyo we tasted it, and then I played an ambient piano piece by Virginia Astley. The smoke went and the sweetness was lifted further into focus. This then bled into a piece by John Surman, all multi-tracked bass and baritone saxophone. The smoke suddenly surged forward once again, more intensely than when we’d tasted the whisky in silence.
It shows how it is wrong to believe that our senses exist separately from each other. Instead they are all constantly influencing each other: colour affects taste, as does shape… and sound. High tones accentuate sweetness, and low tones heaviness, while tempo will affect feel and where the flavours concentrate themselves.
Music doesn’t add flavour; rather it acts as an aid to reveal elements which might have been hidden, accentuating some flavours or textures, adding new layers of complexity. It’s a dramatic introduction to the cross-modal world, often showing what lies beneath, where the connections are. We tend to see flavour as fixed, whereas the truth is that it is malleable, at the whim of our senses and suggestibilities.
It is another facet of the blurring of boundaries that Shingo is trying to achieve at SG. Are you in Japan or America? The 21st century or 19th? How does the decor and the lighting change your mood? Does that drink taste different in the three bars – or outside in the street? Would sipping it on the shoeshine stand trigger different flavours? Only one way to find out.
15 May 2019
It’s been 10 years, almost to the day, that I first saw Mumford & Sons play. It was my first Great Escape, the largest festival for new music in Europe that just happens to take place in my hometown of Brighton.
For three days the seaside city is overwhelmed by a throng of trendy, skinny jeans-wearing industry delegates and music lovers, all out to uncover emerging talent, whether that be a gritty, pop-rock indie duo or 16-piece Swedish folk band.
Now in its 13th year, it’s become a popular platform for emerging artists from all over the world to showcase their work; many that perform during The Great Escape often go on to a Brit Award nomination, or a chart-topping hit at least. Past acts have included the likes of Adele, Tinie Tempah, Paolo Nutini, Vampire Weekend, Foals, The XX, The Kooks, Alt-J, Anne-Marie, Rag ‘n’ Bone Man, Stormzy… all unknown acts at the time, performing in their infancy.
Emerging talent: The Great Escape festival attracts new musical acts from around the world (Photo: Victor Frankowski)
Unlike other music festivals, there’s no muddy field, hot, smelly tents or long queues for grubby Portaloos. The Great Escape’s performances are split among Brighton’s many pubs, clubs, theatres and churches (if you’ve never heard The Staves perform in a church, you haven’t lived). There are street performances, acoustic sets in quiet cafes and, in the last couple of years, a pop-up beach club with food vendors and multiple stages for those missing the traditional festival atmosphere. Most of these venues have tiny capacities, and it was on one of the smaller stages in May 2009 that a relatively obscure four-piece band from London played.
Mumford & Sons weren’t even headlining. I’d turned up to see Laura Marling (another Brit Award winner) perform at the Sallis Benney Theatre for her final gig with her band, Noah and the Whale. Mumford were the warm-up act, having been Marling’s backing musicians on the award-winning Alas I Cannot Swim, but their catchy, upbeat folky sound and progressive anthemic numbers were refreshingly rousing for this new genre of west-London folk.
The following year they played Brighton again, this time in a small room above the Prince Albert pub just down from the train station. There were so few people in the audience, no more than about 20, and we ended up having a drink with the band at the bar afterwards. These really were Mumford’s early years.
From tiny local pubs they quickly began selling out theatres and arenas nationwide, with mosh pits (yes – really!) a common occurrence. Their sound manoeuvred from fresh, toe-tapping folk to sell-out pop, and were frustratingly overplayed across radio and television. I’d call it the Ed Sheeran effect but Mumford got there first. Their early music is still perfectly enjoyable, but for me the thrill of discovering a relatively unknown band, in a genre largely unrecognised at that time, had been blown apart by overzealous disc jockeys and a thirsty record label with dollar signs in their eyes. Mumford had become mainstream, their fresh, quirky edge watered down to appeal to the masses.
Sell-out success: Mumford & Sons went from playing in pubs to selling out arenas
Like so many others, I’d shared my discovery of this fun new folk band with friends. In doing so I’d contributed to the mass-appreciation of Mumford and their evolution into something unrecognisable from the humble four-piece I’d shared a beer with in a room above a Brighton pub. I have no regrets. The thought of keeping them to myself, playing them quietly on my iPod rather than aloud among friends at a party, is saddening. A lonely experience.
There’s nothing quite as exciting as being among the first to discover something new, which is a major draw of The Great Escape. It’s the same for whisky shows where new expressions – particularly those ‘under the counter’ – and little-known distilleries are discovered. It’s the new that keeps us returning year after year. Curiosity gets the better of us all.
But imagine discovering that gem, that wonderful, sublime, ethereal whisky that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stick up, only to keep it to yourself. God forbid that others might enjoy it too and snap it all up, or allow it to become so mainstream that it’s not trendy anymore.
It’s the joy of sharing that glass with a friend – ‘you have got to try this’ – that unites us in a moment of mutual realisation that you’ve stumbled onto greatness. You’re in it together. The bursting pride of seeing something you love, loved by another is far more rewarding than keeping it a secret.
Mutual passion: There’s greater joy in sharing whisky with friends
Yet stock shortages and a finite number of old and rare bottlings have created a sense of defensiveness among some whisky enthusiasts intent on clinging tightly to their own discovered gems. ‘Whisky newcomers are welcome to try the mass-produced brands, but stay away from my beloved rare/limited edition/collectible whiskies. They’re far too good for your mainstream palate.’
But everyone has that light bulb moment when it comes to discovering new whisky, or a new band. Even the most die-hard malt enthusiasts among us. That thrill of tasting something new that blows your mind and makes you realise why whisky is so beloved by so many. ‘This is what everyone’s been talking about.’ It’s that momentary spark that ignites a lifelong passion for whisky, and turns a dabbler into a devotee.
Rather than lamenting the fact more people are being turned on to whisky, let’s welcome them and share our passion in the hope of witnessing their own light bulb moment. After all, through sharing we can rediscover some of that joy that made us fall in love with whisky in the first place too.
In the spirit of sharing, I’ve created a playlist of my top Great Escape finds this year. Enjoy.
08 May 2019
Walking along Calum’s Road on Raasay as the sun shone on the Cuillin; sipping boilermakers in Aberdeen; the smell of peat and paint in the new Lagg distillery as Storm Hannah belted in from the north; a shift in The Pot Still bar in Glasgow making cocktails; being ensconced in the Copper Dog and Highlander Inn in Craigellachie, and Elgin’s Drouthy Cobbler bar as the snow fell and the whisky world walked through the doors... it’s been quite a month.
If anything linked them all (other than fun and drams) it was a sense of momentum building and a broadening of thinking around that eternal question: ‘what is whisky?’
Scotch has conceivably sat back and said: ‘It’s what we’ve always made, whereas whisky is what you will be making in the future.’
Break with tradition: BrewDog is one of several new distillers challenging convention
It’s what’s behind BrewDog’s (formerly known as LoneWolf) deconstruction of whisky making and asking why it has to be done that way and whether it can be done better; it’s there in Raasay’s building of individuality through its approach to distilling, cereal and maturation; and at Lagg as well. Arran’s new distillery may be a beautiful, sympathetic design – and another contender for ‘best distillery view’ – but at its heart it’s a centre for exploration into peat.
Even The Pot Still cocktails, while ridiculous fun (Buckie Boulevardiers anyone?) showed that there is another way to think and drink, in the same way as BrewDog is finessing the hauf and hauf (or boilermaker).
In all, there lies a shared belief that approaching whisky in a cookie-cutter fashion is a dangerous strategy. If new distillers are to make their mark then they can’t all be using the same casks, telling the same story, or thinking that just because the new make is good (or great) that the job is done. There has to be something different, grounded in quality but pushing things onwards.
I was chatting this over with Ryan Chetiyawardana [aka Mr Lyan] the other day, and he said something along the lines of: ‘It is important to have tradition as well as innovation. As long as we have both pushing each other then we move things forward.’
Tradition is a reference point, but not to the point of it causing stasis.
Another shared theme came into focus when I met up with Bob Dalgarno (ex-Macallan whisky maker) in the Copper Dog. As well as recalibrating Glenturret he is independently looking at barley and malting, his thinking chiming with that of BrewDog and Raasay (and others such as Arbikie and Bruichladdich), and Lagg’s examination of peat’s possibilities. There seems to be a rebalancing of the thinking behind flavour.
Tradition redefined: BrewDog has refined the hauf and hauf, or boilermaker, serveWhile the back end (distillation and maturation) is understood, albeit not known fully, the front end (cereal, malting, smoking, mashing and fermenting) is now being given greater focus.
Rather than the misleading statement that 70% of a whisky’s flavour comes from wood, we are now seeing how every element within the ‘process’ (how I hate that word) is important; that whisky making is holistic, and every part is of equal importance, and all interdependent.
It can be a brewer’s mentality to ferment, or give equal focus to the variety of grain being grown and how it is being cultivated. What a few years ago seemed like an interesting offshoot is now showing signs of being a movement. Underpinning it all is the belief that efficiency is not the be-all and end-all, and if quality (flavour) means accepting lower yields, then so be it.
It may seem paradoxical that a belief in continuity exists within this idea of a constantly-moving continuum, but that is to confuse continuity with consistency. I can see the need for consistent levels of quality, but really, should the ultimate aim of a distiller be to make the same thing every day of the year, forever? Should efficiencies be solely linked to this idea of consistency – making the same but making it cheaper? Or, should whisky making be about improving flavour and quality, even if that means changing it?
Welcome addition: The finishing touches are being made to Arran’s new Lagg distillery Continuity is a state of mind. It is understanding the past, but moving forward. It also applies to people. It is about passing on knowledge. There are worrying signs of a skills shortage across all parts of the industry. As whisky expands, where are the people with knowledge, talent and experience to train the new generation?
It is also about being a guardian of flavour and philosophy while also being open to change. If the new distillers can challenge and move things on with a certain ease because of a lack of branded baggage, then the established players also need to understand this idea of there being continuity within change.
In a decade’s time will we be able to look at Macallan and say there was a Bob Dalgarno style, and now there is a Sarah Burgess one? I think we could – in fact I think we should. But all that depends on firms having the strength to think beyond the bottom line and instead about how things shift and alter; of how guardianship runs from the seed, to the bottle and to the consumer; and understanding that the key isn’t consistency, but continuity. It means having faith in product and people, and also being bold.
01 May 2019
Sir Ian McKellen steps out into the cool Norfolk air, taking a breath during the interval of his one-man show at the Norwich Playhouse. ‘Here, I know you!’ pipes up a woman delivering pizzas nearby. ‘You’re in all them Harry Potter films, aren’t you?’
Understandable as it may be to mistake Gandalf for Dumbledore, it’s quite a put-down for one of the greatest and most versatile actors of his generation. Included in the price of fame, it seems, is the possibility that people might almost – but not quite – know who you are.
Like any good pro, Sir Ian uses the self-effacing story in the second half of the show, which combines autobiographical anecdotes with a kind of ‘greatest hits’ package of readings, from Tolkien to Shakespeare via D.H. Lawrence and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
We begin with Gandalf in Moria, and close, more than two hours later, with Prospero in The Tempest. It’s that kind of show; it’s been that kind of career, for a man who’s played King Lear three times, but was also Magneto in X-Men and – fulfilling a dream – did 10 episodes of Coronation Street.
Eighty not out: Sir Ian McKellen is currently touring the UK’s theatres (Photo: Oliver Rosser/Feast Creative)
Most of the show’s second half is dominated by a formidable pile of books: 37 Shakespeare plays (the first folio plus Pericles), with the audience invited to shout out the titles, prompting a succession of reminiscences and readings from Sir Ian.
Eventually we come to Richard III. ‘First word of the play?’ Sir Ian asks. People shift uncomfortably, momentarily transported back to the classroom, but many find the right answer (we’re a cultured bunch in Norfolk): ‘Now.’
‘Now,’ Sir Ian nods. ‘Now! What an opening word for a play! Now! “Now” is the theatre. This…’ – arms spread wide to take in stage and auditorium – ‘is now. It’s not last night’s performance, it’s not next weekend in King’s Lynn. They’ll be different. This is it. Now.’
If ‘now’ sums up the theatre, it must also acquire added weight and poignancy for a near-octogenerian actor whose recent King Lear was likely, he said, to be his last major Shakespearean role; an actor for whom this formidable tour of the UK has the air of one long, extended encore. Mind you, judging by the way he bounds up the steps at the end of the performance, he’s likely to be doing this for some time to come.
Hogwarts headmaster?: ‘Gandalf’ is often mistaken for ‘Albus Dumbledore’
But ‘now’ also represents the ultimate embrace of the present; the stripping away of experience and preconception to focus on the moment and to truly live it, to devour it and, in turn, to be consumed by it.
Do we do that with whisky? And, if we do, do we do it nearly often enough? Or are we beset by nagging internal voices, telling us what to expect long before glass reaches nose and lips? Warning us, cajoling us, telling us what others have already said, or what we think they might think?
Do we empty our minds and allow the purity of that moment to emerge, opening ourselves to the possibility that, even if it’s a whisky we’ve tasted 100 times before, it might yet surprise us, astonish us, yield up some hitherto undiscovered element of its essence? Do we do that? Sometimes, maybe, but I think we could do it more. I know I could.
‘I once asked Michael Gambon if the same thing ever happened to him,’ Sir Ian tells us, once the laughter at the Gandalf/Dumbledore story has subsided. He moves into a passable imitation of his fellow actor’s slurred drawl. ‘Oh, my dear boy! Of course it does – it happens all the time!’
‘So what do you say to them?’
‘Nothing, of course. What can I say? I just sign your name.’
Ian McKellen on Stage: with Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others and You is currently touring the UK and raising funds for local theatres. Tickets from the official website.
24 April 2019
Confidence and honesty sometimes combine in weird ways. Look at what’s happened in the beer world, where Carlsberg has replaced its long-standing slogan of ‘probably the best lager in the world’ to ‘probably not the best beer in the world…’ I always liked the former. It had a certain Danish humour, delivered with a knowing wink. ‘We know it isn’t the best, but it’s fun to suggest it just might be’.
The new one seems to aim for some post-postmodern irony, but runs the risk of turning people off entirely before the second part of the tagline, ‘so we’ve changed it’, has been read. Even then, a seed of doubt has been sown.
Carlsberg… now better than it was… probably.
New approach: Carlsberg has seen a modern demand for craft beer over lager
In justifying up to this volte-face, Carlsberg prostrates itself at your feet in the manner of some medieval penitent and confesses about how it ‘lost its way. We focused on brewing quantity, not quality; we became one of the cheapest, not the best. In order to live up to our promise of being “probably the best beer in the world”, we had to start again.’ Hadn’t its brewers been tasting their own beer?
Confession can be liberating. Once you start it can be hard to stop. ‘The move comes at a time when interest in standard lager is at an all-time low,’ says Liam Newton, Carlsberg UK’s marketing vice president.
Newton explains: ‘The beer market has been forced to accept the prevailing winds of decreased consumption, with 1.6 million fewer drinkers than five years ago, alongside the emergence of craft beer – with its new flavours and brand tribalism grabbing drinkers’ attention.’ He’s right. My friends don’t drink standard lager any more. They drink ales and talk about hops and sourness. So, it’s time for Carlsberg to reformulate, repackage and relaunch. Trying to tap into the new beardy beer market by doing something a wee bit differently. Probably.
Admitting you’ve got things wrong is a rare thing in a brand. ‘Mr Kipling makes pretty average cakes’; ‘McDonalds – not really lovin’ it’; ‘Macallan: make the call… helllllppp’. You just don’t hear it.
Carlsberg is right for saying that the beer world had moved on. It probably realised that when it started the joint venture with the enterprising Brooklyn Brewery. Actually, I had some Carlsberg Jacobson Vintage just last week. It was bloody great.
In those simpler days when beer meant lager, Carlsberg might have been able to stick its tongue in its cheek and say it was probably the best, but today how can you compare a lager to a porter, or a super-hopped IPA, or a saison?
Modern tipple: Will Carlsberg’s #newbrew campaign help it regain popularity?
Who in their right mind can even say what ‘the best’ is? Carlsberg’s new claim coincides with the start of the drinks awards season, with bottles garlanded with medals like children at a nursery sports day. ‘Never mind if your egg smashed Jimmy, here’s a prize for turning up.’
No matter how good the organisation, criteria and judging panel, a competition will only ever be a snapshot of who performed best on that day – and who entered in the first place. Even if every whisky in the world was being tasted, the results would still be influenced by numerous uncontrollable factors: the flights, the order of tasting, humidity, glassware, you name it.
As long as you accept that, you can treat a competition as a bit of fun that gives a good, sober, indication of quality. Both of Carlsberg’s claims follow that line. It’s almost as if they’d taken advice from fellow Dane Søren Kierkegaard and his attestation that ‘subjectivity is the truth’. Kierkegaard’s point was that you cannot root faith on objective evidence or reason: ‘...the paradoxical character of the truth is its objective uncertainty’. Okay, he was concerned with Christianity rather than beer, but you get my drift.
Despite trying to be objective, competitions, and brewing, will always stumble over that truth. Damn that existentialism.
Whether we are brewers, judges or drinkers, all we can ever say is ‘probably the best today’, a statement which already contains the dark truth: ‘and probably not the best, but, hey, I like it.’
That makes sense. Probably.
Trust your palates.
17 April 2019
Provenance is an increasingly important factor in our decision-making process when it comes to food and drink. Where does it come from, who grew it, what are the air miles involved? Establishing a connection between what is on your plate or in your glass, and a place and a person is important. We want to know. Single malt has been a beneficiary of this trend – a drink made at one specific place on the earth’s surface. That’s powerfully attractive.
As whisky evolves, the idea of provenance grows to include barley and the agricultural aspects of flavour. What goes into the distillery matters as much as what goes on inside of it.
What then of the warehouse?
Spanish provenance: Valdespino is one of several Sherry bodegas in Jerez (Photo: Marcel van Gils)
The days of the whisky trade being happy to use any old cask as long as it came from an oak tree have long gone. Most distillers have wood policies in place, and all understand how vital the interaction between oak, spirit and air is on the whisky’s final flavour. But if wood is important, then so is its provenance.
We know that there are three main types of casks: ex-Bourbon, ex-Sherry and refill, but that is no longer sufficient in this new provenance-oriented world. The first two terms are meaningless if you don’t know the cask’s previous history.
As Bourbon is made from a wide range of different mashbills, the char levels will vary between producers, as will the length of time the Bourbon has spent maturing. All will have an impact on the character of the extractives in the wood.
Sherry is even more of a minefield. Despite a long trading relationship with bodegas, I wonder how much the whisky trade actually knows about the wine itself: fortified, made from Palomino, and aged in solera either biologically under a layer of protective flor – giving fino and manzanilla; or oxidatively – giving amontillado, Palo Cortado or oloroso. All have very distinct flavour profiles, so which one was used for that ‘Sherry cask’?
Fortified wine: There are a multitude of bodegas producing various styles of Sherry
Was the cask ex-solera? If so, the wood will be virtually inactive as bodegas want their fino or manzanilla to be fresh, flor-accented and wood-free, while in the other grouping, the impact of oxidation is more significant than the oak type. You’ll get more influence from the Sherry type used if ex-solera casks are used, but very little oak interaction.
These days, most ‘Sherry casks’ used in the whisky trade are made from new wood and only seasoned with the wine. Some distillers will work with cooperages and specify oak type, toast level, type of wine used and length of time of the seasoning. Not all do however. Using new wood means the oak type is more significant. European oak has become the norm because it adds grip, colour and aroma, but American oak is also used. The flavour profile is significantly different between the two.
The size of cask – butt, puncheon, gorda or hogshead – will also have a part to play, as will the seasoning Sherry. What type was it, how long was it in the cask and most importantly, what was the quality of the wine going in?
In other words, it’s provenance. The quality of the final whisky will be not only determined by the quality of the wood, and the coopering, but also the quality of the Sherry which went into the cask. I’m always tempted to ask producers if they know not just what type of Sherry was used, but who made it and whether they’ve tasted it – and if they’d drink it?
Is it even Sherry at all? Does it come from the demarcated region of Jerez, or from Montilla, which sits to the north, or somewhere else again? Montilla makes excellent fortified wines, but as it is warmer they have a different, fatter character (this is also where much of the Pedro Ximénez hails from). Will a cask rejuvenated with ‘Sherry’ in Scotland be the same in flavour terms as one seasoned in Jerez?
Prime location: Jerez is a specially demarcated region for Sherry in Spain
All this might seem as if I’m being pedantic for the sake of it, but think of this. Within the next decade there will be 140 Scottish distilleries with mature whisky. As the market expands, you might expect that the flavour options would increase significantly, but the opposite is more likely to be the case. What defines a whisky’s character style might be down to small, but significant differences between it and its 139 rivals.
Whisky making has parallels to the philosophy of marginal gains that Dave Brailsford placed at the heart of British cycling; the multiple tiny tweaks and adjustments which gave his teams a vital advantage.
Whisky’s marginal gains can come in many forms and that includes the cask and its history. Without a deep understanding of, in this case, Sherry, one potential element of difference has been removed.
You can apply all of this to ‘wine casks’. Some distillers will name the type of wine, maybe even the producer, but I wonder how much of that is for PR rather than flavour. Like Sherry, it’s the finer details which matter. Bordeaux wine casks from two different chateaux may use different oak types, different grape varieties and toasting levels. One chateau might use the casks for three vintages, the other only for two. All of this makes a difference. I’m not even going to go into the options which can exist within rum or brandy. Having a forensic understanding of each is time-consuming, but also hugely exciting in terms of crafting flavour.
Provenance matters, because provenance is flavour.
10 April 2019
As a child I drove my late mother to distraction every Easter. Let me rephrase that. As a child, I drove my late mother to distraction. One of the many – and as a parent now I see justified – reasons for her baffled frustration at my behaviour would come, without fail, in the middle of summer. She’d be rummaging in a cupboard for something and pull out a box. ‘This is your Easter egg,’ she’d say. ‘You’ve still not eaten it!’ She might have then fetched me a mighty buffet around the ears.
The offending chocolate shell, still in its cheap shiny paper, would be placed in front of me. I’d look at it, wait until she’d left the room and hide it again. Inevitably, it would be excavated from its second hiding place later again in the year, the chocolate now dusted with white mould. I think it would then be thrown out.
She’d (rightly I now see) raise the issue with my father. He’d gently chide me, but I knew his heart wasn’t in it. You see, like me, he didn’t like Easter eggs. Eventually, she got the message. The eggs stopped.
Worst nightmare: Broom is averse to chocolate, particularly of the cheap, egg-shaped variety
Since it’s confession time, although I’ve hosted my fair share of whisky and chocolate classes – a series with the astonishing chocolate sommelier Sanae Hirata in Tokyo being a highlight – I don’t actually care that much for chocolate.
That isn’t to say I don’t find the pairing fascinating. I do. I get a thrill from seeing how flavours and textures match or oppose, set up accords and contrasts, why the alcohol cuts through the fats in the chocolate to release flavours, how different fermented worlds can work together. I get it. It works. It’s just that chocolate won’t feature in my life between these events. It just isn’t something I seek out. Chocolate bars, boxes, buttons, brownies exist, but are things I can take or leave, mostly the latter.
All of this means I am still agnostic when it comes to the whole chocolate egg ritual at Easter. Don’t get me wrong, I do like Easter. I’ve fond memories of painting hard-boiled eggs with my Perth cousins and rolling them (and ourselves) down the hill. That was fun. That was Easter for me. Actually, I now realise, ever slow on the uptake, being with them was Easter.
If I don’t indulge in the chocolate egg orgy, organising Easter egg hunts is a different thing altogether. I take great, my family might say obsessive, care with those.
Colourful creations: Painting eggs with family is a fulfilling way to spend Easter, says Broom
First take the eggs: a few handfuls of small ones, with a clutch or two of hen-sized, and distribute them around the site, be that garden, or house. Be as fiendish as you can. Place some in plain view, others deliberately out of the reach of small arms and eye-lines, a few in places which will never be found until, by chance, they turn up later in the year spotted with white mould. Have one large egg as prize for each of the participants.
Some will devour them, others – my daughter for example – will eat the gathered ones and leave the big egg. It will sit in a cupboard for months, much to the frustration of her mother. When it is rediscovered, now dusted with white mould, I will gently chide her, but my heart won’t be in it.
Sit back and watch the fun begin. Smile as they happily discover some. Grin that little bit more when they don’t. Go and get some whisky and pour yourself a dram. Add ice, and a mixer of choice (it is the daytime after all). Sip slowly. Pair the whisky to the enjoyment of the moment.
03 April 2019
Another man gone. Scott Walker’s voice has been with me since that first childhood inkling that those huge, emotionally wrought Walker Brothers singles had a quality which elevated them above standard fare. One phrase from that seductive voice and I was hooked, all the way through the first solo albums, and in more recent times with his extraordinary avant-garde explorations into sound, voice and modernist poetry.
‘Have you heard the new Scott Walker?’ friends would say when one of the last tranche would emerge. ‘I bought it. Of course. I mean, it’s Scott. Awful though. I wish he’d do stuff like Scott 3 or Scott 4 again.’
Modern artist: Scott Walker was noted for his music’s progressive style
I didn’t agree, but I knew what they meant. I still listen to those late ’60s albums and love them, but Walker (1943-2019) wasn’t about nostalgia. He was out on his own – the bleak quartet of songs he penned on Nite Flights, then Climate of Hunter, before the sonic explorations of Tilt, The Drift, Bish Bosch and Soused. Each took his vision further out, exploring areas into which no other musician from his background had dared to venture.
Now, looking at Scott Walker’s corpus, the trajectory becomes clear – seeds sown lyrically and musically as far back as Walker Brothers B-side albums. In retrospect you can see how, in his subject matter, his timbre, the arrangements, he was steadily subverting the mainstream before heading off into parts unknown. If you went along with him, fine; if you didn’t, he would still keep on going. He was never going to come back.
As he wrote in the sleeve notes of Scott 2: ‘It’s the work of a lazy, self-indulgent man. Now the nonsense must stop, and the serious business must begin.’
It’s in the passing of artists like him that you start to wonder why we insist on preserving our heroes at the point when we fall in love with them; keeping them in a permanent state of perfect youth, singing the hits on a loop until the end of time.
What right have we to thwart their ambitions? In all honesty, would you really have bought an endless stream of Scott albums, or would you have given up long before Scott 50 came out? ‘Not as good as he used to be,’ we’d say. ‘The old boy’s trying too hard. Wish he’d just play the hits.’
Pop icon: Walker first achieved musical fame with the Walker Brothers
By rejecting this, he became one of the few musicians who refused to look back, keeping company with the likes of Bowie, Beefheart, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Radiohead… you get the drift. All artists who challenge convention, refusing to conform to our demands that they stay still just for our enjoyment and act as the aural wallpaper for our middle-aged dinner parties. Rejecters of nostalgia. Slippery visionaries.
I know what you’re thinking, reader. ‘Here he is, banging on again about dead musicians rather than writing about whisky,’ but I can see parallels here, especially if you consider whisky-making as a creative rather than a purely commercial act.
The artists who see their work as part of a continuum know that each song or recording is just one step further down the road. What’s next is more interesting than what has just been created. Is there a Scott Walker of whisky? ‘Scotch Walker’… now that would have been a collaboration, but would anyone have dared to make that call?
Don’t get me wrong. I’ll happily enjoy my beautifully made, mature, complex, balanced Scotch in the same way that I will still sink into Scott 4, or be transported by the melancholy baroque of The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine…, but even in that moment of real pleasure, at the back of my mind there’s a voice, nagging away, whispering: ‘Sure it’s amazing… but is that all there is?’
I get that it would be difficult for an established whisky to embark on a Walker-esque strategy, but surely even within the constraints of brand there should be space for evolution. We need people out there taking risks, staying true to their vision (and having one in the first place), influencing, prodding and challenging the status quo. For that to happen there first must be honesty, faith and vision, and bravery (in terms of liquid quality), and communication.
Scott 2: Walker’s hit single Jackie brought him fame early in his solo career
The Scott albums almost invisibly refashioned the ballad; his lush, romantic baritone singing words of alienation and loss. The late works pushed this into a new sonic and linguistic landscape. It showed how the experimental helps to define the middle of the road, how adventurers can be influencers.
You need both, the familiar and pleasing, the challenging and extreme. The latter feeds the former. Without establishing an alternative, if there isn’t someone out there with an uncompromising vision, you will end up with a bland, beige soup.
‘Don’t upset the fans, stick to the formula.’ If you only do that, you’ll be on the nostalgia circuit before you know it; like Scotch was in the 1980s. Half-empty clubs, dust gathering in the corners, the audience growing old with you. Fat Elvis sweats on a Las Vegas stage as the audience chat among themselves.
It would be naive to think that any finance department would permit someone to commit commercial suicide on an established whisky brand, yet once you see the similarities with music you start to realise that rather than creating new work, whisky is in danger of doing little more than remixing the old hits, or pushing a deluxe box set of rarities to the rich and besotted (or gullible).
Who is taking the risks and saying: ‘This is my vision?’ Who dares to upset existing drinkers? What’s exciting and really different? Is Scotch scared? Scott wasn’t.
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