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From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Today’s whisky drinker deserves better

    06 February 2019

    Over many years of taking tasting sessions, I’ve begun to appreciate the format’s ability to unlock people’s personalities. Everything you have ever smelled is locked away in your memory; when an aroma leaps into focus, it comes with a context attached which reveals something about you to everyone else in the room.

    I remember a very quiet woman who found it hard to articulate what she was smelling – we’ve all been there – suddenly shouting ‘amyl nitrate!’ as her first public tasting note. To be fair, I didn’t push her as to why she knew what poppers smelled like (if only because it might have shown that I did…).

    Anyway, tasting in public, or with friends, becomes a little like a therapy session. We dredge up aromas which tell us – and the company – about where we are from, and what we like and dislike. Sharing it is good. Knowing your comfort zone and aversions is the only way in which you can start to navigate whisky and, who knows, maybe it helps you in other ways. Pour a dram, lie down on the couch, and tell me about yourself. I’m listening.

    Having a regular column is in some ways similar. It too allows you to work out some issues.

    Individual appeal: A whisky’s aroma is often linked to a person's memories and experiences (Photo: Jen Steele Photography)

    I come to this having finished tasting and then writing the next two weeks’ tasting notes (I hasten to add everything was spat out) and, as this is the day after, there’s no vestigial alcohol adding to my irritability.

    What is inflamed is (or was) my palate, as yet another cask-strength whisky seared its way down my oesophagus. It’s something which has bugged me for months, years maybe, and for some reason has bubbled to the top of the pile of things to grumble about. I’m allowed to. I’m old. 

    Don’t get me wrong. I see the attraction of cask strength (whatever it means). Whisky in its naked condition, no adulteration, no buggering about. Alcohol carries flavour, after all. Whiskies at 43% or 46% tend to have more depth than those bottled at 40%. That ideological purity does, on occasion, need to be tempered by common sense – namely, can you drink the bloody stuff without wincing?

    One of my maxims is that whisky is about pleasure, not about pain. If all you care about is the latter, then, well we are back to whisky revealing darker psychological secrets. Pop back on to the couch and tell me about your mother.

    Just add water, you say? I do as a matter of course, for the simple reason that it opens the whisky up and also reveals positives and negatives such as astringency or inactivity. That raw heat is coming from spirit which hasn’t been mellowed by air or wood. It is there because cask or time haven’t worked… yet.

    Adding water might cut the heat, but in the worst examples it doesn’t. It’s still there, nagging away at the back of the palate. The water exposes the whisky, confirming what the neat tasting suggested: it’s not balanced. Reducing bottling strength wouldn’t have worked either, because that balance doesn’t exist.

    Some high-strength whiskies will mellow and improve with some water, but that is because they have an inherent balance and complexity. Water opens up what the alcohol has obscured when it’s tasted neat. You cannot, however, open up something which isn’t there.

    So, the question is, why bottle it? I know that one person’s ‘vibrancy’ can be another’s ‘immaturity’, but rushing to bottling just because you have the cask makes little commercial sense. We are inundated with whisky, be it Scotch or from the rest of the world.

    The result is that the quality bar has been (or should have been) set higher. The days of bottling whatever came along have surely gone. Now there are plenty of quality alternatives.

    Shaky foundations: Is ‘innovation’ used to mask mediocre or immature whisky?

    Immature? Hang on to it, blend it – that vibrancy can be useful in a vatting. Oh, and don’t think that a quick dunk into an active cask for a short period of finishing will sort it out. It won’t. You’ll just get an immature whisky with wine on top of it. That’s not what finishing is meant to be about.

    The lofty principles revolved around looking carefully at the distillery character of a mature spirit and then using a short time in an active cask to spin the flavours in a new and harmonious direction, adding complexity which complemented and, perhaps, subtly contrasted with the original. It’s not a way of covering up – and yet it still happens.

    Neither should finishing be seen as innovative. It might have been in the 1990s (or earlier), but we’ve moved on. And don’t fob me off with starting in ex-Sherry then finishing in ex-Bourbon. That’s not innovation, that’s desperation.

    Although innovation is the most misused word in Scotch, it is needed. Things must always move forward, while being cognisant of the past (in fact, with a keen eye on what might have been the norm decades ago, which could be revived and reinterpreted). It can take years for innovation to pay off – Glenmo’s yeast work proves that.

    Balance, complexity, character. The three-legged stool, the foundation, the three words that should always be thrumming away at the back of the mind. If they’re not there, then go back, rework, rethink and blend, because there’s always a new opportunity.

    In a world which will soon be awash with whisky, the standard has to be higher. We, the drinkers, deserve it.

    Good. Can I get off the couch now?

  • What is English whisky?

    30 January 2019

    ‘What does English whisky taste like?’

    I’m taken aback. We both look down at the bottle of Cotswolds single malt I’ve just handed over as a gift. ‘Well…’ I’m tempted to tell them to crack open the bottle and find out for themselves, but that might seem unhelpful.

    I opt for a different cop-out: replying to one question with another (always good when you don’t know the answer): ‘What does Scotch whisky taste like?’ Quizzical look. ‘No, think about it. You like Lagavulin. You like Glengoyne. They don’t have much in common, but would you say they both “taste like” Scotch whisky?’

    When we don’t know much about something, easy definitions and pigeon-holes are tempting, reassuring even. To whisky newcomers, Islay = peat and Speyside = fruit are comforting equations. As the journey progresses, their limitations become all too apparent.

    With English whisky, everyone’s at the start of that journey. St George’s and Hicks & Healey have been distilling for well over a decade now, but they are the outliers, the pioneers. Now, with 20-plus distilleries making whisky from Yorkshire to the Isle of Wight, critical mass beckons.

    After talking to a number of English distillers in recent months, I’m no nearer to answering the question – and neither are they. Then again, how many of them set out to create something ‘English’ in the first place? And how would they even begin to define that?

    Cotswolds Distillery

    Whisky landscape: Cotswolds aims to make a spirit that reflects the distillery’s surroundings

    Some appear to be following the Scottish template quite closely: St George’s, with its Forsyths pots; The Lakes, led by the likes of Paul Currie (son of Arran founder Harold Currie) and ex-Diageo production director Dr Alan Rutherford OBE; Cotswolds, where founder Dan Szor was inspired by the resurrection of Bruichladdich.

    But St George’s does peated, triple-distilled and a range of grains that uses rye, oats, wheat, unmalted barley, and chocolate and crystal malts; The Lakes, while overtly ‘Scottish’ in its approach, has released two hybrid whiskies, The One and Steel Bonnets; Szor wants the Cotswolds spirit to echo its ‘gentle, beautiful’ landscape, and the cereals and fruits that grow there.

    In Kent, Copper Rivet has drawn up its ‘Invicta Charter’ as a starting-point for a discussion about common standards for English whisky – but not as a restraint on flavour creation, as its two contrasting new make spirit styles show.

    In Southwold on the Suffolk coast, Adnams uses brewer’s yeast and a Christian Carl ‘beer stripping column’ to produce its high-abv wash; The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD) has manually-operated stills, employs an archaeobotanist to source ancient grains and isn’t scared to release a pure rye spirit at an obscenely young age – because it tastes good.

    The Lakes Distillery

    Traditional template: The Lakes is close to Scotland geographically and in whisky terms

    The Lakes sold its first bottle of single malt at auction for a record £7,900, and is laying down stock for an aged range up to 25 years old; meanwhile, Cotswolds’ first release was priced at £45 a bottle.

    Can you see a common thread here? No, neither can I.

    These are people forging a new path, learning and borrowing from what has gone before, but refusing to be enslaved by it, and certainly not scared of voicing their own opinions.

    To Szor, most Scottish distilleries are now mere ‘manufacturing plants for a global brand’ (whether that’s a criticism or not depends on your viewpoint), while Copper Rivet distiller Abhi Banik decries the misuse of the word ‘solera’ by some Scottish distillers, and was shocked to see the artificial ‘seasoning’ process that most Sherry casks go through prior to their use for maturing whisky.

    When Szor thinks about whisky, he comes back to the individuals watching over the stills, not their postal addresses: Ichiro Akuto, Patrick Zuidam, Matt Hofmann: ‘I think of individual distilleries and the people behind them, and what their aspirations and ambitions are,’ he says. ‘Those personalities will come through.’ 

    If anything unites the emerging generation of English whisky distillers, it is the healthy determination of each of them to follow their own path, create their own philosophy, rather than the fact that they all happen to be located in the same country.

    ‘What is English whisky?’ Apart from being unanswerable, the question’s irrelevant.

  • How can a whisky be worth $60,000?

    25 January 2019

    Into the warehouse, enveloped by the time-infused smell of dunnage, all bung cloth, damp earth and whisky-steeped wood. Someone should bottle it. (©DB Unlikely Ideas 2019). Hands clamped to ice-cold glasses, the aromas reluctant to move, grumpy at being disturbed after 72 years of slumber.

    It’s pale, paler than you expect – a good thing for a whisky of this age. Less oak, more oxygen. It flickers into life (see my official tasting notes to find out how), revealing how the years have not just been about slow absorption, but also a steady peeling away, so that concentration and opening are revealed as part of the same thing. The Lalique decanter skims the cask end, its gentle flow a dramatic contrast to the skyscraper thrusts of the rest of the series.

    It was A Moment. No question about that. I know that this is the only time I’ll taste it. Sniff gently and wet the lips. I’ve noticed that time seems to stop for a second when I taste a spirit of this age, whether it’s Black Bowmore, some pre-phylloxera Cognac, or this Macallan, the oldest whisky released by the distillery. There’s a pause, a mental gasp, as the mind gets to grips not just with the flavours, but with all which has happened since the cask was filled.

    Time capsule: Macallan 72 Year Old in Lalique – The Genesis Decanter is representative of another era

    Moon landings, wars, summers of love, new ways of communication, changes in climate. This was made the same year Dolly Parton, Sly Stallone, Syd Barrett and, er, Donald Trump were born.

    They put you in a different place, these whiskies. Even if they don’t work, even if they are too astringent and tannic, they speak to you, of men you will never meet, a time you have never seen; messages in bottles which have only now reached a distant shore. You know you are blessed to be in this job at this moment.

    The tasting was the culmination of a day which had started with Highland cows posing as if in some Landseer painting, a smirr over the Spey as we go into the fishing hut for drams and warmth.

    It had been a chance to get my head around the new Macallan and the way it flows across the estate from the river, to the cows and barley on the farm beside the hummocks of the new distillery, then rising up to the earth-brown warehouses. Water, to earth, to air. It’s a self-contained world, a Macallan world, or rather a world created by Macallan, culminating in a distillery which looks, and sometimes behaves, more like a modern art gallery: the Scottish equivalent of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, but with the equipment still left in. I’m inside it now, glass in hand, still inhaling, the whisky now starting to open in the warmth. What would the guys have made of all of this?

    What were they thinking in 1946 as the distillery sputtered back into life, still with barley rations, still using peat? Optimistic, or stunned by conflict? Was the stillman thinking of being home or on the Front when he was making the cut; did the mashman see fallen friends when the tun was being filled?

    Changing landscape: Those that worked at Macallan in the 1940s wouldn’t recognise the distillery today

    What was in the mind of the warehouseman as he filled the casks, sending them off to blenders and merchants, to be opened who knows when? Family, love, the morning dram? It’s unlikely to be what might happen in seven decades time. But in a world in the process of renewal there were some constants: the barley would be sown, the salmon would run and whisky would be made. Distilling as an attempt to regain normality.

    Reality crashes back in as the conversation restarts. There’s 600 decanters we’re told. Each will cost US$60,000.

    We might never get used to prices like that, but they are becoming more familiar, part of whisky’s evolution, the next pool in the river, the next leap of faith (or hope). I can never quite be inured to the fact that a bottle can cost twice the average yearly wage, the same price as a car, or a luxury watch.

    I try to rationalise it via the latter. I can appreciate the craft in its construction, but the time is the same whether you are looking at a Swatch, phone, computer clock or a Patek Philippe. A fine watch doesn’t qualify you for better time. I do, however, understand why they are collectible and beautiful pieces of functional art. You want to spend US$60,000 on a watch? Go ahead. Knock yourself out.

    Why then is there this niggle about whisky playing in the same realm? It isn’t simply that nothing is worth that, because these decanters will sell, proving some people clearly think they are.

    Is it because whisky is something I care about, because, once, I could afford pretty much all of it and now resent that some is (way) beyond my reach? Could it be because it’s evidence of whisky getting a bit uppity? That last one’s a very Scottish reaction. There’s a saying here, ‘I kent his faither’ (translation: ‘I knew his father’, meaning the father was better, yet made no fuss about it).

    Saying that, however, also suggests that whisky shouldn’t exist in this domain, a peasant with his mucky boots, sitting at a table in a three-Michelin star restaurant. Why shouldn’t it? Bugger that. Bring me the tasting menu, thank you garçon. There’s your beginner’s guide to the contradictory nature of the Scottish psyche.

    Spey fishing: Broom finds life’s most valuable moments aren’t always anchored in luxury

    In other words, I’m conflicted. Not resentful, but not wholly accepting. Maybe I can’t get my head around it because it is impossible to assess a whisky at this price in a normal way. Can you ever say anything is worth US$60,000 if you’ve never had that amount of money to spend? Strangely, it’s easier to assess whiskies at £3,000 than it is when they are 10 or 20 times that amount. This exists in its own bubble. 72 years, 400 litres in total, Lalique, amazing packaging. Why not US$60,000?

    And yet, when I look back at the day, it’s not just that moment of time stopping then scrolling backwards as a remarkable liquid touched my lips; it’s also standing by the Spey, a dram of 12-year-old, talking about fishing with the ghillie.

    The river flows, changes, yet stays a constant. You need that in whisky, that anchor to place and people. You might have a 72-year-old, but you need the 12 even more. I’ve sat at the top table and loved it. I’m back at the river, with mud on my boots, and am happier there.

  • Remembering Gérard Basset OBE

    23 January 2019

    The hospitality business – working in restaurants, bars and hotels – is often an unforgiving one. Long and unsociable hours, enormous pressure, fierce competition… the timid need not apply. No wonder that it takes its toll, both on relationships and on individuals’ physical and mental health.

    Those who rise to the top in such a world often have a reputation for being, to use an understating euphemism, ‘difficult’. The pantomime goings-on of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares may be exaggerated for the cameras, but they hint at an apparent underlying truth: here, nice guys (of either gender) don’t finish first.

    Gérard Francis Claude Basset gave the lie to that theory. When he died last Wednesday at the criminally young age of 61 from cancer of the oesophagus, the tributes naturally mentioned his many career achievements as a sommelier and hotelier (of which more in a moment), but without exception they focused on one aspect above all: his kindness.

    Perhaps it was something to do with the way that Gérard came into the business; visiting England in 1977 to watch his beloved St-Étienne play Liverpool in the European Cup (they lost), he stayed on, ended up working as a kitchen porter on the Isle of Man and, slowly but surely, made his way. It says much of the UK hospitality scene of the time that he was picked out for a front-of-house role pouring wine ‘because I was French’.

    Gerard Basset

    Star sommelier: Gérard Basset’s unassuming demeanour hid a wealth of achievements

    So began a remarkable career, by the end of which the letters denoting Gérard’s qualifications came to outstrip the length of his name: MW (Master of Wine), MS (Master Sommelier), MSc (from wine organisation the OIV), MBA in wine business and – perhaps his proudest achievement – OBE.

    He co-founded the Hotel du Vin chain in 1994, selling it to Malmaison for £66 million a decade later; then, with wife Nina, set up the boutique TerraVina Hotel in the New Forest. Not bad for a lad who left school in St-Étienne with no qualifications and no idea what to do.

    A tireless entrant in sommelier competitions, Gérard’s most emotional triumph came in Chile in 2010, when he won the Meilleur Sommelier du Monde title at the sixth time of asking, after finishing second three times. Before the contest, he’d pledged that this would be his final attempt.

    Through it all, he appeared unchanged by success and setbacks alike – unfailingly humble, with a wicked, dry sense of humour. For someone so ceaselessly busy and hard-working, he rarely seemed in a rush, always making time to talk to people.

    These qualities were invaluable in shaping perhaps Gérard’s most lasting legacy to hospitality in this country: the generation of young sommeliers he mentored, and who are now some of the leading figures in the trade.

    If they learned from the great man’s patience and humility, they were also inspired by something less obvious – his immense drive, ambition and appetite for hard work.

    Anyone who has a passing familiarity with the formidable Master of Wine and Master Sommelier qualifications will know just how hard it is to achieve either in a lifetime; Gérard passed both in less than a decade.

    His many competition wins were grounded in a ceaseless quest for knowledge, coupled with a fearsome regime of tasting new wines and spirits each and every day; he would draw detailed wine maps from memory, starting from scratch if there was even one error, and once employed a memory coach. There was steel beneath that humble exterior.

    Gerard Basset

    Lasting legacy: A generation of sommeliers was inspired by Basset’s example

    When diagnosed with cancer, Gérard used the time to write his memoirs; you can contribute to a crowdfunding campaign to enable their publication via the Unbound website; they ought to be quite a read.

    Kindness often appears to be an increasingly rare and undervalued commodity, in an age when opinions are voiced and dismissed with parallel disdain on social media, and when so much cruelty has crept into political discourse – so it’s salutary to bear in mind that being nice is in no way incompatible with being ambitious, driven and competitive.

    We would all do well to remember that in our discussions of whisky (and other topics). Fine to be passionate but, when so much is subjective, a little more respect for the other person’s opinion should not be too much to ask.

    In one of his last interviews, Gérard was asked (for possibly the hundredth time) if the cliché of the ‘snooty sommelier’ still persisted. His answer applies just as much to those involved in whisky as in wine:

    It has changed, but with any profession you get nice people and stupid people. When you meet a snooty sommelier – and they do exist – it’s a shame because most people who become sommeliers are passionate about wine.
    ‘Sometimes the problem is that they are too passionate about wine, and they think more about the product than the people.’

    With Gérard, whether with friends, customers, colleagues or employees, it was always about the people.

  • Industry woes brought new era to whisky

    16 January 2019

    I was concerned that you might consider last week’s account of my early days in whisky as evidence of how badly run the trade was in those days. The thoughts of long, boozy lunches scratch and itch like a new tweed suit against our 21st century sensibilities of how business transactions should be undertaken. In my experience, you discover the best (and worst) of people over lunch. We should do more of them, not less. I have four planned this month.

    I began to realise over the years, that the conversations which took place away from the setting of the formal interview was what mattered. Yes, it was off the record, ‘Chatham House rules, old boy’, I was told once to my complete bafflement, but it didn’t mean that the comment couldn’t be discreetly mentioned without attribution, or the lead followed up. Names would be mentioned, connections made. The liquid web which held the whisky world together was slowly being revealed. Trust was being gained.

    What was clear was that things were changing fast. Glasgow’s docks were empty, the sheds falling to bits, rustling with the ghosts of dockers, the scent of the millions of casks drifting away into the smoggy air. It wasn’t just whisky which had left. The shipyards were shuttered, the steel furnaces dampened, car plants closed. The city felt hollowed out. All of my friends had fled like me, a new generation of economic migrants. There was nothing for us here – or that was the feeling.

    Bygone era: Glasgow’s Queen’s Dock was once busy with whisky casks waiting to be shipped

    Yet over those lunches a rearguard action was being plotted. ‘Whisky is a long-term business’ I was told on a regular basis, though I’m not sure if anyone thought it would take as long as it did to turn things around.

    It would be wrong to think of them as fossils or the remnants of the generation who screwed it up. They were whisky men*. Casks and stills, and the echo of dunnage warehouses, were in their blood. They knew Jerez as well as Govan. Many had worked their way up from shop floor to boardroom. They were exploring new routes out of the mess. Not all worked – some were dreadful dead-ends – but the intention was there.

    Which is how I ended up on the banana.

    There was this new thing called single malt, you see. Well, it wasn’t that new, but it seemed to be what everyone from retailers to producers were beginning to talk about. For all the brave words, blends were in a death spiral of discounting. No-one in my generation was drinking them. Single malt, on the other hand, was untainted.

    Hence the banana.

    It was sitting there in Loch Indaal behind a speedboat. We waded out and sat astride it. A strange crew. A few trade hacks, a couple of supermarket buyers, and the executive branch of Morrison Bowmore, including a young bloke called Kenny MacKay and a chap called Jim McEwan

    Riding the wave: A wild banana boat ride (example pictured above) became a metaphor for whisky’s resilience

    The speedboat headed off like the clappers in the general direction of Kintyre. We clung on, awaiting the inevitable swerve which, when it came, flipped us into the water. We got on again. The same thing happened. I remember thinking that there was probably a metaphor somewhere in this – fill it in yourself dear reader.

    It was just a laugh and that was the most remarkable thing about the whole experience. This wasn’t the whisky world of declining sales and closed stills. This was whisky saying, you know, you can have fun. Whisky’s problems were far from over, but something had shifted. Retailers, distillers and writers were working together, trying to hold on to an inflatable banana and when they were pitched off, they got straight back on. Told you there was a metaphor.

    It was also the start of another set of conversations, not just over lunches with the marketing teams, but with distillers and blenders. The whisky men who had been hidden away, the ones with secrets and answers and tall tales, the ones who would take me on a new journey. Lunches would be involved. 

    *I use the term advisedly. This was still very much a male environment.

  • Whisky’s changing times and fortunes

    09 January 2019

    It would have been around 30 years ago this week when I was sent on my first trip to Scotland to write about whisky. Blended whisky to be specific. I’d started at Off Licence News in the November and had spent the intervening period learning how to use an electric typewriter, learn the style sheet, write news stories (‘read the press release, disbelieve it and phone up the PR to get the real story’) and attend wine tastings. Now it was time to break me into features.

    ‘You’re Scottish, eh?’ You could almost hear the gears shifting in my editor’s mind.

    ‘Dave, do you think you might like to write the blended feature for this year?’ It was more of an order than a topic for discussion, but he was a kindly man. I said yes.

    ‘Here’s the list of people in Glasgow to see – you can sort out what time suits each. Try and fit in Perth as well, OK? We’ll sort out the flight and the hotel.’

    Flight? For years, any trip home had been by overnight bus, train or hitching. This would be luxury. Hotel? That would necessitate some fast thinking to get past my mother.

    Big business: Broom recalls whisky meetings in grand offices like Teachers’ in Glasgow

    So it was that I found myself at 10:45am on a dank January morning standing in West Nile Street to meet with Lang Bros. I was taken past a room where two men in white coats were heads down over a bench of glasses, and up to the offices. The details of the interview are long forgotten. What happened next remains vivid.

    We’d chatted around my questions for about an hour before my victim looked at his watch and said something along the lines of, ‘what about a dram? I think we’ve earned it.’ We went through to another room, the drinks cabinet was opened, a decanter was extracted, and hefty drams splashed into cut glass tumblers. Lunch followed, washed down with rather excellent wines. A farewell dram, a handshake and I found myself out on the pavement blinking in the afternoon light in a somewhat dazed condition. Thank Christ I was in the hotel and not at my mother’s.

    I now realised why the trip was so prolonged. Every interview started at 11:00am because, well, lunch would have to be taken and no-one would want to discuss business after that (if they were capable of it). It was taken in Teacher’s magnificent building in St Enoch Square, and then at Matthew Gloag’s appropriately monikered HQ, Bordeaux House.

    I seem to recall (allow me some latitude dear reader, some of the memories are understandably hazy) that one firm – I think Whyte & Mackay – also threw in a dinner in one of Glasgow’s old-school Italian establishments, places I would come to appreciate over the years, where Business Was Done.

    Merry meals: Restaurants like Rogano were once centres of whisky discussions

    I also learned that lunchtime was the time for gossip and discussion, all of which was off the record and therefore contained all of the information which had been withheld during the interview. I discovered which other firms were in (apparent) trouble, their strategies would be dissected, scurrilous rumours spread, my insights (not that I had any) sought, then invitations would be issued to come and visit distilleries, and have lunch again next time I was up – or they were down.

    It was, I soon realised, the ending of an era. Sales were crashing, prices were being slashed, and mergers were underway. I think back with hindsight to the men (and they were all men) with their tumblers and wine glasses, their avuncular airs and clubbable talk; of how after laughing and yarning over lunch they would have returned to their offices, locked the door, looked at the sales figures and started to weep. No wonder they needed a lunchtime dram.

    Within the next two years our coverage had shifted from blends to single malt. The lunches continued for a good few years, but as the old guard retired, so mineral water replaced the drams, then phone calls took the place of the face-to-face interview, before e-mailed answers filleted of content by zealous PRs became the norm.

    What I remember most, three decades on, is how they all welcomed this skinny kid in his badly-fitting suit, poured him drams, answered his naïve questions and over lunches brought him into the world of whisky.

  • Could whisky become the drink of 2019?

    02 January 2019

    A new year (and I trust it will be a happy one dear reader) means that it is time to rip the entrails from the twitching corpse of last year’s whisky world and divine what might occur. 

    I should be happy because others better versed in this form of haruspicy are saying that 2019 is going to be a good year for whisky, with it (and that means all whiskies, not just Scotch) being tipped as the spirit to watch.

    There’s certainly a buzz about it in the on-trade, while mentions in the press and on air seem to be more frequent and less negative. I doubt that we’ll see a gin-like boom, but there does seem to have been a shift in mindset.

    Whisky cocktails: Save the Old Fashioned for the bar – the star at home will be the Highball

    Scotch and Irish whisky serves seem to be shaking free of the proscriptive edict that ‘thou shalt not add water’, something which is, I’m sure we’ll agree, A Good Thing. I do wonder however whether responding to the question ‘how should you drink whisky?’ with ‘any way you want’ is too glib. Rather than the Crowleyan ‘do what you wilt’, perhaps the new(er) drinker could benefit from having more practical options.

    The Highball would still seem to be the most sensible of these. It works in terms of flavour, and ticks a whole number of boxes: a simple whisky and soda is refreshing, and is low in alcohol and sugar.

    It is also easy to make at home, which is important at a time when pubs and bars are seeing a decline in trade. Few folk make whisky cocktails at home, so even if you choose an Old Fashioned or Penicillin when you, occasionally, visit a bar, it’s unlikely that either will become the go-to beverage when you’re back on the sofa, baffies [slippers, Ed] on, watching Poirot. The Highball just might bridge both occasions.

    It might also help with the issue of Generation Z’s drinking habits. Are the new generation of consumers drinking less but better, or just less? I’m ancient enough to recall how, in the ‘80s, fears that whisky was entering a catastrophic decline as Generation X turned towards vodka would be airily dismissed.

    ‘Their palates will mature,’ I was told on a regular basis, ‘and until they do, we should concentrate on our core drinkers.’ As we know, they stayed with the vodka and the core drinkers died.

    The situation may be different now – that goodwill towards whisky does seem to exist – but finding ways to engage with a generation which isn’t drinking should be uppermost in whisky execs’ minds. Why aren’t they drinking? Is it health, serve, flavour… or earnings? Real wages are falling in the UK and the US, debt is rising, and people are going out less. It’s another trend which producers should take into account when considering whether to hike prices ever further.

    Changing climes: Locality and environmental practices can give whisky a stronger market presence

    The importance of the local will also become increasingly relevant. I don’t mean the pub, but the growing interest in provenance and sustainability. The latest gin craze has not only allowed whisky distillers to start exploring whisky’s long-forgotten botanical side (something which will continue this year), but made the concept of a local distillery a familiar one.

    It’s helped to shift the belief that whisky could only be made in Scotland (and more precisely the Highlands and Islands), Ireland, Canada, Kentucky, Tennessee and Japan to one where it can come from anywhere.

    The powerful pull of the local taps into this, which should benefit the large number of newer distilleries releasing their first mature (legal) product in 2019, though there is a caveat: any goodwill felt towards the newcomer will soon cool if the quality of the spirit is not up to scratch. Shelves and back bars are not made of elastic, money is tight and competition is growing. If the new distiller has to charge more, then the quality of the spirit on offer needs to justify the price tag. Being small, or new is no longer sufficient. The other side of whisky’s growing popularity is that people know what’s good – and what isn’t. 

    The importance of the local will also see some distillers (though probably not enough) continuing with a deepening examination of place and what it gives in terms of understanding grains, food culture and history, and how all of these could then impact on flavour.

    It is a major philosophical shift in thinking which asks the question whether 21st century whisky is an industrial product or an agricultural one. Maybe that should be agri-cultural.

    We concentrate on the end product, the liquid in the bottle and its production process, when the focus should be at the start: what goes into the soil. In actuality, we should be thinking about the soil itself.

    Dealing with climate change should be behind every major decision we all make. Whisky can play a small but significant role in this not just by reducing emissions and becoming more energy efficient, but also by creating new connections with agriculture, which itself needs a radical overhaul in order to stop soil degradation and boost biodiversity.

    Any practices which can be pioneered within whisky (or beer) which can benefit the soil, boost small-scale profitable farming and help feed people, as well as give us all the bonus of an alcoholic treat, will be a true legacy. Maybe it will start in 2019.

  • Whisky’s future lies in the everyday

    25 December 2018

    ‘So what’s going to be new for whisky next year, Dave?’ Alice asked me the other day. Given I had a glass of Madeira in front of me (and the remnants of a rather toothsome Rhone) you might have thought I had already abnegated any rights to comment, but it was a valid enough question. As writers – which Alice also is – we are hardwired to be dissatisfied with the norm, junkies seeking the next thrill, clambering over each other to be the one to catch the next wave just before it forms.

    ‘I don’t know,’ I answered truthfully, ‘but maybe that isn’t a bad thing. Although there’s plenty going on in terms of flavour development, maybe it isn’t what’s next or new, but looking at what we have now and seeing how it will evolve.’

    She gave me a rather old-fashioned look, clearly believing I was just prevaricating. I continued, ‘rather than looking for the new, perhaps it’s best to look at the occasion – where and when whisky’s being served, how it’s being drunk and by whom and then make whisky a part of people’s lives. That doesn’t need something new – we have Highballs, we have cocktails, we have the liquid. It’s the context that needs to be looked at.’ I had another gulp of Madeira.

    Top spot: Whiskies vie for space on the floor-to-ceiling shelves at The Ben Nevis in Glasgow

    Her question nagged away at me, and over the next few days I began to think back about where I’d been drinking over the year, not just the high-end bars which you probably think are the only places I haunt, but the pubs (or dives as our North American cousins quaintly call them) as well. Of being ankle-deep in discarded peanut shells in a pitch-black bar in Victoria, BC talking about music with Mike Nicolson, that impromptu singing session in Wanaka, the late-night craziness of Melbourne’s Hats & Tatts.

    There was that late, late night when I was hunched over the bar clutching a Dewar’s and soda, rambling to the barkeep in New York’s Ear (which was once called the Bear before the B fell off the sign) as old-timey music played behind me, or hungover as hell the day after, sorting myself at McSorleys with fellow hacks, around a table full of beer mugs and cracker shards.

    Or the summer spent filming in Scotland, which could also be considered a four-month pub crawl, that brought me back to Glasgow’s Old Toll, Laurieston, the Pot Still, Ben Nevis and Heraghty’s, as well as the afternoon calm of Edinburgh’s Kay’s. There were early morning drams in Bennet’s listening to the Furrow Collective singing temperance songs, or chatting about literature and music with Ian Rankin over drams and pints in The Abbotsford and the splendour of the Cafe Royal.

    Way-back when: Edinburgh’s Cafe Royal offers grand interiors with a nod to its heritageAll places where time stopped and conversation flowed, usually at times of the day where people relax and open their minds and hearts. Whisky times. Or rather, times where whisky seems appropriate, where it can play a role. That’s the context.

    The question is whether whisky is trying to play there. Is the whisky trade so obsessed with image and the top end that it’s missing the late-night spots, the quiet afternoon sessions, the places around the world where its drinkers, existing and potential, go to sing and laugh, cry and swear?

    I think back to sitting on plastic chairs in African shebeens with a bottle in front of me, to whisky-fuelled Taiwanese karaoke bars, and Japanese izakaya with half pints of ice-cold Highballs, of lazy Susans spinning in China, to bottles and ice buckets in Tunisia, or drams in a hot tub in the Arctic. Whisky adapts itself to all of these. It’s a shape-shifter.

    Widespread appeal: Victorian decor combined with over 150 whiskies makes Bennets in Edinburgh a cosy establishmentIt’s this malleability which is the key. Everywhere whisky has touched down it’s been absorbed in some way and adapted itself to fit, and yet it’s these occasions which are rarely mentioned. Rather than being something to learn from, they are ignored. Yet, they are the contexts which should be explored. It’s as if the industry has only chosen the choicest cut of meat and ignored the seething, reeking offal where true satisfaction resides.

    It’s appropriate to talk about food because in all of these contexts whisky has become part of the food culture. What we eat tells a story about place and people, and so does drink. It too is an element in the poetry of our lives, yet you wonder if whisky has forgotten this, that in the desire to elevate its reputation its role, its function, its qualities, its evolution and its sheer democratic nature has been pushed to the side.  

    It’s time to learn from the dives and shebeens, the pubs, bothies and bars where whisky is quite simply enjoyed without pretension.

    Have a splendid Christmas dear reader.

  • Whisky’s Chinese paradox

    19 December 2018

    On the road again to another gig. Another grey and blue dawn. Mountain tops above the clouds. Below, a vast grey city.

    Yesterday it was Xiamen, before that Beijing, Fuzhou and Quanzhou; now it’s on to Guangzhou, with a trip to Dongguan because you might as well when you’re in the neighbourhood. Six cities, six days talking whisky all the way. I can do it.

    Thinking of last night and the visit to the late-night noodle joint, which is naturally where you head after a 10-course meal and a nightcap or three. It’s a considerably healthier option than a kebab.

    Our way in was blocked by a dog which had pulled a pair of pants from the washing line and was playing with them. We laughed. Thought little more about it. There were noodles to eat and, anyway, we hadn’t finished talking about other things, such as how does Scotch break into China in a meaningful way? It was the time of night when the big questions tend to emerge.

    China is facing the same issues as any market. Who are the potential drinkers, where do they drink, what do they drink, how do they drink it, and how then can whisky align with them? Sounds simple.

    Dog days: Scotch must disrupt the Chinese market for a meaningful impactI’m thinking about the dog. In fact, I’m obsessing about it. I have a tendency to look for metaphors and allegories everywhere. It’s one of the pressures of writing a column, or maybe the belief that, if everything is connected, then you can draw a line between any two points. The combination of jet lag, early mornings and late nights has resulted in a somewhat deranged state, so forgive me gentle reader (I always assume there’s only one of you) as I tease this one out.

    Is the dog whisky? If so, what do the pants represent? Maybe the shock of a dog eating pants is like Scotch disrupting the baijiu-dominated Chinese market.

    I think back to the last meal. Food and spirits are inextricably linked in China, but not the ‘whisky dinner’ contrivances of the West. Spirits are seen as the natural accompaniment to an occasion which is about bonding, networking, hosting, socialising and in this case, teaching in a light way about Scotch.

    The number of courses and the continual toasting means that your glass is regularly drained (fear not reader, the measures are small and the consumption responsible, just don’t tell my doctor). No sooner is it emptied than it’s refilled and the toasting continues.

    I start to think of the girls doing this as whisky angels, following me no matter where I am, silently topping me up. As my friend Jasmine pointed out, ‘angels don’t take whisky here, they give’.

    What do they think of the laughter and rising volume of the conversation? They pass no comment, just open another bottle. Be careful with the angels, they control your destiny.

    Given the central role of the meal in terms of socialising and the focus within the event on spirits, can Scotch subtly begin to promote itself as the ideal accompaniment, and shift the thinking from a bottle, to a bottle of a specific brand?

    The dog chews on the pants on the doorstep of the noodle bar.

    Angels’ share: Always on standby, armed with a never-ending supply of whisky 

    Maybe the dog is me and the pants are my confusion over this piece. Maybe it is Scotch, the pants are opportunity, and the noodle bar is China.

    I put this to the angels. They stay silent.

    Every conversation circles back to this question: how to move things forward? It floats above the cigar smoke, Negronis and the one last bottle of malt. The answer seems tantalisingly close, yet remains unresolved.

    The dog worries away.

    The strategy has been to build Scotch’s presence from the top down. Get a whisky seen as being rare, precious, collectable (and expensive) and its prestige will ripple down. The first element is working. There are Glenfarclas single casks galore, Macallan is betting heavily on the top end, Balvenie is building its rep, while Diageo is combining a prestige strategy with a countrywide, category-based education campaign [full disclosure: I help out on this campaign].

    The dog’s still there, outside the noodle bar.

    The angels say nothing. Top up my glass.

    Maybe that’s one of the issues. Scotch is too busy gnawing away at the problem of how to get into the noodle bar, when the door is already open. Just walk in.

    Perfect match: In China, spirits are seen as a natural accompaniment to a meal

    The downside of the top-down strategy is that little has rippled down. Whisky is exclusive, thank you very much, but there is a gap between the top-end malts and entry-level expressions, which also manifests itself as a split between the well-off, usually older, drinker and the younger generation – the very people who need to start drinking Scotch.

    The dog’s still there. The angels smile in an enigmatic way. 

    It’s not an either-or option, just two different conversations. Scotch needs to build volume and that won’t come from selling 20-year-old single malt. The work starts not just in restaurants but in bars, be they in Shanghai, Beijing or places like Xiamen’s Bumper Bar, where owner JoJo rocks out fantastic cocktails while also having SMWS and Compass Box front and centre.

    Next door to the same city’s Fiddich Bar (classic cocktails and/or single malt a speciality), hidden behind the shelving of a convenience store, is a speakeasy. It’s rammed with potential whisky drinkers, but Scotch is nowhere to be seen. How do you get through that door? I ask the angels. They pass no comment, just quietly top up my glass.

    I look round.

    The dog has wandered off.

  • Whisky’s shifting balance of power

    12 December 2018

    Forget what you know. Take a map of the British Isles and Northern Europe, rotate it through 180 degrees and look again. Let your eyes rest naturally where they will. 

    With a conventionally aligned atlas, the gravitational pull of the south-east corner of England is compelling. London, the proximity of continental Europe, the sheer weight of numbers in terms of population, not to mention influences political, legal and cultural.

    Maybe the simple trick of flipping north and south will suggest an alternative narrative to you; maybe it won’t. But if geographical trickery won’t do it, a delve into the past surely will.

    We have historian Neil Oliver to thank for the atlas-upturning trick, in his fascinating new book, The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places. What could have been yet another box-ticking listicle in print form instead offers an eclectic sweep through British and Irish history, from the first known touch of humanoid feet on UK soil to the fragile collision of nature and technology at Dungeness.

    The map-flipping is reserved for the chapter on the Ness of Brodgar on Orkney; rotate a page in the atlas, reckons Oliver, and:

    ‘...Orkney – and Shetland – are revealed as the hub of the wheel. For people on the move around northern Britain, north-western Europe and Scandinavia, those archipelagos appear like roundabouts, way stations en route from somewhere to everywhere else.’

    Ness of Brodgar excavation

    Prized finds: Archaeologists have been excavating the Ness of Brodgar for 15 years

    Some 5,000 years ago, Brodgar was London. What was assumed (until as recently as 2003) to be a natural whaleback of land forming part of the isthmus between the lochs of Stenness and Harray is instead a disguised mound of rubble, a vast complex of prehistoric buildings – the result of centuries of human habitation: construction, demolition, reconstruction.

    The experts are still scratching their heads about the Ness of Brodgar, but the architecture and the pottery unearthed on-site is older than similar examples found elsewhere. In other words, the innovations created here may well have rippled southwards, to Stonehenge, Avebury, throughout the British Isles and probably beyond. At this point in history, Orkney was anything but peripheral. Instead it was central, leading, pioneering.

    Any contemporary world whisky map would have a similar northern bias. In terms of the numbers, the power and the influence, the global scale, Scotch is at the centre of things, the hub around which much else revolves. Producers elsewhere may choose to emulate or consciously react against its example but, either way, Scotch retains its role as reference point.

    Ness of Brodgar excavation

    Huge influence: The advances made on Orkney may have reverberated beyond the UK

    With scale can come an appearance of permanence. Distillery numbers well into three figures (and rising), exports worth upwards of £4bn a year; it becomes hard to imagine a world without Scotch, even one in which Scotch takes a supporting role and allows another country of origin to move into the spotlight.

    But we wouldn’t have thought that in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, during that first period of mass distillery closures; nor during the Irish whiskey boom that followed when, less than 150 years ago, the most prized and popular whisky on the planet hailed from Dublin, not Dufftown.

    We wouldn’t have thought it as the 19th century ticked over into the 20th, and the effects of the Pattison Crash reverberated throughout the industry; nor during the 1920s devastation of Campbeltown and beyond; nor, as recently as 35 years ago, when the last round of cuts claimed Port Ellen, Brora and many more distilleries as casualties. All of these events had their own causes and effects, but all can also be seen as forming part of the natural popularity cycle of any consumer product.

    Brora and Port Ellen distilleries

    Famous victims: Brora and Port Ellen were casualties of whisky’s natural popularity cycle

    It’s not that Scotch is in any immediate trouble right now; these remain good days for the industry, but the good days are the best times to ask questions, to explore new directions, for the industry to interrogate itself about how to do things even better, and create a product that resonates even more powerfully with consumers young and old.

    Irish whiskey is resurgent, American whiskey booming, Japanese whisky more popular (although also arguably more troubled) than ever before; meanwhile, the world beyond whisky’s boundaries of convention, from Norfolk to the Nordics, is finding its own way, building in confidence. Perhaps the needle of the compass is already beginning to twitch.

    Neolithic farmers continued to develop the Ness of Brodgar for at least 1,000 years, constructing two huge walls to mark it out as special, and to shelter it from the outside world over which it exerted so much influence.

    No doubt, over the course of a millennium, there were numerous ups and downs, times of prosperity and poverty; nonetheless, behind those towering walls, the people who lived there may have grown to take its pre-eminence for granted, to believe that its supremacy was vouchsafed for eternity by whatever gods they worshipped.

    Clearly, they were wrong.

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