Impassioned words in favour of using whisky in food from our resident expert, Martine Nouet.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
24 August 2016
It’s my own fault, of course. I’ve rambled on for ages about how whisky (anywhere in the world) has links with culture and place, which run deeper than the surface gloss of brand. So now I’ve been asked, politely, to prove it.
Sōetsu Yanagi: Philosopher and founder of Japanese ‘folk craft’ movement mingei
This has led me down some pretty interesting rabbit holes of enquiry, looking at how certain cultures ‘read’ the idea of quality and beauty; the logic being that if whisky is a cultural product, then its creation has parallels with other areas of craftsmanship (don’t get me started on the whole ‘craft’ issue… well, not this week anyway).
It’s a vast topic which bifurcates into various other realms, such as the manner in which these crafted objects can be appreciated for their quality which, again, provides us with some salient points regarding how we assess a whisky.
One of the key texts was Sōetsu Yanagi’s The Unknown Craftsman. Yanagi was a Japanese philosopher and the founder of the Japanese ‘folk craft’ movement (mingei) in the 1920s, which brought a new focus on the quality and beauty of simple, honest objects made by craftsmen working in a centuries-old tradition.
Yanagi argued that ‘seeing is a born facility, knowledge is acquired’, and that intuition is more important than clinical application of theory. Often our spontaneous response – that tug of appreciation led by the eyes and heart – is overwhelmed by ‘the owner with the foot-rule [who] is immediately busy with a dozen questions as to age, authenticity, previous ownership, technique and the like’. In other words, appreciation is easily blurred by an analytical approach.
He doesn’t dispute that the questions over provenance are important and should be asked. Rather they should be used ‘only if they lead to better appreciation of the object’.
We know what is good. ‘The ancients did not follow the judgements of others, they did not love a piece because it was old, they just looked at it directly [with] unclouded, intuitive perception.’
I couldn’t agree more. The key when tasting whisky – there’s some on the table behind me as I write – is to look at each glass honestly, openly and without any prejudice. The age (if given) is a guide to assess the interaction between cask and spirit, the distillery name is a clue as to the character from that place, but elements like these are always in the background.
Ultimately, the liquid is the liquid; the only thing which matters is how you react to it. For all the analytics, at some point you have to say, it speaks to me… or it doesn’t. Shelve prejudice; see it honestly and with open senses.
As Yanagi wrote: ‘Put aside the desire to judge immediately, acquire the habit of just looking. Do not treat the object as [one] for the intellect. Be ready to perceive passively without interposing yourself.’
Okakura Kakuzō: Author of The Book of Tea
His urging was hardly new. In his 1906 treatise, The Book of Tea, Okakura Kakuzō wrote how ‘a Chinese critic complained many centuries ago [that] “people criticise a picture by their ear”’. In other words, they listen to critics, they follow fashion and they shelve their own judgements because others who are allegedly better-versed in the subject have decreed what is good… and bad.
If this is to be the case, then doesn’t it make things slightly awkward for a whisky writer? After all, we live in an era where the foot-rule of scores rules, and where age, distillery name and era all seem to matter more than the liquid.
Don’t get me wrong, we still need critics, but those of us who read and use them – be it on art, music, theatre, food or whisky – have to ultimately judge the object with our own senses. As Kakuzō wrote: ‘We classify too much, and enjoy too little.’
Read the words, not the numbers; take advice, but trust your palates and intuition – and enjoy.
17 August 2016
While writing this, I’m ensconced in a farmhouse close to Arcos de la Frontera which is, conveniently enough, a mere 30 minutes from the delights of Jerez. This means that, for purely professional reasons, much Sherry is being consumed.
The Nomad bodega: Bridging the gap between Sherry and Scotch
It’s been too long since I was in Jerez. I was here on a frequent basis during my wine writing days and for a couple of spirits-related visits, but then the trips seemed to dry up. Hey, these things happen. It didn’t mean I stopped drinking Sherry.
It was a time when bodegas were closing, and the Sherry industry was caught in seemingly terminal decline. The producers maintained their passion and belief in quality, but the world seemed to have gone deaf to their appeals.
It was also a salutary lesson on the lack of influence of writers. Every year we would write articles on how versatile and remarkable Sherry (or Port, or German wine) was, and every year all these sectors would lose more cases.
And now? Bartenders are in love with Sherry, chefs and sommeliers praise its ability to partner food and, more importantly, a new generation of drinkers is discovering its complex delights. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Sherry’s symbiotic relationship with Scotch runs deep, and yet it’s long struck me that the two industries have never quite understood each other fully.
Yes, there is the Sherry cask, but there is considerably more to discover about what that actually is, and how the whisky industry ended up with the type of casks it now uses. Whisky lovers who love Sherried whisky have quite often never tried Sherry. There is a huge opportunity for closer links and joint efforts.
Maybe things are changing. What was scheduled to be a two-hour trip around González Byass’ bodega with the firm’s charming ambassador Alvaro Platos ended up being in excess of four hours as we tasted, talked and shared.
The visit included a look at the Nomad bodega that houses a blend made by Richard Paterson of Whyte & Mackay, which was married in oloroso casks in Scotland, then shipped to Jerez for a second period of finishing in PX. It’s not legally Scotch (obviously) but it is a drink which forms another bridge between Scotland and Jerez.
Hybrid whiskies are becoming more common and, while some don’t work because the impulse is a contrived one, Nomad does because it is a genuine collaboration between winemaker and whisky blender. More on that later.
Take your time: Dave Broom enjoyed a four-hour tour of Sherry producer González Byass
Talking of collaborations, I’ve just been told that the recent whisky rancio talk has been given the Golden Spirit Award as the top-rated seminar at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail. It, too, was a joint effort – Ryan Chetiyawardana’s genius with flavour and ease of explanation about bartending skills and philosophy; and the extraordinary ability of restaurant Noma’s Arielle Johnson to explain microbiology in a way that all could understand.
We had thought that we might be able to entice 60 geeks into a small room. Instead, we sold more than 200 tickets. I think that shows how deep the desire for knowledge about Scotch is, and in turn how to use that information to make ever greater drinks.
It demonstrated the links which could exist between cutting-edge food science, blending and bartending, and how that could then be applied in practical ways to enthuse even more people about whisky’s flavours.
None of it would have been possible without the backing of Ewan Morgan, the national director of the Masters of Whisky programme, who saw the opportunities within what was a pretty arcane area and gave us access to hugely expensive blends to prove our points – the moment when Chetiyawardana and I poured Johnnie Walker Blue Label and King George V into giant orange buckets will live with me forever. He, and Diageo's Dr Nick Morgan, also helped us tap the brains of Maureen Robinson and Keith Law at Carsebridge.
It all showed how powerful education can be and why brand-focused activity can only be one aspect of a wider engagement with a new whisky-loving community. It was, it strikes me now, in line with what the Masters of Whisky programme was all about.
And now, if you don’t mind, the internet is being turned off. There’s a cold copita with my name on it.
09 August 2016
To say that the news of the axing of the Masters of Whisky programme came as a shock would be an understatement. I’ve had the privilege to work with most of the ambassadors, either here in the UK or in the US, and know how dedicated and talented they are in teaching people – be they consumers or trade – about the ways of whisky.
I know they will all get jobs, but that isn’t the point. The issue here is the rejection on Diageo’s part of a proven educational model. No matter how it is dressed up, there has been a strategic shift away from education, to delivering sales-oriented ‘experiences’ – a very different thing.
The initiative unlocked the multifarious secrets of whisky. That lock is now rusted, opportunities sealed up, jobs lost, and disillusionment rife. The diminishing of the importance of education removes everything special about Scotch (and, by extension, all whiskies and premium spirits).
It rejects the importance of people, place, provenance and pride, and replaces them all with one word – profit. It is a decision that says: ‘Actually, we don’t care how it is made, where it is made, or who makes it, as long as it sells.’
It says: ‘We are in the business solely of shifting boxes, and what these boxes contain doesn’t matter hugely, as long as they deliver profit quickly.’ It is a short-term approach which sits uneasily within Scotch.
There is a profound irony that the people who are paying the salaries and pensions of the people who make decisions such as this are the very folk who care deeply about the product, who work in distilleries and blending labs, and are out there talking and teaching, keeping the narrative evolving and fresh.
The rusted lock: Diageo’s Masters of Whisky programme opened up opportunities for education within the whisky world
Ambassadors such as the Masters talk to the people in bars and stores, who then, enthused by the story, pass on the knowledge to those of you who walk up to the counter and ask for a recommendation.
In other words, there is a chain of people involved, all of whom drive interest in – and passion for – the product. And you know what? Ultimately, the boxes sell because the Masters have built a network of fresh ambassadors. They just might not sell as quickly as a careerist executive wants them to.
In this world of reductive thinking, everything’s (and everyone’s) worth can only be measured numerically, a spreadsheet realm which blankets the messy, fascinating reality of life. This sales-oriented approach might work in the world of washing powder or biscuits, but it cannot be one which should prevail in whisky – or any drink.
It is also counter-intuitive. Scotch is facing challenges from other whisky styles, and other spirits. These, when viewed in the right way, offer Scotch huge new opportunities. It does, however, have to work harder to show consumers, bartenders and retailers why it matters, what makes it different and compelling. In other words, it needs to educate.
Diageo’s competitors must be delighted that such highly trained ambassadors are now available. Having gleaned the wider trade’s reaction to the decision, there is dismay because of the impact it will have on the category. The Masters of Whisky (like any ambassadors) weren’t just talking about Diageo brands; they were helping to build a category and were best-placed because of training – and because of their number and geographical reach – to deliver.
As the biggest player in the whisky category, there is also a moral responsibility on Diageo to take the lead on this. By turning its back on the programme, the firm is rejecting a category-building strategy at the precise time it is so badly needed – and Scotch is all the poorer for it.
The spin is that they are continuing to educate – just in a different way, with luxury experiences replacing the previous approach. The experiences might be fun – look at the balloons, listen to the cane rapping on the ground, eat the jelly, marvel at the dancers, sip the whisky – but it is no more than a tawdry facade.
There is no depth, no room for discussion, no – in a word – education. Instead, there is a show whose aims disappear into air like scented dry ice.
By reducing a whisky to ciphers, you miss the point, eliminate (or ignore) the questions, and stem the dialogue. The message becomes didactic and simplified. A successful mentoring/ambassadorial initiative does exactly the opposite. It enriches and deepens, and builds resonance over time.
I was angry when I heard the news. Now, I’m saddened because a firm which I know is staffed by people who do care deeply and profoundly about its whiskies has had this new approach foisted upon it.
I’m bewildered as to why a programme which the drinks industry in the US regards as the best in class has been scrapped, and its highly-trained members cast aside; while the callous nature of the manner in which Gregor Cattanach was told of his sacking two days after the death of his father – the man who effectively set up the scheme – will always be remembered as an unforgivably shameful act.
Whisky is long-term; it is complex, frustrating, captivating and contradictory. It takes time to understand it, it takes time and patience to explain and engage people into its weird vagaries. It takes shoe leather, knowledge and empathy.
This is what the Masters of Whisky had. All of that has been cast aside for short-term gain, and you know what? I don’t understand it.
03 August 2016
When you’re ordering a drink at a bar, which Scotch cocktails come to mind first? The Highball perhaps, or even a Scotch Old Fashioned, Whisky Sour or Blood and Sand? How about a Manhattan or Sazerac made with a feisty malt? There is one classic, that if you live outside of the US at least, you’re less likely to be familiar with.
It’s a drink I’m sad to say I only discovered recently upon a stopover in New York, despite its publication in Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930 (sadly I don’t have a copy but it’s now on my Christmas list). I’m disappointed because it turns out this particular cocktail has to be one of my all-time favourite ways to drink Scotch, and I’ve been missing out until now.
New York is one of the two leading cocktail capitals of the world (the second being London), so of course one of my priorities was to try to ‘complete’ as many bars as possible during my four-day stay. This sounds like an easy task, considering the state’s 4am last orders legislation (they can start serving again at 7am Mon-Sat, should you be so inclined to pickle your liver – I don’t recommend it). I managed seven bars, at a rather responsible average of 1.75 per night.
Bobby Burns: it's time for a revival of the classic Scotch cocktail
Each bar had it’s own unique vibe and character. The clientele varied from place to place, and the drinks list always a mixture of bespoke specialities and fond classics. Despite the diversity, something you can always rely on in New York, there was one particular Scotch cocktail that cropped up time and again, even at establishments that forwent menus altogether (I’m looking at you, Attaboy).
The Bobby Burns, named after Scotland’s favourite bard and the patron poet of Scotch whisky, is such a simple yet deliciously warming drink it’s a wonder it sits on the side lines while contemporaries such as the Sour (messy egg whites) or Old Fashioned (stir until your arm falls off), are more frequently ordered – in the UK at least.
It’s a modest mix of equal parts Scotch and sweet vermouth with a few dashes of Bénédictine, stirred down over ice and garnished with a citrus twist. Behind the veil of its simplicity however, lies a depth of flavour that can be dialled up or down depending on the drinker’s preference, simply by adjusting the whisky used.
One of the best: Harry Craddock’s Bobby Burns recipe as printed in The Savoy Cocktail Book, 1930
A light blend such as Dewar’s 12 Year Old or The Famous Grouse makes for a refreshing drink with vanilla and citrus notes laced with spice. Use a first-fill American oak-matured malt such as Glenlivet Nadurra or Glenfiddich Bourbon Barrel Reserve for a sweeter experience, or alternatively take a feisty, meaty dram such as Dailuaine 16 Year Old, Mortlach Rare Old or Craigellachie 13 Year Old to create a viscous texture and robustness. Some go so far as to substitute the Bénédictine for Scotch whisky-based liqueur Drambuie, which creates a sweeter, and more Scottish, drink still.
Craddock – who opted to shake and strain the drink and garnish with lemon peel – described the Bobby Burns as: ‘one of the very best Whisky Cocktails. A very fast mover on Saint Andrew’s Day.’
Once so popular in 1930s London, easily replicable at home and a certain crowd-pleaser, it’s time the Bobby Burns made a definite comeback, and not just in New York.
26 July 2016
The best-selling whisky brand in the UK isn’t The Famous Grouse any more. It isn’t Bell’s, or Whyte and Mackay, or Grant’s. Instead, it’s that most American of drinks products, Jack Daniel’s of Lynchburg, Tennessee.
How should Scotch react to this? First of all, it’s important to remember that the figures released last week by The Grocer refer to value, not volume (Grouse still leads on that score, although possibly not for much longer). We’re also talking Nielsen statistics, which cover the supermarkets and other major retailers, but not pubs and bars.
And now we also discover – adding still further to the intrigue – that Jack’s figures also include sales of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, which is not a whiskey at all, but a honey liqueur ‘infused’ with the real thing. Oh, and also the brand’s RTD products, such as its cans of ready-mixed Jack Daniel’s and Cola.
Be that as it may, it’s clear from the comparative figures and anecdotal evidence that, while Jack is hot in the UK, blended Scotch – including its leading brand, Grouse – is most definitely not.
Given Scotch’s long-term overseas success story – only partly undermined by the last three years of export declines – do producers care that much about what happens in their own back yard? After all, Cognac exports 97.5% of its production, and you’d hardly say that Hennessy was on its knees.
Some coverage of the story extrapolated Jack’s success into a broader trend of American whiskey supplanting Scotch in the nation’s affections, arguing that consumers are turning their backs on the blends their fathers and grandfathers enjoyed in favour of a little Americana.
From Lynchburg with love: Jack Daniel’s sells more than 1m cases in the UK
There’s some truth in that, but let’s not get carried away. This is the story of one brand’s success, not that of an entire category: American whiskey sells more than 1.5m cases in the UK every year, but roughly three-quarters of that is Jack. Compare that to blended Scotch at about 5m cases, plus malts at approaching 1m cases, and the picture doesn’t look quite so bleak.
So everything’s all right, then? Not quite. Leaving aside the question of pride – that distillers would really like their fellow countrymen and women to drink more of their product – the UK is a large and dynamic market, in which any spirits category worth its salt would like to be doing considerably more business.
It also offers a microcosm of the malaise afflicting Scotch in a number of its more mature markets now (and especially in the US): the ‘malts are better than blends’ consumer mentality, a prejudice that Scotch producers did much to encourage, and which they are now belatedly trying to reverse.
But more specifically, it is Jack Daniel’s accomplishments which should be closely scrutinised. This is a whiskey that has long understood – and exploited – its essential DNA, mining a seam of retro-Americana and beneficial celebrity endorsements to create a brand with a broad demographic appeal.
Furthermore, having once recognised the power of that appeal, it has stayed true to its winning strategy, keeping its brand message clear and consistent. Young and old, male and female, whatever your socio-economic group – everyone, it seems, loves Jack.
Can any Scotch whisky brand operating in the UK today make a similar claim?
20 July 2016
Long-haul flights, while tedious, do at least allow some time for contemplation. On the latest, still musing on the insights which Yumi Yoshikawa gave me, my mind turned to Scotchwhisky.com, nearly 10 months on from launch. Where are we? Getting there. We’re happy with the positive feedback that has come our way while, more importantly, we have all taken on board any constructive suggestions – because it’s only by listening to those that we improve.
While I was never fooled into thinking we could please everyone all the time, what has surprised me is the amount of intemperate rage that is out there. I wrote once in a different place about how the debate around whisky has become coarsened. Sadly, nothing has altered since. We are now in the fairly remarkable position of having passionate whisky lovers and passionate whisky makers hating each other while both loving the spirit, even if that love – as Yumi pointed out – is often expressed in slightly peculiar ways.
Positions on any number of issues have become entrenched: the growth of NAS, the very existence of blends, pricing, the alleged deterioration of whisky quality – with neither side being willing to engage in reasoned debate with the other.
Small gift: Scotchwhisky.com gave away miniature bottles at its official launch during the 2015 Whisky Show in London
Oh, you want my opinion on the matter? Ok, in order...
NAS: Necessary and an opportunity for creativity. I’ve no problem with it per se as long as the new NAS expressions are as good as, or preferably better than, those they are replacing. It’s about quality. It’s always about quality.
Pricing: Yes, there are prices at the top end which baffle me. But never forget there are fantastic whiskies at affordable levels at entry and the middle ground, where many prices have barely shifted for a decade. It’s all about the quality:price ratio.
Blends: Catch yourself on. The industry is built on blends and the greatest represent the height of whisky making craftsmanship. Quality, again.
Whiskies of the old days were better: I bet some people in the ’70s said the whiskies from the ’50s were greater than the ones they were drinking. There are extraordinary old drams, but there are also some dreadful ones. Equally, there are some extraordinary drams being made today, while there are others I’d rather pass on. Guess what? It’s about quality.
Is that fence-sitting? A cop-out? I’d prefer to call it nuanced. Whatever term you prefer, it is where a site such as this has to be. It’s occasionally an uncomfortable place to be, as we will be criticised from both sides (often at the same time), but our shoulders are broad.
It is important to try to present news and analysis in a fair and unbiased fashion. Our opinions (in From The Editors) are personal, but also hopefully cogently argued. I’m happy if you disagree – my colleagues disagree with me on some points – but what won’t happen is any watering down of what we believe to be the right things to discuss, write about and debate.
We love this spirit and want to celebrate it in all its forms. We want to talk to the people who make it, serve it, teach about it and drink it. We want to show how whisky is bigger than a product or a share price; a manifestation of a culture in all of its glorious complexities and contradictions. We want more people to learn how to enjoy it.
That does not mean, however, that we will avoid asking the tough questions – though some in the industry would prefer us not to – while, hopefully, always being cognisant of the wider picture, history and context. Not writing about some of the issues surrounding Scotch would be a derogation of our duty.
Having a blinkered view of the realities of the world is what brought about the Scotch whisky crash of the late ’70s and early ’80s, from which the industry has only recently fully recovered. This means that it is absurd to think everything in the world of whisky is perfect, just as it is absurd to suggest we get things right all the time on this site.
This might irritate those who would prefer to keep things in the world of PR fluff, but we will continue to write about all aspects of whisky in an even-handed manner. Sometimes that might place us in a different position to the industry. Sometimes we might be on the wrong side of whisky maniacs.
Should that happen, we’d expect there to be a grown up debate – there is always space here for considered (but not intemperate) opinion. Maybe in some small way we can get both sides to talk in an adult fashion.
We all believe in whisky. Sometimes we all need to remember that.
07 July 2016
The texts started coming in from my wife when I was in Japan. ‘We’re moving to Scotland… or Ireland.' My daughter, who I had always considered a paragon of innocence, was demonstrating a remarkable mastery of Anglo-Saxon demotic with her Instagram posts. Brexit was a reality. My Japanese friends expressed amazement.
The next day, the country’s press contained interviews with industrialists, all of whom were saying they would have to consider whether to close their UK operations and move them to Europe. (Irony alert no.1: included in this were Hitachi and Nissan, both based in Sunderland, which voted Leave).
For light relief, on the flight back, I watched The Revenant. A man mauled, betrayed, left for dead trying to find a path through a new, strange and hostile landscape. No matter where you looked, there was Brexit.
What will happen? The blithe suggestion that we simply become like Norway or Switzerland is unlikely. This would necessitate that Britain would still have to pay into the EU budget and accept freedom of movement. As the Brexit campaign was rooted in the quasi-racist allegation that immigrants were stealing ‘our jobs’, you can imagine what the political repercussions of such a move might be. (Irony alert no.2: Switzerland and Norway have higher per capita levels of immigrants than the rest of the EU).
Keep calm and sail on: meandering the rocky waters post-Brexit has turned into an ironic up-stream battleAll of the EU laws which have become UK laws will have to be unravelled. Treaties will need to be renegotiated. In a perceptive piece in the London Review of Books, Sionaidh Douglas-Scott wrote: ‘Parliament will have to vote in favour of all of this, which cannot be taken for granted. There will be huge gaps in the law, because much EU law is, in the legal jargon, directly effective, which means if the treaties no longer apply, the law no longer applies. So in many important areas…the UK will have to formulate its own replacements very quickly.’
Can Britain even start to disentangle EU law from the British legal system and simultaneously renegotiate every free trade deal? No. It’s accepted that we have insufficient negotiators. The people who told us not to listen to experts now need… experts (that’s irony alert no.3 folks).
As we have been part of the EU for 40 years, we didn’t need a huge number of specialists to work on trade deals. Meanwhile (irony alert no.4), the Government’s brilliant austerity programme has cut departments to the bone so there will be insufficient civil servants to administer all of the revised regulations (nice work Gideon).
What then might this mean for Scotch? The major firms came out for Remain, as did the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), which has been its diplomatic self since the result was announced. ‘Keep calm and sail on,’ is the message even if we are heading towards the rapids like Hugh Glass in The Revenant.
Remember, it is the EU that has helped to recently ease tariff levels and, in recent times, negotiate trade agreements for Scotch with South Korea, Vietnam and Colombia. There are ongoing negotiations with many others, including India and China. All of that will now be handed to the (non-existent) UK mediators and civil servants.
Nicola Sturgeon could be in a strong political position if she plays her post-Brexit cards right
As a result of Brexit, Scotch could be looking at higher tariffs being imposed across the EU and conceivably will have to renegotiate all others. As a piece in the FT from 22 April underlined, Britain will now have to negotiate with the EU to allow goods (such as Scotch) into Europe tariff-free, (aka the Turkish option). As the article pointed out, while Britain might want this option, there is no guarantee the rest of the EU will agree. It concluded: ‘Via the EU, Britain currently has favourable terms with at least 60 nations. These would have to be revisited.’ All of this could impact negatively on Scotch’s global presence.
What does it mean for Scotland as a whole? The only politician I can see who is emerging from the current chaos with a clear-headed strategy is Nicola Sturgeon, who has everything to gain if she handles the situation carefully. As Douglas-Scott points out: ‘In order for EU law to cease to apply domestically, provisions in the devolution statutes, such as the Scotland Act 1998, will have to be repealed to remove the requirement that these legislatures comply with EU law.
‘But the Sewel Convention states that devolved legislatures must give their consent to the repeal, and Nicola Sturgeon has made clear this will not be forthcoming.’
Could this be a bargaining chip for Sturgeon either to start negotiations to ensure Scotland (and conceivably Northern Ireland) stay in the EU, while England leaves (aka the reverse Greenland option), or to push for a second independence referendum? Perhaps. What is clear is that Brexit has further frayed the ties that bind together what is now laughably called the United Kingdom.
Scotland, it strikes me, by voting remain has already taken a huge stride down the road to full independence, while remaining within the EU. Should another referendum take place, expect the £4bn raised by the whisky industry to play a more prominent role. The ‘Scotland’s oil’ gambit has faltered. ’Scotland’s whisky’ however, has a tempting ring to it.
The Scotch whisky industry voted for Remain in both referendums. It won one. Now that momentum appears to be swinging behind Scottish independence within Europe, the industry needs to reconsider its options – and future.
Most commentators agree that all of this will take time, but that is the very thing we don’t have.
All the while, the roar of the rapids gets louder.
06 July 2016
‘To make a quality cocktail you need to start with quality ingredients,’ a bartender explained to me at Imbibe Live in London this week. ‘Of course,’ I agreed, ‘it goes without saying that a drink is only as good as the sum of its parts.’
Imbibe Live was not short of quality ingredients – or boozed-up bartenders taking advantage of free entry and over 100 exhibitor stands for that matter. The UK’s largest – and loudest – bar show showcases spirits of every ilk from around the world, from Japanese-inspired American whiskey to Spanish vermouth, sweet potato spiced rum and German vodka, as well as beer, wine, sake, juices, purees and barware. Quite simply, this was bartender heaven. An all-you-can-drink (responsibly, of course) buffet.
Though something was missing. One particular spirit didn’t seem worthy of a place among the cocktail ingredient elite, despite being arguably the most aspirational, high quality spirit in the world.
It was easier to inadvertently bump into a new brand of tonic water than it was to track down a Scotch whisky. Where had all the Scotch brands gone? Either they’d spent their annual budget on stands at consumer whisky shows, or British consumers have become so entrenched in Scotch snobbery that brands have given up promoting their place in cocktail culture. Is Scotch forever fated to be sipped neat from cut crystal tumblers while imbibers bemoan the lack of an age statement?
Auchentoshan's bartenders represent Scotch cocktails at Imbibe Live
Auchentoshan’s UK brand manager told me a focus group with UK consumers found they weren’t interested in malts at the moment (need I say the G word?). If that is the case, some serious work needs to be done – by brands and bars – to bring malts back into the minds of consumers, particularly when they’re ordering cocktails. They are the vessels that will encourage a new generation of whisky drinkers to the category.
Blends have become the defunct option when making cocktails, even though malts offer so much diversity of flavour, and are often so much more robust.
But, I hear you gasp, why waste a perfectly good single malt Scotch in a cocktail? We’ve established that to make a quality drink you need to start with quality ingredients, and be honest, you weren’t really going to drink that NAS anyway, were you? (Generally) youthful, flavoursome and affordable, NAS is as good a place to start as any, though the chaps at Whisky Blasphemy over in Philly are using top shelf expressions in their Old Fashioneds and jelly shots.
Made in Glasgow: Drygate stout and Auchentoshan malt shake up Imbibe Live
We’ve grown so obsessed with putting single malt on a pedestal that it’s become taboo to taint it with anything (just ask Dave Broom and Colin Dunn about the virtues of mixing Lagavulin 16 with Coke).
Of the three Scotch exhibitors with their own stand at Imbibe Live (we counted only an additional three brands hidden among the confines of distributors’ sprawling portfolios), only one proudly promoted whisky’s mixability in cocktails. Auchentoshan – which was showcasing its relatively new American Oak expression – went so far as to mix stout and IPA (from Drygate Brewery) with its single malt.
‘Welcome to the new malt order’ the bartenders’ T-shirts stated. If this is the new way of things, I thought, sipping on my Scotch ’n’ Stout cocktail, you can count me in.
29 June 2016
Pretending to be something you’re not hasn’t worked out well for anyone in the past. Some good examples include Top Gear’s new presenters, Chris Evans and Matt Le Blanc (who are they kidding trying to be anything other than a radio presenter and Joey Tribbiani?), Donald Trump as a serious politician, and Boris Johnson as likeable…
It’s concerning then when one of the world’s best-selling single malt Scotch whiskies – in fact one of the first malts to be exported from Scotland in 1963 – begins taking its marketing cues from American whiskey.
So much so that at first glance Glenfiddich’s new Rethink Whisky campaign for its 14-year-old Bourbon Barrel Reserve could easily be mistaken for an advert for Jack Daniel’s, what with its American bluegrass score and backyard BBQs.
The next generation of single malt drinkers need to be tempted away from Bourbon
‘Think America’s next big whisky is from Kentucky?’ a deep, gravely American voice asks. ‘Introducing the smooth sophistication of Scotland, with the sweet kick of Kentucky.’
The product itself is still Scotch whisky both legally and organoleptically – it’s matured in Speyside for 14 years in ex-Bourbon casks, before finishing in virgin American oak. However, the expression is described as ‘a true celebration of the American spirit, and the American whisky industry’s contribution to Scottish single malt.’ The truth is, if it were marketed any other way the comparison wouldn’t have arisen.
As a US exclusive, Glenfiddich has positioned its ‘rich, sweet and vibrant’ Bourbon Barrel Reserve to appeal to American whiskey drinkers. How some can still claim Scotch whisky’s Bourbonisation doesn’t exist I can’t fathom, when this is a clear example.
As I’ve previously stated on the subject, this is potentially dangerous territory. Scotch has a long-established flavour profile and reputation of its own; the second it starts masquerading as another popular style of whisky it loses that identity. Trends come and go, and in a centuries-old industry like Scotch whisky, a reliance on piggybacking onto other whiskies’ popularity could damage its reputation in the long term.
However, I’m sticking my neck out here by saying this campaign is something to be applauded. Considering the risks of Bourbonisation to an established brand, it’s courageous of Glenfiddich to break the boundaries of convention to attract a new generation of single malt drinkers.
Whisky as a whole has done a fine job of shrugging off its stereotype as an older man’s drink (the gains seen on Bourbon (5% according to Discus) and Irish whiskey (16%) in the US over the past few years are in some part testament to this), but single malt Scotch, as arguably the most aspirational whisky in the world, still has some way to go, despite growth of 7% to 1.46m nine-litre cases last year. Ironically, in the UK the brand is still peddling itself to the male elite, through the launch of a ‘gentleman’s whisky lounge’ at a Knightsbridge hotel.
Stateside, however – the world’s largest malt market by volume – Glenfiddich is using its Bourbon Barrel Reserve to tempt young, modern Bourbon and American whiskey drinkers to try malt. This segment, after all, is key to the future of the category.
Rethink whisky, the campaign says (really meaning ‘rethink single malt Scotch’), while visibly eschewing every convention associated with the product.
In the series of four themed digital shorts that are being posted across social media, Scotch is poured not daintily but sloppily into rocks glasses that don’t match; Aunt Evie pours more than a responsible two fingers worth; and a good slug is poured over ice and handed to a woman tending the BBQ. Could Scotch get more radical?
Next we’ll be seeing limited edition summer bottlings packaged in leather biker jackets and sporting hipster beards.
And why not?
22 June 2016
So there I was driving through Chichibu with Yumi Yoshikawa, as you do. We’d been round the distillery (she’s its brand ambassador) and were heading for what was to prove a wild and entertaining evening with the team at the town’s top whisky bar, Te Airigh [aka Terry’s Bar].
The discussion had drifted from mizunara to Craigellachie’s Highlander Inn (where she had worked), country life, the differences between Scotland and rural Japan, and then somehow landed on how there is a branch of whisky connoisseurs who seem to hate the spirit.
They’re the ones who, in chat rooms and at whisky shows, steer the conversation to how things were always better in the old days, who hate every new release especially if it doesn’t have an age statement on it, resent grain, lauter tuns, steam coils, and shell and tube condensers. Whisky would be better if it were made by noble Highland heroes in bothies hidden in the heather. Until that happens it will continue to be driven ever closer to the edge of a precipice by unscrupulous large distillers (there’s a scale of approval in this mindset which works in inverse proportion to the size of the producer – those who set themselves up as 21st century Highland Heroes in the Heather are safe from scorn).
I worry about them, and on occasion have mused why if whisky is so bad they don’t move to rum, or Cognac, or Armagnac. Not that I want them to go away – every bottle of Scotch sold is a good thing. I do wonder where the rage comes from, however.
I finished my rant. Then Yumi said: ‘Maybe people who care passionately about whisky express it in the same way as you do with a lover: you want them to be perfect, ideal, to fit your own idea of what they should be and reflect your love of them. Because they don’t always meet your expectations you complain about them, but it’s only because you love them.’
Love knows no boundaries when it comes to whisky
It made perfect sense. In any case, am I any different with my rants about the need for a wider range of yeasts and worries about direct fire being taken out of some distilleries leading to a loss of character? (The latter is top of mind as I’m currently in a country where direct fire has been reinstalled in distilleries because it gives character). I wasn’t giving up though.
‘Surely though, love can also be possessive and jealous? You know, “I want you to myself and no-one else can get you. I am the only one who can understand you.” It starts out as a love story and ends up with a bunny in a pot.’
Passion is one thing and is something we all have for this spirit, but passion can easily tip over into antagonism. The solution, surely, is tolerance. There is, as the Persuaders once sang, a thin line between love and hate and the latter is never surely the solution to any debate.
I’m with Yumi, but I’m keeping a weather eye on what’s cooking in the kitchen.
- Does ice ruin or improve single malt Scotch?
- Masters of Whisky reinstated by Diageo
- New bottler targets Scotch whisky collectors
- How do Sherry casks flavour whisky?
- New whisky tasting notes: Batch 67
- Arran releases second Smugglers’ Series malt
- Million-pound whisky leak prompts probe
- Cannabis: a threat to Scotch?
- An autumn harvest of whisky
- Booker’s resists Scotch Whisky Bible revival
From the editors 10 August 2015
An occasional series on whisky reminiscences begins with a tale of film, men and Scotch.
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