Meaningful innovation can still be realised within the boundaries of whisky regulations.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
22 November 2017
Sometimes I think it’s a debate as old as time itself. The idea that Scotch whisky’s strict regulations are somehow hindering innovation, tying distillers up in so many regulatory knots that they cannot give full rein to their creativity.
And then, the consequent argument that Scotch as a whole is missing out, overtaken by rival spirits categories that are free to explore every avenue of flavour creation to make a range of products that appeals to a broader demographic.
Many of the threads are familiar, but what piqued my interest this time was Miller’s use of the example of gin to support his pro-change argument.
He said: ‘Think of what’s happened with gin, where not everyone likes the classic, juniper-heavy style. A lot of new drinkers think they like gin, but what they really enjoy are flavoured gins.’
Legally speaking, this is murky territory. Here’s what the relevant EU regulation (110/2008) has to say:
(a) Gin is a juniper-flavoured spirit drink produced by flavouring organoleptically suitable ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin with juniper berries (Juniperus communis L.).
(b) The minimum alcoholic strength by volume of gin shall be 37.5%.
(c) Only natural and/or nature-identical flavouring substances as defined in Article 1(2)(b)(i) and (ii) of Directive 88/388/EEC and/or flavouring preparations as defined in Article 1(2)(c) of that Directive shall be used for the production of gin so that the taste is predominantly that of juniper.
Leading role: Juniper should be the predominant flavour of gin, according to EU law (Photo: Kyoto distillery)
Consider those last few words: ‘…so that the taste is predominantly that of juniper’. As legal phrases go, this is pretty woolly, since it rests on the ‘taste’ of a product, which has to be to some extent subjective. You might try a gin and detect the clear influence of juniper; I might not.
With this in mind, it’s hard to see how ‘flavoured’ gin (unless the flavour in question is juniper) can stand. Doesn’t it risk becoming just another offshoot of flavoured vodka?
The legal intricacies are only part of the point. However vague the rules, the ‘juniper clause’ is there for a reason: juniper defines gin, and its absence in flavour terms makes what’s in your G&T or Martini something else instead.
By this argument, Miller’s ‘new drinkers’ aren’t falling in love with (or even drinking) gin in the first place. Does this matter, as long as they’re buying a bottle with the word ‘gin’ on it? Yes, because sooner or later they’ll realise that they don’t really like gin at all, and will move onto the next fad. How can you be loyal to a spirit when you haven’t even been drinking it in the first place?
Just suppose for a moment that everyone abided by the strictest interpretation of the EU regulation and the juniper clause. Would this stifle creativity and innovation within gin, in the same way that critics say is happening with Scotch? Of course not.
Real thing: Ki Noh Bi gin shows that originality needn’t mean ripping up the rulebook
Here’s an example: Ki Noh Bi is a cask-matured spin-off from Japan’s Ki No Bi gin, distilled in Kyoto by the team, including Marcin Miller and David Croll, that has done so much to elevate Japanese whisky over the past decade or so.
On the surface, Ki Noh Bi checks just about every bandwagon-jumping box going: new wave botanicals (yuzu, green tea, bamboo leaves, etc) – tick; provenance (most botanicals locally sourced, spirit rice-based) – tick; cult Japanese whisky reference (it’s matured in ex-Karuizawa casks) – tick.
But never mind the zeitgeist, taste the gin. Distinctive but balanced, with a spiced smoothness undercut by fragrant yuzu, but still with juniper to the fore. It is different, but it’s still the same in all the important ways. It is, demonstrably, gin (and, as an aside, it’s one of the most delicious things I’ve tasted all year).
I have a few nagging doubts about the longevity of the current gin boom, simply because there are too few producers doing what Kyoto distillery has done with Ki Noh Bi, and too many throwing gin’s USP out with the juniper, consciously or not. The fact that the regulations are so sloppy only makes this easier.
The lessons for Scotch should be obvious. Far from being restrictive, well-written rules provide a mould for what defines their subject, but a mould that can be pulled, twisted and shaped in any number of ways.
In the case of Scotch, that means every stage in the process, from the selection of raw materials, through malting, milling, mashing, fermentation, distillation and maturation.
Far from complaining, true innovators should welcome the presence of a rulebook to lend their creativity structure and focus. And everyone should be careful of what they wish for.
15 November 2017
It could be the season, the shortening days, or the year’s fast-approaching end which has made the sense of time passing uppermost in my mind. It’s been pushed further forward by the tasting of a number of venerable drams: the G&M Glenlivet which spent a mere 70 years in cask, Loch Lomond’s 50 Year Old, and a Glen Grant distilled in 1949, the latter tasted on my recent trip to Belgium where it sat alongside other aged malts with equally rich stories to tell.
They are exotic, they are often waxy, they speak of rancio. You can, to some extent, analyse the aromas by process: the length of the ferment, the clarity of the wort, the gentleness of distillation, the relaxed nature of their maturation in specific types of cask, but that doesn’t give all of the answers. Chance has played as much of a role in this strange continuum.
Unique journey: Each cask will mature whisky in its own, unpredictable, way
I know that we are meant to think that distillers are canny enough to deliberately lay down casks which will only be broached in half a century’s time. In reality, there is rarely any such intent. More often than not, these are casks which have been forgotten (or half-forgotten) in the back of a warehouse. It was good fortune that they were left alone.
Chance also plays its part in the creation of flavours. The moment when you put a new spirit in a cask is when the second part of its story begins, and it is one which you have less control over. Yes, you can say that this type of wood, combined with this character of spirit left for this length of time should give us something within a flavour spectrum, but the key word for me is ‘should’.
You cannot guarantee what will happen inside the cask. You seal it you put it away and you pray. But without chance there is no creativity. Chance and time gives you the curve ball, the oddities, the element of unpredictability, the ‘flaws’ – but it’s the flaws which make whisky interesting. This is not a spirit which aims for purity, but one which wears time grubbily and proudly on its sleeve. It is scuffed by its passing, as well as being smoothed and refined. It speaks of how air and wood and atmosphere have worked together to impart specific flavours on this one cask. Its neighbour will be different. Chance.
Venerable drams: The line-up tasted by Dave Broom during a recent sojourn at Belgium’s Spirit in the Sky festival
When it works – and there’s no guarantee that it will – the whisky is shifted into a different realm. Any whisky tells a story. The tales these whiskies relate are more akin to legends. I try not to approach them with any more reverence than any other whisky. In fact, I try hard to be impressed. But then you get a dram which has something in its depths which puts you in a different space, one which is almost mythical. The aromas are blurred by age, glossy with the patina of time’s passing. They emerge as if from a different dimension, wreathed in smoke and swathed in velvet, rich with fruits and wax and polish and a mysterious otherness which remains, tantalisingly, beyond our grasp. Sipping them is to enter a hallucinatory realm as the time spent in cask suddenly reveals itself. It speaks of the seasons long gone, the coldness of winter, the funk of autumn soil, warm summers and the freshness, just there. There can be a sense of melancholy, even regret, or defiance against the dying of the light.
They force you to think what has happened in the time spent in the cask, of the lives which have started and those which have ended, of fears and loves, joy and sorrows. You weave your own memories in with them as you enter this dream state watching the endless cycle of life spinning past as the whisky has sat. Maybe some of the shards of the world’s story have been embedded within it. It’s hard to tell. They are less spirits, more temporal missiles. It’s a privilege to try them. We should all try, because it is part of what makes this spirit so special.
07 November 2017
A friend of mine loves hot sauce so much he’ll drink it out of the bottle. Seriously. His worrying love for spice moved him to establish a hot sauce subscription service, delivering carefully selected products to other insane heat-seekers. Inevitably, I now have a collection of scary-sounding, unopened bottles at the back of my kitchen cupboards named ‘Ass Reaper’, ‘Rectum Ripper’ and ‘Annihilation’. All selected for their complex flavour rather than their crude names, of course.
Of the hottest varieties a handful proudly state the sauce’s spiciness in Scoville heat units (SHU), a measurement of capsaicin concentration. The higher the number, the spicier the sauce. The SHU varies due to the types of chilli used, how said chillis have been prepared, how much is contained in each bottle and the amount of dilution.
In many ways, peat is the chilli of whisky. It’s polarising, some can only handle it in small quantities, and brands often brag about being ‘the peatiest’, with bold names to match. It’s become a contest of sorts: the higher the ppm, the more street cred earned among peatheads. But there is one striking difference between whisky and hot sauce: the latter gives its capsicum measurement as a reading of the liquid itself, not of the base ingredient.
Scoville scares: Chilli extracts will communicate the capsaicin content of the liquid, rather than the pepper (Photo: Grim Reaper Foods)
Imagine if hot sauce manufacturers adopted whisky’s approach, and only stated the SHU of the original chilli pepper used to make the sauce. Very little of that pepper may actually be in the bottle, resulting in a mild-tasting product that hardly reflects the impressive SHU on the label. Said product would be misleading to consumers, no? So why do we continue to perpetuate the practice in Scotch?
As we’ve covered many times before on Scotchwhisky.com, a whisky’s ppm figure relates to the degree to which the barley is peated. Phenols that attach themselves to the barley grain during malting are lost throughout the rest of the whisky production process – in the mash tun, the washback, the still and during maturation. Barley that’s peated to, say, 40ppm will simply not appear in your glass at home at that level.
Up until this week, anCnoc was one of only a couple of Scotch brands stating its ppm as a reading of the phenols in the bottled whisky itself, rather than the barley. News this week, then, that the brand had abandoned its laudable stance was nothing short of disappointing, particularly as the change was made to ‘fall in line with industry standards’.
A spokesperson told us: ‘We were one of the only brands to communicate the ppm of the whisky as opposed to the barley, yet the consumer understands the industry standard better, which is the ppm of the barley.’ The situation reminds me of that classic parental one-liner, put best by Mike’s dad in the first episode of Stranger Things 2: ‘If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?’
AnCnoc Peatheart: The single malt brand has changed its ppm stance to ‘fall in line’ with industry standards
In ‘falling in line’, anCnoc has missed a massive opportunity to educate consumers about how peated whisky gains its smoky flavour; an extremely important aspect to communicate when peated single malts are growing in popularity among whisky fans, and bartenders are increasingly requesting peated malts behind the bar.
At the same time, the response from our readers to peat-related articles on Scotchwhisky.com lately has demonstrated an alarming lack of knowledge of phenols and smoke, and precisely what that ppm figure refers to. Continuing down a path of miseducation will only be more difficult to claw back from, as transparency becomes a major concern among consumers. There is a massive opportunity here for a brand to step up and become the real champion of peat education. To lead the way.
How best to explain to the uninitiated what it all means? Our Whisky Professor has suggested brands lose the ppm figure altogether, describing whiskies instead as light-, medium- or heavily-peated – just like the three chilli peppers used to denote spice. Another option would be to print both the reading of the barley and the liquid on the label (in the spirit of transparency, right?). Of course our perception of ‘smokiness’ is subjective, but some form of signpost – whether a figure or relative marker – will only aid whisky drinkers in their navigation of peated Scotch.
Whatever the approach, the Scotch industry could learn a thing or two from the hot sauce guys. But please, just leave the ‘ass ripping’ references to them.
01 November 2017
‘It's a bit like a washing machine,’ says Lasse Vesterby, opening the lid of the long tank. Right enough, inside there’s a slowly rotating drum with holes in it surrounded by a frothy scum. ‘Actually, we got the idea because in the summer me and my brothers used to hunt mink and…’ he gestures ripping the skin off an animal, ‘… this works a bit like a mink-skinning machine as well.’ None of this could be described as the standard opening of a distillery tour. Well, not for me anyway.
The mink-skinning/washing machine hybrid at Stauning on Denmark’s west coast was the solution to the first problem any distiller faces when trying to work with rye, namely its ability to gelatinise into something akin to wallpaper paste in the mashtun. This was a rather elegant way around that problem and given the quality of the whisky which has resulted, a successful one as well.
Engineering change: Distilleries like Denmark’s Stauning are altering our perception of what’s ‘normal’
I should have been used to the improvisatory aspect of Nordic distilling by then. The day before, Lars Williams had wandered into a clutter of tanks vats, pipes and probes and returned, holding the lid of a pressure cooker with various wires dangling from it. ‘I rigged this up and made it into a vacuum still,’ he says, with a surprising insouciance. ‘You did retreat when you used it for the first time?’ said Nick Strangeway, who was with me on the visit. ‘No, if it went wrong it would’ve imploded,’ Lars pointed out. ‘Actually, I suppose I did step back a little.’ Welcome to the world of empirical distilling, or rather Copenhagen’s Empirical Spirits, of which Lars is the co-founder.
Refshaleøen, on the edgelands of Copenhagen’s docks where Empirical is located, looks like the setting of some Nordic Noir series. It is in fact relatively close to the original Noma restaurant where among many other things, Lars ran the test kitchen.
He jumped ship this year to take his fascination for fermentation to the next step – making spirits – or to be more precise asking, ‘what is distillation?’ and ‘what is a spirit?’. He and the team aren’t making shochu, whisky, gin, or fruit spirits, but liquids which occupy a liminal space between all of those.
Outside the box: Lars Williams demonstrates how Empirical’s pressure cooker operates. Right: the site’s koji sauna
The base is made from pearl barley that’s inoculated with koji. Needing more volume Lars has modified a giant butter churn to rotate and steep the barley. ‘We’re just hoping it doesn’t roll off when we get it going,’ he says. I notice that his desk is clear of the potential disaster, sitting on top of the wood-lined former shipping container which is used as the koji ‘sauna’.
If it sounds ramshackle, it’s not. There’s hardcore science behind all of this questioning and adaptation (and creation) of distillation equipment. They’re asking why a spirit has to be strong, why a base spirit has to be neutral, whether you can focus on precise flavours by taking micro cuts from a spirit run and retain the portions you want; whether a distilled kombucha spirit can be used to give an acidic intensity to a fruit spirit. It’s more lab than distillery and as the answers come it’s one which will grow in importance.
The origin story of Stauning is more… earthy. A group of nine friends deciding to make whisky because, well, they liked whisky. Lasse and his brothers came from a family of butchers and so set up Stauning Mark 1 in the old abattoir. As you do. The cold store was used for floor malting, the barley was peated on a barbecue grill in the smokehouse, the grist was minced in a meat grinder, fermentation was in an old pickling vat, distilling took place in two small Portuguese pots fired with wood. And you know what? It worked. They’re engineers, you see. When a challenge arose they found a way around it.
In November 2007 they expanded to an old farm. Therein the barley is malted in two long lanes turned by gently rotating flails which they designed, mashed in the mink-skinning/washing machine combo, fermented in open-top washbacks and distilled in pots of the same shape as the originals, just larger – and still direct fired.
There’s unpeated and peated expressions (using local peat), a remarkable heather-smoked one, and another that’s been aged on an ocean-going schooner. American oak is the normal cask type, but there’s a nod to the local with the use of cherry wine casks for finishing.
Express lane: Stauning’s barley is malted in two long lanes
Now with a thanks to seed money from Diageo's Distil Ventures a new distillery is taking shape, but the approach and equipment will remain the same, just at a larger scale – 900,000lpa larger in fact, coming from 24 pots of the same shape, and still direct fired.
It’s all been a product of improvisation and empirical testing, where flavour was more important than efficiency.
Distillation has always been like this: a constant process of trial and error, and finding solutions. Don’t think for a moment that whisky’s story is a line of gentle improvement. It’s filled with blind alleys and failures, a story of bodging and inspiration, and happy accidents. It’s a fusion of the minds of alchemists, the women who ran the stills in grand houses and farmers making do with what they had. Style emerges from this glorious mess.
What is happening at Stauning and Empirical and numerous other new distilleries is a continuation of this ‘what if?’ impulse which results in new flavours and a progression of spirits’ saga. There is no guidebook, no path that has to be slavishly followed. The element of chance, and inspired improvisation is a thread which has always linked all great spirits.
25 October 2017
He was nervous when the cork came out. Nervous in fact that the cork wouldn’t come out or would crumble. After all this was one of the last bottles. Doubly nervous because who can really tell what the contents of an old bottle will be like? Will it be clean or smell like boiled cabbage on a compost heap? Tasting the remnants of a past time will always be educational, but it’s not always necessarily pleasant.
The bottle in question was ‘Trade Mark X’, brewer James Eadie’s house whisky.
It was first blended in 1854, trademarked in 1877 and sold in Eadie’s 300-strong estate in the Midlands until 1944. This would have been the whisky quaffed by generations of workers on their way home with their wage packets. Who knows what tales were told over glasses in those pubs, or what trouble its ingestion might have caused when the men eventually got back to their houses. But I digress. This was a working man’s tipple now being uncorked in the offices of a whisky investment fund. How strange life is.
Revisiting the past: A bottle of James Eadie’s Trade Mark X tastes not how Broom would expect
The man with the slightly shaky hand was Rupert Patrick, the great-great-grandson of James Eadie. The bottle came from one of the last batches and probably was blended at the start of the Second World War.
Alongside Rupert was Norman Mathison, former master blender at Mackinlays, Tom Bruce-Gardyne of this and many other parishes, and myself. I think we were all nervous.
It was poured. It was dark. It was smoky, really smoky. It was richly Sherried, filled with fruitcake notes. It was balanced and generous and complex. It was mature and seemed malt heavy. It was everything we didn’t expect it to be. The images of the smoke filled pubs of the Midlands, and men belting back whisky for effect suddenly faded.
We think we know what the old days were like, but do we really? As I mentioned in the last rant, we can learn from the past but can never repeat it. It’s not that we just cannot go back, but that we don’t really know what ‘then’ was. Memory is fickle. Summers were always sunny, it always snowed at Christmas, and Partick Thistle won more games than they lost. How devastating it is to find out all of that might not have been true.
Our scent memory is remarkable. We all have a remarkable ability to retain every aroma we have encountered and file it away for future reference, pulling it out when stimulated by the same scent decades later. Smell, we know, is linked to memory, but is memory accurate?
I was thinking about this when we went on a family outing to see Blade Runner 2049. Like the first film, the plot hinges on the nature of memory and consciousness. Replicants have memories implanted, providing them with a backstory, but they are false. It’s this existential crisis which sits at the heart of the film.
Blade Runner: Replicants’ memories are false, but how reliable are our own?
In some ways it’s replicated (pardon the pun) when we smell a whisky. Is that aroma really the same one as in our granny’s house when we were a child? Does it matter if it isn’t? After all, we cannot ever go back to our granny’s house on the day when we encountered that aroma. What we are seeing in our minds is a composite of the aromas in the glass, a hallucination, a dream of place and people, and faces and experiences.
It’s not our granny’s house but a memory of what it might have been like with other details thrown in. We are creating a memory out of everything within the aromas rising from the glass. The complex picture is created by our minds out of a multiplicity of memories which are rearranged in a new context. When tasting we have to decode them.
That is what was happening with Rupert’s whisky. In addition, I was having to deal with a different sort of implanted memory, that one gleaned from books, conversations, and theories about what a pub whisky from the early 20th century would have tasted like.
It had to be light, even though Sherry casks would have been more prevalent, it would have had a young age profile to hit a price point, and used lots of grain; it would be smokier than the blends of today but not heavily peaty because it wasn’t what the ‘English’ palate demanded. The truth about the whisky confounded everything which had been implanted in our minds.
A reality check is always good, but what is real? I think I need a sit down.
17 October 2017
Hearts of stone, or the belief – as spouted on anti-social media – that nothing Diageo ever does can be praised (Ian Macleod is naturally exempt from this). Damned for closing them, damned for not reopening them, damned when they do.
Those embittered naysayers aside, the news has, rightly, been welcomed. It means jobs, and it means a return of whiskies which were either iconic or became elevated to that status.
What, then, does this say about the health of Scotch in a week when the Scotch Whisky Association claimed that tax hikes had directly led to a sales loss of 1m bottles in the UK? Can the market cope with three more distilleries being added to an already rapidly expanding estate?
The revival of the three sites, I believe, demonstrates the continuing recalibration of an industry whose firms are not all wholly reliant on providing fillings for blends. You can now be a dedicated single malt producer.
This will be a slow readjustment – the volume difference between the two categories is still huge – but, although blends will remain the foundation, there are now clear indications that single malt should be seen as a category operating to its own rules.
Not needed: Port Ellen closed because its spirit wasn’t required for blends
Diageo didn’t decide to reopen its pair because it needed liquid, but because there is a perceived demand for single malt – and single malt of a specific style. It is noticeable that, while the firm has revived two lost plants, it hasn’t gone ahead with the doubling of capacity at Mortlach and Teaninich. It’s optimistic, but cautiously so.
These will be small-scale, profitable units appealing to a changing market and benefiting from an already established reputation. It makes perfect strategic sense, as well as making folk feel all fuzzy and warm.
Rosebank, too, is a canny move from an extremely canny firm which quietly gets on with the job. Ian Macleod doesn’t spend money unless it knows there is a return, and also knows that whisky is about playing the long game.
Both firms have sufficiently long memories to remember why the stills closed in the first place, although the specific reasons might have been slightly different: Brora only reopened the first time because of short-term requirements; Rosebank closed because of effluent issues and location (if it hadn’t been next to a then disused canal, it would have been a Classic Malt); Port Ellen was surplus to requirements when there was a glut of smoky whisky; all fell silent because of the stock surplus of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Canny move: Leonard Russell and Ian Macleod are playing a long game with Rosebank
Distilleries closed at that time because their makes weren’t required for blends and because there wasn’t a single malt market to speak of. Size, style, quality, location – all were taken into consideration when the cull took place.
Now, with a new single malt category, what might we expect in terms of style from the trio? We’ve heard that the set-up in each distillery will be the same in terms of equipment, but do you honestly think either firm won’t also apply the learnings from the intervening years?
Although some may wish it, I don’t see these reopenings creating heritage sites manned by folk in period costume using the same barley type, yeast strains and equipment as in the ‘Good Old Days’ to make a spirit which will then be filled into the same (often exhausted) wood.
These aren’t Sleeping Beauty distilleries, waiting for the kiss of Princes Ivan (Menezes) and Lenny (Russell) to reawaken them so they can continue as they were. You can learn from the positives (and, more importantly, the mistakes) of the past, but you can’t go back (ok, the Cabrach distillery might just do that, which would make it academically fascinating, but hardly a commercial venture in the way that Diageo and Ian Macleod envisage their revived three).
What, then, will the rebooted distilleries be facing when their mature whisky appears on the market in a decade or more’s time? Scotch has got better at reading the cyclical nature of the market, but any aged spirit category is always a hostage to fortune.
Brora’s back: But how will the ‘new’ spirit produced differ from the past?
Having old heads who have seen the worst of times in charge is essential. It is not just about having a product to sell, it is being able to anticipate the needs of the market in five, 10, 15 years’ time.
The trio will emerge with mature stock at (roughly) the same time as another 10 or 12 new distilleries. In recent weeks I’ve been round five of them. All are well set-up. All will make excellent whisky. All (bar one) are 100% single malt-oriented.
The question which needs to be asked now is: how do they cut through against 100 other established malt distilleries, plus their contemporaries? Where’s the point of difference?
The rebooted trio have the advantage of being able to draw on an already established reputation. They, I feel, are in a secure place. The rest? There are many options open to new distillers, but the smartest ones better have started wargaming exercises now. The ones who take the long-term view should prosper.
The single malt category is new. We don’t know how the market will change in the next decade. Will we really see Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet and Macallan all sell in excess of 2m cases a year – and, in Macallan’s case, at a price premium?
I’d be more worried about not getting those sums right than about the relatively small amount of spirit coming from the rebooted trio. Three cheers for them, but wise heads are required if the faith that all of the industry has in the projected single malt boom is to be repaid.
11 October 2017
‘There's a bookmark. Read it and bring it with you.’ Such were the instructions. I took it to mean: ‘Open at the bookmarked page because you’ll read from it later on.’ The ‘it’ in question was a volume of WB Yeats’ Collected Poems, and my bookmark lay between pages 116 and 117.
This gave me a choice of four poems. Which one was intended for the recitation? He wishes his Beloved were Dead didn’t seem that likely, neither did He thinks of his Past Greatness…, though it does start: ‘I have drunk ale from the country of the young.’
It might have been The Fiddler of Dooney, which is considerably more upbeat, but I had a hunch that the lines I was apparently expected to quote from were contained in He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, which ends as follows:
‘But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’
That sounded more like it.
Press trips are like this sometimes. You’re given tasks which fit in with the theme of the event and break the ice. Better than just standing around awkwardly drinking (free) whisky. Hmm. Still, we hacks are probably regarded as being easily bored, and so the event organisers are always thinking up new scenarios which will pique our jaded interests. Spoiled? You bet.
Tread softly: Dreams are very important in whisky-making, says Dave Broom
A chance to taste the full range of Midleton Very Rare (MVR) annual releases would have been sufficient to get me to Cork – and Midleton owner Irish Distillers is noted for always throwing a brilliant bash. The addition of Yeats wasn’t needed, but if it would help the party along I’d be more than happy to cough out a stanza.
With time on my hands, I began to wonder what the subtext of the lines might be. Was it a polite request not to be too harsh on the works of master distillers Barry Crockett and Brian Nation? To go easy on the old whiskies; maybe to take time to think about the creative process, and the thought and care which went into their making? Was this a subtle and polite attempt to melt the cold heart of a cynical critic?
Dreams seemed an appropriate way to talk about the genesis of MVR, which with the benefit of hindsight can be seen as the starting point of Irish whiskey’s reawakening – or, to be more precise, our realisation of it.
It was the whiskey which showed that Ireland could play in the same lofty field as top-end Scotch. It showed what was possible, demonstrated what had been going on behind the gates at New Midleton, illustrated the faith placed in the distillers and blenders by the directors.
The dream was that it could recalibrate people’s thinking of Irish whiskey, show that the country was not ‘an irrelevance’ (in the words of DCL’s William Ross) or a footnote; that it wasn’t a demonstration of the potential hubris which exists within any industry whose success is predicated on the quirks of fashion, and the influence of politics.
Starting point: The creation of Midleton Very Rare began to reawaken Irish whiskey
Any whisky worth its salt starts as a dream. I’d arrived in Midleton fresh (well… less than fresh, to be honest) from three days at The Whisky Show, where I’d talked and listened to whisky people speaking of their visions: the dream of Dan Szor at Cotswolds, those of David Fitt at English Whisky Co; the dreams of the new team at Loch Lomond; while, in masterclasses, those of Shinji Fukuyo and Bill Lumsden were also revealed.
Fukuyo led us halfway into the world of geekdom, with charts of the chemical compounds which arise in maturation, before saying, with a grin: ‘But we don’t bother with all of that. Whisky-making is an art.’
Lumsden’s idea was to discover what might happen if control could be applied to wood selection, and what difference different species might bring to Scotch. The successful manifestation of both dreams hasn’t just given us standalone whiskies, but has benefited both firms’ ranges, in the same way that MVR has shown the breadth of possibilities within Irish whiskey.
That must be what they hoped I took from the poem. Whisky as dream, not as the product of marketing or focus groups, or chemistry, but the product of imagination, a creative weaving together of flavour, texture and aroma.
Of course, I’d misunderstood. The bookmark was the slip of card with my name on it which told me I’d be in Brian Nation’s group for the tasting. There was no reading, no need for the volume in my hand. No-one else had even brought theirs. I slipped it in my pocket. Hey, it’s always good to have some Yeats around. You never know when he’ll come in handy. He already had.
Tread lightly when we taste. Think of the people behind every whisky, and their dreams.
04 October 2017
‘I have a couple dozen experiments going on at any one time,’ shrugs John Glaser, as a table of enthralled whisky enthusiasts look on, ears bent forwards, eyes barely blinking. Compass Box’s whisky maker is known for challenging the establishment, seeing how far he can push the regulations – while staying within them – and exploring the whisky landscape to its furthest echelons. Right now, at The Whisky Show at London’s Old Billingsgate, his latest invention has an entire room dazed in wonderment and fixed on a bottle he’s had stashed in an old plastic supermarket Bag for Life.
‘Oh, this is just something I’ve been working on for a few years,’ he says, pulling out the bottle which is labelled simply, but ominously, as ‘Project Overlord’. It sounds like a special bottling on order for Darth Vader, though I hear he’s a bigger fan of gin, particularly Sip-Sith.
In the glass it’s like freshly-pressed apple juice, all bitter skin and sour pulp, a fresh fruity sweetness with a softly spiced backbone – think golden crumble topping laced with a pinch of cinnamon and clove. It’s remarkable; there’s no Scotch on earth with such an intense apple character as this. I suspect other spirits at play here.
‘History buffs will understand what this is,’ Glaser beams. Overlord is a reference to Operation Overlord, the codename for the Battle of Normandy that launched with the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944. D-Day. The French region is also renowned for its apple orchards, and in more modern times, calvados producer Distillerie Dupont.
Project Overlord: John Glaser introduces an apple-forward Scotch-calvados blend
Project Overlord then is a blend of 50% Dupont calvados with Scotch matured in Spice Tree casks, and Sherried malt whisky from Benrinnes. It’s an absolute delight, but likely will never be a product released onto shelf. ‘There’s never really much demand for this kind of thing,’ Glaser shrugs. ‘It’s just something I’ve been tinkering with in my office.’ Shame. This would make a killer Highball or Hot Toddy.
I’ve been listening so intently that I almost forget to sound the horn that signals the end of the session. This is Whisky Speed Dating, a fast-paced event featuring five whisky experts and the ‘innovative, interesting’ bottles they were requested to bring. Held on the show’s trade day, each legend has 10 minutes at a table to talk about their bottle, and answer any questions guests might have before moving on to the next cluster of eager faces. It’s a fun, intimate hour of discovery and learning, and not just for the guests. I’m scribbling away in my notebook so fast I’m forgetting my hosting duties.
Each legend has brought something unique. Ashok Chokalingam from India’s Amrut distillery whips out a bottle of Naarangi (meaning orange in Hindi), a three-year-old single malt given a second maturation in orange-infused Sherry casks for a further three years. The result is an intense, Sherried whisky with deep sweet orange notes. Under EU regulations, adding anything to whisky aside from caramel colour and water disqualifies it from being a whisky. However Amrut has devised an ingenious way to imbue rich orange notes into its malt without angering the suits in Brussels.
Meanwhile, Roger Melander, distillery manager and blender for Sweden’s Box distillery, is showing off the first expression in its new Quercus range, a series of single malts aged in different species of oak. This first edition, Robur, is matured for around four years in ex-Bourbon barrels, and given an intense flash-finish in virgin 40-litre Swedish robur oak casks for seven months. Robur is a species common to much of Europe, particularly in Burgundy and Limousin where it’s used by the wine and Cognac industries. It’s naturally high in tannins and wood spice, though curiously the Swedish variety, which grows as far north as Stockholm, imparts more clove characteristics than its southern cousins.
Box Quercus I Robur is shipping around the world right now, and will be followed next year by further expressions finished in American alba (white oak) and Hungarian petraea. With such pronounced differences between French, Hungarian and Swedish oak, and indeed varieties too, could we soon see a cask’s provenance further refined beyond the traditional catch-all of American or European oak?
Oak exploration: Could Box distillery's work with various oak species influence the global whisky industry?
We’re beginning to nerd out now. Conversations turn to wood treatment, specifically the temperature the late Dr Jim Swan specified oak be toasted to in his proprietary STR process (between 140-180C, in case you’re wondering). Ian Chang, Kavalan’s master blender, explains how important the process is to the Taiwan distillery’s signature style. Meanwhile, Diageo ambassador Colin Dunn reveals why Golden Promise is no longer widely utilised as a barley variety by Scotch distillers (it’s prone to disease), and why a fantastically rich and chewy 38-year-old Linkwood is still regarded by blenders as ‘not ready’. It will likely be blended away into Johnnie Walker Blue Label in a few years time, much to the table’s dismay. ‘Unfortunately my company doesn’t bottle single casks,’ Dunn informs his dates.
Whisky festivals may be a microcosm for the general whisky landscape, but this one room represents a snapshot of what the future holds in terms of whisky innovation and diversity. These are just a handful of the producers working within or outwith the regulations to discover new ways to enhance whisky’s natural flavour. Nothing is forced here; the quality of the liquid is testament to the skill and creativity of these distillers and blenders.
Orange whisky: Amrut Naraangi uses a unique method of imbueing flavour into whisky without added ingredients
Speed Dating over, the whisky experts gather – unprompted – to sample each other’s bottles, speaking in excited tones about methods used, swapping ideas and nodding with passionate understanding. Around 30 years ago these guys wouldn’t have been allowed to talk to each other, their company’s processes and blenders’ skills kept strictly secret from the competition. Perhaps in a way, it’s this freedom to discuss and share ideas that have helped spur on the wave of innovation in whisky, not just in Scotland but also, to a greater extent, around the world.
Back on the exhibition floor are even further examples of innovation: Nikka’s Coffey Malt, Glenfiddich Winter Storm, a malt finished in Canadian icewine casks, the first English rye whisky, Norfolk Malt ‘N’ Rye (35% rye, 65% barley mash). Compass Box’s Glaser may be juggling several experiments at once, but if every forward-thinking producer across the world does the same, and continues to share knowledge, the next generation of whisky drinkers have a lot to be excited about.
27 September 2017
It made a strange gurgling sound, but distiller Nick Franchino continued to palpitate the tube more gently than you would expect a former cage fighter to be able to. The liquid began to spurt (there is no other word, I’m afraid) along the plastic and into the bottle being held by Dan Szor.
The first splashes of the first legal bottle of Cotswolds whisky. Three years and a day after it was laid down. The fact that it was a public occasion might be not that surprising. That it was happening at Whisky Live in Paris (23-24 September), however, did give things a mildly surreal turn, but whisky is nothing if not a global phenomenon.
Glasses were passed around, followed by a slight silence as people nosed. That Man from Del Monte moment. There was no fear needed. This is a great whisky. I could tell that everything was going to be fine when I first tried Cotswolds at the same show – in fact, weirdly, on exactly the same spot – two years previously.
Now it was rounded and not at all prickly, the fruits had a light hint of honeyed ripeness and – despite Szor’s fears that the short time in the small cask they had brought across had taken effect – not wood-dominated. Franchino’s team had done their work well.
New liquid: Szor (left) and Franchino crack a cask to fill one of the first bottles of Cotswolds whisky
It had also proved Szor’s hunch right. One morning he woke up, disillusioned with life (or as disillusioned as you can get when you are in the Cotswolds), thinking about going back to work in London and had a ‘why am I doing this?’ moment.
We all have them. Not all of us then decide to build a distillery, but there again not all of us are at that point looking out at 600 acres of barley waving in a gentle breeze and thinking: ‘Why hasn’t anyone ever made whisky here?’
Now the distillery makes (excellent) gin, with a new genever style recently added, there’s absinthe and apple brandy ‘Cotswoldados’, but whisky is the main business. They also do things their own way – the staff are warned of crucial timings in production by various egg timers scattered about the place – part of its ‘why not?’ charm.
Take barley. It’s all local – which makes sense – and has been Odyssey, but the trials with the almost-forgotten Plumage Archer variety show great promise. It’s all malted close by in Warminster, aged in Jim Swan’s patented STR (shaved toasted recharred) ex-wine casks, first-fill ex-Bourbon, ex-Sherry and in time Calvados and, well, who knows what?
All of that continues another of these themes that seem to weave their way into the loom of whisky these days – that of place. As whisky evolves, so the importance of the local will grow. That could mean ingredients, or wood, or a deeper understanding of roots.
If it is real, it becomes a tangible asset. Location becomes not just a selling-point (and 21st-century whisky makers have to be hard-nosed marketeers, as well as dreamers), but a foundation which helps drive style and quality.
It’s one reason why Szor refuses to say that he is making ‘English whisky’. ‘There is no such thing,’ he argues. ‘We’re making Cotswolds whisky. We are a single distillery. The TOAD (The Oxford Artisan Distillery) is nearby and they are doing things completely differently to us. How can you say we both make the same thing?’
Whisky in England is a world of possibilities. By coincidence, that night I was chatting with Dhavall Ghandi, whisky maker at Lakes distillery, and the same topic came up. He too is taking his own path, one that if it pays off opens up new possibilities in the interface between science and art.
Cocktail focus: Whisky shows are moving beyond traditional drams to delight curious visitors
The fact that these conversations were taking place at a show which used to be pretty much the sole preserve of Scotch shows how far we have come in a short period.
In the early days you’d stroll past the rum room and there would be the Parisian equivalent of tumbleweed blowing through. Now it’s dramatically different. There’s as great a selection of Scotch as ever, but there’re as many whiskies of the world – and every stand was equally busy.
I got happily lost in the rum’s gentle embrace, particularly a Marsala cask from Jamaica’s Worthy Park which had the fortified wine’s decadent dark fruits in perfect balance with the punchy Jamaican pot. Strange how more Sherry casks seem to be appearing in rum, just as Scotch seems to be wholeheartedly embracing first-fill Bourbon.
Should Scotch be scared? No. It just needs to be aware and not arrogant in its belief that size means guaranteed success (for it) and failure (for everyone else). It should also be aware that today’s consumer – you guys – might love whisky, but they too are looking beyond Scotch and to other spirits.
After a day’s sipping and spitting it was time for an aperitivo, specifically a Nardini Mezzomezzo – the superb bottled blend of its Rosso and Rabarbaro. But only after a taste of its newly reformulated aged grappas: a softly spicy, cherry-accented seven-year-old, and a 15-year-old which, though dry on the nose, exploded in the mouth with a perfumed, fruity, cigar-tinged elegance. ‘One for whisky lovers,’ said the firm’s ambassador Sharla Ault with a grin. Point taken.
20 September 2017
It was a first, I’ll give you that. The ferry docked, some cars bumped up the slipway, followed by some bemused looking tourists, constantly looking over their shoulders. Then the sound of the pipes started.
‘Does this happen every Saturday?’ an American asked me. I was tempted to say, ‘yes, it’s a Raasay tradition that the Skye pipe band marches in step off the ferry to be greeted by the entire population of the island’, but I thought it might be taken as being sarcastic. Honesty is often the best policy. ‘No, it’s a special day,’ I told him. ‘The island’s distillery is being opened. Come along.’
Hebridean welcome: Isle of Raasay distillery opened to the sound of the Skye pipe band (Photo: Scott Mooney)
Any new distillery deserves a celebration. This was different, though, because other than some moonshining taking place in the distant past, Raasay has never had a legal still. The tide of fate which has swept past its shores has carried off its people and brought in the malign influence of absentee landlords and get-rich-quick firms. Finally, it seemed the wind had changed and the current was now pulling this small, friendly, fascinating island into the renaissance of Hebridean whisky making.
Even the weather was behaving. The clouds had gathered late the night, drenching the land. On Skye, the Cuillin ridge was shrouded. As the pipe band arrived, the last spots fell and the skies began to clear. By the time the ribbon had been cut and the islanders, guests, (and still bemused tourists) had walked through the shiny new plant, sipped their Champagne and whisky, the sun was blazing off the gold-cladded entrance.
It was hard not to see it as some sort of blessing, as an affirmation of the people who had stayed on through Raasay’s tribulations and believed in a better life. For, despite all of the setbacks, there is a thread of resilience about the folk living here. They believe in the place and what it could be. Not just making do, but making better.
This distillery, for all its beauty, isn’t there for cosmetic reasons. It is a business, but one which is rooted at the centre of island life. As the afternoon melted into night and then the wee hours, the chat was of how whisky making gave a new focal point for the island.
Sense of place: Raasay’s stillhouse looks out onto the Isle of Skye
Those of us who live outwith a distilling community only see the end result of the work. As a result, we obsess and delight in the finished product and don’t give a second thought to how a distillery interacts with its locality.
Look at it from that perspective and the distillery ceases to be a place where spirit is made, or a note on a balance sheet, and becomes the site which distils the spirit of the place. That’s an important, and significant, difference. Any distillery can have this, but Raasay brought home how the links between whisky and community run deep, of how its existence will ripple out across the island.
The distillery will bring in tourists; in turn they will need to be fed and (well) watered. Some will want to stay and holiday there. That will necessitate a new hospitality infrastructure, and business opportunities. The distillery will, if all goes to plan, also help farmers. Trials are underway with different barley varieties and Bere.
It won’t be plain sailing (if I can extend these watery metaphors further). Isle of Raasay is only one of any other new plants starting up across Scotland and there are robust challenges to be faced. It needs to work out its character, what is its point of difference, how it can cut through in what is a cluttered market, but they are going in with eyes open.
The conversations slow, the ceilidh band packs up, the last Gaelic song is sung in tight harmony, the tears of happiness dry on the cheeks as the sun rises again, lighting up the building, igniting a little flame in the hearts of all who were there. Now the real work starts.
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