As the 34th vintage is launched, we assess the evolution of the ‘pinnacle of Irish whiskey’.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
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.
13 September 2017
Late night, slick pavements, walking past bags in doorways and orange peel littering the gutter. The scene shifts to peeling cucumber and making melon balls next to starched linen.
Shake the head. I can hear the creak of leather as I get off the bike next to an old-growth forest, filled with redwood and sandalwood, resin oozing from trunks, a distant camp fire and sage smoke lifting off from the hogans in the desert, the rustle of dry corn husks under my feet.
Open my eyes. I’m not on some lost Californian highway, but in London’s Somerset House, halfway through the hallucinatory experience in 10 acts that comprises Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent.
Each of the installations in this sense-expanding experience presents you with a different setting: white scarves tied to a bench, or an unmade bed reeking of last night’s lovemaking.
They are cues, or clues perhaps, which lead to a certain degree of auto-suggestion. It’s hard not to think of chainsaw oil, cut timber and campfires fires when you’re sitting on a log, but Lyn Harris’ Charcoal does exactly that even away from the installation.
The exhibition showcases how perfume is currently being driven by ‘experimental’ brands which are pushing what was a lucrative but safe luxury market in a new and radical direction.
Perfume, in this reading, is no longer about smelling good, or sexy, or elegant. Today’s scents are about telling a story, taking you on an olfactory journey.
Perfume installation: Antoine Lie’s Secretions Magnifiques
Some demonstrate a shift from the exotic to the explicitly erotic: Antoine Lie’s Secretions Magnifiques combines the aromas of semen, blood, sweat, saliva and breast milk.
Others seem more abstract: a white cube containing Geza Shoen’s Molecule 01 (made from a single molecule) conjures up a picture of weeping while reading a newly-printed book; my night-time city was Mark Buxton’s CDG2, the brief for which was ‘the smell of a swimming pool of ink’.
Then there are those which are olfactory dioramas of place: my desert highway is David Seth Moltz’s El Cosmico, while Harris’ Charcoal is inspired by her Scottish grandfather. I’d willingly wear either of those every day.
All of this is bound up in the belief that for perfume to remain relevant it has to change its frame of reference and be experiential, not simply aromatically complex. We demand stories. We can now wear them on our skin, like scented, molecular tattoos.
Olfactory diorama: Mark Buxton’s CGD2 has notes of ‘night-time city’
There has been an equally dramatic shift in the way in which perfumers, rather than being the person behind the curtain, are now the focal point; and also how these new scents are open about the science behind their creation.
Yes, these are synthetic molecules, they say, but look at how they are used creatively and artistically. The ‘disruption' caused by the arrival of these new scents isn’t making perfume more luxurious. By incorporating the wonders of the apparently mundane, it is making it real.
In the accompanying catalogue, perfume writer/consultant Lizzie Ostrom has written one of those essays which should be mandatory reading for anyone involved in the making, selling or drinking of whisky – and not just because she uses the drink as an example.
‘Perfume is becoming less like fashion and more like food and drink,’ she writes. ‘…We are being invited to pay attention when we smell our scents, just as we might pay attention while tasting a whisky.’ You don’t just wear a scent, the argument goes – you are a participant in it.
It’s ironic, then, that as the perfume industry moves away from an over-reliance on packaging and image towards this idea of experience, whisky is moving in the opposite direction.
One reason for perfume’s shift is a rejection of the old school belief that because aroma was so difficult to talk about, the only way to describe (and sell) a perfume was through its look. It was about surface, not content. Now, it would seem, there is a realisation that you can engage with people by talking about aroma, function, and the creative process.
Visitors were encouraged to smell the perfumes, then write down their impressions. The responses were fascinating to read. Because no-one was trained in the language of perfumery, they weren’t constrained by orthodoxy.
No top, middle, or base notes, there was precious little ‘sillage’, and no-one seemed concerned with ‘dry down’. In its place were impressions, jokes, doodles, likes and dislikes. Honest responses.
All of this made me wonder about the formulaic way we talk about whisky. If the flavour wheel has been turned on its head, does the tasting note also need a reappraisal? Nose, palate, finish, this, then this, then this… Now, repeat. Yes, there are advantages in having an agreed method, but are our responses not also constrained by its formulaic nature?
Being able to see the difference between a ‘fruity’, a ‘fragrant’, and a ‘smoky’ whisky gives people confidence, but what comes next? Dare to try something more radical? Can the tasting note not be about what this whisky speaks of at this precise moment, can it not tell a story of place, or of memory? Seen this way, and tasting becomes a phenomenological experience, not an analytical one.
The exhibition also made me wonder whether you can put a story within a blend? Should we think of ‘wearing’ whisky as well as drinking it? Perhaps that form of disruption and freeing of language can help to put you in a different creative space as a whisky maker and consumer.
Re-reading Ostrom’s and co-curator Claire Catterall’s introductions, I started to replace ‘perfume’ with ‘whisky’. Catterall’s essay then read as follows: ‘It is precisely whisky’s position as an object of material culture that makes it compelling.
‘Whisky appeals to us on many levels, not just the abstract or artistic. It signifies who we are and what we aspire to, where we come from and where we want to go, and of our time and place in the world.’
Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent runs until 17 September.
30 August 2017
Hard to believe that it’s been a decade. Not simply because time appears to speed up as you age, but because it is as if he is still there. Even now, I pause and think, ‘what would Michael do?’ The reply is immediate, delivered with lugubrious Yorkshire tones. ‘Avoid cliché.’ I see him, at his desk, looking over his specs at me, a quizzical, amused light in his eyes. A look that still contained a warning. Michael might have taught me about whisky, but more importantly he taught me about writing.
I first came across him on television as The Beer Hunter, a series on the infant Channel 4, where he toured the breweries of Europe discovering beers which none of us had heard of. It seemed a dream job. As importantly, in those days when wine was still seen as being beyond our social reach, he showed that the humblest drink – the one we supped in sticky-floored boozers – had history, heritage and an array of flavours every bit as fascinating and complex.
Legendary writer: Michael Jackson helped elevate whisky’s status
When, years later, I had to do a wheat beer feature for the paper I was working on, I had the brilliant idea of doing a panel tasting. I knew little about the subject. [Michael raises an eyebrow]. OK, I knew nothing about the subject, so could deflect my ignorance by hosting and hopefully learning at the same time. I asked him because he was famous, never thinking he’d turn up. Of course he did. He talked, and tasted. We all listened and learned. Our friendship started at that point.
I remember visits to the Dickensian chaos of his office where you negotiated your way to the desk, through shattered columns of ancient press releases, magazines, and quite probably old rugby league programmes. He seemed to be deliberately building his legacy physically around him. [Another look. I know, Michael. My room is in much the same state].
There were the trips to Scotland and Japan. On my first overnight to Tokyo, he charmed the stewardess – what a way he had with the ladies – to get an upgrade because ‘I need to plug in my laptop. I’m a writer.’ On arrival, his first words to me were: ‘Japanese vending machines are amazing. You can get beer from them.’ Another look, that gentle grin. I hurried off. Returned and picked up his extra bags, or tried to. ‘Books, buddy. Never trust your publisher to send them, or send enough.’ Bag carrier to Michael Jackson. That was something for the CV.
The extra books made perfect sense. He was famous by then. The boy from Huddersfield, who had started on the local paper, worked on The Daily Herald and then founded Campaign, had not just made his name by being the first serious writer about beer but had also by then helped elevate whisky – single malt, especially – from an oddity consumed by landed gentry and obscure Scottish poets, into a drink with a new following.
Would there be a single malt category without his work? Undoubtedly yes. Would it have evolved in the same way? Probably not. His words helped to craft the way in which this new phenomenon – single malt, small batch Bourbon, Japanese whisky – was appreciated, talked about... and therefore sold.
Funny, isn’t it, that the decade since his death has seen the biggest changes globally that whisky has ever encountered, while ‘whisky writing’ has become, if not a career, then something which is commonplace [‘Ahead of the curve, buddy’] even if hardly any of the new generation will have heard of him, or read his works. [He smiles. Shrugs]
Although he always dismissed himself as a hack [‘We’re all hacks. Don’t forget it. It’s the story which matters’] his prose was remarkable. Clear, concise, wearing its knowledge lightly, yet capable of eloquence and a profundity rare in this subject. Here’s the opening paragraph from his 1987 book, The World Guide to Whisky:
‘Some spirits are timorous, others feel the need for disguise, but whisky is bold and proud. There are spirits of such aimless material origin that they must be distilled to the point of breathlessness: driven by a colourless, tasteless submission that passes in the West for vodka. They are for drinkers who suffer from Fear of Flavour, an affliction of our times… In its nobility, its profundity, its bigness, its complexity, whisky of either spelling is a pleasure meant for men and women who enjoy drink, and probably food.’
I like that ‘probably food’. Makes me smile. The rest? It should be enough to make people want to read more, and writers to either give up, or perhaps try that little bit harder. He was the best because he was a writer and wrote with a journalist’s eye for detail – and an understanding that he would never know everything.
‘You’ve been here before, Michael,’ said one distillery manager to him when we were visiting. ‘Why are you taking notes?’
‘Because you always learn something new,’ Michael replied, decades into his work.
He was seriously ill for the last few years of his life, but never stopped writing. If anything, he seemed to be liberated from the treadmill, the hack work. The result was a remarkable flaring of pieces about his early days for Slow Food, and a witty farewell in Whisky Advocate, explaining the different ‘Michaels’ who emerged, depending on the symptoms and what drugs he was on at the time. Read them, read it all, if you can find it.
He was my mentor. More importantly he was my friend.
[He looks at me again. ‘This is getting maudlin. Let’s just talk about jazz’].
OK… Coltrane or Dexter Gordon? You first.
30 August 2017
I’ve had a slightly strange relationship with flavour wheels. Obviously they make sense, otherwise they wouldn’t be so widely used. I use them myself, albeit carefully. The research paper which gave us the current Scotch whisky flavour wheel remains a go-to for me when I’m trying to get a fix on not just what aromas are there, but where they come from.
When I’m out and about teaching, I get folk to look at the standard Scotch wheel while I (try to) explain how it works, from the bullseye of cardinal aromas in the centre and the subdivisions of aroma/flavour in each outward ring, to the creative space of your own memories which exists in the white space beyond. Then I ask them to put it away, as having a flavour wheel next to you when you are tasting is too much of a temptation. You can’t help glancing at it, but the moment you do, the words on it inveigle their way into your brain – driving you towards a potentially inaccurate and less personal analysis.
So, a flavour wheel is useful before a tasting, and certainly after, and as a way of showing whisky’s diversity of flavour, it remains invaluable. But while it is a handy tool, it is not one (it’s fair to say) which has been front of mind.
Until, that is, I had the distinct honour to sit recently on a panel with Dr Don Livermore, master blender at Canada’s Corby distillery; and my old buddy the Canadian whisky guru Davin de Kergommeaux.
The class was a fascinating exploration of the flavour profiles of the different grains and distillation processes at Dr Don’s distillery. He did all of the heavy lifting, while Davin and I chipped in with tasting notes for all of the new makes.
Central to it was Dr Don’s new Canadian whisky flavour wheel. ‘I’d looked at the old one for years and always wondered what wasn’t quite right about it,’ he explained. ‘Then I realised, the issue is that it has flavour at the centre. From a blender’s perspective, that’s not the starting point. What if, I wondered, you put the three drivers of flavour – grain, yeast, and wood – there instead and then look at what flavours they produce?’
So, he did – and it makes sense. Now you can see what yeast adds (fruity, floral, soapy, sulphur), what wood contributes (cask notes, ‘finish’ notes) or what each grain type can give. This being Canada, the range is wider than is (currently) used in Scotland. All of these building blocks are further subdivided and then, to please geeks such as myself, the outermost ring is a breakdown of which chemical compound each of these is made from. Finally, he then uses the flavour wheel to make graphic fingerprints of each of his new makes or blends.
For me, it has opened up a new understanding of the complexities of whisky – and is a beautifully simple explanation of what a distiller and/or blender has to play with. While giving a more scientific analysis, it remains focused on flavour, which it strikes me to have been the theme for this holiday season as far as I’m concerned.
Cataloguing how flavours arise is a way of easing ourselves away from the (over)reliance on regionality. The two are hard to reconcile, y’see. The drinker who has started with Glenlivet or Glenfiddich may well feel confident to then try something else from Speyside and wander unwittingly into the meaty power of Mortlach. Likewise, the lover of smoky Islay might be bemused by the unpeated Bruichladdich, or vice versa. The drinker exploring the Highlands (and how amorphous is that ‘region’?) will wonder why Glenmorangie isn’t like Dalmore, or Aberfeldy isn’t the same at Ben Nevis, if they are ostensibly from the same area. You get my drift.
Dr Don’s fingerprints are one way to show not only where flavour comes from, but the variety which exists within the possibilities. The Single Malt Flavour Map [full disclosure: I’m still involved in its management] does the same. Both demonstrate how individuality is key.
We can’t however expect everyone to have a flavour wheel (or map) to hand when they walk into a shop or bar. If we are to shift thinking away from region to flavour, then we also need whisky lists to be organised in terms of flavour or style rather than where the distillery is located (it would also allow blends to be included, by the way). Wines have been arranged in this fashion for years, so why not whisky? The wheel and map are the starting point for this new(er) recategorisation.
I’m writing this during a brief sojourn in London when, in need of wine, I discovered the truly excellent Theatre of Wine. For a second or two, it was hard to work out how the wines were arranged. There wasn’t the normal division into countries, internal regions, and price. Instead the world’s wines sat next to each other. It seemed that the higher up the shelves you went, the more expensive things became, which made sense. Then it became apparent. All the light reds were in one column, medium bodied in the next, etc. The same applied to whites. It worked a treat, throwing new wines, styles, and countries at me (and I might have passed over the Georgian red if it had been hidden away in an ‘others’ section). In some ways it’s an approach akin to that taken by London whisky bar Black Rock, but not by many other bars or retailers.
Wheels, maps, lists and shelves arranged by flavour help to communicate diversity. Because consumers understand flavour as a concept, this gives them confidence, which in turn makes them relax. And when that happens, they enjoy exploring. Simple, really.
23 August 2017
After my recent musings about usquebaugh, some helpful soul wrote in, pointing out that such a drink couldn’t be called ‘whisky’ under the Scotch Whisky Act. Well, duh… They also added obligingly that ‘...if it were labelled “usquebaugh”, then it would be banned under reg. 6(2): “A person must not label, package, sell, advertise or promote any drink in any other way that creates a likelihood of confusion on the part of the public as to whether the drink is Scotch Whisky”.’
Well, I’d say that this was open to interpretation. As they themselves admitted, Dewar’s Honey was out there, as was J&B’s equivalent (quite why they called it Urban Honey, rather than J&Bee is beyond me), so a precedent has been set even if, as my mystery correspondent said, ‘certain elements of the industry (and the SWA) were very unhappy about that one.’ Stir in a brand such as Compass Box Orangerie and you can see that Scotch-based flavoured spirits are out there already.
Floral scent: Unlike Scotch whisky, usquebaugh traditionally featured local botanicals
I could of course fall back on history and point out (again) that usquebaugh never tried to pass itself off as ‘whisky’, but was regarded as a separate style of drink for about 400 years. Creating new usquebaughs, a clever Edinburgh lawyer could argue, is simply a continuation of an old, established, craft.
Also, most of these usquebaughs were ‘dulcified’ – sweetened either with sugar for the high-class variants, or more commonly, honey. In other words, they were liqueur-like. Drambuie started life as an usquebaugh and no-one seems to be moaning about its existence. So, should anyone want to explore the botanical angle, I believe that there are ways around this apparent legislative block.
Will anyone do it? Who knows? One distiller called my extravagant notions ‘provocative’ (I think in a positive way) though I figured they were just logical and grounded in whisky heritage. While it would be interesting to see a new generation of usquebaughs appearing, if they don’t it won’t be because producers are scared of innovation.
The Scotch industry isn’t naive, and while innovation and contrivance often go hand-in-hand, and clumsy appropriation of other spirits’ clothes does take place, that doesn’t mean that Scotch cannot learn and adapt to a changing market. Indeed, I would argue that to survive and prosper that it has to – as long as it does not lose its sense of identity.
The idea that there is nothing going on in terms of new product development in whisky is fantasy. There are experiments underway which would make jaws drop in astonishment. Not all will make it to market, but questions about ‘what is Scotch, and what else can it be?’ are being asked constantly. Boundaries are being pushed in ways which we haven’t seen for years.
Cereal question: Could more types of grain be used in Scotch?
Moving away from usquebaugh for the moment, as last year’s series on Scotch whisky regulations outlined, there are many flex points within the regulations where new flavours and characters could be introduced. Could you smoke barley over a wood fire for example? What would a heather-smoked whisky be like?
Scotch is currently made from barley, or corn, or wheat, but what of what of other cereals – some of which were used in Scotland in the past – which are being used successfully by other whisky makers around the world?
If the reaction to modest proposals such as these is, ‘we can’t envisage doing that because it is possibly against the rules’, it is pretty much an admission of defeat from the outset. Rules – or to be more precise the interpretation of these rules – are open to debate and challenge. Accepting the need for change is why rules and regulations are always in a state of slow, steady adjustment. Whisky today doesn’t operate under exactly the same legislation as it did in the 1990s, never mind the 1920s.
Asking what can Scotch become shouldn’t be interpreted as a cry for mass disobedience, but as a continuation of this natural process of incremental change. This world is full of flavour possibilities. It is also fluid.
18 August 2017
I’ve never met two brand ambassadors the same – their responsibilities differ from company to company, from personality to personality and market to market. Some have backgrounds in blending or distilling, while others have been bartenders, writers or enthusiasts in past lives.
Some have qualifications in whisky production, while others are just beginning their whisky journey. Where one ambassador can make a killer Whisky Sour or quote The Savoy Cocktail Book verbatim, another can intricately explain the continuous distillation process or name all of the enzymes involved in saccharification.
Usually, thanks to some form of in-house training and years already spent loving whisky, their presentations are informative and engaging. On occasion they can be blindingly brilliant – innovative, entertaining and eye-opening – but sadly from time to time – and thankfully it’s relatively rare – our beloved ambassadors can get it wrong. Perpetuating tired marketing language, enforcing ways to hold a glass or drink a whisky, asserting opinion as fact – this is one way myths are spread.
Nobody’s perfect; everyone has a different approach and there’s always something you won’t know the answer to. Even David Stewart, Balvenie’s master distiller who at the age of 70 received an MBE for services to whisky, will tell you he still hasn’t learned it all.
Inclusive message: Ambassadors have a duty to represent whisky as a whole, not just their brand
No two are the same, but the one thing all brand ambassadors have in common? They’re educators. They are whisky’s mouthpieces. Whatever their knowledge, background or brand alliance, ambassadors have a direct link to consumers, bartenders, the trade and press. Their voices are powerful. They are listened to.
A cynic would argue that a brand ambassador’s only job is to sell their company’s whisky through any means possible. However an ambassador is not just a messenger for their brand, but for whisky as a whole. One cannot exist without the other.
You wouldn’t expect an ambassador to bite the hand that feeds them and deliver a presentation that didn’t support their brand’s story, but allegiance should be with the industry, not just the brand. It would be foolish of them to communicate a message that’s unbeneficial or, worse, damaging to the industry as a whole.
I’m proud to say I’ve never heard an ambassador disrespect their competitors (although I once had a rival brand’s pen confiscated on a press trip – I got it back at the end. It was a nice pen). Those who do brand-bash eventually become blacklisted by their peers. For the majority the message is never ‘our brand is better because’, always ‘our brand is different because’, and surely variety is part of what makes whisky so fascinating and globally popular.
What are brand ambassadors good for? It always comes back to education, engagement and enjoyment. They ignite our interest, our curiosity, our passion.
They are responsible for dispelling myths, particularly those damaging whisky’s image as accessible and enjoyable, but they can also be responsible for spreading them too. The conversation should always come from a sound knowledge base, and never, ever turn to why one brand or style is better than another.
Varying USPs and brand marketing approaches, and contrasting viewpoints on production processes and maturation styles inspire debate and discussion. Are worm tubs better than shell-and-tube condensers? Do single malts offer more flavour than blends? Is terroir really a thing? They’re provocative questions, and I hope nobody ever really agrees, because the day people stop talking about whisky is the day that whisky gets dull.
16 August 2017
‘When my ancestors were determined of a set purpose to be merie, they used a kind of aquavite, void of all spice, and onelie consisting of such herbs and roots as grew in their own gardens.'
Hector Boece's words, written in 1526, swam up from memory. I quickly refocused. Botswana Dave was still talking: ‘…but don’t get this one, hemlock, confused with this one, wild carrot. Hemlock will kill you. Wild carrot won’t.’ Handy to know.
We were on a nature walk at the RSPB Gruinart reserve on Islay. There were few birds around, so Dave, like any good guide, had switched to flora, including a diversion into the world of lichen and fungi when we came across trees draped in lungwort, before we returned to mugwort, pineapple weed, gorse flower and meadowsweet, and others, many of which go into The Botanist gin, produced by Bruichladdich.
Scotland’s west coast is hoaching with gins these days. The Botanist led the way, but in the past few months, Islay has been joined by gins distilled on Jura (Lussa), Kintyre (Beinn an Tuirc), and Harris (er… Harris). Colonsay has plans to make its gin on the island, as does Tiree.
All make a big play about using local botanicals. The Botanist uses 22 from Islay, Harris has sugar kelp; Icelandic moss and sheep sorrel are in Beinn an Tuirc’s botanical recipe, while Lussa uses ground elder, honeysuckle, rosehip, bog myrtle, sea lettuce and Scots pine among others.
Floral flavours: Is there a place in whisky for the larder of the machair?
Gin, the world’s first global spirit in terms of ingredients, is now becoming increasingly terroir-fixated. It’s no longer sufficient to say your gin comes from a place, it has to somehow taste of that place as well.
This is all good news, when it works. Gin is a fiendishly difficult spirit to get right. Each botanical has to be there for a reason. There’s no point in making a gin with an added botanical which you then can’t notice, or one where the unusual botanical has been dialled up to such an extent that the gin is unbalanced. That said, this aspect of terroir suits gin perfectly.
Why then did Boece’s words keep nagging away at me as I stravaiged up the west coast from island to island, finding a gin at every corner? Could whisky play in this area as well?
He shows that a Scottish-distilled spirit – probably made from cereal – was flavoured from the word go. It became known as usquebaugh, and it and ‘usky' co-existed for centuries, the former flavoured, the latter a straight distillate (which in turn was usually drunk as a punch or toddy).
The ‘herbs and roots as grew in their own garden’ would have included hyssop, marjoram, lavender fennel, hyssop, lemon balm, sweet marjoram, sage, rue, wormwood, horehound, lovage and pennyroyal. The hills would have provided wild thyme, rosemary, rowan berry, and heather, maybe in the form of honey. These early usquebaughs were as much distillates of place as the whiskies.
On Colonsay, I picked up a reprint of a 1903 book by Murdoch McNeill on the flora of the island. Lurking there was an entry for ‘heath vetch, aka bitter-vetch [Lathyrus montanus]… which was used for flavouring whisky’. The dried and roasted vetch tubers have a slight anise flavour and were also used as a hangover cure, a way to offset drunkenness, and as an appetite suppressant. Hebridean coca! I’ve ordered some seeds.
Tiree beach: With plenty of space and time for some ‘extravagant thinking’
I’m writing this on Tiree. Outside, the machair is filled with buttercup and red clover, knapweed, birds foot trefoil, ragged robin, tormentil, tansy, wild thyme and harebell. Its beaches are a larder of different seaweeds. Little has changed since Boece’s day. It’s all out there still. From this perspective there is an argument that whisky can play in this field as confidently as gin.
Whisky already has the remarkable ability to somehow distil what surrounds it. Is it not possible, then, to extend this property to reflect terroir by using the flora of the place, either in terms of new usquebaughs, home flavouring, or in bartending? After all, Thomas Pennant wrote in 1772: ‘The people of the Hebrides extract an acid for [whisky] punch from the berries of the mountain ash [rowan].’
The west coast does this to you. The wide skies, the open seas, the wind bringing the sweet-smelling machair hissing through the marram grass. The Scottish poet Kenneth White calls it ‘extravagant thinking’, but what is whisky if not a drink which welcomes that?
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In depth 09 October 2017
The private members club offers a selection of single casks priced at up to €450,000.
Features 01 February 2017
Bill Lumsden tells us how the concept of the Madeira-finished Private Edition release developed.
Latest news 07 August 2017
The distillery’s ‘designer cask’ expression is back on the market with a limited release.
The whisky virgin 09 July 2015
Our amateur Whisky Virgin is introduced to Scotch through a formative Islay experience.