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From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Whisky’s Chinese paradox

    19 December 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I put this to the angels. They stay silent.

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

    The dog worries away.

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

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

    The angels say nothing. Top up my glass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I look round.

    The dog has wandered off.

  • Whisky’s shifting balance of power

    12 December 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Ness of Brodgar excavation

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

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

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

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

    Ness of Brodgar excavation

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

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

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

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

    Brora and Port Ellen distilleries

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

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

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

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

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

    Clearly, they were wrong.

  • Texture’s vital role in whisky tasting

    05 December 2018

    I’m sitting there looking at the duck’s flipper on the plate in front of me. The first question buzzing in my brain is why? Judging by the reaction of my fellow diners, I’m on my own when it comes to considering the appendage a somewhat unusual addition to a dinner. After a week in China I thought I was inured to such arrivals, but every meal brings a new surprise.

    ‘Don’t ever ask what it is,’ old China hands have told me, ‘just eat it.’ But this is clearly a flipper and the question is still why? (although the supplementary how? is rapidly pushing it out of the way). Judging by my companions’ actions you just pick it up and bite.

    Someone appears at my side. He’s holding a glass. Time for a toast. I stand up, we clink glasses and drain the whisky. I’m secretly hoping that he strikes up a conversation and the flipper will be whisked away and the next course set down. No chance. It’s still there.

    I pick it up and bite. To be honest, there’s not much flavour, bar soy. The texture however is exactly what you expect. Chicken feet are crunchy. Duck flippers are… well… flippery. It’s a cultural thing.

    Unique nose: Our perception of an aroma is based on our own personal experiences

    Each of us interprets the world in different ways because our experiences are so varied. Upbringing, culture, preferences and aversions all impact how we read and speak about our experiences. Because of this, no two people will describe an aroma in the same way.

    The downside of this is that trying to understand what someone means when they describe an aroma is akin to cracking a code. If we all say different things for the same smell — I smell a clean hamster cage in this glass, you smell porridge — then how can we reach some type of consensus, or understanding? We are both correct, but how do we understand what the other is saying?

    One way is by creating an agreed terminology. My hamster cages and your bowl of porridge both mean ‘malty’. It’s a step in the right direction, while also reinforcing the point that you must trust your own nose.

    Having this shared nomenclature is important, especially as we’re told that nosing a whisky is the most important element within ‘tasting’. Given this, there’s little surprise, then, that Richard Paterson’s conk is insured for US$1 million, just like Kim Kardashian’s arse (I apologise for the image this has created in your mind).

    Sacred snifter: Dalmore master blender Richard Paterson's nose is allegedly insured for more than US$1 million

    ‘The nose knows’ makes sense if you are assessing a huge number of whiskies, but it’s a line which, I think, downplays the importance of the palate.

    The same issues over language still apply in the mouth, because there we are dealing not just with smell but with taste, and specifically the fusing of those two senses into the thing we call flavour. There is however another sense which we overlook, that of touch.

    A whisky doesn’t give all its secrets up at the same time. It develops and changes on the nose and in the mouth. What appears at the start of the tongue is different in the middle, and changes again at the end. There’s a journey, a narrative, and texture’s role in this is hugely significant — if underappreciated.

    I’ve found out over the years that while smell is cultural (and therefore hard to translate), our sense of textures are shared. We will use different words to describe aroma and flavour, but we’ll agree about the whisky’s texture and the shape it makes in the mouth. It can be thin and sharp, or it can fatten in the middle of the tongue. It can whizz along, or slowly coat the mouth. We concur when smoke emerges, or at what point tannins grip.

    If you ignore texture, you lose a significant element of the whisky’s story. Within texture lies a way to discover a common language. By thinking and talking about feel and shape, we can discuss more easily how things evolve on the palate.

    That flipper now makes more sense. Asian cuisines always take texture into consideration. Foods are eaten not just because of their flavour, but because of complementary and opposing textures: soft, rigid, pliant, gluey and slippery. They are there to give the senses something else to think about, and to add to the overall balance of a meal. It’s the same in whisky. Being aware of feel and the way things change in shape, are both things we can share. Allow them to flow.

    Now… back to the flipper.

  • Cognac’s lesson for single malt lovers

    28 November 2018

    The damp inside the cellar is palpable, seeming to soak into your lungs with every breath. As the light flicks on, it illuminates a scene of apparent desolation: rows of ancient, mould-encrusted casks, many with their chestnut hoops broken and pointing to the blackened rafters like the crooked fingers of a long-dead corpse.

    It looks abandoned, derelict; but this is one of the ‘Paradis’ cellars at Cognac Frapin’s home, Château Fontpinot, where some of the casks are a century old, and some of the eaux-de-vie have rested for decades.

    We move on to another cellar, this time upstairs. ‘I like this one,’ says Patrice Piveteau, Frapin’s cellar master. Here the air is drier, the warmth – even in the weak November sunshine – a welcome contrast.

    Piveteau’s affection for this chai is partly due to its maturation conditions – it houses many vintage Cognacs, their casks splashed with the red wax seals used by the Cognac authorities to guarantee their authenticity – and partly to its stunning roof, with its huge, beautifully irregular, hand-cut beams and trusses.

    Frapin is as close as Cognac gets to single malt. In a region dominated by big names (Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin, Courvoisier), where the prevalent business model is that of the négociant (buying in grapes, wine and/or spirit to bottle under your own name), Frapin goes the other way. 

    Vintage Cognac casks in a dry cellar

    Upstairs cellar: Drier conditions will give these vintage Cognacs greater finesse 

    Every grape harvested from the 240 hectares of the company’s vineyards in the heart of the pre-eminent Grande Champagne sub-region is used to make Frapin’s Cognacs; nothing is bought in, nothing is sold on.

    In an age when, more than ever, we want to know where our food and drink comes from and how it’s made, tracing the journey from soil to plate and glass, Frapin’s is a compelling back-story. But, for Piveteau, it’s one that comes with a challenge.

    ‘We have one range for everywhere in the world,’ he explains. ‘Frapin is not big enough to make segmentation – there is no variability through using different wine growers or different sub-regions. We do have two types of terroir, but they are both in the heart of Grande Champagne.’

    In this context, the Frapin philosophy is almost puritanically restrictive, meaning that the only path to differentiation and diversity for Piveteau lies through maturation and, in particular, the age and location of the cask.

    There are ‘new’ casks (up to five years old), in which the spirit will spend between six months and a year, with lots of interaction and flavour from the wood; casks of five to 15 years old, where the influence is more subtle and slow; and casks of 15 to 100 years old or more, where it’s all evaporation, oxidation and concentration.

    Old Cognac casks in a damp cellar

    Downstairs cellar: This damp ‘Paradis’ will make for a supple, rounded character

    Then there are the cellars. Four groups of them, spreading the fire risk, but also giving Piveteau options. Some humid, promoting the loss of more ethanol than water; some dry, where the opposite occurs.

    The former gives a rounded, supple Cognac; the latter something with a stronger character, but more elegance and finesse. ‘It’s a way for me to produce something different,’ explains Piveteau.

    And in the glass? Frapin’s Cigar Blend has a full year in a new cask, which adds a touch of tannin, and is aged in a humid cellar, which tames any austerity and gives a richly rounded texture.

    Meanwhile, Château de Fontpinot XO (six months in new oak, aged in a dry cellar) has classic Frapin fruit-and-flowers purity, underpinned by a firm structure and a supreme elegance. Go back to your empty glass after five minutes and a perfumed tobacco leaf aroma lingers.

    This is as precise as Cognac gets in terms of provenance: vineyards, winemaking, distillation, maturation and bottling all in one place. But, as Piveteau is at pains to point out, the liquid remains a blend. ‘And to have a good blend, you need knowledge and a lot of stock,’ he says.

    Frapin Cognac cask

    Single cask: But even single-property Cognacs like Frapin’s Fontpinot are still blends

    ‘It’s like painting – to have a good green, you need lots and lots of good blue and yellow.’ On average, the Cognac region has seven years of stock; Frapin has 16, scattered among the diverse cellars of Segonzac, Fontpinot, Chez Piet.

    It’s an instructive example that should remind all of us about the true nature of single malt Scotch whisky. We spend so much time dissecting the singularity of what makes Laphroaig Laphroaig, or Glenfarclas Glenfarclas, that we risk forgetting the old truism about all single malts being, at their heart, a blend.

    Where Piveteau plays around with cask age and location, a master distiller on Islay or Speyside tweaks cask types, ‘finishes’ and spirit maturity, combining whiskies of all hues in order to create complexity and maintain continuity of character.

    It is a space where science and art collide, and where location and process are moulded by human judgement and experience into something greater than the sum of their parts.

    Maybe if we all thought and talked of single malts in this manner – in terms of the plurality rather than singularity of their character – we might grow to understand and love them in a different way.

    And maybe, just maybe, it might elevate the all-too-often maligned world of blends – without which, let’s remember, most single malts would long ago have become extinct – and restore them to their rightful place in the collective whisky consciousness.

  • How to ‘not taste’ whisky

    21 November 2018

    It’s the same every week. There’s work to be done. So, I pour them out, cover them, wait, and then get started. Don’t rush, take your time, don’t force it – trying to nail that elusive aroma that’s on the tip of your nose often ends up with you falling over from inhaling too many fumes. It’s never good to collapse during a tasting. Learned that the hard way. It’s a routine, but a pleasant one.

    Yes there should ideally be silence and no intrusive aromas, sounds etc. providing you with a sensory blank slate for the tastes and flavours to emerge. Simple really. Why then is it so hard?

    Why does it work some days and not others? Why do the aromas fly out and hit you when you go through the same ritual, at the same time of day. It seems like the same conditions – but of course the conditions have changed because you are not the same today as you were yesterday. So you do the best you can and work at it, steadily.

    Zen approach: Focus, analyse, but simultaneously relax into ‘not tasting’ (Photo: Proof on Main)

    Concentrate, focus, you bugger. Go through the flight, get the initial impressions, go back, and compare one whisky against the others. Then go back again and compare another against the rest, but in a different order. Repeat. Write it all down.

    Then taste neat. Think about texture, taste again, now work out how the flavours emerge across the tongue, what’s the structure, is it balanced, what happens on the finish, what can you tell about wood, maturity or oxidation, what of the distillery character, the positives, and faults? There are so many permutations. What’s the story, what’s the whisky trying to tell you about itself? Concentrate. Focus. Write. Rest. Add water, repeat. Rest. Repeat.

    It’s revealing, it is necessary, but it is unnatural. You find yourself thinking about the mechanics of tasting: form, structure, aromas, acidity, fruit, complexity, balance. Boxes to tick. It’s at times like this that I wonder whether all this talk of sensory evaluation and tasting techniques are just putting more barriers between the whisky and the drinker.

    I have to be uncharacteristically methodical in this, but while I’m concentrating I also realise that I’m also stopping thinking about what I am experiencing and am thinking instead of what the next box on the ticklist of techniques has to be. I’m thinking about the ‘tasting’, and not the whisky.

    Recently though, I’ve done the session, covered the glass, walked off, and returned later. There’ll be music on, as I sit down again and sip. I’m not thinking about ‘tasting’ anymore, but relaxing with a dram. And, you know what? New things emerge, hidden qualities appear. I’ve been so busy thinking about how to untie the knots and find the secrets that I’ve missed the heart. It’s not drinking, rather it’s ‘not tasting’ which, unsurprisingly perhaps, sounds somewhat Zen.

    Hang on Dave, you say (and not unreasonably, as I said it to myself just a moment ago), isn’t that just drinking? Not really. Drinking is when the whisky is part, an important part, but nonetheless just a part, of a wider experience. During the drinking you may suddenly taste, but tasting isn’t the main purpose.

    ‘Not tasting’ happens when you’ve allowed the technique to slip into the background, leaving just you, and the whisky, and the moment. I suppose that the ultimate aim is to have the focus there, but simultaneously not worry about it and relax into ‘not tasting’. The analytical side is important, but never at the expense of the enjoyment. It’s there in front of you. Just be open and aware.

  • Stop analysing whisky and just enjoy it

    14 November 2018

    I serendipitously discovered my favourite painting in Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado last week. I’d been told the art museum was just full of ‘old paintings’ and wasn’t worth my time, but it was a beautiful building and, with a day to kill in the city following the opening of Johnnie Walker’s new whisky store on Calle Serrano, I didn’t see the harm. Culture is good for the soul, after all.

    Two things surprised me that day. Firstly, the discovery of Diego Velázquez’s towering seminal work, Las Meninas, hanging in the Prado’s lofty labyrinthine halls. The second was how much the discovery reminded me of a scene in Bean: The Movie (no, I didn’t sneeze on the painting!).

    Depicting the young Princess Margarita Theresa being tended to by her babysitters as Velázquez himself looks on, Las Meninas has been described as one of the most important paintings in the history of Western art, and even as embodying the ‘theology of painting’.

    The babysitters: Velázquez’s royal portrait (left) has been adapted multiple times by others, including Picasso (right)

    The 1656 work has been studied, critiqued and even mimicked and explored by a string of artists since, most notably by Pablo Picasso, who painted 58 recreations of Las Meninas and its characters in 1957 alone. They now reside in Barcelona’s Museu Picasso, if you’re interested.

    But it wasn’t the painting’s importance in the sinews of art history that drew me in. Not Velázquez’s delicate brushstrokes, the princess’ doll-like stature, nor the fact this work is considered a ‘Master’. I just like it. It spoke to me. And that was enough to keep me enthralled until a soft, authoritative (English) voice broke me out of my trance.

    Narrating the painting’s importance to a crowd of tourists all sporting earphones, the guide explained: ‘See how the composition of the characters and the way they interact with one another, and even ourselves as viewers, makes us question the relationship between illusion and reality. But the true meaning of Las Meninas has eluded scholars until this day.’

    Naturally, the elusiveness of meaning invites curiosity, as the tireless reproductions of the work can attest. According to Velázquez expert Jonathan Brown, who studied Las Meninas meticulously, ‘few paintings in the history of art have generated so many and varied interpretations as this’.

    But Brown also added during a lecture in 2014: ‘I feel in my bones that I may be suffering from the early stages of LMFS – Las Meninas Fatigue Syndrome.’ Scholars could study and study one of the greatest pieces of art the world has known and still be none the wiser as to its meaning. The devoted, magnified study of a single subject without any meaningful conclusion is endless, ineffective and ultimately exhausting. Something that was once loved so affectionately becomes tiresome to embrace.

    Look closer?: Mr Bean’s appreciation of art [here with Whistler’s Mother] exists on a basic level, but it’s appreciation nonetheless

    It was this sentiment that reminded me of an exchange in Bean: The Movie. The haphazard Mr Bean, an incompetent art gallery security guard who continuously falls asleep on the job, is mistaken for an eminent art professor on a visit to the fictional Grierson Art Gallery in Los Angeles, much to Bean’s obliviousness.

    Curator: ‘Tell me, Dr, what exactly is your position at the gallery?’

    Bean: ‘Well I sit in the corner, and look at the paintings.’

    Curator: ‘Ugh, that is brilliant. If only more scholars would do that – you know, just sit and look. Not lecture and write and argue. Just sit and look at the paintings themselves.’

    Sometimes, all that’s needed is a simple reminder of what’s important. The same sentiment is true of whisky. How often has a cult bottling been dissected, analysed, tasted, reviewed and scored, discussed, debated and argued over to the point that we have lost sight of what its purpose is in the first place? Like art, whisky is there to be enjoyed.

    The whisky world is throbbing with the noise of so many critical voices and opinions. We’re so busy arguing whether whisky should be chill-filtered, if malts from the ’60s are unparalleled, or drilling down into the intricacies of flavour creation that we stop appreciating whisky for the sake of pure enjoyment. How many of us have felt early-onset WFS – Whisky Fatigue Syndrome – settle in?

    Ultimately, whisky’s meaning lies in our enjoyment of what’s in our glass. It’s time we were all a little bit more Bean, and took a step back to just enjoy the beauty in front of us.

  • Storytelling brings whisky to life

    07 November 2018

    As my friend, the recently departed Nick Faith, told me many times, ‘remember, dear boy, we deal in higher level bullshit. Higher level, always.’ I laughed the first time he told me; then wondered quite what he meant. Shouldn’t we, as writers, always be telling the truth and avoid bullshit? Maybe it was just said with a hefty dose of self-deprecation.

    Nick, to the best of my knowledge, never dealt in the world of fantasy. His books on Cognac are masterpieces of accuracy, the same for his work on wine, or trains, but he balanced the facts within the frame of a good story. His writing was never dry. He was a master of self-deprecation though.

    Nick had also mentored me during my time as a judge on spirits competitions. ‘Dear boy,’ he said to me on one memorable evening when I was the last to leave the building, ‘I just realised that we still have to do cream liqueurs and advocaat. Fancy giving me a hand?’ That’s why the rest had turned tail so quickly. I don’t believe that a drop of a cream liqueur has passed my lips since that day.

    The Storyteller: Nick Faith always dealt in facts, framed within entertaining anecdotes

    Along with other spiritous luminaries greater than I, we were part of an eccentric bunch of educators called Taste & Flavour, led by our ringmaster Mark Ridgwell. It was in those sessions of competitive judging – yes even of cream liqueurs – and listening to him holding forth on Cognac that I got to understand about the importance of balance and authenticity, but also about having a wryly cynical eye on the machinations of companies, and the importance of story-telling, because it is through the last that we make connections. That self-deprecation is important as well. No-one can be judge and jury on all spirits. Best to deflate any thoughts that that might be the case early on.

    I began to realise that Nick’s ‘higher level’ didn’t mean being inaccurate, or deceptive, or plain wrong. That’s plain bullshit (and we’ve seen plenty of examples of that recently). Higher level was totally different. It meant to enter the world of story-telling, of making people laugh with you, at you, and engaging with them.

    Working in this higher level means you can weave in the tall tales, the people, the heritage, the rootedness of it all because that is what people, I think at least, are interested in. Who are the best presenters in whisky? The ones who tell stories. Here’s a case in point.

    Pillars of Islay: Jackie Thomson, Georgie Crawford and Lynne McEwan brought their island home to life through story

    Recently, I had the honour of moderating (because I am moderate in all things – apart from excess) a class at The Whisky Show between Georgie Crawford of Lagavulin, Lynne McEwan of Bruichladdich, and Jackie Thomson of Ardbeg. They were, rightly, insistent that it was to be a relaxed conversation about Islay by women who, in Georgie’s words, ‘love the work we do, the place we do it, and the people we do it with’. It was agreed that any mention of ‘women in whisky’ would result in the questioner being ejected from the room.

    The whiskies – which were amazing – became props on a wide-ranging, often hilarious, and also emotionally engaging and touching 90 minutes where Islay and its people took centre stage. They talked about each other’s drams, told tales and showed how community is at the heart of whisky. As a result, the drams shone with a new relevance. 

    Dealing solely with hard facts reduces whisky to a list of processes and chemical compounds. You can read the scientific papers on those (and I do) but it misses the point because whisky-making isn’t just about strike temperatures and seeding rates, grind ratios and speed of flow. While all of that is necessary to make the whisky, the same information is used to create something which communicates and connects on a different, higher, level. And that, I realise, is part of what Nick meant. Find what you enjoy at this moment. Raise a glass. Have faith.

  • How rare do you like your whisky?

    31 October 2018

    It was a summer’s day, many years ago. A beach bar in Brighton. Not the place you’d expect to try whisky. It was, I think, the first time I met Jim Beveridge. We were tasting Blue Label and the many meanings of the term ‘rarity’: age, scarcity, and flavour. As the afternoon progressed it was clear that Jim, in his quiet way, was gently nudging the conversation towards the last. Rarity of flavour is what intrigues the blender.

    Fast forward to this month and the UK launch of Johnnie Walker Ghost & Rare Port Ellen Edition and Jim, being Jim, once again talked about rarity in terms of availability and flavour.

    All of the discussion about the bottling steers the rarity issue towards the scarcity of the Port Ellen, but  – for me at least – it’s the bed on which it sits which matters and that is all about the rarity of flavour given by the grains. The success of the blend wasn’t about dialing up Port Ellen, but seeing how the rare and unusual can be made to work together. 

    Rare synergy: It’s the way Port Ellen works in tandem with the grains in Ghost & Rare that makes it unique

    Two of rarity’s other facets, availability and age, came into focus the night after (it was quite a week) with the unveiling of the Craigellachie 51 Year Old. Deciding to give away the oldest-ever expression of a distillery is an unlikely move by a major player working in today’s whisky world.

    Most would have said, 51 years? Let’s sell 51 bottles at £51,000 each – and you know what, they would possibly have sold them all. That Dewar’s took the other path is stroke of strategic genius and one to be applauded.

    Bizarrely, the previous evening Chivas Regal had launched its 50-year-old, all four bottles of it. I was busy in the Welsh Chapel with Walker, but my esteemed colleague Mr. Woodard made the trek to Old Trafford to catch the story (and chat with former footballer Denis Law). For him, it spoke of rarity in yet another way.

    ‘While Craigellachie 51 takes old and rare whisky to one end of the exclusivity spectrum, theoretically giving anyone – whatever their wealth or status – the chance to try it, Chivas 50 appears at first to embody a diametrically opposed philosophy,’ he said.

    Short supply: Sandy Hyslop (left) and Denis Law stand with one of the four decanters of Chivas Regal 50 Year Old 

    ‘This is rare whisky employed as marketing tool, released to mark 50 years since Matt Busby’s team triumphed in the 1968 European Cup final (four goals, four bottles) and to trumpet Chivas’ freshly-minted partnership with the club.

    ‘One bottle will reside permanently at Strathisla, while two of the others will be sold through auction and private sale, no doubt for mind-boggling sums.

    ‘But follow the money, and the destiny of the fourth and final bottle, and the picture changes. All proceeds go to charity – the Manchester United Foundation – and that fourth bottle will be given away, Craigellachie-style, to a Manchester United fan who has supported the club “through every high and low”.’

    All three releases raise questions about how we gauge rarity. Should a whisky’s use of liquids, which are by their nature limited, be the justification of a higher price? A quick scan of other 50-year-old whiskies suggests that this is increasingly the case.

    In this mad week Walker itself released 100 decanters of a 50-year-old blend retailing at US$25,000. Also this year we’ve seen Macallan launching 200 bottles of a 50-year-old at £25,000, roughly the same price area as Glenfiddich and Balvenie’s 50-year-olds, while Dalmore’s 50 is £50,000 (by the way, you can pick up Glenfarclas 50 for £1,850).

    Rarity here has been imposed. These are market-driven releases. Because there is a perceived market for the ‘rare’, therefore we will supply. The restriction imposed by scarcity of stock has been reinforced by the high price. Most of these will never be opened, but will exist in display cabinets, or be flipped in auctions, not so much ghosts, but zombie whiskies doomed to a half-life.

    Mass giveaway: Every drop of Craigellachie 51 will be given to whisky lovers, free of charge

    But rarity also means uncommon and unusual. A rare whisky doesn’t have to be old, but carry within it a quality which sets it apart. That could be maturity, or cask, environment, technique, or some inexplicable quirk. Rarity in this reading has a sense of transcendence that goes beyond age. The greatest single casks – which by their nature are rare – have this quality, the greatest vattings and blends as well.

    True rarity, I’d argue, comes through a layering of these elements. It’s more than just ‘an old whisky’ (and it’s fascinating to observe how Ghost & Rare’s lack of an age statement is never discussed), rather it’s the liquid which deepens the conversation (which is as it should be).

    The Craig plays with rarity by challenging the norms. It is a remarkable whisky, and while it is unlikely to reshape other distillers’ thinking about how to handle their rare stocks, it suggests that there was a moment of clarity which saw that scarcity should not automatically mean restricting its availability.

    Maybe, it says, sharing is better than hoarding. In their different ways, the two whiskies show the number of ways in which we can talk about, and enjoy, rarity.

  • Whisky is becoming over-complicated

    24 October 2018

    ‘What’s the difference between a first-fill cask, an ex-Bourbon cask and a fine oak cask?’ This seemingly complex question, posted by a curious mind in one of Facebook’s many whisky groups recently, along with its equally confused responses, couldn’t be more appropriate in its timing.

    ‘What’s a fine oak cask?’
    ‘Some have fine oak written on the label.’
    ‘That’s not really a thing.’
    ‘Isn’t it the opposite of coarse oak?’

    If you weren’t already aware, ‘Fine Oak’ was the name given to a line of Macallan expressions matured in a combination of Sherry-seasoned European and American oak casks, and ex-Bourbon casks. The range was renamed in April 2018 as Macallan Triple Cask to reflect the three types of cask used during maturation, and as a means to simplify whisky terminology for puzzled consumers.

    It’s no wonder we’re confused. The whisky industry uses so many different terms for cask types, and several even to describe exactly the same thing – first-fill, ex-Bourbon, American oak, whisky cask, traditional cask – all apparently denote a barrel used once by America’s Bourbon industry and shipped to Scotland to be filled with Scotch. Yet perky marketing departments continue to believe there’s a need to invent new ways to describe an ex-Bourbon cask, presumably because us whisky drinkers don’t understand the concept of refilling a barrel.

    For well-heeled whisky enthusiasts, navigating this minefield of ‘clever’ marketing terminology has become second nature (do you guys understand what all these terms mean, or are you making educated guesses?). But wouldn’t it be nice to be able to purchase a whisky without having to consult a thesaurus?

    For beginners: Aerstone’s Sea Cask and Land Cask are designed to demystify language associated with Scotch

    Every few weeks Scotchwhisky.com hears about a new malt or blend introduced for a ‘millennial’ audience who are new to whisky. The flavour profile is inoffensive, the branding bright and engaging, and occasionally some ‘witty’ new way to explain whisky is introduced for obtuse shoppers who don’t go to bars, use Google, or have a mind of their own. All this with the aim of simplifying what has become infamously known as an ‘intimidating’ drink.

    The latest attempt at recruiting the new whisky drinker comes from William Grant & Sons’ new single malt brand, Aerstone – a fictional name fusing the Gaelic word for ‘air’ and the word stone, denoting the earth. Two expressions have been launched as Tesco exclusives in the UK, with names designed to represent the flavours found within the whisky: Sea Cask and Land Cask.

    ‘A lot of people new to single malt are confused and intimidated by all the language around it,’ Kevin Abrook, global whisky specialist for William Grant told me. ‘They want to know more but they find it a bit overwhelming, so we wanted to launch a single malt that appealed to those people breaking down the barriers, focusing very much on flavour.’

    Although both expressions are distilled at the Ailsa Bay distillery in Ayrshire, one is peated, the other isn’t. One might assume that because many coastal distilleries produce a smoky malt, the Sea Cask expression is the peated one, but not so. Peat comes from the land don’t you know, so Land Cask is the peaty one. So what does Sea Cask mean? Surely it’s not matured under the sea… ‘This whisky develops its character from the time spent ageing in warehouses located close to the sea on the Ayrshire coast, giving the whisky a subtle salty note on the finish,’ says the press release. However the casks used for Land Cask are also matured at the same site at Girvan, albeit slightly further inland where the salty sea air supposedly has less of an impact on the cask.

    OK, so what we’re really talking about here is terroir, that the location of a cask has an impact on a whisky’s flavour, even if it’s a few metres apart. Individual casks mature differently, even within the same warehouse, imparting unique flavours depending on the cask’s size, prior filling, treatment, age, location at the top or bottom of the warehouse or – in Aerstone’s case – its proximity to the sea. That’s pretty in-depth stuff, isn’t it? For a new whisky drinker cask terroir represents a new world of whisky geekery that has to be intimidating, surely.

    Cask terroir: A maturing cask’s location affects whisky’s flavour, but is it the most important factor?

    Furthermore, by only communicating the location of a cask as a signpost for flavour (alongside a 10-year-old age statement I should add), William Grant & Sons – perhaps inadvertently – is telling new whisky drinkers that terroir is a cask’s most important contribution to flavour.

    In its defence, Sea Cask and Land Cask feature flavour notes in smaller typeface on each bottle, respectively ‘smooth and easy’ and ‘rich and smoky’. This I understand – this is easy for anyone to understand (let’s not start a debate on the loose meaning of the term ‘smooth’ though). Why confuse things by inventing whisky names that could be mistaken for new cask types?

    When I, like many others, began my whisky journey I was initially taught how the two main types of cask used to mature Scotch – ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry – influence flavour. One gives it vanilla fudge flavours, the other spicy, dried fruit and Christmas cake notes. Simple enough to understand, and any blender, distiller, whisky maker will agree the cask type has an impact on flavour. By prioritising cask terroir as the primary flavour contributor, and introducing new ‘cask types’, Aerstone is arguably starting new whisky drinkers off on the wrong foot. Soon Facebook forums will be filled with questions about why other distilleries aren’t using ‘land’ or ‘sea’ casks. Perhaps, as Brian Kinsman, master blender for William Grant told me, the whisky landscape ‘would be bland if everybody says this is Bourbon and it gives you vanilla, and this is a peated malt and that gives you smoke’.

    From conversations I’ve had with new drinkers, many believe whisky is distilled in barrels, without really understanding what distillation is. Those of us fluent in Scotch have to remember beginners’ level of knowledge is low – ultimately the only thing they’re looking for when choosing a whisky is ‘what does it taste like’? ‘Will I enjoy it?’ The industry needs to appeal to consumers’ fundamental understanding of flavour with a uniform approach to common whisky terms that doesn’t lead to confusion later down the line. The invention of marketing gumpf to promote a single brand is short sighted.

    But maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe I’m the one over-complicating things.

  • Navigating whisky’s dense woodland

    17 October 2018

    As I watched the landscape through the rain on my return from the Cheltenham Lit Fest (a worthwhile visit but, Jesus, the train companies do their utmost to make it almost impossible to get there and back easily, or comfortably), I thought back to the previous night’s post-gig drink at John Gordons, which is both a wine and spirit merchant, and a whisky bar with a cleverly chosen selection of 200 drams.

    Looking at the shelves, it was clear that the range on show wasn’t just an exercise in box ticking, nor did it seem to be one where personal preferences had been allowed to dominate. It covered the basics well, but was eclectic enough for the whisky convert to discover new things.

    It was the end of 10 days of talking for me. A few days previously, at the Berlin Bar Convent – where it seems as if every distiller and vermouth producer on the planet is vying for your attention – I’d been discussing ways in which bars could maximise their whisky range and help newcomers navigate their way through this most baffling of territories.

    Heaven or hell?: A fully-stocked bar can be overwhelming for whisky novices (Photo: The Pot Still, Glasgow)

    One way was to plot their range on a flavour map and see if all the points were covered. In my experience most bar owners, if left to their own devices, head towards smoke and sherry, not because that’s what sells, but because it’s what the owner or staff like to drink. This can be a good thing if it gets them promoting it, but on the other it’s bad news for the punter who doesn’t like peat or dried fruit. It’s that word balance once again.

    I’d also used an image of the well-stuffed back bar and asked whether it filled people with excitement, or terror. What is nirvana for the whisky geek is hell for the newbie – and never forget that there are many more in the latter category.

    Even as a paid-up whisky nerd when I’m presented with a gantry like that, the thrill at seeing the selection is tempered with fear. Is there something at the back which I’ve missed; where do I start, where and when do I stop? Choice can be overwhelming and off-putting as well as enticing.

    I’d been looking out of the window at the forest. Pine, silver birch, ash, willow, whitebeam, the rest a mustard and green blur, too many to discern, so much information that I couldn’t see the trees for the wood.

    It’s similar to the dilemma faced by bars around the world. Do you cram every inch of the available space, or work with its limitations and select the best, and most representative bottles – ones which will sell and not just gather dust? The customer’s eye flickers over the forest of labels, only settling on one of the shapes it identifies. 

    Does each added layer make the selection better, or is there a point when it brings about despair to drinker and owner alike? I’d asked the question to Frank Murphy at Glasgow’s Pot Still a few weeks earlier. ‘Everything must sell,’ he’d said. ‘We’ve only got so much space. I have to make the choice as to what we buy, what stays, and what goes.’

    This is an issue for new producers the world over. If shelves are already full, then the only way you’re getting your whisky into people’s hands will be if it replaces something from an established distiller. They, in turn, cannot just approach new releases in the manner of a trigger-happy teenager spraying a road sign with shotgun pellets.  

    It isn’t as simple of too much choice, but how well the person behind the counter knows the stock and can guide the drinker into the wood. The task isn’t just about selecting the bottles; it is also about explaining (and justifying) the range in order to make things less terrifying for the customer.

    That is why every town needs a place like John Gordons, or the Pot Still, Black Rock, Swift, or the Bow Bar (I could go on). It is why training is paramount, why finding new ways of cutting paths through whisky’s thickets is so vital.

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