From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Whisky must make an emotional connection

    07 August 2019

    As the clouds of war darkened over Europe in 1938, the story behind a series of mounds in the Suffolk countryside can’t have seemed hugely significant to the world at large. But they bugged Mrs Edith Pretty, who owned the land across the River Deben from the town of Woodbridge, so she called in local archaeologist Basil Brown.

    What Brown discovered the following year – in a race against time as the inevitability of conflict grew – was one of the most dramatic archaeological finds in the history of the British Isles: the 7th-century ship burial of a man believed to be the Anglo-Saxon King Rædwald, complete with an array of treasures, including his helmet, shield and gold belt buckle.

    In the years since, these unprepossessing grassy bumps have been further investigated, with a dig in 1991 uncovering a warrior buried alongside his horse and a number of artefacts, including a sword and a comb.

    Beyond the immediate appeal of the ship and the treasures themselves, the finds transformed historians’ understanding of a mysterious era in British history. In the words of the National Trust, which owns the site, a period previously viewed as being ‘dark and insular’ was now revealed to be ‘cultured, sophisticated and vibrant’.

    Sutton Hoo helmet replica

    Face of the past: A replica sculpture of the helmet discovered at Sutton Hoo

    It’s a dramatic and inspirational story but, until now, visitors to the site might have been forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. ‘The word “underwhelming” was used quite a lot,’ conceded Mike Hopwood, National Trust visitor experience project manager, talking to The Guardian newspaper.

    ‘There was a sense that, no matter how much you read that this was a really important place, when you stood at the site there wasn’t enough to give a connection. “Ok, I have seen some lumps in the ground, but I don’t really understand why I should be so excited.”’

    A raft of changes at Sutton Hoo, unveiled this week, should put an end to this sense of ‘meh’. Visitors are confronted by a full-size, 27 metre-long sculpture of the burial ship in the visitor centre courtyard; a new route follows the likely path taken by the ship as it was hauled uphill from the River Deben to its – and its king’s – final resting-place.

    In Tranmer House, the former home of Mrs Pretty, displays, recordings, projections, photographs, and diary and newspaper extracts aim to recapture the excitement of the dig itself, and the small moments – such as the unearthing of the first ship’s rivet – that made Brown’s heart beat faster in the realisation that something special lurked in the Suffolk soil.

    In the main exhibition hall, there are beautifully made replicas of the main treasures (now in the British Museum in London), while films, audio clips and displays explore Anglo-Saxon culture. This autumn, a 17m-high observation tower will enable visitors to gain an enhanced perspective of those bumps and the landscape surrounding them.

    Sutton Hoo burial mounds

    Unprepossessing bumps: Visitors to Sutton Hoo were previously left feeling ‘underwhelmed’

    The realisation for the National Trust with Sutton Hoo was that you need more than a compelling story if you’re expecting people to journey to a relatively obscure part of the East Anglian coast (40% of visitors travel for more than two hours to reach Sutton Hoo).

    In this respect, there’s an obvious correlation with whisky tourism. New city distilleries and the forthcoming Johnnie Walker Experience benefit from their urban locations, but the vast majority of malt whisky distilleries are in rural locations that are, by comparison, relatively inaccessible. For all but the true whisky enthusiast, some shiny copper, a few dusty casks and a free dram just aren’t enough to justify the detour.

    Money is only part of the answer here. The Sutton Hoo transformation is costing £4 million, but it’s the philosophical approach which holds the key to the venture’s future success – the recognition that this special place needs to connect with people on a more visceral level.

    The hundreds of millions of pounds being spent on whisky tourism in Scotland (and elsewhere) can pay for all manner of flashing lights, whistles and bells, which can in turn engage the five senses of the visitor; but it is only by connecting with people on an emotional level that distillers can truly inspire them, and create a bond between whisky and drinker that endures long after they have returned home.

    Replica burial ship at Sutton Hoo

    Visual aid: Changes at Sutton Hoo include this full-size sculpture of the ship

  • The changing face of Glasgow’s whisky bars

    31 July 2019

    My Dad worked at Glasgow Cross, selling clothes. He used to say he travelled in ladies’ underwear, and at one time he did. By the time I came along, he’d given up being on the road as a representative and settled for a buying job in a department store. It suited him, being an East End boy. I never asked him what it was like leaving that very different part of the city for the leafier environs of the west.

    I never went for a drink with him. He died when I was (legally) too young to indulge. If we had, it is likely we would have gone somewhere around here. A back-street boozer, a place to sit and chat with a hauf and hauf. Maybe we’d even have ventured to the Saracen’s Head (aka the Sarry Heid) one of the city’s famous – or notorious – drinking establishments. A place where you could nurse a pint while looking at the skull of Maggie Wall, the last witch executed in Scotland, and watch locals drink the house speciality, the White Tornado; a concoction of all the dregs and spirituous remnants in the bar. 

    Fresh look: Despite its modern exterior, a pub has stood on this premises in Glasgow since 1820

    Yet the Sarry wasn’t always like that. The original, across the Gallowgate, was built in 1755 as a high-class establishment, with 36 bedrooms and stabling for 60 horses. It was where Samuel Johnson and James Boswell stayed in 1773 as they headed south after their tour of the Isles.

    ‘He enjoyed in imagination the comforts which we could now command, and seemed to be in high glee,’ Boswell reported. ‘I remember he put a leg up on each side of the grate, and said, which a mock solemnity, by way of soliloquy, but loud enough for one to hear it: “There am I, an Englishman, sitting by a coal fire”.’

    They were joined by various professors from the university and, according to legend, Adam Smith; a meeting which, according to the story, ended in a swearing match between the father of economics and the man of letters. I daresay it was an occupational hazard in those days when drinkers would fathom the house’s mighty five-gallon punch bowl many times; the very punch bowl which is on display down the road in the People’s Palace.

    A coaching inn and a poet’s pub in whose beds rested Robert Burns, William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. Then, the gentry moved west and the area became a working class district, the coaches stopped and the Sarry moved over the road to become the pub it is today – although whisky historians might like to know that, in 1892, an illicit distillery was discovered in Saracen Lane.

    Famous patron: Scots poet Robert Burns frequented Glasgow’s whisky waterholes

    Now though, there’s another reason to go down to the Gallowgate. One of those bunker-like pubs where you expect the seats and tables to be screwed to the floor (and in the old days the ashtrays to be screwed to the tables) has been painted bright yellow and black and renamed The Gate. It’s located directly opposite Barrowlands – the finest music venue in Britain by the way – and the Barras market, where you can buy pretty much anything you need, or didn’t know you needed.

    Inside The Gate, there’s 120-odd whiskies (the number seems to grow daily), a cocktail menu and Tennent’s on draught. There’s a toastie machine and, in time, you’ll be able to play a Highball game based on Wheel of Fortune. It’s the brainchild of Andy Gemmell, bartender, former brand ambassador, bar consultant and gent.

    There’s been a pub on this site for 200 years. As the crew started to peel back layers of plaster and wood, other eras revealed themselves. Some of the oldest timbers have been repurposed for the interior, though the tree which was growing out of the roof has, sadly, gone.

    Choice for everyone: The Gate features more than 120 whiskies on its shelves

    Is this gentrification? Certainly there’s money finally being invested in the area, but Gemmell is wanting this pub to be somewhere where you can drink a pint of Tennent’s (made just down the road), or a dram, a Highball or a cocktail. It’s a pub, and pubs are by their nature democratic. Who knows, in time maybe a lecturer in economics might get stuck into an argument on the nature of free trade with a stallholder from the Barras. It joins the Ben Nevis in Finnieston, the Lismore in Partick, the Pot Still and Bon Accord in the town centre, and the nearby Scotia as a great Glasgow whisky pub.

    The Gallowgate’s pubs have been high-class joints, then dives. The Gate’s arrival shifts this paradigm. It, and the area, also mirrors whisky’s fortunes; its rise, decline and reawakening in a slightly different guise.

    In the past, as a whisky drinker you were either the height of fashion, or a drunk. What The Gate does is reflect a modern, more nuanced view of a drink which no longer exists in the old dichotomy which stated you were either a whisky drinker, or not.

    If you want that pint of Tennent’s then have it; if you want a cocktail, that’s okay as well. No rules, no airs or graces. It encapsulates what whisky should always be about: egalitarian, enjoyable and fun.  

    It was only after the third drink that I realised that we were here on what would have been my Dad’s birthday. I quietly raised a glass. He’d have loved it here.

  • Whisky marketing can’t live in the past

    24 July 2019

    It’s quite a contrast. Two advertisements, only three pages apart, in Alcohol and Tobacco: 100 Years of Stimulating Ads, a pictorial guide to a century of booze and fags marketing in the US.

    Ad one, from 1990: two men in beach shorts recline on sunbeds, drink in one hand, high-fiving with the other. Why? Pan out and you’ll see they’re surrounded by 10 bikini- and swimsuit-clad women, all with supermodel figures. You can see that one of the women has undone her bikini top, but you can’t see their faces. ‘Seagram’s 7 and 7th heaven,’ reads the caption. ‘Seagram’s Seven Crown,’ adds the strapline. ‘America’s Good Time Spirit.’

    Ad two, from 1997: Absolut Pride. That unmistakable bottle silhouette, entirely filled in by rainbow colours; released in June 1997 to mark the 28th anniversary of the Stonewall gay rights uprising in Greenwich Village, New York.

    The two different approaches say much about the changing times of the decade in which they were produced, but also about the brands they are attempting to sell: one a traditional American whiskey with a predominantly male demographic; the other an imported Swedish vodka keen to strengthen an already cool image with its young, urban – and more gender-balanced – clientele.

    It’s an important distinction: while shifts in advertising strategy do reflect societal change, they only do so through the prism of what the brand owner thinks will sell their product. 

    More than 20 years on, social media has complicated that picture. It’s entirely (and depressingly) possible that the Seagram’s ad would still work today from a commercial standpoint, selling more of the product to a certain audience (including, if he drank, the current resident of the White House).

    Seagram's and Absolut ads from the 1990s

    Changing times: Two ads from the 1990s illustrate shifting priorities from advertisers

    But the marketeer brave enough to greenlight such a campaign had better be ready for the backlash on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, which will then inevitably percolate through to the mainstream media. It’s hard to quantify the reputational and commercial damage that this kind of shitstorm can generate, but it’s one most companies are keen to avoid.

    As a result, even the most hard-nosed advertiser stops running such campaigns, not necessarily out of any desire to be fair or moral, but because they know they can’t get away with it any more. Everyone, surely, has got that message by now?

    Not quite everyone.

    Establishing a new whisky brand in the 2010s is a tough task, but one of the pluses is that you have a blank canvas: you get to create your own identity and, within the confines of the category, your own audience. You don’t have to be stuck in the past.

    That’s what makes the approach taken by Bladnoch Distillery Ltd’s Pure Scot brand utterly baffling: a horrendous series of sexist, demeaning, objectifying Instagram posts under the strapline ‘Don’t be Told’.

    Looked at collectively, the posts make it abundantly clear that the only role open to women in the Pure Scot world is as a ‘sexual aspiration’, to quote Vinium Consultancy, the source of a complaint about the campaign to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).

    The campaign is bad enough; the reaction from the company to the complaint, and the finding against it by the SWA, is bewildering. Yes, the offending posts were removed, but in a fashion that redefines the word ‘begrudging’. To quote:

    ‘…we have reviewed these images, most of which are extremely old and even pre-date the launch of Pure Scot whisky itself. Many of these images are out-of-date and no longer speak to our positive Pure Scot brand message…’
    (Pure Scot submission to SWA Complaints Panel, quoted by SWA)

    Ok, so the images were old (but bear in mind that Pure Scot was only launched in 2015), and the campaign, and the brand, have moved on to a more ‘positive’ message. The perfect opportunity, then, to hold your hands up and admit: ‘We got it wrong.’

    Pure Scot whisky bottle

    Moving on?: Pure Scot says it has evolved to communicate a more positive message

    Er… no. Instead, Pure Scot ‘wholeheartedly rejected’ any suggestion that it had breached the SWA’s Code of Practice for the Responsible Marketing and Promotion of Scotch Whisky, and appealed against the ruling, only to have the verdict upheld by the SWA’s Independent Complaints Panel. 

    But the thing that bugs me most, beyond the posts themselves? It’s this:

    ‘Pure Scot’s marketing is appropriate for a brand which aims to set itself apart from the competition by daring to be different and breaking the mould of what traditional whisky marketing looks like.’
    (Pure Scot submission to SWA Complaints Panel, quoted by SWA)

    ‘Set itself apart… daring to be different… breaking the mould…’ Do me a favour. One of the chief criticisms of the offending Pure Scot posts was that many only showed the lower half of the female model’s body; now look again at that Seagram’s ad from 1990 with its lack of female faces. Twenty-five years on, the same level of objectification.

    But it’s not just Pure Scot. Right now, around the world, there are plenty more people who think it’s a good idea to try to sell whisky in this way; by treating 50% of the population as if they don’t really count, except as an object to be looked at, pursued and acquired. The lesson of this furore is not to let them get away with it.

    Rather than ‘breaking the mould’, the puerile Pure Scot campaign is every bit as anachronistic in the context of Scotch whisky as the use of tartan, heather and bagpipes. This isn’t some vision of the future of Scotch whisky marketing, it’s a hellride back into its rather shameful past.

    And in the past is just where it should stay.

  • Preserve the craft of whisky-making

    17 July 2019

    Snath, tang, rib, beard, swath and windrow. Terms as mystical to me as wort, grist, mash, bung and draff are to the vast majority of the populace. As Jim Beveridge pointed out when I chatted to him, to fully understand something, you need to have the right language. I’d add you also need to have the right skills, which is why I was standing in a field at the marvellous Weald & Downland Living Museum, the handle (sorry, snath) of my scythe in hand.

    Yes, you read that correctly. A scythe. I can’t quite remember how the conversation had started, but as it involved my friend Karen (the world’s best-connected person), it potentially had begun with the breeding rates of puffins, careered through leather-working in the Cotswolds before alighting, somehow, on the revival of scything. ‘Always fancied a scythe,’ I mused, thinking no more of it. Two days later, a book on learning how to do it arrived.

    ‘Thought you might like this, K,’ read the inscription.

    As usual, she wasn’t wrong, but hey… who actually owns a scythe these days? On my birthday I discovered the answer to that question. Me. I’m still not sure whether it was a subtle comment on the part of my wife about my advancing years, or a less-than-subtle hint about the length of the grass, but it came with a voucher for a day’s scything lesson at Weald & Downland, which is why I was standing, etc…

    Man scything

    Old ways: Scything highlights why some traditional skills should be kept alive

    We assembled our scythes and took a few hesitant swipes at the grass, then moved to the orchard, which was waist-deep in grass and nettles. Scything is a complex, yet gentle business. Back straight, knees bent (‘pretend you’re a sumo wrestler’), use the hips, not the arms, cut in an arc, always keep the blade on the ground, don’t push, let it do the work, sharpen every couple of minutes, don’t cut your fingers off.

    It was a struggle. There’s a mass of movements to remember and you automatically flail around, hacking the grass rather than slicing it and leaving the pile (the windrow) to one side. Yet, somehow, over the hours, a rhythm started to emerge.

    I became aware of every element without focusing on any specific one; scything without scything, if you want to be Zen about it. I began to listen rather than look, then something would slip and I’d revert to my default ball of confusion.

    I began to see the parallels to whisky-making, the skills which are learned through touch, aroma and sound, so that your movements and decisions become second nature, almost intuitive. Whisky-making without making whisky, if you like.

    You establish a muscle memory, like Jason Roy flinging the ball to take that last New Zealand wicket (though the match should have been drawn, surely?).

    There are other parallels. We scythers – who sneer and shake our heads at wrong techniques such as those seen in the BBC’s Poldark (we also keep our shirts on, which is probably a wise idea) – have gone back to the craft because it is quiet, calm, better for wildflower meadows, and less destructive than strimming. It also keeps an important old craft alive.

    Tried and tested: Some craft skills in whisky-making are essential to the process

    Who, though, wants to go back to the old ways of making whisky? These days we have greater automation, the process is safer and more streamlined and, as we are told constantly, it all helps to deliver greater consistency. Why stick to outmoded practices when you have computers? Why scythe when you can fire up the lawnmower?

    But while in no way disputing the talents of the highly-trained folks working at distilleries, or suggesting they don’t care about quality, I do wonder – if you are locked in a control room looking at a screen, if you can’t smell or hear what is going on in the distillery – whether you become distanced from the process, whether you inevitably start to trust the machine, not your knowledge and experience. Are skills being worked out of the industry?

    More than one of the (rapidly diminishing) old guard have asked where the new distillers are coming from. In this boom time for distilleries and breweries, is there sufficient new blood coming in – and who is teaching tomorrow’s distillers the craft? Is a skills gap emerging?

    The issue touches on the real need for apprentice schemes as well as graduate training programmes, which teach the practical hands-on skills of distilling. Understanding that is more important, I’d argue, that showing proficiency at filling in compliance forms and colour-coding your day.

    You can’t turn the clock back and ignore the changes. At the same time, maybe whisky occasionally needs to pick up its scythe.

  • Let’s start treating whisky as an ecology

    10 July 2019

    I was wondering quite what that noise was in the thorn bush. I half-expected to see a giraffe poke its head out of the canopy; began to wonder if the sound of grass being torn and chewed came from a rhino hidden in the long grass.

    We rounded the corner. There was a small herd of Longhorn cattle. Butterflies continued to do their apparently indecisive dance around the flowers. On the lake, swifts were skimming the water to drink, while great crested grebes and moorhens fussed around their young.

    Half-a-mile on, six storks began to wander across the grass, lazily grazing. The previous night we’d gone to sleep with the static of bats and shrieks of owls. At 4am we were woken by crows and doves. Above the raptors, a plane began its descent into Gatwick. This was Sussex, not Africa. This is Knepp

    In 2001, Knepp’s owner, Charles Burrell, and his wife, Isabella Tree, were in trouble. The estate was struggling, the heavy Sussex clay not the ideal medium for crops. Even flinging fertiliser on it didn’t seem to work.

    Their solution was a dramatic one. They stopped farming conventionally and gave nature a chance, turning their 3,500 acres over to fallow and red deer, Exmoor ponies, Longhorn cattle and Tamworth pigs, which now roam freely through the estate.

    The animals became the managers – and the land responded. What was dying began to breathe again. In came insects, which brought back a cacophany of birdlife – including nightingales, turtle doves (Britain’s fastest-declining bird) and now the storks. 

    The ordered fields have been replaced by grasslands, thick stands of oak and meadows. The estate is in profit, a place for safaris, courses and camping, and a beacon for rewilding. 

    I’d seen something similar earlier this year when I visited Stauning, where a misguided attempt in the 1960s by the Danish government to introduce intensive farming to the Skjern delta by straightening the river and draining the floodplains had failed utterly.

    English Longhorn cattle at Knepp

    English Longhorn: Cattle, ponies, pigs and deer have all helped to ‘rewild’ Knepp in Sussex

    The soils became depleted, the salmon disappeared, the birds flew away. In the late ’80s the process was reversed – and now the land on either side of the again meandering river lives once more.

    There are related rewilding projects across Britain, including the reintroduction of keystone species such as beavers, or the programme to restore the Caledonian forest undertaken by Trees for Life. The results have been remarkable: all have resulted in a richer and more biodiverse environment as balance is reintroduced. 

    ‘That’s all well and good,’ I hear you say. ‘Now, tell us something important like how you scored the new Macallan. I mean: what’s any of this got to do with whisky?’ It’s a fair question, dear reader. One to which I’d answer: everything. 

    I’m not suggesting that it would be a good idea to have beavers romping through barley fields (though imagine having them build a distillery dam…), but the underlying principles of rewilding also apply to the need to bring the role of agriculture within whisky into sharper focus. 

    The fact that the over-simplistic regional explanation of Scotch is being challenged does not invalidate an examination of what the concept actually means. Rather than regions, we should be thinking of bioregions: areas defined by geology, climate, watersheds, altitude and culture.

    Focusing on that creates the understanding of what grows best, and how resources can be managed and enhanced. The bioregion of Islay is different to that of the Spey watershed. The conditions are different, so distinct solutions are required. 

    In whisky, this starts by understanding that barley isn’t a commodity, but a crop from a specific spot, grown by people who have to make money in order to pay their bills. What, though, if what you are asking them to plant in order for them to live can only be grown with the aid of pesticides and fungicides, which deplete the soil and reduce biodiversity? 

    Stork nesting at Knepp

    Welcome return: Knepp’s rewilding has brought many species back to the land, including storks

    Is there not then a logic in discovering what can be grown with minimal impact, yet which would still be profitable, as well as nutritious and flavourful? If a crop can only grow with the aid of chemicals, then maybe it’s the wrong variety, and another might be better-suited to the conditions. 

    We are familiar with the idea of a spirit’s flavour being the outcome of an intricate set of causal links within the distillery. Change one small thing and it has an effect. Whisky comes into being thanks to this fragile equilibrium.

    Why, though, don’t we apply the same thinking to what lies outwith the distillery – the health of the forests used for the casks, and the cereals growing in the field? It’s all very well saying ‘grain to glass’, but what of the soil the grain is grown in?

    If rewilding is about re-establishing lost connections, then part of it is starting to think beyond the idea of industrially-farmed commodities and recalibrating the relationship between distiller and farmer, and between farmer and land.

    There is now a plan to rewild 2.5 million acres of land and 30% of Britain’s waters by 2115. Can it work? I think it could, though I’m under no illusion about the challenges it presents. It won’t be easy to turn around an entire commodity-based system, but do we honestly have another option, given the climate disaster which is unfolding?

    The dram in your glass isn’t divorced from any of this. Its production impacts on the places from which it draws its ingredients. It is a living product of a place and conditions. We need to start thinking of whisky as an ecology.

    Further reading
    Isabella Tree, Wilding (Picador)
    George Monbiot, Feral (Penguin)
    Susan Wright, Peter Cairns & Nick Underdown, Scotland: A Rewilding Journey

  • How can we face down the whisky flippers?

    03 July 2019

    He’s not one given to black moods, my distiller friend; so what he said was more with baffled resignation than despair. He’d been doling out some of his whisky in the pub. Under the table. You wouldn’t want to draw attention to the fact that you were reducing the takings.

    Not that there was any fear of that. The drams were simply top-ups. Tasting samples. In any case, as the landlord had wandered over, empty Glencairn in hand, there seemed to be tacit approval of the behaviour.

    We were all eager to try the wares that he’d carried down from the distillery in a rucksack. ‘I’m on the train,’ he’d told me. ‘We might have got thirsty… In any case, I thought people might be interested.’ We were.

    Sip versus sell: How many new Scotch whiskies will end up in collections?

    He told me how some of them were to be bottled soon. ‘But you’ll possibly be some of the only people to try them.’ I must have looked bemused. Or more bemused than usual. I know that single casks are, by nature, limited; a few hundred bottles for the market, maybe the world.

    ‘At times I wonder if anyone has ever tried any of my whisky,’ he went on. ‘I put it out, people buy it, and then I see the bottle on an auction site for twice or three times the amount I sold it for. I suppose some might be holding on to it for a special occasion, but I reckon most are flipping them. No-one really knows what it tastes like… want to try this one?’

    A few days later, back at home, I was chatting to a blender/bottler. ‘We’ve become a cult,’ she said. ‘Great,’ I responded, ‘… that’s what you want.’

    ‘Well…’ she replied. ‘We released a small batch for sale locally. It sold out within 24 hours. People were driving from all over to get a bottle.’

    ‘That’s amazing,’ I replied.

    ‘Aye, well,’ she went on. ‘The thing is, it’s now on auction sites for four times the initial cost. It worries me. I’m not a big fan of collector madness, but suddenly we are hot.’ 

    Both are new players trying to build their reputations on the strength of their liquid, but the liquid is of no concern to the flippers. All that matters is the name, the rarity. Whisky is irrelevant; this is speculation which revolves around the reward, which could be achieved by some commodity.

    Spirit of sharing: Newer distilleries such as Daftmill want whisky fans to taste their Scotch

    The nature of the product doesn’t matter, only the potential profit. It’s pork futures, the orange harvest, coffee. It’s like buying a rare record and never taking it out of the wrapping; it’s having a piece of art and keeping it in a bank vault.

    Will it stop? Of course it won’t, and therein lies the problem. Think of the number of new distilleries due to open in the next few years. All will be standing there, proud parents showing their newborn to the world, only for it to be snatched away and hidden until the market decides.

    At the moment, the only way to try and dampen down the rampant speculation is by using the blunt weapon of price. Distillers ask more – and you can see why – so retailers then have to adjust accordingly. The result? The real whisky lover is still priced out.

    The other consequence is that some established distillers, having seen the way in which this area of the market is moving, are releasing whiskies purely to satisfy the speculators.

    Let’s see how high we can push it. Have a lovely pack to lure them in. They’ll make the money eventually and we’ve at least pocketed a decent return. Can the whisky reflect the packaging and justify the price? You’d hope it would… Cynical? Moi?

    Are there any other ways around it? I asked my distiller friend. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I’ve been wondering whether I should only sell them at the distillery and open each bottle when they buy one,’ he mused.

    Perhaps someone can invent some sort of device that pops the cork after three months. Until some solution is found, maybe distillers will have to sit in pubs, pouring drams under the table.

  • Secrets of the forest

    26 June 2019

    Today’s politicians, routinely accused of opportunism and a lack of long-term vision, could do worse than to consult the historical example of 17th-century French statesman Jean-Baptiste Colbert.

    Colbert was a minister during the reign of Louis XIV, taking on the key roles of Controller General of Finance and Secretary of State for the Navy in the 1660s. His main mission was to bring order and efficiency to a notoriously chaotic and wasteful country – and, in particular, to set the nation’s forests in order.

    He began an eight-year survey of the woodland around Tours in 1661, and was horrified by what he found: deforestation, frequent fires, cattle grazing everywhere. ‘France perira faute de bois,’ – ‘France will perish for lack of wood’ – he warned starkly in his 1669 work, Ordonnance des Eaux et Forêts. In an age when naval strength was vital to geopolitical power, France’s chronic timber shortage was a massive weakness.

    Colbert’s philosophy of ‘bon usage de la nature’, with its emphasis on sustainable development, was based more on pragmatism than eco-ideology: manage woodland correctly and the result would be tall, narrow-trunked and straight-backed oaks, providing the perfect material for shipbuilding.

    Trees in Loches Forest, France

    Dappled shade: Forests like Loches in France have been nurtured for centuries

    But it was no short-term fix: the benefits from the forest planting and management programme that Colbert initiated would only be reaped when the oaks reached maturity, some 200 years later.

    Today, in the dappled shade of Loches Forest, south of Tours, Colbert’s blueprint lives on, maintained by the forest guards of France’s l’Office National des Forêts (ONF). But now, some of the main beneficiaries of this painstaking work are not shipbuilders, but cask manufacturers.

    Traditionally, casks made from this fine-grained sessile oak (Quercus petraea) are destined for the winemakers of Bordeaux and Burgundy, but whisky makers like Gregg Glass of Whyte & Mackay are now getting in on the act too.

    The company’s Jura Seven Wood, launched last year as part of a wholesale revamp of the island single malt, uses casks sourced from six different French forests: Vosges, Jupilles, Les Bertranges, Allier, Tronçais and Limousin.

    Each forest lends its own distinctive note to the mix, from the mocha and red fruit of Vosges to the unctuous peach and mango of Les Bertranges and the brooding astringency of Limousin. In flavour terms, these are great building blocks for the blender.

    Black oak wood infected by lead

    Black death: Lead from bullets fired during the First World War has infected this wood

    There’s far more than provenance to the work that Glass has done on oak with cask supplier Demptos – oak sub-species, grain type, toasting regime and so on – but there’ll be time to explore all of that soon enough on For now, let’s focus on the trees.

    Jura Seven Wood started life with cask trials almost a decade ago, and some of the liquid has been matured for 17 years in total (10 years in ex-Bourbon before an extended ‘finish’ in French oak). But that timescale pales in comparison to the management programme in Loches Forest.

    There’s a saying that making a cask takes ‘two centuries, two years and two days’, referring respectively to the typical life of the tree, the seasoning process and the final manufacture of the cask. For great wine you need great grapes; for a top-quality cask, finding the right tree is a must.

    In Loches, this is where Fabien Daureu and his fellow gardes forestiers (forest guards) weave their magic, because straight-trunked, 200-year-old oak trees don’t come about by accident.

    The keys are slow growth – 2mm a year is ideal – meaning narrow trunks and fine grain; straight trunks and no low branches, which would create knots in the wood.

    Pink oak wood

    Rosy future: A genetic anomaly makes this wood more valuable for cask manufacture

    So Fabien and his colleagues visit each block every 10 years, deciding what to cut and what to keep. In the first decade, there might be 700,000 or even 1m oaks per hectare; by the time 250 years have passed, that number will have fallen to 50.

    It’s a Darwinian process of dominant and submissive trees, where the former rob the latter of light, and fierce competition leaves no space for low-growing branches, forcing trunks to rise ramrod-straight in search of the sun.

    There are tricks – beech trees can give shade and stop the summer sun from causing imperfections in the wood – and there are surprises, both good and bad, which only emerge once that two-century process is over and the tree has been felled.

    At the Sogibois stave mill near Bordeaux, these secrets are revealed. The bad: split logs riddled with black and rendered useless by lead bullets embedded in the trees during the First World War; and the good: the rosy-hued wood created by the genetically mysterious presence of carotenoids, which break down into norisprenoids and create a prized fruity flavour that commands a higher price in the form of the Essencia casks made by Demptos.

    Back in Loches, after 200 years of careful management, the next oaks to be felled stand proudly, well-spaced, in what looks at first like an otherwise deserted part of the forest. But look closer and you’ll see vast numbers of young saplings pushing up from the floor, less than the height of a man, renewing a process that will, given time, create the wine and whisky casks of the mid-23rd century.

    And you thought making whisky was a long-term process...

  • Whisky’s identity lies in the landscape

    19 June 2019

    Maybe he was lost this time; perhaps he knew a shortcut he’d not told us about. I started to suspect the former. After all, he was new to this job and hadn’t driven in this part of the world before, so it only seemed fair to give some advice – which he declined to take. His body language was sufficient in way of reply: ‘I’m the driver,’ it said. ‘Let me do my job ferrying you from one distillery to the next. You just sit there.’

    Old Man of Storr: Skye’s rugged landscape is intrinsically linked to its whisky

    We’d come in from the south the day before, the rain clouds seemingly unable to clear in the hills above Strome Ferry, leaving the west in sunshine. Down the hill to Auchtertyre, we went over the bridge and followed the long drag into Skye’s once-molten heart. The talk of green grassiness, which had dominated the morning, was receding. This was a place of coast and ridge, whose roads had come to a sometimes awkward compromise with the sea, mountains and peat bog.

    Logic suggested that if we’d passed the turning to Talisker the previous night, we should retrace our route; but instead he headed north and west, towards Dunvegan. Isolated farmhouses and bed and breakfasts, rusted red roofs, and signs for crafts, and courses. Skye is nothing if not a place with enterprising souls.

    To the north a sheer sea cliff, headlands and on the horizon, the Harris hills. Through Treaslane we went, and into Edinbane, then south to Heribost and around Loch Caroy. Steep valleys and encroaching moor, lambs clinging close to their mothers, a hen harrier, fishing boats in the loch, and white horses flicking off the water as the wind picked up.

    Striking a balance: Can whisky bottles adequately reflect the spirit’s origins?

    Is it possible to capture all of that in a bottle? Can you do it by colour coding and branding, font and followers, recipes and codes? Is Skye too hard to include, is it irrelevant to a world of price points, look and logos?

    There is a balance to be struck, I know. The outside of the bottle matters, the cues and cunningly-coded signifiers are essential for success. But there is more to the whisky than the outside of the bottle.

    There is always more. It is why some of us obsess about it. I look at the place names and wonder about Ose and Bracadale, Struan and Coillore. I remember asking Cailean MacLean once if anyone could really understand Skye unless they had Gaelic. He paused and said no, then told me the story behind the name of the peak opposite. Maybe it is never able to be fully known, but it shouldn’t stop us trying.

    There are clues in the names and the landscape, the stories, songs and dreams of the poets, singers and people, just as there are clues in the aromas and tastes which come in the glass. Comprehension comes not just from books but from the ground underfoot, or when the wind is on your face. You need to get out there and look at the landscape, rather than screens.

    Faraway place: Not everyone can make the journey to Talisker distillery

    We got to Talisker eventually and, inhaling when I stepped out of the bus, I remembered what my nephew had said to me the week before; of how, when he’d stood here for the first time in eight years, the smell of the smoky mash and spirit immediately brought all the memories of our trip there back.

    How, though, can you translate all of this sense of space, seaweed, gabbro, heather and fire that this place invests into the glass, unless you go there? Very few will be able to make that trip, which makes understanding the connections between the outside and the inside, the place and the distillery, the culture and the liquid inside the bottle, so vital. Fail to do that and you have nothing but a cipher. It might work for some spirits but not, I’d argue, for single malt. You need the story, the truth, the place. It all must be balanced.

    Later, I looked at the map. It turned out he’d taken a long loop rather than the slightly more direct route. Still, what would have been missed if we’d gone that way? The detour is often a good thing. It helps to show you what is on the inside.

  • The joy of whisky’s back catalogue

    12 June 2019

    There’s a sense of bemused amusement on board Damselfly at what we’ve just witnessed. ‘I have never,’ says Matt, our skipper and Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT) guide, ‘ever seen a heron do that.’

    Anyone with a passing knowledge of Britain’s waterways and lakes – anyone with a fish pond, for that matter – will be familiar with the grey heron. Normally, it’s a solitary sentinel of a bird, standing statue-still at the edge of the water, eyes fixed to detect the slightest movement. Then… down flashes that dagger of a bill, spearing an unwary fish.

    Not this heron. For the past few minutes, we’ve watched it engaging in some pretty eccentric behaviour. At the best of times, the heron is not exactly the most elegant flyer, lumpily heaving its ungainly body from A to B as if it was all too much effort.

    But this particular bird seems to think it’s some kind of raptor, jerkily descending to the water in a stuttering approximation of a hover, legs stretching down, wings working overtime, before faceplanting into the water like a fat man bellyflopping from a diving board after one too many barbecue beers.

    We’ve watched this routine repeat itself two or three times from our boat, when it happens. Flap, stretch, flop – this time head right in and under. Then – in unlikely triumph – up and away, the shimmering silver of a decent-sized bream in its beak.

    Grey heron in flight

    Fisher king: The grey heron is a familiar sight on Britain’s waterways (Photo: Keesromijn)

    This display prompts a debate: is this bird a Darwinian pioneer of innovative heron behaviour, a harbinger of the future; or an evolutionary dead end, its energetic but ultimately exhausting technique rejected in favour of the heron’s traditional zen-like patience?

    Has it been observing the effortless technique of the marsh harriers soaring above the nearby reed beds of Ranworth Broad? Was it here the other week, when an osprey paid a rare visit? As it devours that bream, whole, wriggling and head-first, it’s not telling us; but if ever a heron looked smug…

    We always avoided the Norfolk Broads when on family jaunts north from Essex in my childhood, rejecting the pleasure craft-choked waterways in favour of the relative serenity of the North Norfolk coast. West Runton over Wroxham every day of the week.

    Now that I’ve lived in Norwich for several years, I know better. Not so much with regard to Wroxham, but a little effort takes you to places like Ranworth, where the NWT’s thatched visitor centre is only accessible by boat or on foot, the floating gin palaces forbidden from entering the calm waters. It’s a sunny June Sunday, and Damselfly is the only craft afloat on the broad’s wide expanse.

    Whisky bottles on shelf

    Back catalogue: There may be some hidden gems lurking in your whisky cupboard

    It’s hard-wired into human nature to be driven on to discover the new, and to feed our restlessness with constant movement: this freshly opened restaurant, that hip new travel destination. But sometimes the urge to proceed also entails the rejection of all that isn’t novel, and a failure to explore what we mistakenly believe to be familiar, when we don’t really know it at all.

    In this impatient age of perpetual motion, new whiskies are bottled, launched and sold out with unprecedented haste. We feature half a dozen every Friday here on, but we could double that number and still not be fully comprehensive.

    Many of these whiskies are intentionally ephemeral – limited-edition bottlings or single cask examples – but many more are not. And what of those that have gone before? Most people will have their handful of old favourites, but what about the rest?

    If you’re lucky enough to have a well-stocked whisky cupboard(s), take some time to reach into the back and flick through those bottles you’ve probably forgotten you’ve ever bought; or navigate past the ‘New In’ section of your favourite retail website to discover (or rediscover) the drams that are otherwise in danger of becoming the whiskies that time forgot.

    Sometimes you have to delve back into the past to discover something new.

  • Whisky never stands still on Islay

    05 June 2019

    They nip your head. Midges, that is. As does whisky come to think of it, should it be taken in less-than-responsible quantities. Not that anyone at Fèis Ìle would ever dream of doing that. The midges would be the only thing to blame for any ache in the bonce.

    Anyway, we were all suffering from the latter having descended or maybe sneaked into (it was slightly vague) the back of Caol Ila at the precise moment that light misty rain (aka smirr) began to form around us. What had been set up as a garden with idyllic views over the sound where we could relax with a couple of Highballs was now revealed to be the nexus point of the island’s midge breeding grounds. We all sped off, sharpish, up the hill to the house.

    It was all slightly reminiscent of my youth. West coast evenings would always culminate by being crammed into someone’s front room, music playing, whisky bottles being passed around among friends, strangers and hangers-on from the pub. Your role would shift: sometimes you’d be the host, other times the one kidnapped from the pub. No-one cared. All that mattered was the chat, the songs and the drink. Outside the midges would be raging at not getting their dinner.

    This was much the same, albeit with considerably better food. Or to be precise… food. The noise level rose along with the laughter and conversations, in which whisky played a tangential role, simply existing as the glue which brought this random group together. Just as it is meant to be. Maybe there should be a warning on the label: ‘might cause hilarity and new friendships’.

    The reason for the gathering might have been the launch of a new whisky by Atom Brands called Aerolite Lyndsay. If this was the case it was achieved very subtly, which might have been part of a very cunning plan, because at Kilchoman the next day, folks who had been in the house were still trying to make sense of what precisely had happened. People who weren’t there were pretending they’d attended, making it the Fèis equivalent of the Sex Pistols at Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976. I’ll write more on the whisky later this week, but I can say that, on the night, it was very toothsome indeed.

    Whisky pilgrimage: A lone walker heads toward Kilchoman distillery to pay his respects

    The following morning, heading back from the Kilchoman graveyard after paying my respects to the Beatons’ cross I began following a lone figure, bare-headed, wearing trainers and a thin jacket, walking down the middle of the road through the steadily falling rain towards the distillery. The loneliness of the long-distance whisky lover answering the call of the dram. We walked together, him from the coastguard cottages, me a blow-in, chatting about life and whisky, and weather.

    The big warehouse at Kilchoman where Anthony Wills held his masterclass was dry however. It kicked off with four new makes, followed by five single cask samples. Each of the new makes had been fermented with a different yeast (barley variety, ferment time and distillation were the same for all). Each was distinct from the other: Mauri was clean and creamy; Kerry M drier, with more smoke; Kerry MX was fruitier, while an MX/Mauri blend had the greatest complexity.

    The cask samples looked at the character differences between Kilchoman’s own malted barley (fresh, light smoke) compared to Port Ellen’s (phenolic) as well as the influence of the different cask types (ex-Bourbon, ex-Madeira, American oak, ex-Sherry hoggie and ex-European Sherry butt).

    Signature flavour: Wills’ Kilchoman masterclass focused on developing distillery character

    We talked of the fluctuations and different spins, discussing everything from the origins of foam bananas to how Sherry butts seem to push phenols. Geeks in sweetie shops swathed in smoke. The talk in the class (and after) was about how, while a signature distillery character is paramount, it doesn’t mean things are set in amber. Kilchoman is looking forward in a host of new ways while remaining true to itself.

    Sheltering in the marquees in the courtyard, the hardcore whisky enthusiasts were enjoying themselves. Adverse conditions seem to bring out the best in them: there were drams, cocktails, the new, hugely-improved Islay Ales and music. What’s a bit of rain anyway? Some were still applying cream to the sunburn they’d got while waiting in queues at Caol Ila and Laphroaig two days earlier. Who cares if the plane didn’t leave (or indeed arrive) for two days? There was whisky to be drunk and people to see.

    The midges began nipping away once again. No-one seemed overly concerned. Peaty whisky is a great repellant, so they say. Maybe if you drink just enough (in a responsible fashion of course) you simply don’t notice them.

    By the time I’d reached Bunnahabhain, there were already folk queuing for the Champagne cask bottling, which wasn’t even being released until the following morning. Some, it transpired, had been there since the day before, which is either dedication or madness. Maybe a bit of both. Perhaps they’d heard that it was a one-off, as the Scotch Whisky Association had gently pointed out to the distiller that as there is no such thing as a ‘Champagne cask’ (*) the label was misleading. An easy mistake, and one which will add an extra level of interest whenever a bottle is brought out to share.

    *Though the still wine may be fermented in cask, it only becomes Champagne by being given a secondary fermentation in bottle.

    Time of change: Bunnahabhain's £10.5 million facelift is well underway (Photo: Rebecca Sneddon)

    Songs were ringing inside Warehouse No. 9, courtesy of David Brodie, ex-bank manager, publican, hotel owner and now all-round entertainer and tour guide at Bunna’ as we ran through a set of three single casks (and the Moine French oak) comparing the same oak type with unpeated and peated whiskies, before tasting three more from different Sherry types. Oh, and the excellent Sauternes cask finish [reviewed among this year’s official Fèis Ìle releases]. I have a distinct feeling we ended up talking more about Sherry than whisky. But hey, that’s the way that conversation works, isn’t it?

    The village of Bunnahabhain has gone, warehouses have been flattened and a new distillery complex is beginning to emerge. For all the talk of continuity and consistency, the truth is that Islay never stays still. It is as multifaceted as its weather, and its whiskies reflect it.

    I thought back to the lone pilgrim trudging up the road. In his heart was hope. He knew things would change for the better. If Islay is the first place to get rain, it’s therefore the first place to get the sunshine.

The editors


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