From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Whisky, cliché and the real Scotland

    01 August 2018

    Avoid cliché. That’s what my mentor Michael Jackson told me. Probably more than once. It’s hard to do. Aren’t clichés just shopworn truths whose meaning has been diminished by careless handling over the years?

    It sprang to mind when we were stravaiging across the Highlands. Mountains? Tick. Heather coming into bloom? Tick. Hairy coos? Tick. All we needed was a red stag at bay looking into the middle distance, and our I-Spy Book of the Highlands would have been complete.

    Maybe the folks on the Lochs & Glens coach would be lucky enough to grab that one. There you have it. The clichés. But the mountains and heather and coos are real. Why, then, are we so irritated by them?

    It’s been buzzing about at the (very) back of my mind while I’m trying to relax on holiday, surrounded by birds – a hen harrier yesterday, which was a bit of treat – waves, wind, family, friends, music and books.

    There’s a lot of poetry, and it was a poem which brought the whole cliché thing back into focus once again, namely Robin Robertson’s Camera Obscura, which includes fictive diary extracts from the (real) pioneering photographer David Octavius Hill, who worked in Edinburgh in the 1840s.

    ‘The price we pay for railways, better roads & speedier mail,’ one extract goes, ‘is seeing our most able Artists & Scientists leave for London – their places taken by Thomas Cook travellers decked in tartan looking for “The Picturesque”. It is the end of an old song.’

    Robertson may have invented the diary, but the debate about how Scotland was being packaged and sold was real, even in those days. Here’s the dilemma: Scotland became popular thanks in part to the novels of Walter Scott, the poetry of Burns, the paintings of Landseer and the Royal approval of Victoria and Albert. 

    It was cleared, so there was more romantic space to gaze at without the inconvenience of people working in the foreground. The sheep and deer helped to reduce the number of trees ruining the view, making things more acceptably ‘wild’.

    Monarch of the Glen

    Stag at bay: Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen helped create a Scottish romantic stereotype

    Hill and his partner Robert Adamson created calotypes of not just Edinburgh’s great and good, but its overlooked: fishermen, oyster sellers, workers. They are early attempts to move away from easy stereotypes.

    Not that they appeared to succeed. By the end of the 19th century, Scotland was ‘North Britain’ (they even named a distillery that to reinforce the point), its music reduced to music hall caperings, its literature and art overtly sentimental.

    Or was it? At the start of the holiday, my daughter and I went along to the exhibition on Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow style at Kelvingrove – which showed how radical he and his colleagues were in terms of art, architecture and design at the turn of the 20th century. Anything but clichéd.

    Kelvingrove also has a new gallery dedicated to the Glasgow Boys, a loose collective of artists who worked together in the 1880s and whose work was anything but nostalgic or hackneyed.

    They painted in the open air, used workers and children as their models, aimed for realism, or at the other extreme created fantastical, gilded and mythical worlds. For a brief period, they were the most radical artists in Britain.

    They were pushing back, just as Hill and Adamson had done, and as the poet Hugh MacDiarmid would do from the 1920s onwards.

    ‘Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?
    Only as a patch of hillside might be a cliché corner
    To a fool who cries “nothing but heather!”… 
    How marvellously descriptive! And incomplete.’

    Scotland Small (1943)

    Fisher girls at Newhaven, Edinburgh 1843-7

    Edinburgh life: Fisher girls at Newhaven, captured by David Octavius Hill (c. 1843-7)

    MacDiarmid’s argument is not to ignore the heather, but to look more closely (which takes us back to Nan Shepherd) and realise that there is richness and complexity beneath the cliché.

    He and other writers of his generation – Aeneas MacDonald, Neil Gunn – also began to write about their love of whisky and use it as a symbol, or example, of identity, in their attempts to move away from the glib and sentimentalised idea of ‘Scotland’.

    For them, single malt represented the ‘real’ Scotland. It was linked closely to the land and the people rather than – heaven help us – the world of blends, which was only concerned with business, export and balance of trade. 

    Before anyone jumps on me, this is too partisan an outlook. You can see their point, though. Whisky had wrapped a plaid of late Victorian clichés around itself and sold the world Scotch-land.

    On one hand you could say this is where it all went wrong but, were it not for these simple signifiers, would Scotch be where it is today? 

    As I’ve said before, it’s strange that we still fulminate about whisky’s co-opting of tartan, coos and heather when the industry has long moved away from it. Why then does that perception linger?

    James Ballantine Dr George Bell David Octavius Hill at an Edinburgh ale house

    Edinburgh ale: David Octavius Hill (right), with James Ballantine and Dr George Bell

    Perhaps we haven’t been clever enough to create a richer alternative, which is why now, when there are huge opportunities to talk about whisky (and its role in Scottish culture), it is once again being reduced and simplified to lists and ‘10 things you need to know’ – the online equivalent of an out-of-focus photo taken from the window seat of a Lochs & Glens coach speeding through Glenshee.

    ‘People don’t have the time,’ we are told. Well, you know, we do. We like films, and binge on box sets. We read books, we sit and have conversations. Yes, we need to find new ways to talk and explain and communicate, but that can’t be done through simplification to the point of inanity because, by doing that, you simply create a whole new set of clichés.

    The same battle fought by the writers and artists continues. Resist. Push back. Bring the real Scotland to life. Look into the heather, go to the fishing villages or mines, paint the clarty boots, the slums and the wild coast.

    Yes there are coos amongst the heather. Yes, people make shortbread. Don’t ignore it, but don’t ignore the fact that there is more.

  • Let experiences shape your palate

    25 July 2018

    It was about halfway up Ben Rinnes when we began to wonder whether it was such a smart idea to carry a drone, cameras, and sound equipment up a 2,759-foot (840 metre) mountain. My assertions that it wasn’t far now and it would definitely be worth it when we saw the vista from the summit were, I suspect, beginning to grate with my companions. The idea that we suffer for our art (in this case the forthcoming documentary The Amber Light) was beginning to pall.

    When the gradient eased a little I paused for a rest. In among the heather on the side of the track were strange bright orange nodules, golden mutant berries huddling low in the ground. I’ve been up the Ben many times, but had never spotted them before. I bent down and picked one. Potentially poisonous, but what the hell.

    I tentatively tasted it and the flavour flooded by palate: honey-sweet, slightly milky, gentle hints of apricot. I’d tasted a sweeter version before in Norway, albeit in a jar. Cloudberries. The more I looked, the more there were, nestling in the roots and tangle. We tasted them, grinning, amazed.

    Alpine fruit: The cloudberry grows in cool climates, and has a milky, honey-sweet flavour

    I reached into my pocket, pulled out a book and read:

    Each of the senses is a way in to what the mountain has to give. The palate can taste the wild berries, blaeberry, ‘wild free-born cranberry’ and, most subtle and sweet of all, the avern or cloudberry a name like a dream. The juicy gold globe melts against the tongue, but who can describe a flavour? The tongue cannot give it back. One must find the berries, golden-ripe, to know their taste.

    That was Nan Shepherd, writing in her remarkable account of the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain. It’s been a touchstone since I discovered a copy in a second-hand bookshop in Ballater. This book – written in 1944, but not published until 1977 – is about her engagement with the mountains. Rather than having an obsessive drive for the summit, she takes her time, stravaiging into their hidden depths, experiencing the place with all of her senses.

    It’s a passage which I use on a semi-regular basis in talks – and also as a reminder to myself about how vital it is to stay engaged with the world. After all, if you cannot write and talk about a taste unless you have experienced it, the more you do taste, the more you tune in to the world and, by extension, the liquid.

    I’d read the passage to Alan Winchester [master distiller of The Glenlivet, who was recently awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Spirits Challenge] the day before as we’d walked to the abandoned Scalan seminary, discussing how astonishing it was that here in the wilds of the Braes of Glenlivet in the 18th century, were people discussing theology in Latin while growing their food, cultivating the land, milling, brewing and, who knows, maybe even distilling, all the while wondering when this, the only place in Scotland where priests could be trained, would be raided. A place of contemplation and yet of rebellion; a locale for rebels and anti-establishment thinking, a home for dreamers.

    Elevated perspective: Scaling Ben Rinnes gives Broom an opportunity to reflect on how experiences shape us

    We’d been talking of the importance of place, and how smells can help root you in a landscape. ‘I don’t get why people think of Scotland as being dark and grim,’ Alan had said. ‘You go walking and the landscape is lit up with colours and scents. For me it’s the smell of home.’

    Nan has her own take:

    So with the scents. All the aromatic and heady fragrances – pine and birch, bog myrtle, the spicy juniper, heather and the honey-sweet orchis, and the clean smell of wild thyme – mean nothing at all in words. They are there, to be smelled.

    I first read this with a sense of dismay because it appears to open up a potential issue with writing tasting notes. Can they really mean nothing? After all, you can point to an object, get people to share a sound, compare a touch, but taste and smell are internalised and personal. Is it a pointless exercise trying to get people to understand what you are experiencing?

    It’s another reason why I return to the passage regularly. What she means, I believe, is that to truly understand the world you have to experience it fully: immerse yourself in it totally: see it, touch it, hear its sounds, and taste and smell everything. Log the sensations away, use them as aids to navigation, allow them to bring you deeper into the world of experience.

    And what of the whisky makers of the Braes? I’d asked Alan. Could they have been influenced by the smells around them: the heather honey, the herbs, the grass? ‘I think it’s inevitable,’ he’d answered.

    The landscape is a living one. Engage with it, allow its sensations to fill you, let the cloudberries, fresh and wild, melt on the tongue, never to be forgotten.

  • Why we should cherish grain whisky

    18 July 2018

    In the sunlit Champagne vineyards above Epernay, Hervé Lourdeaux is holding two vine leaves in his hands. One is a dark, glossy green; the other lighter, its paler green punctuated by a delicate white line. ‘Coton,’ he says, tracing it with one finger – and, indeed, it is as if someone has patiently stitched a thread into the leaf’s veins.

    The darker leaf is Pinot Noir, the star Champagne grape variety alongside Chardonnay; the pre-eminent pairing here, as it is further south in Burgundy. The cotton-veined leaf belongs to Pinot Meunier.

    Pinot what? If you’ve never heard of it, don’t worry. Champagne producers are nothing if not savvy marketers, and most of them would much rather talk about the sexy Chardonnays of the Côte des Blancs or the vibrant Pinot Noirs of the Montagne de Reims. Pinot Meh-nier? Not so much.

    And yet Meunier is vital to Champagne. It makes up almost one-third of the vineyards, meaning that your favourite fizz is likely to have a healthy dose of it in the blend. Fan of Krug Grande Cuvée? It’s 25% Pinot Meunier.

    Fruity and rounded, Meunier is strong and stable in the vineyards when Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are temperamental, challenged by Champagne’s marginal climate for growing grapes. More than once, Meunier has got Champagne houses out of jail in a difficult vintage.

    Marne Valley Champagne vineyards

    Marne Valley: In Champagne, Meunier plays a similar role to grain whisky in Scotch

    Recently, belatedly, this is being acknowledged in the region – and beyond. There are single varietal Pinot Meunier Champagnes; English sparkling wine producer Rathfinny of West Sussex describes Meunier as a ‘revelation’, while over in Hampshire, Jacob Leadley includes a healthy dose of the grape variety in his excellent Black Chalk wines.

    Meunier is no longer the grape variety that dare not speak its name, the Cinderella of the vineyards. ‘You need it for the non-vintage,’ says Laurent Fresnet, chef de cave at Champagne Henriot and a colleague of Lourdeaux. ‘It’s young, it’s sweet and it’s quick to mature.’

    Remind you of anything whisky-related? Here’s Grant’s master blender Brian Kinsman, talking about Girvan grain at the recent relaunch of the Grant’s range: ‘Very light, very easy-to-mature whisky… From the time it goes into the cask, we’re adding flavour from the cask.’

    Blends built Scotch; non-vintage blends built Champagne. Both are the youngest incarnations of their respective drinks, and both need the mellowing influence of their unheralded components: grain whisky and Pinot Meunier.

    Without them, luxury single malts and prestige cuvée Champagnes would be a pipe dream. They pay the bills – and they should never be undervalued.

  • Pentimento: peeling away whisky’s layers

    11 July 2018

    Jon Hassell, creator of ‘Fourth World’ music (a mix of electronics, trumpet, minimalism, jazz and ethnic sounds), has released a new album called Listening To Pictures: (Pentimento Volume One).

    Any new work by him is something to be welcomed – his music has the ability to create strange, sometimes eerie, sometimes calming dream states, summoning up impossible places; it is a soundtrack to dreams. 

    Recently, as part of a beginners’ guide to his works, he talked about his approach to the new piece in an interview for the excellent music website The Quietus.

    It started, rightly enough, with an explanation of that strange-looking Italian word, pentimento which, for those of us who are not art historians, is probably not a term we will have encountered in our daily lives.

    It’s a term used in art, referring to any marks, brush strokes, or images of earlier workings which reappear in a picture and are then used as elements in the final composition.

    ‘I started seeing (or was that hearing?) the music we were working on in the studio in terms of that definition,’ says Hassell in the interview. ‘Seeing it in terms of a painting, with layers and touch-ups and start-overs, with new layers that get erased in places that let the underlying pattern come to the top and be seen (or heard).

    ‘Most of the world is listening to music in terms of forward flow – based on where the music is “going” and “what comes next”. 

    ‘But there's another angle: vertical listening is about listening to “what's happening now” – letting your inner ears scan up and down the sonic spectrum, asking what kind of “shapes” you’re seeing, then noticing how that picture morphs as the music moves through time.’

    Jon Hassell

    Vertical listening: Jon Hassell’s music challenges us to hear it in the moment

    The mention of shapes piqued my interest because, for me, shape is the first clue in trying to tease out a whisky’s secrets. Is it round like a ball, or angular? Does it narrow to a point at the back of the tongue, or start in that way, expanding at the finish? Does it ripple, or it is angular? Does it touch the top of the mouth or skim along like some kind of stealth bomber? 

    I then like to taste in tiny sips, taking some on to the tip of the tongue and seeing what flavours are there; then another, this time holding it in the middle of the tongue; then another for the back-palate and the finish; then a final, larger sip, flooding the mouth to get the full impression. 

    It’s the best way (for me at least) to see how flavours arise and then disappear, and to pick up characters which otherwise may have remained hidden – a way of seeing the complete picture. Then, like Hassell’s music, you begin to see the layers within the whisky as it reveals its heart. 

    Pentimento can sometimes only emerge after time as the paint begins to thin, revealing what lies beneath. This is exactly the same as what happens in a cask: the loss, the absorption, the integration and the angel’s share: the way in which time and air, spirit and oak move in strange accords, shifting in emphasis, flowing, covering, obscuring and revealing. Those angels work in mysterious ways. 

    Rancio is a good example of this process: the precursors for those enigmatic flavours of tropical fruits and wax, slowly forming and concentrating over time, waiting for the lighter aromas to dissolve into air, finally unveiling themselves. Layers accrue over time, but some also disappear.

    They are there to be noticed when we sip the whisky, just as they are there in the cask as the spirit matures. Hassell’s way of listening is also our way of tasting – not just horizontally: ‘what’s next?’ – but vertically as well.

    Where does that place us? Right in the moment once again, observing what is happening at each point; observing the moment each flavour appears, allowing them to intrigue and thrill, helping you peel back the layers and see what is there: the original intent of the distiller, the influence of the cask, the caress of air, the taste of time.

    Thanks Jon.

  • Every distillery must be unique

    04 July 2018

    It might be the heat, it might be age, but some things just seem to make me somewhat tetchy at the moment. The latest was a press release [no names – I may be irritated, but I’m not going to go down the name and shame route] which claimed that a certain distillery was, ‘one of the most unique in Scotland’.

    Let’s pause for a second and figure out what (if anything) this phrase means. Part of the tetchiness is ingrained. My first editor had a profound hatred of the world ‘unique’ and it was banned from our pages. ‘Everything is unique,’ he would point out in a rare moment of Zen-like clarity. ‘It is absurd to emphasise this point. Bad English!’ and out would come the red pencil. It’s a rule which has stuck with me.

    Anyway, I think we can agree that the whole premise of single malt whisky is that each distillery makes a spirit which is (careful now, Dave, Ed) singular and representative of that place alone, i.e. (and sorry, Peter) it is unique to that place.

    ‘Unique’ regime: Individual approaches to processes such as fermentation are part of what sets distilleries apart

    ‘Most unique’ is a tautology. If something is already unique then it can’t be more unique than anything else because of the whole notion of it being unique in the first place. The logic twists even further when you consider the phrase, ‘one of the most unique’. This infers that there are some distilleries which are more unique than others – a cadre of the uber-unique. This is where it gets even more convoluted.

    Saying this suggests that there are other distilleries – one would expect from the term ‘one of the most’ that this refers to the majority of them – which are somehow less unique. If this is true, then the notion that single malt is built on a foundation of individuality has come crashing down.

    My initial exasperated response was that this was simply (another) example of bad English being used in a press release, but the more I looked at it the more I began to wonder whether the writer might have placed a coded message within what appears initially to be a jumble of words held together by tortuous logic.

    It was a topic which seemed to repeat itself throughout the recent World Whisky Forum when speaker after speaker, no matter the size of their production, said in some way diversity is key, risk is vital, moving forward is what matters.

    In other words, what keeps whisky alive, no matter where it is in the world, is a constant, rigorous, examination of what makes each distillery or blend different from its fellows.

    Why this consensus? Why now? I’d suggest that there is a reaction against an industry which has for too long worshipped at the altar of efficiency. Getting more alcohol for your bucks is one thing, but is that a price worth paying if it strips away your individuality leaving us with a sleek, highly efficient industry with a homogenised product?

    The shift can come in any number of ways: from efficiencies in mashing, from using the same barley variety, or the same yeast; it could come from cutting the ferment times to increase throughput, or using the same shape and size of still and then running them the same way, or through a heavy reliance on the blunt instrument of new wood (or small casks). If everyone in the world makes the same decisions then where is the individuality?

    Is the convergence happening? In some places I think it is. Elsewhere, I think that distillers have seen why they have to ensure that their product is substantially different to the existing ones with a 200-year head start. In these cases they are heading out into new (or old, adapted) areas.

    Whisky is fragile. Each distillery’s character is built upon a set of interrelated occurrences which are in fine balance. The subtle equilibrium which holds the whole edifice together can easily be shattered if one of those elements changes. Distilleries therefore succeed or fail because of their ability to keep this balance in place.

    Whisky is a drink which is growing globally because of its diversity. That must always be its abiding principle. Everyone must be unique.

  • What’s the future of whisky?

    27 June 2018

    Whisky producers are visionary by their very nature. They spend every day looking to the future, forecasting what demand will be like in 10, 20, 30 years’ time. This constant crystal ball gazing shapes how they think about whisky – what flavours will consumers be craving next, what lifestyle choices will influence their spending decisions?

    With the future on their minds, distillers, blenders, marketers and owners congregated at the Cotswolds distillery last week for the second World Whisky Forum, a space for sharing ideas with the common goal of developing the gloal whisky category. International producers rubbed shoulders with small ‘craft’ operations, while innovative Asian distillers shared insights with traditional Scottish blenders. With such openness, it’s hard to imagine there once was a time when distillers were forbidden from speaking to rival companies.

    Developing the whisky category is not just about looking forward and predicting the future, it’s also about being cognisant – aware of what developments are occurring right now, within and without the sector.

    With 13 speakers from the likes of Johnnie Walker and Irish Distillers through to New York’s Kings County and Finland’s Kyrö, the Forum was a hotbed of discussion for what trends will shape the future of whisky. The following areas were the most commonly raised, from the global growth of ‘single rye whisky’ to the death of craft.

    Safe space: The World Whisky Forum is a trade-only conference for producers to share insights

    Challenge everything; ignore the dogma

    One of the key issues challenging Scotch whisky in particular is how to innovate sufficiently to stay relevant and appeal to whisky consumers’ changing palates, while remaining within the strict legal guidelines. However Ian Palmer, managing director of InchDairnie distillery, was resolute that the existing guidelines allow sufficient headroom for innovation. ‘The definition isn’t the problem,’ said Palmer. ‘Working within the definition takes imagination – challenge everything and everybody.’

    The new Lowlands site became one of the first in Scotland to begin distilling rye (more on that later), and one of only two in the country to use a mash filter instead of a mash tun. Last year InchDairnie used seven different types of yeast, and is introducing two new strains this year. They’re all ways the distillery is experimenting with flavour while staying true to Scotch whisky’s identity, even if sometimes that boundary is blurred. ‘We’re happy to produce whiskies that taste like they should have an ‘e’ in the name,’ he said.

    From Scotland’s perspective the rest of the world’s whisky producing countries seemingly bask in looser regulations that allow for greater innovation. ‘Should Scotch be worried?’ challenged moderator Dave Broom. There was a moment of reflective silence before Cotswolds head distiller Nick Franchino replied: ‘Scotch or not, if you make it badly you should be worried.’

    Have courage; take risks

    Similarly, having the courage to challenge the status quo was a common theme from speakers, one raised early on by Simon Coughlin’s tale of Murray McDavid’s purchase of Bruichladdich distillery in 2000. With only limited stocks of whisky and no new spirit since the mid-1990s, the team began bottling whisky from other distilleries under independent labels. ‘The fringe IB business was doing better than the Bruichladdich brand,’ he said. Realising they were in difficulty, the team was forced to do something daring. ‘We launched the Botanist gin, and it saved our bacon,’ Coughlin said. Never before had a gin been produced on Islay, but using an old still sourced from Dumbarton’s Lomond distillery, the Botanist was born. ‘We had to take the risk,’ Coughlin said.

    Honesty and truthfulness

    ‘Today’s consumer is inquisitive, knowledgable and noisy,’ InchDairnie’s Palmer noted. ‘A thin veneer will be very quickly exposed.’ Foresight indeed from a man whose first whisky won’t be released for at least another 10 years, but it’s an insight that many speakers identified as being a cornerstone of success. ‘You need to believe in something in this industry,’ commented Coughlin. ‘If it’s all built on marketing bullshit you’ll be found out.’

    The Cotswolds’ Franchino agreed. ‘There are too many gimmicks going on. When people try to weave something like that into their brand story that shouldn’t be there, it devalues it.’ Similarly, he said, releasing too many expressions in a short space of time that have no correlation to a genuine brand story is confusing for consumers. ‘If you only have one layer and someone scratches below it, you’re in trouble. You don’t have a coherent brand.’

    The death of ‘craft’

    ‘There’s a craft distilling bubble coming if we carry on this way,’ Colin Spoelman of Kings County said. According to his presentation, just five ‘craft’ distilleries were operational in the US in 1990. ‘Now there are more distilleries in New York State than in Scotland.’ Kings County, he pointed out, is smaller than Scotland’s second-smallest distillery, Edradour. But although his operation in Brooklyn pales in size next to some of its global industry peers at the Forum, he claimed that ‘craft distilleries should just be called small distilleries.’ Every distiller and their mouser refers to itself as craft these days, even Irish Distillers’ Brian Nation, whose photograph of Midleton’s sizeable 1,500 litre ‘micro distillery’ stills generated laughter from the room.

    Social terroir

    There has been much talk of barley terroir, of a distillery’s sense of place, its unique water qualities and climate which contributes to maturing whisky’s flavour. Far less is said of social terroir, of the people who make it, who influence the whisky with their personalities, experiences and skill.

    Every speaker spoke of the people that makes their product great. ‘Our area is important to the distillery and the quality of our whisky, but so are the people,’ said Kavalan’s Ian Chang.

    Country conference: Some 60 delegates packed into the Cotswolds distillery for the Forum (Photo: Tristan Stephenson)

    Age hangups will become obsolete

    Greater education is already shifting consumers’ preconceptions that age equals quality, but advances in warehousing technology is likely to drive the conversation toward other signifiers of quality and flavour. Spoelman of Kings County, said: ‘Over the years the focus on age will diminish, but not entirely – the use of controlled warehousing will change it, lower the emphasis on age and allow consumers to focus on other elements.’

    On the other hand, the question of how important rapid ageing technology will be in whisky’s future was raised, and very quickly shot down. ‘There are lots of processes that earn a lot of press, but it isn’t interesting to most distillers,’ Spoelman added.

    Rye will be a global phenomenon

    The majority of speakers at the World Whisky Forum spoke of distilling rye, and not all from countries typically associated with that style of whisky. The explosion in popularity of American rye whiskey, coupled with a resurgence in rye-based cocktails such as the Sazerac, has inspired global distilleries to give it a shot. Under current Scotch whisky legislation a rye whisky would be classed as ‘grain whisky’, but should the category continue to grow around the world a movement to establish a ‘Scotch rye’ or ‘single rye’ definition could take shape. After all, Bruichladdich’s Coughlin spoke of purchasing an adjacent farm on Islay on which to – possibly – grow a rye crop. Miika Lipiäinen and Kalle Valkonen from Finland’s Kyrö distillery are already working on the establishment of a Nordic rye and single malt rye category. Could it be just a matter of time before Scotland catches up?

    Meanwhile Hiram Walker’s Don Livermore believes the future of the category won’t include questions about the content of mashbills. ‘Rye has the highest lignin content of all grains, which is the world’s most unappreciated molecule. Don’t ask me how much rye is in my whisky, ask me how much 4-ethylguaiacol it contains.’

    Keep moving forward

    One of the final takeaways, which not only encapsulated the mood of the Forum but spoke of an ongoing theme driving the global industry, was a need for progression. Not just from the Scotch producers, who are often – perhaps mistakenly – perceived to be behind the curve when it comes to innovation, but for world whisky as well. Not just for individual operations, but for the entire industry as one. A need to continue speaking to one another, to share ideas and collaborate. To look to other industries, take inspiration from bartenders and brewers, chocolatiers and coffee roasters (guest distilling was one, wonderfully exciting, suggestion).

    Palmer said: ‘The Scotch industry is weak; they all just talk to each other and so the spiral [of knowledge] is closing in.’ InchDairnie is taking its inspiration from distilleries around the world, as well as other producers across the food and drink sector. ‘We’re even looking at the world of chocolate to see how they create flavour,’ he said.

  • Don’t forget about the tour guides

    20 June 2018

    In my folly, I once hosted a tour around Ardbeg. Among others, the party contained my mother, then 80, who had never been round a distillery before, my brother-in-law who was interested in whisky, my sister-in-law who doesn’t drink, and my (then) young niece who was more interested in trying to put a Mars bar into the mash tun than listen to her stupid uncle.

    It was nothing compared to what most tour guides have to cope with on a daily basis, but it was instructive as it showed me how hard it is to pitch a tour to suit all levels of interest.

    It means being geeky enough to satisfy the whisky lover, but not so far out there that you put off the newbie; it means having a talent to field ‘stupid’ questions, and trying to enthuse people who, let’s face it, are often only there because their partner/ parent likes whisky, or who only came along to the distillery because it was raining. Aye, being a tour guide is not an easy gig.

    People pleasers: Tour guides must have the ability to tailor their presentations to all manner of visitor

    So, the news that distilleries have invested over £500m in creating ‘world-class tourism experiences’ is welcome evidence of how whisky firms are no longer seeing the visitor centre as a place to sell shortbread and drams, but as part of their whole brand strategy.

    That’s all great, but with that shift in focus comes a greater responsibility on the part of the owner to also invest in the people who are on the front line. If the number of tour guides outstrips the number of operators, so the balance shifts.

    As a distiller or brand owner you have to ensure that the front of house staff are aware of every part of the process. They need to know when to engage the big guns of geekery and when to keep it light; they must have the ability to read a group of strangers and know which ones are only there because of the weather and which are a whisky club.

    There is more to the job than being taught a script, it means being trained to think on your feet and being able to tell the truth and not some marketing guff created by agencies who have never stepped in the distillery, or faced the challenging demands of a tour group.

    It is all very well saying that these days the visitor experience should operate on an emotional level, but the stroppy whisky geeks who want to berate you over your company’s approach to NAS will not be assuaged by your New Age vibes about ‘being’ and ‘feeling’ – they want answers and they want facts, just as the members of the coach party want to know where the toilet is.

    This is a difficult and complex job and if the visitor centre is being upgraded so should the training. It is all very well investing millions in the look, but the whole experience falls flat if, in the desire to equip the distillery with all manner of bells and whistles, the brand owner forgets to pay attention to the staff and the complex job they have to do.

    Distillery managers and brand ambassadors have superstar status. So should the folk who take the tours, and investment in their training should be uppermost. You can’t have a superstar chef in the kitchen but untrained front of house staff running the restaurant.

    It’s not just spending more money on better facilities, or amazing merch, or distillery bottlings, it is about investing in people and training to ensure that they know the history, the process (inside out) and where the flavour in the final whisky comes from. They are the real brand ambassadors.

  • World Cup and whisky: hope vs expectation

    13 June 2018

    It’s the hope that kills you. Time spent as an England football fan – time spent as a football fan of almost any stripe, come to think of it (says the Ipswich Town supporter) – is an ultimately futile exercise ending in disappointment. The conclusion, whether through missed penalty, goalkeeping calamity or red card, always leaves you bereft. Unless you actually win the damned thing, of course.

    But that hope is addictive. By the time the next big tournament comes around – in this case, the World Cup starting in Russia tomorrow (14 June) – you’ve forgotten the pain and trauma of the comedown and you’re ready for just one more hit. ‘This one will be different… It’s our time.’ Except that it almost certainly isn’t. Almost…

    In England, we’ve become rather good at this particular form of rose-tinted self-deception. The trick, as exhibited in the run-up to this latest episode in (probable) national humiliation, is to start with your expectations slightly to the north of zero: young squad, relatively unheralded manager, atrocious record in knock-out football and aversion to scoring penalties.

    Then, slowly and gradually, and even though we know we shouldn’t, we start to hope. ‘They’ve got a fantastic team spirit’ … ‘Young players have no fear’ … ‘Maybe they’re starting to build something special’ … ‘Get to the knock-out stages and who knows what might happen?’ But, deep down, we all know what’s going to happen. Germany again. Or Iceland.

    If only we could just resist the temptation to dream, to believe, it would be so much easier to bear. Damp down the expectation and maybe we could actually enjoy the football for once.

    FIFA World Cup Russia 2018

    Ultimately futile: But hopes start to build as the start of the tournament beckons

    After all, it happens with whisky. Often, the most memorable glasses are the ones that startle us, shock us simply because, although we weren’t expecting fireworks, they turn out to be so bloody good. We lower our expectations and we open our mental windows to delight.

    In a perfect world, of course, we would approach each new whisky unencumbered by any form of preconception, positive or negative; because, while lowered expectations can be liberating, prejudice can leave us blind and deaf to all sensory delights.

    ‘Oh, I don’t like blends’ … ‘Smoky whiskies aren’t my thing’ … ‘Sherry bombs are a monstrosity.’ Armed only with our own fixed views and a paucity of facts about the liquid in front of us, we make up our minds without taking a sip. Why bother even tasting it?

    We’re all human. Even at a blind tasting – unless you’ve gone to the trouble of using opaque glassware – a whisky’s hue and depth of colour will spark synaptic associations related to perceptions of age, cask type, use (or not) of spirit caramel. 

    However inevitable these auto-suggestions may be, the trick is not to be shackled by them, to hear them but not to let them make up your mind for you, to leave yourself open to the possibility of surprise.

    Put your nose in the glass. Take a sip. It won’t happen every time, but just once in a while you may be amazed.

    I’d love to be able to relate this back to football, but I’ve been on this planet for more than half a century, and England’s sole moment of real triumph happened before I was born – so I have absolutely no problem managing my expectations. 

    After all, as I write this, we’ve just been beaten at cricket… by Scotland.

  • Embracing imperfection

    06 June 2018

    There’s a dark, graffitied stair leading into the bowels of the building. Heavy German techno is playing. In the smoke- and incense-filled chamber there’s a ballerina on stage, dwarfed by an image of her – mid-leap, graceful, perfect, doing the sort of thing that 99.99% of us wouldn’t even attempt; but ballet dancers are super-human. 

    Then the next slide comes up. It points out all the mistakes she was making in the move; wrist wrong, foot not turned out, hips not squared off, knee should be hyper-extended (which I always thought was something to be avoided, and which reduces footballers to squealing messes but, as I said, ballerinas are hardcore). 

    Our image of the perfect was a mass of (self)-criticism. The ballerina, Shelby Williams, speaks of the striving for perfection, and the despair which overcame her when she analysed how imperfect she felt compared to her standards and, more personally, her classmates’ abilities.

    ‘I felt inferior,’ she says. ‘I saw in my reflection in the studio mirror how perfect they were and how imperfect I was… and I cried.’

    It is not what you might expect when turning up to what is ostensibly a drinks event, but then again the annual P(our) symposium is all about widening our understanding of what the ‘drinks’ or ‘bar’ industry is about.

    Established by Monica Berg, Alex Kratena, Simone Caporale and other industry luminaries, P(our) is devoted to widening the thinking of what bartending is and can be.

    The symposium is one manifestation of this, an interdisciplinary platform where distiller and sake-maker, crop scientist, architect, gastrophysicist, writer, chef and ballerina can offer up their thoughts. 

    Ballerina Shelby Williams

    Super-human: But Shelby Williams’ flaws made her despair (Photo: Shelby Williams)

    This year’s theme was perfection and, interestingly, all of the speakers (full disclosure, I was one) chose to speak instead about the various manifestations of imperfection – and why we should embrace it.

    We are surrounded by images of what is deemed to be ‘perfect’. There is an ideal which we should always strive for, be that in ballet or drinks. And yet, surely, perfection is impossible.

    It suggests something which is fixed, yet the world is in a constant state of flux. Because things are impermanent, nothing can be said to be perfect.

    A falling leaf, a piece of tarnished metal, a battered suitcase or raggedy pointe shoes have beauty because, in their imperfection, they speak of time and the process of change.

    When Williams realised that she was being ‘almost smothered by my own ambition’, she created an alter-ego on Instagram showing the world everything she did wrong in a self-deprecating way.

    She discovered that in accepting that perfection wasn’t possible, ‘you fall in love with the process and the striving, and not the result’. There’s echoes here in whisky-making.

    Are they trying to make the perfect whisky? Or even the perfect example of a single distillery? If there was perfection, then what would be the point of releasing different age statement, or finishes, or blends?

    That little touch of sulphur might add lift, that hint of silage might add a quirky extra layer of intrigue; and, while the filthiness of funk or over-intense esters might be considered flaws, elements which get in the way of purity, they are often what make a whisky exciting… and, weirdly, perfect for the moment – and it’s the moment which is important for us as drinkers.  

    Ballerina Shelby Williams

    Self-criticism: Williams learned to accept the perfection is impossible (Photo: Shelby Williams)

    The drink which you have in front of you is changing. Its vapours are rising and changing, some flying off, others emerging late. You may have added water or ice. The whisky changes from one sip to another. The light in the room, the comment of a fellow drinker, a smell from the kitchen, the level of the liquid in the glass (or bottle) all impact on the moment. 

    All you can do is be focused and enjoy it because it is your drink. The distiller may have made it, but they would be wrong to say that their whisky is complete or perfect, because the whisky is only complete when you taste it. You are the final piece in its life.

    The same applies to tasting notes. I hope that the ones I write are as honest and fair as I can make them, but ultimately they are my notes, the images in my mind are my images, my response is personal, just as yours is – and I am not perfect. 

    It is arrogant to believe otherwise, and that you can possibly set yourself up as an arbiter of taste, a writer of scripture who should never be challenged. As Williams says in her conclusion: ‘You can’t latch onto other people’s ideas of perfection. I am an imperfect person in a world of perfection… and it doesn’t bother me.’ 

    Imperfection makes you human.

  • Top 10 tips for surviving Fèis Ìle

    05 June 2018

    Eight full days of dramming, dancing, socialising and eating can take their toll on the hardiest of festival-goers, which is why it’s always best to go in prepared. This was my second Islay Festival, and possibly the most hectic (as anyone who’s followed our journey on Scotchwhisky.com the last week or so can understand). Exhausted, elated and armed with the power of hindsight, here are a few lessons I’ve picked up along the way:

    We are Islay: The distillery open days are a chance to meet festival visitors and island residents

    People are friendly – talk to them

    Right at the heart of Fèis Ìle is its community, the people who make the whisky and welcome the rest of us to their island with open arms, but also those who regularly join them for one extraordinary week a year. It’s only now, having returned for a second year, that I really ‘get’ it.

    Seeing familiar faces, catching up with old friends and sharing outstanding whiskies is an experience you don’t come across often. Those attending Fèis are united in their passion for whisky. It becomes one giant, global family.

    To make the most of the festival, you simply must immerse yourself in that community spirit. Say hello to strangers, share your experiences and stories, pick up hitch-hikers. You’re on Islay now.

    Explore

    Leave the distilleries and go somewhere – anywhere – else. Whether that’s across to Jura to visit Barnhill, George Orwell’s cottage where 1984 was written, or up to Gruinart where they land those famous Islay oysters.

    Check out the glorious white sandy beach beneath the airport, which is largely untouched and completely secluded. Visit the far reaches of Portnahaven and take a trip past Ardbeg to the Kildalton Cross. There’s so much to see and do on Islay that to just stick to whisky will only contribute to festival fatigue.

    Be picky

    Attending every distillery open day (as we did) will only result in exhaustion by the end of the week. Choose your favourite distilleries and spend the other days doing something a bit different. Go for a walk, a bike ride or chill out on the beach. You could even go on a fishing trip or go horse riding on the beach.

    Chill out: You’re on Islay time now, and that means taking things at a relaxed pace

    Book early

    Quite why Calmac decided to take one of Islay’s two ferries offline for planned maintenance during the island’s busiest fortnight is a mystery. It was eventually reinstated, but the confusion meant crossing times were severely restricted.

    Even when both ferries run, they get full very quickly. Book your place early (the 2019 festival runs 24 May – 1 June), particularly if you’re driving. The same goes for your flights, accommodation and car hire.

    The festival is only going to get busier and more popular in future – judging by the number of film crews on the island – so to avoid disappointment you need to plan ahead.

    Drive carefully

    The increasing number of camper vans on the island’s narrow roads are becoming a concern for residents, so drive slowly and carefully, and take care to park vehicles in designated areas. Free camping is allowed in Scotland, but with such freedom comes a responsibility to preserve the countryside.

    Navigating Islay’s many single-track roads is also an art form. Make sure to use passing places on your side of the road to allow traffic to pass by, and reverse to the nearest one if you have just missed it.

    The routes leading to Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain and Ardnahoe, and Kilchoman can become exceptionally busy with traffic (for Islay) on the distillery open days. Oh, and get used to doing the Islay wave!

    Don’t forget the indies

    Queues for limited-edition festival bottlings can begin very early in the morning (sometimes in the preceding afternoon), and create a lot of chatter both on Islay and online as they are quickly – sadly – flipped over.

    However, while there was still a lot of interest, demand for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and Hunter Laing Fèis bottlings – both sold at Islay House during the week – paled in comparison.

    Both the SMWS stand in the grounds of Islay House, and Hunter Laing’s shop in Islay House Square were steadily busy, but those collecting festival editions barely mentioned either bottler. In fact, the indie whiskies were among the finest created for the festival, and at extremely reasonable prices. Best keep your eye on what the indies are doing next time.

    Independent gems: Don’t forget about the unofficial distillery bottlings during Islay Festival

    To flip, or not to flip?

    It’s individuals’ prerogative to do what they like with their whisky, but it was also sad to see adverts encouraging flipping on the Finlaggan ferry across from Kennacraig, with the Whisky Auctioneer van parked up outside the distilleries, ready to collect bottles the moment they were bought.

    Over the week many visitors lamented the increasing price of festival bottlings, some of which have been driven up by demand on the secondary market. It’s a shame for those who really want to drink the whisky, open a bottle and enjoy it.

    One question to consider is: with Fèis Ìle being all about community spirit, is making a quick few bucks at the expense of others’ wallets really worth it?

    Eat well

    If you’re vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free, bring your own packed lunch to the distillery open days. Options are limited and nearly always restricted to oysters, seafood and burgers, although a pizza stand does appear from time to time.

    Come back

    The Islay Festival is a manic, hectic, crazy eight days. Finding accommodation is hard, the restaurants are fully booked, and getting a taxi is nigh-on impossible if you’ve not pre-booked. This is Islay at its busiest, but to get a real sense of the island, of its people, its pace, come back and visit another time. It’s not going anywhere.

    It’s going to grow

    Ardnahoe wasn’t quite ready to open in time for Fèis, but that didn’t stop Hunter Laing giving scenic tours to curious passers-by. It will be operational soon, and by next year will get involved in the fun – as will, no doubt, the handful of gin distilleries being planned for the island.

    With Port Ellen and Elixir Distillers’ projects also planned for 2020, and David Cameron’s father-in-law reportedly building a site on Jura, you’d better plan a visit over the next few years. The festival is about to get busier and more exciting than ever.

The editors

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