From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Scotch, symbols and ‘special friendships’

    02 February 2017

    I was sitting in frost-covered Forres thinking about symbols. Again. After all, whisky is rich in them and they continue to frame much of the debate over its future direction. More shortbread or less? Fewer kilts or more – or 21st-century ones? Is haggis outmoded? You get the drift.

    Symbols are shorthand, signifiers for deeper and more complex feelings, and beliefs. They are, as I’ve discovered recently, remarkably potent as well. We might dismiss the deployment of many of them as being lazy, but if they are misused then the reaction is rapid and surprisingly protective.

    ‘It might be a crap symbol, but it’s ours,’ we growl. I know, because it’s happened to me twice since last week.

    Quaich

    Symbol of friendship: The Quaich signifies a bond between giver and receiver

    The first was the report that locals in a village in Devon had complained that the design of a proposed whisky distillery in their burgh was inappropriate and, in the words of one resident: ‘More in keeping to a traditional Scottish distillery… Princetown is not Scotland and the looks are not in keeping to the local area.’

    The apparently anti-Scottish sentiment was engendered by the addition of a pagoda (or cupola, to be precise) on the top of the building.

    It was one of those stories – ‘clickbait’, I think the young people call them – guaranteed to raise the ire and make you wish to read more. I mean, I thought: ‘How dare they? Don’t they understand? The bloody arrogance of them, etc, etc.’ So, I clicked and read and, you know what? I’m on the objectors’ side.

    Who is being arrogant here? Why should a whisky distillery have to be in a ‘Scottish’ design? Why, if it’s not malting, does it have to have cupolas which were originally created for functional, not aesthetic, reasons?

    If England is becoming a whisky-making nation, then shouldn’t it perhaps develop its own whisky distillery vernacular? I’m with the locals. The design is lazy. Make something different. Make it Devonian. Maybe the architect could come to Scotland and have a look at Dalmunach or Macallan’s Hobbiton and see how it can be done.

    I was taken to task by a reader recently for mixing whisky and politics which, according to them, should be kept apart. Well, turn away my friend, we’re going in again.

    It would be lovely, I agree, if politics could be kept away from whisky, but it can’t because there are things like, oh I dunno… taxes and trade deals and, oh yes, business involved in the selling of the stuff.

    Politics influences price and availability – you just have to go to a Liquor Control Board shop in Canada to see what politics can do to a whisky selection.

    But that’s by the by. Politics and whisky intertwined themselves again last week when UK Prime Minister Theresa May went to Washington. On these occasions, it’s only polite to take a gift to your host. You can imagine the discussions in No 10 when the form of said gift was being debated.

    ‘Something gold?’

    ‘Maybe not.’

    ‘Something orange?’

    ‘Be quiet.’

    And so on, until some lonely Scottish voice says: ‘What about a quaich?’

    ‘A quiche? That’s a bit… French, isn’t it?’

    So then they go on to describe Scotland’s friendship cup. It makes sense. Trump is – I hang my head in shame – half-Scottish after all, even if the only love he has shown for the place is to ravage the shifting dunes of Foveran and harass the local residents. The sublime Karine Polwart put it better than I could at Celtic Connections last week.

    Yes, talks had to take place at some stage. It’s politics. There’s a pragmatic element to that game, which can involve a fair amount of holding your nose while talking to someone. It doesn’t mean leaving your morals at the door.

    Symbol of Scotch: Broom says it’s ‘arrogant’ to assume English distilleries should adopt a traditional Scottish shape

    Symbols are shorthand. For May, quaich = friendship = business. (You can imagine her frantic, imploring look as their eyes met over its brim…)

    But symbols are deep. The quaich is more than a friendship cup. The moment of its sharing creates a bond. Its use comes from a time when a community would gather together, sit in a circle and pass the cup around.

    It says: ‘We are equal.’

    It says: ‘We can talk freely.’

    It says: ‘Brotherhood.’

    It speaks of cohesiveness and an open-hearted view of the world, of community, understanding, sharing and peace. No wonder it and whisky go together. The quaich is a powerful symbol of humanity. It is everything that Trump’s regime rejects.

    May’s quaich says: ‘We can ignore the racism, bigotry and misogyny, the anti-environmentalism and willingness to gag the press. Not because we are compassionate and tolerant, but because we want to do business with you. The drinks are on us.’

    Mrs May would have done better to place a bulk order of quaichs to give to our former partners in Europe, because those are the friendship bonds we need to re-establish.

    News of the US immigration ban has made headlines and sparked protests around the country. The cup of friendship has been filled quickly enough with poison. Perhaps, if sharing was the underlying message, a long spoon might have been more appropriate.

  • Canada is a contender in the whisky game

    30 January 2017

    January and the first trip of the year: taking the Arctic route (in a plane, I hasten to add) to Vancouver Island for the truly wonderful Victoria Whisky Festival – which, as Davin de Kergommeaux wrote about last year, is not only run for charity, but they’ll even drive you home afterwards. Don’t you just love Canada?

    It also happened to coincide with the inauguration in the US, so there were lots of Americans shuffling around saying variations on the theme of: ‘It wasn’t me,’ and pausing a little too long when passing the windows of realtors.

    For me, it also meant a chance to catch up with my old friend and mentor ‘Sir’ Mike Nicolson, Scotch industry legend, third-generation distiller and who has settled here in retirement, or rather as retiring as a chap like Nicolson can be, given that he has a blues band and is consulting with a raft of new whisky distilleries across British Columbia, thanks to a (belated) relaxation in legislation allowing small-scale distilling.

    Victoria Caledonian distilleryVictoria Caledonian distillery: A memorable whisky for Broom from the Victoria Whisky Festival

    (I’m not using the c-word. Mark Gillespie of Whiskycast told me that my last rant about it had irritated some people. I don’t see why. ‘Craft’ is an attitude and approach; a philosophy influenced itself by a tradition passed down through generations. It is not determined by size, beard length, or complexity of tattoos. Not that I have anything against any of those things.)

    Of the small selection I tried – Shelter Point, Victoria Caledonian, deVine/Glen Saanich (watch out for that ‘Glen’, guys, the Scotch Whisky Association will be dumping bricks on your lawn) – the quality is clearly already there.

    The issue now, for them and their colleagues in the US, is defining what North American single malt whisky is. Does it need a definition? What grains can be used? Must it be aged, and only aged in oak, and should there be a minimum maturation time?

    As an increasing number of single malts appear, so the need for some sort of cohesive concept of what the term actually means becomes that little bit more pressing. It should be an interesting debate.

    Some might say no regulations are required. I say look at Japan, where distillers are now becoming, how shall I put this… somewhat exercised at trying to write a proper definition because, as it stands, the whole industry is open to abuse.

    The other highlight (other than finding an obscure Bunny Wailer Jamaican pressing) was being asked to give some thoughts on a new prestige range of Canadian whiskies from Corby, which is, just to remind you, the largest whisky distillery in North America. Hold that thought.

    The current master blender there is Dr Don Livermore (an appropriate name for a whisky maker, I always think) who is wholly geek, boffin, communicator and proselytiser for Canadian whisky.

    A quick recap: Canadian whiskies are, predominantly, single distillery blends. Different grains – corn, wheat, rye, triticale, sometimes barley – distilled separately in different still configurations and types, aged separately in a variety of different cask types and then blended. You look at that and say: ‘There’s the building blocks for making complex whiskies.’ (This is also why a definition for single malt is needed.)

    Corby whiskyCorby collection: The packs are not yet finished, but the whisky excites Broom

    And yet Canada has been noticeable by its absence from whisky’s recent growth as a premium spirit. For Dr Don and (Scottish) brand director Ross Hendry, enough was enough. It was time for Canadian whisky to stand up and say: ‘You know what, guys, we can do it too.’ The inspiration, Hendry freely admits, came from Classic/Rare Malts, Special Releases and Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection.

    Four of the existing range – Lot 40, Gooderham & Worts, Pike Creek 10-year-old and Wiser’s 18-year-old – have been given top-end extensions: Lot 40 100% rye into a robust, rosewater and clove cask strength; Gooderham & Worts as a gentle, complex, elegant 17-year-old, which is a masterclass in blending three different distillates (rye, corn and wheat); Pike Creek Speyside Finish 21-year-old, a fine-boned, refined corn & rye blend; and, finally, the mighty Wiser’s 37-year-old, a corn-based whisky with some old rye blended in that’s lusciously magnificent and complex, and already one of my whiskies of the year. Is Dr Don a craftsman? What do you think?

    If these don’t make people sit up and take notice, I don’t know what will. The only things I disagree with are the prices, which at around C$100 are too low. They say: ‘We are here, we need to be taken seriously, we are different and these whiskies are valid.’ Their emergence won’t just benefit Corby, but the category.

    ‘What’s this got to do with Scotch, Dave?’ Quite a lot, I’d say. Canada has always had quality – look at the ages of some of these – it just hasn’t had self-belief. Just as importantly, it also has volume (remember, Corby... biggest distillery etc, etc).

    It’s not the size of this new range that matters – there are only 350 cases of each – it is what it says and what it makes the educated drinker think. There is now another high-quality alternative. And there’s plenty more to come.

    Things in the world of whisky have just become that little bit more interesting.

  • Unearthing Islay’s hidden riches

    23 January 2017

    On his first visit to Islay, Professor Steven Mithen was a penniless young archaeologist who had to sleep in his car because even the local B&Bs were beyond his meagre budget.

    It wasn’t whisky that drew him to the island, but its vast array of historical sites, from evidence of the first Ice Age explorers 12,000 years ago to the deserted townships of the 19th century.

    As Prof Mithen continued his investigations, he needed funding – but who better to ask for a few hundred quid than the distillers who had brought Islay its modern-day fame?

    He wrote to them all. None replied. This was the 1980s, and a less than buoyant Scotch whisky industry had bigger things to worry about than helping an academic to dig holes in the ground.

    Much has changed since then. Prof Mithen is now an acclaimed authority on the origins of the first hunter-gatherers and farmers (among many other subjects), and is Professor of Archaeology and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Reading.

    His work has taken him, notably, to southern Jordan – but he has also returned regularly to Islay, where he now has a home. And, three decades on, he has finally secured some cash from a distiller: £310,000, to be precise, out of the proceeds of Lagavulin’s 1991 Single Cask release, the last of the expressions released to mark the distillery’s bicentenary last year.

    The money is going to Islay Heritage, the organisation of which Prof Mithen is a trustee, and into which he has channeled his personal research. The grant will be spent on the creation of an Islay Heritage Trail – Islay’s historic sites can be hard to access and there’s little to tell you what you’re looking at when you do find them – as well as the first detailed investigation of Dunyvaig Castle in Lagavulin Bay.

    Dunyvaig Castle Lagavulin

    Remarkable ruins: Dunyvaig Castle watches over the entry to Lagavulin Bay

    Most of what Prof Mithen and his colleagues are investigating predates Scotch whisky, but don’t for a moment imagine there’s no connection here – or, for that matter, with his researches in the Middle East.

    What were our ancestors doing in Jordan 12,000 years ago? Among other things, domesticating barley. Then look at a site such as the Giant’s Grave Neolithic burial cairn on the Rinns of Islay – what did those early settlers bring with them? Barley again.

    Then there’s the peat. The primal substance that gives Lagavulin and other Islay single malts their distinctive character also preserves many of the finds unearthed by archaeologists. From pre-history to today’s golden age of Islay whisky, the links run deep.

    This almost symbiotic relationship is implicitly recognised in the way that Islay Heritage is going about its work. This will be no tourist trail imposed on the local community, but a co-operative effort to identify and recognise the ‘Islay 100’ – the 100 most significant archaeological sites and monuments on the island.

    That number – 100 – is a sign both of the ambition of the initiative and the sheer depth of Islay’s history and heritage. And that heritage, says Prof Mithen, resounds far beyond the island’s shores, with a significance for the whole of north-western Europe.

    Whisky lovers don’t need to be told that Islay is a special place. Those lucky enough to have visited the island will know that that status extends beyond whisky to its culture, landscape and people. Now it seems that we’ve just barely touched the surface of what this small Hebridean paradise has to offer.

    Anyone interested in buying one of 520 bottles of Lagavulin 1991 available for purchase, priced at £1,494 each, can enter a special ballot on The Whisky Exchange website. This closes on 12 February and bottles will be allocated at random. By late last week, more than 6,000 people had registered their interest.

    Of the remaining two bottles, one will go to the Diageo Archive, and the other will be auctioned at Whisky.Auction from 26 February for 10 days, with the money raised also going to Islay Heritage.

  • ‘Bumbling’ Boris, India and Scotch

    19 January 2017

    When Boris Johnson, the supremely gaffe-prone Brexit campaigner, was appointed Foreign Secretary by new UK Prime Minister Theresa May, eyebrows arched heavenward. After all, wasn’t giving ‘bumbling’ Boris the job a bit like entrusting the country’s foreign relations to a combination of a golden retriever puppy and the Duke of Edinburgh?

    This week, Johnson has been in India talking up business as the UK contemplates a raft of international trade deals in the brave new post-EU world. In a speech to local business leaders, he decided that there was really only one subject with which to open.

    Scotch whisky.

    Not a bad idea, given the enormous tariffs on imported whisky which make it so hard for most Indians to be able to afford the likes of Johnnie Walker or Ballantine’s. Time, said the Foreign Secretary, to ‘tear these barriers down’.

    Boris Johnson

    Puppy meets Prince Philip: Boris Johnson may need to spend more time on Whiskypedia than Wikipedia

    Hard to argue with the thrust of Johnson’s message, but let’s take a look at the detail of his speech and… erm… Well, you be the judge.

    ‘I have come on several official trips [to India] now, as well as various family weddings, and we always try to remember to bring something for our Sikh relatives who live in both Delhi and Mumbai.

    ‘Can you guess what it is? That’s right – we tend to bring a bottle of whisky, Black Label whisky, to add to the astonishing 1.5bn litres of whisky that are consumed every year in this country.

    ‘And why do we bring a bottle of Scotch to our relatives in Mumbai and Delhi (normally Black Label, though I have just bought something called Green Label; I hope it isn’t crème de menthe)?

    ‘The reason, my friends, is that this wonderful country still sets a tariff of 150% on whisky imports, and I believe this matters.’

    And, later:

    ‘It is an extraordinary fact that no-one can deny, that even though Scotland is incontestably the home and progenitor of Scotch, the only place in the world where the water trickles through the peaty glen in exactly the right way to turn into liquid fire, even though whisky is itself a Gaelic word, uisge beatha. Does anyone know what it means? H2O – water of life.’

    I know, I know. But there’s more. The above is the official Foreign & Commonwealth Office transcript of the speech but, according to STV, the Foreign Secretary – as is his wont – departed slightly from the published text.

    ‘Uisge’ came out, rather unfortunately, as the Irish variant ‘uisce’, while ‘uisge beatha’ was mangled into ‘uisceaugh’, which more closely resembles a sneeze than the water of life.

    Worse still, where did he gain this somewhat flawed knowledge, by his own admission? Wikipedia.

    Yes, Wikipedia. The UK’s Foreign Secretary is relying on Wikipedia to provide the technical background to a keynote speech to a vital trading partner.

    If only, at times like this, he had someone in his entourage with a detailed knowledge of the subject on whom he could rely. A trusted special advisor. Someone like – oh, I don’t know – former Scotch Whisky Association chief executive David Frost?

  • Dave Broom’s 2017 whisky resolutions

    12 January 2017

    January. It’s a strange kind of month. You’d somehow expect people to return after the festive break going: ‘OK, last year was shit (and, my God, wasn’t it?), but let’s forget about the past and get stuck in.’ It should be a roll-up-the-sleeves sort of month, the time of year when everyone is energised.

    Instead, it seems to drag itself into life like a teenager on their way to school. ‘Must we? Again? I’ve done it already. What’s the point anyway?’ What you might expect to be a time of new ideas and fresh starts is instead a sulk of a month. There are no new whiskies, precious little news. A month, you’d think, perfect for turning to drink, were it not for the peer pressure-induced ban on such frivolity.

    Maybe January is psychologically the time we put aside for contemplation, a time to make plans, rather than put them into action. It’s normally a time for predictions, but this year there’s Brexit, the arrival of Trump’s cabinet of family members and kleptocrats, and the possibility of trade wars. All that I can predict with a degree of confidence is that we might need a drink or five.

    Still, at least with former Scotch Whisky Association chief executive David Frost now holding Boris’ hand, maybe the whisky industry might have a hotline to knowing what the thinking is in Westminster.

    Whisky wishes 2017: It’s time to take Scotch a bit less seriously, says Broom

    Ah… sorry…  I just read that again. No-one knows what might happen as the Government blunders and improvises its way towards the hard, soft, or flaccid uncoupling, and whether it will be premature or delayed. Hello again, Boris.

    So, as predictions are dangerous, here are some wishes for Scotch in 2017.

    Keep the faith. It might seem strange, but there needs to be confidence in what is being sold. It needs to be less – for me at least – about image and more about inherent product quality. Drinkers need to know what it is, why it is different, what the flavours are, and how does it stack up against all the challengers. Scotch should be proud of what it makes.

    Size doesn’t matter. If Scotch is to make a strong return to growth, then there needs to be an appreciation that there are different approaches. There always have been. Carping about the size of large companies is a distraction.

    Smaller-sized distillers need to cut through, but though Scotch is a noisy and cluttered category, there is room if they concentrate on making the best quality they can manage. The allegedly faceless big companies have whisky-makers every bit as dedicated as they are. Insulting them insults the whole category.

    Oh and by the way, they are as ‘craft’ as anyone in their dedication to their work, so let’s drop that term as shorthand for small-scale. Enough. Please.

    And, since we’re there…

    Call time on gibberish. It’s not just fake news which is troubling, but fake English. A new, utterly meaningless lexicon has sprung up around whisky in recent years. No press release, back label, menu or website is complete unless it is garnished with terms such as ‘traditional oak’, ‘masters’, ‘hand-crafted’, ‘extreme’, ‘grain to glass’, ‘cool’, ‘unique maturation methods’, ‘experts’, ‘bespoke’ and variations on ‘Rolls-Royce’. Enough! [Hang on… You’ve missed ‘artisanal’, ‘iconic’ and ‘boutique’ – Ed].

    Their tenuous grasp of language is matched by their lack of basic geography. In the last couple of weeks I got a press release claiming that an Orcadian distillery was ‘within reach of the Arctic Circle’ [as is everywhere else on the planet if you get on a fucking plane – Ed], and was told about how a Speyside brand was aligned to the region’s specialities like Isle of Mull scallops. I won’t get started on Bad History. Yet…

    Be open-minded. People are passionate about Scotch whisky. Because they are passionate, they will disagree. It’s the same with food, or music, or movies, or fashion… You get the idea. Unfortunately, in whisky, what should be a fun and energetic debate has become increasingly soured.

    Malts are best, blends are bad (unless it’s White Horse from the ’60s). Old is better than young. Old-style whiskies are better than new. Coal fires are better than steam. Neat is always better than mixed. Whisky can only either be serious, or a drink.

    In fact, it can be both. That’s why it’s a success. That’s what we should celebrate in 2017.

  • Groundhog Day for Scotch distillery boom?

    06 January 2017

    It seems new Scotch whisky distilleries are like buses. In the last two years, five have begun distilling single malt – Arbikie, Harris and Glasgow in 2015, and Inchdairnie and Torabhaig in 2016 – while, over the next two years, we can expect a flurry of them. More than 20 if all go to plan.

    Increasing interest in single malt Scotch, particularly from the US and Europe, is driving investment in maturing stocks, rare bottlings and – on a larger scale – new distillery builds.

    It’s an exciting time for the single malt drinker, especially for those who have been concerned that newcomers to Scotch would ‘drink all our whisky’. Give it a few years, and we will never have had more choice of single malt Scotch.

    The last time there was a distillery boom of this scale was in the 1890s. Around 40 new distilleries were built in that decade alone to cope with overwhelming demand for malt whisky for use in blends, but by 1912 the same number had closed. Although a major contributor to their decline was the Pattisons’ crash of 1898 – an unfortunate incident of fraud and betrayal that led to the downfall of many distilleries and blenders – there are still many parallels to be drawn between the boom periods of the 1890s and 2010s.

    Torabhaig distillery: One of the newest distilleries to open in Scotland this century

    In Victorian Britain, blends, which had a softer appeal for more delicate palates, found favour south of the border so that by the mid-1880s it was an established spirit style for grocers and public houses.

    Major blending houses opened flagship stores in London, and introduced brand names for their blends, such as White Horse by Mackie & Co, and Pinch by Haig & Haig, for mass appeal. Blends and malts were also sold to grocers who blended and bottled them under their own labels, and in turn set up further outlets in overseas markets. John Walker & Sons established a hub in Sydney in 1887, succeeding in making Old Highland, the precursor to the Johnnie Walker range, the best seller in Australia.

    Marketing exploded in a way it never had before. Adverts were placed in periodicals, attractive mirrors, ceramics, miniatures and jugs were produced, all bearing the names of blends, distilleries and whisky companies. In 1897 Dewar’s produced the first advert screened in cinemas, at what must have been a huge cost at the time, and went on to erect the largest mechanical neon sign in Europe on the Thames Embankment in 1911. Quite simply, whisky advertising spend was huge.

    Perhaps now we are at the cusp of our first parallel between the 1890s and 2010s, where marketing in the present day means pumping millions into global advertising campaigns, TV commercials and huge billboards, and enlisting the faces of celebrities like ex-footballers David Beckham and Michael Owen. 

    As a result, back at the end of the 19th century liquid was becoming difficult to procure, and so investment was piled into building new distilleries and expanding existing ones. New distilleries built in the 1890s included Craigellachie, Strathmill (then called Glenisla-Glenlivet), Glen Mhor, Balvenie, Benriach, Imperial and Knockdhu, while those rebuilt and extended included Clynelish (Brora), Cragganmore, Glenkinchie, Glenlossie and Macallan.

    Sound familiar? Malt whisky may have been destined for fillings in blends, but the level of investment in the industry was at an unprecedented level, much as it is now. Moss and Hume remark in The Making of Scotch Whisky that: ‘After 1895, when it became clear that real growth, rather than recovery, was taking place, investment in whisky became fashionable.’

    Investment in whisky became fashionable. The rise of whisky investment vehicles and auction websites is proof of the same trend recurring more than 120 years on. Everyone wants a slice of the Scotch whisky pie.

    Crowdfunded: Phil and Simon Thomson used crowdfunding to finance the build of Dornoch distillery last year

    Back then, the majority of new distillery builds eschewed traditional locations on the west coast and Islay in favour of sites in Speyside. The shift reflected the trend in blending – Speyside malts offered a different spectrum of flavours than could be typically found elsewhere in Scotland. Barley from Speyside was also plentiful and exhibited a high yield, while peat and coal were easy to obtain. By the 1890s the local railways were efficiently run, making the transportation of coal cheaper and easier. Speyside distilleries moved from drying their barley with peat to coal, thereby establishing a new regional style.

    Note now the locations of many new distilleries being planned in 2017-19: islands with no previous history of legal distilling; the Borders and major cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh where malt distilling has been extinct for several decades; remote farmsteads in the Highlands. Not one of the seven new distilleries planned for 2017 will be in Speyside – all part of a necessity for each to boast its individuality. In a modern market where single malt is becoming crowded, USP has never been more important.

    By 1899 the amount of whisky stored in Scotland’s warehouses had grown by more than 575% to 13.5m gallons. The Pattisons’ crash was disastrous, and signalled the end of the boom in malt distilling, the First World War then sealing the fate of many. Malt whisky output fell from a high of 16m gallons in 1898 to 10m gallons just two years later. The industry was arguably heading for a bust anyway, as growing stocks far outweighed the value of whisky at the time.

    Will this be where we draw our last parallel? In recent years a decline in Scotch exports led some distilleries to reduce output to regulate their stocks five to 10 years down the line – in 2014 Diageo announced a freeze on its planned £1bn investment in increasing capacity at its distilleries, including shelving a new distillery build at Teaninich and expansion of Clynelish and Mortlach distilleries. A strategy designed to avoid repeating the same mistakes as their Victorian forbears.

    Stock management is the lynchpin of Scotch whisky’s success – get it right and value and demand remain happy bedfellows, whereas overproduction in a saturated market could see a repeat of the 1900s crash. It’s all a game of crystal ball-gazing, predicting the popularity of single malt in the future. Unlike the 1890s stills, most of these new builds are aimed at the single malt market, not blends.

    An influx of new distilleries may signal greater consumer choice (particularly where flavour experimentation is concerned) and a vibrant, ‘fashionable’ industry to invest in now, but their success hangs on whether the industry can learn from the mistakes of the past.

    That said, there are several trump cards modern distilleries have that their Victorian ancestors lacked, including a thriving gin market, whisky tourists, and social media. 

  • Whisky, porridge and personal preferences

    04 January 2017

    Porridge wars have broken out in the house. The in-laws are in between moving houses and have moved in for a few months. At least, they say it’s only a few months. While all is peaceful (bar my Highland Park collection taking a battering from the f-in-l), tensions are rising at breakfast time. They like their morning porridge. So do I. The only problem is that we like it in different ways.

    I use coarse or pinhead oatmeal, cooked gently on the stove top with a mix of milk and water, stirred with a spurtle [Apparently, a stick elevated to the status of cooking implement in Scotland – Ed]. They use rolled oats nuked with water in the microwave. I add naught but a pinch of salt. They add all manner of things, including tinned prunes.

    My mother-in-law says mine is no more than gruel. I feel that what she assembles – it can hardly be called cooking – is little more than grey papier mâché. You can see why there might be a slight difference in opinion.

    I have no problem in admitting that I am a porridge traditionalist. My late mother – and her mother before her – would steep the meal (always pinhead) in water overnight. A spurtle would be used, salt would be the only thing allowed. That’s just the way it was.

    Some feel this approach reflects classic Scottish parsimony. Others point out that this most traditional of fare was peasant food, and that sugar wasn’t widely available. Nor, I would add, were tinned feckin’ prunes.

    Porridge whisky

    Porridge wars: If you can drink whisky however you like, you can make porridge (almost) however you like, says Dave Broom

    You could add milk and stir it in, though my aunt who lived on a croft in Lumsden had a different approach to serving. She’d place a bowl of fresh cream on the side, into which she would dip her spoonful of porridge. Extravagant, perhaps, and therefore uncharacteristic for Aberdeenshire, but it couldn’t be denied that it was good.

    Sugar, it was felt, was an English thing and one that should be spurned, or perhaps unspurtled. On reflection, this is perhaps strange as sugar could be added without restraint to Corn Flakes or Rice Krispies. Porridge, its making, its consumption, was somehow sacrosanct.

    Feeling that I was in need of winning my now daily argument, I sought out a potential ally in the shape of the Golden Spurtle awards. This annual competition for the best porridge, surely, would be where the rules of classicism would be respected. They are – up to a point… Every contestant has to make a traditional porridge, made with pinhead, coarse, medium or fine oatmeal, water and salt (hardcore! they’d sneer at my use of milk).

    But then they also make a ‘speciality porridge’. All manner of adulteration is permitted: blueberries and almond mascarpone; spinach and mussels; whisky, cinnamon and apple; and others which make you wonder if magic mushrooms had been ingested... or, perhaps, used.

    Chastened, I sat and mused on this. Hang on, isn’t your fundamentalism with porridge-making just the same as those who apply the same narrow and restrictive rules to whisky enjoyment? The ‘drink it neat’ brigade. The ones who dismiss dilution and sneer at Lagavulin and Coke. How can I, Mr ‘Enjoy your whisky however you want’, lay down conditions for porridge-making?

    So I’ve relented. If whisky can be mixed, then what’s wrong about porridge mixed with sugar, or honey, or rooibos tea and banana brûlée if the result is one that gives you pleasure? After all, by eating oats you are doing yourself good. They’re low in calories and they lower cholesterol, though my traditionalist side points out that adding loads of sugar to them will slightly reduce those efficacious qualities. So, though, does salt. Tricky stuff, this.

    Does fighting over the type of oatmeal matter? Surely that’s no different to entering into an absurd debate over which style of whisky is better – one with structure or one that is soft? So, while I’ll contest that coarse and pinhead give better flavour and bite, I won’t moan if other types are used. Magnanimous, eh?

    The microwave is one step too far, though. There are still some standards which need to be observed and maintained.

  • The long history of fake whisky

    22 December 2016

    The recent news that Rare Whisky 101 had fearlessly uncovered a fake Laphroaig certainly generated a lot of publicity. It deserved to. We need to know these things.

    It is also a sign of the health of the rare and collectable market. As soon as forgers sniff a quick profit, they will act. So I’m pleased that they have brought this to people’s attention. I am surprised, however, that they appear to suggest that this problem is new and that they were the first to properly investigate it.

    Fake whiskies started to appear in volume at auctions in the 1990s but, apart from a flurry of media attention in 2004, the issue has been quietly forgotten as the whisky world moved on to far more pressing topics, such as NAS and sulphur.

    Only by understanding how long fakes have been commonplace (and, though it seems strange, tolerated) do we get a proper perspective as to the scale of the problem.

    Initially it seemed as if the arrival of large volumes of rare whiskies in the ’90s were simply a consequence of whisky auctions gathering pace and prices rising accordingly. What was bewildering was the number of pristine bottles appearing, purporting to come from the 19th or early 20th centuries. Neither was it the odd bottle, but multiples of the same whisky, with labels in the same, excellent, condition.

    Some hailed from established distilleries – Macallan, Bowmore, Laphroaig, etc – but many were from distilleries whose wares had never been seen. Most appeared to have originated in Italy. As one source said to me in 2001: ‘It was almost too good to be true. I had one person saying: “I can get anything you want.”’

    Fake Laphroaig 1903

    Not quite right: The bottle at the centre of the latest fake whisky scandal

    As well as seeding their wares into the auction market, the fakers also began approaching distillers directly. Those firms with archivists (Diageo, Chivas, Allied (since bought by Chivas)) rejected what was being offered. (This, incidentally, shows that firms who do take the time and effort to preserve, respect and cherish their past are less likely to be caught out.)

    Others were more gung-ho. You can, perhaps, understand why. The market for old whisky is rising. You are building a reputation at this high end and now there is a seemingly endless stream of old whiskies which will only add to the glory of your back-story – or at least that’s what the nice Italian gentleman is telling you when you meet him in a hotel in Elgin.

    It’s entirely possible, because no-one seemed interested in old whisky until recently, that an old lady in Bologna would simply keep hold of her huge stash of 19th-century booze.

    Macallan, while far from being the only distiller to be duped, drank the most deeply from this pool, even ‘replicating’ some of their purchases. It was only when liquid from an alleged 19th-century bottle was ceremoniously syringed out to try at the first replica product launch that people’s fears were confirmed. It was obvious to most of us in the room that this was not an old whisky.

    The experts, however, were often ignored – even vilified. Some collectors bought bottles, knowing they were fakes. ‘After all,’ I was told at the time, ‘even a fake van Gogh is worth a lot of money!’ As a result, more fakes appeared.

    In 2003, Macallan bowed to pressure and had a selection of its purchases carbon-dated at the same Oxford laboratory used by Rare Whisky 101. All of the bottles were shown to be fakes.

    While they had been duped, at least there was now a clear methodology to test for potential fakes: check the label for inaccuracies, examine the glass, use archives, test the liquid – either at Tatlock & Thomson, or send it to Oxford.

    Andy Simpson David Robertson

    Trail-blazers?: Andy Simpson and David Robertson, directors of Rare Whisky 101

    My question is: if this system has been in place for 13 years, why is Rare Whisky 101 making out as if it is the first firm to expose this? It wasn’t. Maybe David Robertson – who was at Macallan at the time when the fakes were being purchased – has had a bad attack of amnesia?

    Surely a firm which sets itself up as the expert on rare and ‘investment-grade’ whisky ought to have placed fakes front and centre of its advice to potential clients – especially given the personal experience of one of its directors?

    I hope, now that the extent of the problem has, again, been flagged up, that collectors, investment firms, and auction houses – who have regularly employed a Pontius Pilate-esque defence when they have been found to have sold a fake – pay attention to the scale of the problem.

    If the rare market continues to be run on nothing more than blind trust, naivety and avarice, you can guarantee that another wave of fakes will appear. Chancers beget chancers.

    If the provenance of the bottle cannot be proved, if there are no historical records, then avoid. In 2004, Iain Russell, now archivist at Glenmorangie and who has been assiduous in his monitoring of the fakes market, said: ‘My advice is “caveat emptor”.’ How depressing that, 14 years later, the same phrase is being used once again.

  • Is gin a serious threat to Scotch?

    19 December 2016

    It started with the assertion that gin revenues in the UK would overtake those of blended Scotch whisky by 2020 – a forecast made last week by research company Euromonitor International. Things escalated rather quickly from there.

    Within a day or two, UK sales of Scottish gin were about outstrip those of Scotch, according to some headlines. By the time I was asked to comment on the issue on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme last Tuesday, it was Scottish craft distillers who were driving this gin-naissance at the expense of their whisky-making compatriots.

    And so an initially compelling headline, propelled by the media equivalent of Chinese whispers, quickly became – depending on your point of view – a source of Scottish national pride, or a betrayal of one of the country’s most lucrative exports.

    And the truth? Well, that’s become an over-valued currency in 2016, as global political events have taught us.

    A little clarity. Euromonitor reckons gin sales in the UK were worth £1.07bn in 2015, versus blended Scotch at £1.28bn. By 2020, it predicts the respective figures will reach £1.37bn and £1.17bn.

    Read that again. Blended Scotch. No mention of single malts, which now account for roughly 15% of Scotch whisky sales by volume in the UK – and considerably more by value. Bring in the likes of Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet and Glenmorangie, and there’s no story.

    Gin Martini

    On-trend: But can gin really overtake Scotch in the UK?

    Secondly, the Scottish ‘craft’ angle. Scotland, we’re told, now produces 70% of the gin consumed in the UK. Well… yes. Given that multinational Diageo produces market leader Gordon’s and number four-selling Tanqueray at Cameronbridge in Fife, that’s hardly surprising.

    Add in Hendrick’s (made by William Grant at Girvan, south Ayrshire) and Glen’s (Loch Lomond’s Glen Catrine, also Ayrshire) and that’s roughly half the UK gin market taken care of. None of the companies named could realistically lay claim to being ‘craft’ operators, however you define the term. Nor would most people readily identify Gordon’s and Tanqueray with Scotland (they were initially distilled in Southwark and Bloomsbury respectively).

    Beyond the hype of the ‘gin overtakes Scotch’ soundbite, however, there’s an underlying truth. Gin is hot in the UK right now, and the ever-expanding army of small-scale craft distillers in Scotland – while not troubling the market leadership of Gordon’s or Bombay Sapphire – are a crucial part of that resurgence.

    But there’s another reason why some Scots have taken to infusing neutral grain spirit with bizarre botanicals: in many cases, these same distillers are also making Scotch – and gin is a nice source of short-term revenue while they wait at least three years (and often far longer) for their whisky to mature.

    Far from being threatened by the craft spirits zeitgeist, Scotch whisky is, in fact, part of it. Strathearn distillery released a number of gins before recently selling its first bottle of Scotch whisky (aged three years and a day) for an eye-watering £4,150 at auction; demand for immature spirit made by Ardnamurchan has outstripped supply by more than three times.

    Euromonitor’s predictions are honest ones, and based on the experience and knowledge of their analysts. But that’s all they are – predictions – and I know of at least one rival company whose forecasts directly contradict them.

    In the end, while these figures are a useful generator of (sometimes misleading) headlines, I’d give them as much weight as – to pluck an example out of the air – pre-election opinion polls.

  • Remembering Wallace Milroy

    16 December 2016

    I first met Wallace Milroy in 1988. At United Distillers’ (UD) old headquarters in Landmark House, Hammersmith, to be precise. A perfectly logical place to meet a whisky giant, you may think, but we were actually both there to taste a range of new Greek wines. I had only recently started at a drinks trade weekly and was trying to get to grips with the complexities of the UK drinks trade, so was being sent everywhere.

    As far as I recall, the tasting went well and, as was the custom in those days, was followed by lunch. Wallace caught my eye. ‘I think it might be time for a dram,’ he said, striding purposefully across to a display cabinet on which were sitting the then brand new Classic Malts. He paused for a nanosecond, eyeing up the range.

    ‘Let’s have a look at Glenkinchie,’ he said, uncorking the bottle and pouring two of the biggest measures I’d ever seen. I looked around, expecting some UD executive to take issue with someone helping themselves, but reprimand came there none.

    We steadily worked our way through some of the selection before lunch intervened, accompanied by wine, then more whisky. I stayed close to Wallace, listening.

    Post-meal, and now somewhat emboldened, I decided to head back to the office. As I lurched out of the lift door and stumbled towards my desk a cry of: ‘Dave, can you come in for a second please?’ came from the editor’s office. I did, propping myself up against his wall.

    Wallace Milroy

    1931-2016: Wallace Milroy was a fountain of knowledge and kindness to Dave Broom when he first started in the drinks industry

    ‘This is entirely my fault,’ he apologised, ‘I meant to tell you that we have an office rule. If one goes out for lunch, one does not return to work afterwards. You can go home.’

    I had learned so much in the space of a day. Most significant, though, was meeting Wallace.

    His Malt Whisky Almanac was the book we’d referred to when I worked at Oddbins as we were trying to work out what these single malts were all about. It was on my desk at the office. I hadn’t just met him, I’d had a drink with him and he’d answered my questions without laughing at me.

    Over the years, he became a touchstone; a source of scurrilous gossip and sound leads; a confirmer of facts; a bearer of drinks; and a companion at meals where any thought of returning to work was banished.

    I now realise that I was witnessing the passing of the old whisky world. The era when business would be conducted mostly over lunches – at Matthew Gloag’s Bordeaux House in Perth, Teachers’ fine offices in St Enoch Square in Glasgow, or Morrison Bowmore’s in Springburn.

    UD preferred the Buttery in Glasgow, while lunch with Lang’s and R&B usually took place in one of Glasgow’s discreet, high-end Italian establishments. This is where relationships were established, friendships made, projects planned and my education slowly progressed.

    There is a Chinese belief that you only do business with someone after you have seen them drunk, because when in that state any front dissolves and the real person emerges. I’m not sure that was the intention in whisky – I have a feeling it was simply generosity, the way things were done.

    This was, (and indeed is) a convivial spirit. This was the world which Wallace, and later Michael Jackson, introduced me to. A place where you could ask questions, meet the people who knew, tap into generations of experience and encounter people who were as generous with their time as they were with their measures.

    That world has gone. A few years ago, around this time of year, I was speaking to Charlie MacLean and asked him how Edinburgh was. ‘Terrible,’ he retorted. ‘Every restaurant is full of people who don’t know how to do lunch.’

    The spirit world appears to have joined that band. Events are at night, in noisy bars. There is little time to sit down and yarn, to have the quiet, off-the-record chat. I’m sure relationships and friendships are formed, but as everyone is apparently so busy and important, the events have to be highly managed.

    In the old days, if there was a PR involved, they tended to be old hacks who loved a drink as much as everyone, so if there was a key message to take home they’d probably forgotten it as well. Have a good time, relax, talk and a richer story will emerge, was the attitude. It seemed to work.

    Do I miss it? In many ways no – there was often too much booze involved. I do, however, miss the fact that this way of working allowed me time to talk to people like Wallace and ask my naive questions, and they would gladly open their repository of knowledge, verbal and liquid. I’ll certainly never forget the kindness and patience he showed this kid from Glasgow, lost in this new world.

    May he rest in peace and his spirit never be forgotten.

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