Twenty years on, recalling the night when spirit once again ran from Ardbeg’s stills.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
21 June 2017
The next time you feel like moaning about ‘health and safety gone mad’, think about the old pot ale tank at Glen Elgin distillery. Made from 6ft by 3ft sections of cast-iron, it blew apart one night, sending one of the panels 30 metres across the yard. ‘It would have taken your head off,’ Ed Dodson says.
As anyone who’s read the recent feature outlining the 20-year-old story of the resurrection of Ardbeg will know, Dodson was the whisky veteran sent in to patch up the Islay distillery and get it up and running again following its acquisition by Glenmorangie in 1997.
The hard part about writing this type of article – and keeping it to a vaguely sensible length – is not so much knowing what to include, but what to leave out. And, even then, there’s that nagging feeling that some of the best stuff has ended up on the cutting-room floor.
Hence the Glen Elgin story (Ardbeg’s old heating tank for the mash was cast-iron, and was an early casualty of the Glenmorangie takeover) – not to mention the time in April 1997 when blue asbestos was discovered in Ardbeg’s roof, leading to a temporary shutdown.
Trial and error: How did Ardbeg’s spirit arrive at its combination of fruit and smoke?
Dodson was clearly fascinated by the Ardbeg spirit character – had been since the 1970s during his ‘Islay period’ of single malt drinking. ‘I’d never been there, but it didn’t make sense to me,’ he recalls. ‘I always thought Laphroaig and Lagavulin were really heavy compared to Ardbeg. But it wasn’t until I began to nose the new make spirit [in June 1997] that I thought: “This is why.”’
But where does that quintessential Ardbeg character – the lush fruit keeping the smoke in check – come from? Dodson has a sacrilegious hypothesis: ‘My theory – which didn’t go down well with the marketing department – was that, when they were starting up Ardbeg, the whisky was probably crap, so they decided to put an angle on the lyne arm.
‘And it was probably still no good, so they put in the purifier, collecting any liquid and directing it back into the body of the still, allowing it to run back down, but not stopping the vapours from heading up the still.
‘It’s serendipity. A lot of the things that have happened in the Scotch whisky industry came about by accident.’
Serendipity, yes, but also the willingness to make mistakes and the good sense to learn from them, to improve, hone, tinker to get the best possible result out of the raw materials and equipment at your disposal.
Distilleries, it seems, have an almost human character, full of temperament and idiosyncratic traits that defy scientific analysis. Dodson had thought that he’d be able to get 1.3m litres of pure alcohol a year out of Ardbeg – until he faced the challenge of working with a spirit still that’s almost as big as the wash still. ‘I could only get to the 1.1m-litre mark because of the need to get a balanced distillation,’ he says.
On the night that the first spirit ran from the stills again at Ardbeg, the plan was to bring the wash still in slowly and gently. ‘That won’t work,’ said Duncan Logan, 35-year Ardbeg veteran and, despite no longer working there, an invaluable source of advice to Dodson at that time. ‘You have to let it come in, then slow it down afterwards. If you shut the steam off, you’ll lose it.’ Logan was ignored – but not for long.
At Ardbeg, the talk now is not of survival, but expansion. That brings its own challenges and potential pitfalls. Intervening in the serendipitous evolutionary process that has made Ardbeg Ardbeg over a period of more than two centuries is something that has to be done with care and sensitivity.
But Ardbeg is a distillery, not a museum. And if a distillery is like a person, then change is part of what makes you realise you’re still alive. What will the serendipitous discoveries of tomorrow be? It’ll be fun finding out.
13 June 2017
Unlike Theresa May (I told you, no politics! – Ed), I’m all for debate. I've been struck, however, by how polarised what passes for debate in Scotch has become. You could, if you were of a philosophical bent, blame Aristotle for bequeathing this ‘either/or’ logic to the western world, a manner of thinking which, in whisky, manifests itself as: blends or malts, independent bottlers or brand owners, big companies or small, condensers or worms, smoke or no smoke.
Preferred pour: What you like may not be someone else’s choice of dram, but that doesn’t make them wrong
Call it binary thinking, call it logocentrism, but this reductionist approach boils down to: ‘You are either wholly on my side or you are against me.’ There is no grey area, no room for, well, debate, especially when the voices are loud.
The drinker feels compelled to choose between one or the other, and once that decision has been made the rejected option (blends, condensers, big companies, for example) is either ignored or, in the more extreme circumstances, condemned. In this way of thinking, whisky is comprised of mutually exclusive camps.
As soon as those lines get drawn, there is no space left for nuance, or accepting that both options are valid. We may prefer one over the other, but that is significantly different to saying that the one we haven’t chosen is wrong.
We have acted in a specific way at a point in time, but may swing back in the future. So I drink a blend, then a smoky malt, I buy an independent bottling, and then a brand, I buy one dram from a small distiller, and then one from a major, have a cocktail, and then something neat. That is how whisky works.
It is a spirit of nuance, one where aromas and flavours shift and change in the glass; it pulls your memories one way and then another. It can be a guided missile aimed directly at your pleasure zone, or something contemplative, which needs to be teased out gently. It is layered and therefore contradictory – in other words, it’s complex.
That quality, along with character and balance, are the foundations of assessing quality. The very nature of balance also rejects the dualistic approach. Every dry element has to be balanced by sweet, for example. If this principle is whisky’s heartbeat, then surely we can extend that approach outwards and look at ways in which we stop thinking in such a reductionist fashion?
I was chatting about this over a drink with a friend, when he said: ‘You know what? The word I hate the most at the moment [he has an ever-shifting list of pet hates] is “standard”. What’s “standard” about a single malt? What aspect of its being can ever be defined as “standard”?’
Change of heart: It’s not uncommon – or wrong – to switch from neat whisky to cocktails, and back again
It’s a sound point. In the dark ages when I started to write about booze, whisky was divided into two camps: ‘standard’ and ‘deluxe’. In simple terms, ‘standards’ were blends without an age statement, while those with one (usually 12 years old) were ‘deluxe’. Standard was also shorthand for ‘cheap’.
To be honest, the only people who ever used these terms were those in marketing – and journalists. No-one today walks into a bar and asks for a ‘deluxe’, ‘super-premium’ or ‘luxury’ whisky. They do, however, still see the term ‘standard’, by which they mean ordinary, or ubiquitous. Its deployment is done in a disparaging fashion, it says: ‘It is beneath me.’
Glenfiddich 12-year-old, The Glenlivet 12, Glenmorangie 10, Talisker 10, Laphroaig 10 are considered ‘standard bottlings’ – but how can this possibly be true? By its nature, single malt is anything but standard, so why call it that? Perhaps it is because when people explore the malt realm, the most popular bottlings are not considered worthy of the consideration of the serious drinker.
They may have started with the biggest sellers, but have moved on. Our very human desire for fresh stimulation, when exacerbated by an aggressive consumerist culture, makes it easy for us to dismiss our starting-points as youthful folly. It’s another example of binary thinking.
I’ve said it many times and will never stop repeating it: revisit these whiskies. Be prepared to be amazed at their quality – and often absurdly low prices. Doing so might just be a starting-point to begin to dismantle this binary world.
07 June 2017
As a frenzied Bill Pullman drove into the night and the credits to Lost Highway began to roll, there was a sharp intake of breath next to me. ‘Ok then,’ said my partner. ‘So what the f**k was that all about?’
It’s a fair question, one you could justifiably ask at the end of almost all of David Lynch’s works. From the nightmare vision of Eraserhead to his biggest popular success, Twin Peaks (now back on our television screens), Lynch’s filming is typically and deliberately opaque.
It doesn’t help that the director consistently refuses to explain or, when he does, frequently contradicts himself. Sometimes – as when asked about the blue box that is the fulcrum of Mulholland Drive – Lynch says he doesn’t know the answer himself. Given his stream-of-consciousness approach to film-making, that may even be true.
Mystery man: David Lynch has never been keen to explain his films (Photo: Chris Saunders)
My approach to watching Lynch: don’t actively try to make sense of it; concentrate, but relax; let the film wash over you and, once it’s over, ask yourself the most important question of all: did you enjoy it?
This suspension of conventional critical faculties is oddly liberating, and there’s still plenty of time afterwards to analyse, theorise and come up with your own personal answer to that ‘what the f**k’ question.
To one person, Lost Highway is about wish fulfilment and the monsters of the Id; to another, it’s an exploration of the unreliability of memory; to a third, it’s an impenetrably pretentious pile of crap.
Lynch’s refusal to explain shifts the burden from him to us: we have to form our own impressions and theories for what we’ve just seen. ‘It’s my creative vision,’ he seems to be saying, ‘but you’ve got to do the work and decide what it’s about, and what it means for you.’ Not so much audience participation as audience responsibility.
I’d love to see philosophy applied to whisky tastings. All too often, the host is telling us what flavours we’ll ‘get’ before our glasses have even been filled – the infuriating whisky equivalent to David Lynch nudging you throughout a screening of Blue Velvet and saying: ‘You’ll like this bit.’
Then, once things are opened up to the floor, the competitive sport that is tasting note oneupmanship takes over. Everyone’s so busy trying to describe the precise tropical fruit flavour in their whisky that they’ve forgotten to notice whether they actually like it or not.
Just because formal tastings have a quasi-academic format and atmosphere, that doesn’t mean the pleasure factor should be altogether discounted. Far from that, shouldn’t it come first?
Do I like it? Why do I like it? Then: what do others think? We might all want to address the question ‘what the f**k was that all about?’, but the answer surely has to begin in our own heads.
06 June 2017
1. Whisky drinkers are changing
A criticism levelled at the Fèis some years back was that it was becoming too much of a club. The same people would turn up every year and, as accommodation was limited, there was little room for newcomers. That appears to have changed significantly.
Not only are there more hotels, but the number of tents and camper vans made some pitches look like mini-Glastonburys. While it is always great to hook up with old friends, there is plenty of evidence that there is a new whisky drinker (younger, more women) out there, making the effort to get to Islay and that the Fèis is beginning to adapt to this shift in the demographic.
2. The transformation of the ‘whisky tasting’
There will always be space for the established format of a person talking about six (or seven) drams, but there was plenty of evidence that new possibilities are now being trialled. Having food with the whisky was pretty much standard; there were excellent street food stalls at every event, while Martine Nouet pushed things further with her pop-up restaurant.
There was whisky and music, the innovative Whisky 101 at Jura’s Tastival, and a greater presence of cocktails and Highballs – seeing the Smoky Cokey on draught was a personal thrill, while Alessandro Palazzi’s Negroni Torbato (Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition, Cynar and Aperol) is a potential new classic.
It showed a desire to engage with this new whisky community, and a willingness to see whisky as something which should be aligned with people’s wider lives. Innovative and, yes, fun.
Lagavulin views: As the sun sets on Fèis Ìle 2017, Dave Broom shares some nuggets of wisdom
Not the dolphins, which didn’t appear (as far as I know). The question was asked – inevitably online by someone who wasn’t there (and answered by people who weren’t there) – as to whether Fèis had lost its mojo and was now just an event for buying bottles.
Well, while there were queues – Bowmore won that battle, with Bruichladdich a close second – I didn’t spot any great obsessive collecting taking place. Perhaps the wise decision to have larger runs (Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, Laphroaig) has changed the mindset of the attendee.
Bowmore might think of having a maximum two bottles per person purchase, though. While the sight of auction vans cruising the roads looking for people willing to do an immediate flip was saddening, what I found was a willingness to share rare drams – not hoard them.
4. Whisky diffusion lines
As well as the usual T-shirts/polo shirts, fleeces, waterproofs and bunnets, the appearance of distillery-branded underpants seemed a somewhat quixotic decision – until plane-loads of folk without luggage arrived in need of such essentials, only to discover that Kilchoman was the sole place to buy underwear.
Is this the start of pants wars? Why only men’s? Is there an opportunity for the Lagavulin Ladies range, the Ardbeg Intimates? Laphroaig Foundations? Laddies and Ladies? (I’ve copyrighted all of these, by the way.)
It was also a lesson for those who hadn’t stayed on the island for a period of time, that what is considered commonplace on the mainland might not be quite as easily obtainable here. You need to plan in advance on Islay and to operate with a different mindset – and that goes as much for the whisky as for underwear.
5. Fèis Fringe?
There were so many events that sometimes it was hard to work out exactly what was going on and where. While the Fèis hasn’t become quite as crazy as Spirit of Speyside, the distances between events can be considerable (see number six); buses don’t run 24 hours a day, taxi fares are steep and designated drivers get understandably grumpy.
It would be good to get the fringe side (whether it’s ancillary distillery events or non-official happenings) quasi-organised with a central information point. If only there was a generic whisky website which might be able to help with that. If you know of one – oh, hang on…
6. Difficult decisions
There was considerable buzz around the arrival of Ardnahoe, with buses ferrying people to look at the site. What’s going to happen next year in terms of schedule, when the distillery is open? It would be logical for them to share the day with Bunnahabhain, though that’s by no means guaranteed, given the fact that Kilchoman and Jura – the two distilleries which are furthest away from each other (25 miles plus a ferry trip) – share their open days. It leaves people with an either/or decision. Surely Jura and Caol Ila makes more sense?
Global gathering: Festival-goers old and new, and from around the world, are welcome on Islay
7. Engaging with a deeper Islay
We had foraged cocktails – admittedly for gin (and, come to think of it, with The Botanist and now gins from Jura and Colonsay, who knows what next year might bring?) – but also walks and talks, which opened up the island.
The distilleries have long been running behind-the-scenes tours, giving visitors access to the parts of a distillery you don’t normally see – the opening of the maltings is a great example of this as well – but engaging with landscape, water and nature is a significant part of the development of Islay’s whiskies. If distilleries are now talking terroir, then they also need to find ways to show what it means. It seems to be happening.
8. Suited and booted
Adam Hannett rocks a three-piece suit. A strange thing to say? Well, generally speaking you're more likely to spot a corncrake than a suit on Islay – there’s no need on a working island for such formal apparel, but Adam’s light blue number had the ladies swooning, and nods of approval from (some) chaps in the audience.
The days of compulsory kilt-wearing are long gone. The suit says the guard has changed, we’re serious, smart players; and, while Islay might be remote, don’t treat us like ignorant islanders. We’re setting the rules.
9. Community engagement
Bruichladdich and Ardbeg are the big days in terms of locals being able to join in with the Fèis properly (they have to work during the week) but, as ever, Islay’s hospitality shone. I heard of stranded people getting lifts in police cars, while in every pub which I went into (all in the way of research) I saw locals chatting with incomers, sometimes to the latter’s surprise.
Advice would be offered, stories told, recommendations given, deep whisky talk entered into. If you want to get an idea of what the Fèis is really about, you can’t stay in your own little group, but get out there and chat. This is a community festival, after all.
10. Plan ahead…
…and have a Plan B in case of transport issues. Start it now. There’s only 51 weeks to go until the next one.
30 May 2017
The sleeper seemed to be a good idea. Overnight to Glasgow, first bus to Kennacraig and the ferry over to Islay in time for Lagavulin’s celebrations. What could go wrong? I turned down the idea of the lounge car (‘Get you!’ – Ed) in preference of turning down the sheets and getting some rest. I was asleep before we even left Euston, only briefly surfacing as we rolled and rocked gently through sleeping England on the way north.
Combined effort: It took a train, bus, ferry and 23 hours, but Broom finally made it to the Islay Festival
The sleep was deep. In fact, as I woke up at 5am it felt like the most restful night I’d had in ages. Then I realised we had stopped. There was the blurred, echoing sound of a station announcement. ‘Must be Glasgow Central,’ I thought, ‘we’re early.’ I went back to sleep, waking 90 minutes later to the sound of a tearful guard and a somewhat irate fellow passenger outside. ‘We’re in Preston?!’ he was saying.
‘I’m sorry,’ she was replying, ‘but the power lines are down. Nothing’s moving north or south.’ Two-and-a-half hours later we are boarding an emergency coach to take us the three-and-a-half hours north to Glasgow. I’ve missed the connections, but there are other buses, other ferries. I’m in a better position than the lady next to me who is heading to Iona via Glasgow, Oban and Tobermory. She’s giving a presentation at a conference. First thing the next day. We start to talk, as you do when adversity throws you together.
It’s funny how we unburden ourselves when the situation is right. You can sit next to the same person on a long-haul flight or train journey and not exchange a word. When an incident happens, however, all of that reserve goes out of the window and you form a group mentality which holds as long as the situation exists.
So, as well as the intricacies of the Scottish transport system, we talk of things we’d normally never reveal to strangers – family, exams, children, where we stay, our lives, dreams. She works for Kairos, a Christian organisation that lobbies actively for peace and reconciliation between Palestine and Israel.
We chat about building communities and understanding, and how Iona was founded on such principles – communal living, discussing, meditating, eating and working together to gain a greater understanding and opening up possibilities. It’s why there are so many places with the Kil- prefix in the west: cells of communities of monks finding their desert, places to contemplate and plan new possibilties.
England flattens out and leads into Scotland’s southern uplands, its hills festooned with wind farms. Maybe, I muse to my new friend, Nicola Sturgeon’s secret plan is to build so many of them that one day we undo the zip that binds us to England and we propel ourselves north-east to dock once more with Norway.
Caledonian Sleeper: The sleeper train seemed like a good idea… until the power lines came down
We part in Glasgow, steaming hot, people in flip-flops looking dazedly at the unfamiliar bright disc in the sky, and I wait for the bus to Kennacraig, a further three hours west – the land of dreamers.
There’s the usual stop at Inveraray for a ‘comfort break’ as my American friends coyly put it. For me, that means the comfort of Loch Fyne Whiskies, a quick purchase of the Living Cask Batch 4, a tasting of a truly excellent cask strength Laphroaig, and then it’s on the bus and onwards.
At Ardrishaig a quartet of ladies gets on, one talking loudly about dating and how hard it is these days. ‘Men just don’t chat you up any more,’ she complains. ‘It’s harder than ever to make friends.’ I’m not eavesdropping. I can hear this through the music on my headphones. There’s a sense of people falling apart.
On the ferry, it binds once more. The Whisky Exchange crew are there with an (over)-laden van, the ferry a buzz of excitement from visitors and returning Ileachs, the familiar, reassuring CalMac smell of macaroni cheese and chips mingles with the Caol Ila Highball next to me.
Tiredness is forgotten. It’s taken 23 hours to get here and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I’m home. On Islay. This festival is about whisky, for sure, but it is also about community – of the people making it and living here, and those who come to join them for this remarkable week.
24 May 2017
It’s not every day that you wake up, look out of your hotel window and see a rollercoaster opposite, and to the left a baseball stadium. There again, having a theme park, spa, stadium and hotel all together in the city centre seems a perfectly normal and rational thing for Tokyo. Things are done differently here.
The stadium’s conference centre was the venue for this year’s Tokyo International Bar Show (TIBS), which itself morphed out of Whisky Live six years ago to embrace a new, wider-ranging Japanese bar culture. The geek fest of the whisky years has receded significantly, replaced by a more egalitarian (and noisy) approach.
Nothing shows how far and how fast the Japanese bar scene is moving than the gin wars that broke out at the event. The Kyoto Distillery launched a limited edition Navy Strength KiNoBi and a new variant KiNoTea (with added – and crazily expensive – tea from Uji), while Nikka weighed in with its new Coffey Gin and Vodka, made at Miyagikyo. Not to be outdone, Suntory chose the event to launch its new gin, Roku.
KiNoBi gin: Kyoto Distillery launched a limited edition Navy Strength KiNoBi gin at the show
All are based on a mix of traditional botanicals with added Japanese elements: sansho pepper, red shiso, bamboo, hinoki, yuzu, kinome and gyokuro tea for KiNoBi. Coffey Gin combines a traditional botanical mix with distillates of sansho and a Japanese citrus mix of yuzu, kabishu, amanatsu (and apple); while Suntory adds sansho, yuzu, gyokuro, matcha, sakura leaf and blossom to its traditional base. When Hombo’s earthier WaBi (shell ginger, yuzu, gyukuro) is stirred in, you can see how Japanese gin has gone from nothing to a category – almost overnight.
The key to all of these is the use of those local botanicals – and with such a diverse range of citrus alone, not to mention herbs and tea, this is a gin-maker’s paradise. They are there to give the gins identity and set them apart from the standard London Dry base.
Japan is not alone. Northumberland’s Hepple uses botanicals grown on its estate – including juniper and Douglas fir, while the biosphere gin of Dyfi explores Welsh botanicals in a similar way to Norway’s Vidda, or the approach taken by California’s St George’s Terroir.
There was an echo of this thinking in the chat I moderated between three of Japan’s newer whisky distilleries: Chichibu, Mars Shinshu and White Oak. All of the distillers agreed that they were still looking for their character, itself an understanding of the long-term nature of whisky. While gins can be brought to market (relatively) quickly, whisky makers have to sit and wait to see how the work done at new make stage then matures.
Mars is looking at yeasts and roasts of barley; White Oak has completely re-evaluated its whisky making to try to make a lighter, and more gentle, style; while even Chichibu is still experimenting and focusing ever more heavily on the local: peat, barley – even wood – but, as brand ambassador Yumi Yoshikawa pointed out: ‘Only if it gives us quality. Local doesn’t automatically mean better.’
New spirits: Nikka’s new Coffey Gin and Vodka are made at Miyagikyo
This approach is echoed at newer builds such as Akkeshi on Hokkaido’s east coast, which aims to produce a 100% Akkeshi single malt whisky using local barley, peat and mizunara wood from local forests. Japanese barley is the ultimate aim for Shizuoka along with double, and partial triple, distillation. The climate is the main difference for Hombo’s new Tsunuki distillery in the southern city of Kagoshima, where the ambient temperature will have a significant impact on maturation. The local suddenly increases in its importance, but why is that unusual?
While using local botanicals may seem logical for gin, in reality this is a spirit which sprang from the spice trade and has always been internationalist in approach. Whisky, however, started as a localised spirit whose ties have been slowly loosened – or, perhaps, overlooked. Even those apparently rootless creations, blends, were originally crafted to suit the tastes of their respective markets – the Glasgow palate being very different (and, inevitably, superior) to those of Edinburgh or London.
Now those links with the immediate environment are being re-established. We are seeing it around the world and, while the ‘grain to glass’ tagline is often overused, there are indications that the shift is under way in Scotland as well. All single malt distilleries reflect their place – part of their individuality comes from how the template was devised hundreds of years ago, expertise, the availability of ingredients and their flavours, all the way down to the lactobacillus unique to that place. The local subtly guides character in the right direction.
Finding character is as much about listening to those whisperings as it is about imposing a formula. The local is not about copying, or trying to force the issue (such as using tiny casks again). It is about taking your time, looking, tasting, reading and listening. Without having this understanding, you will struggle in tomorrow’s whisky world.
17 May 2017
For whisky enthusiasts, the distillery visit is a staple, the trail woven between mash tun, washback, still and warehouse a well-trodden one. The mental image is of gleaming copper and clear liquid rushing into spirit safe, in the comforting fug of the stillhouse.
Grain plants aren’t quite like that, which – along with their paucity in number and lack of tour guides and distillery shops – might explain why they are not more frequented. But their blunt sense of the industrial doesn’t render them any less fascinating.
At first glance, North British grain distillery in Edinburgh, a Stuart Hogg boot from the Murrayfield rugby stadium and jammed right up against the Tynecastle home of Heart of Midlothian, is from another whisky age. The boardroom walls glower with the stern monochrome portraits of dozens of directors past and present. See if you can spot the lone woman.
Engine room: Grain plants like North British perform a vital role in Scotch
But grain plants like North British are the engine room of the Scotch whisky industry. They may lack a touch of romance, but they make up for that with some pretty impressive numbers.
The plant’s four gigantic Coffey stills, run at full power, can produce the equivalent of 500 bottles of 40% abv whisky a minute. I’ll pause and let that sink in for a moment.
There’s more. In a day of running at peak production, the used cereal could cover 10 football pitches to a depth of 1cm (although the Hearts groundsman would prefer that theory to remain untested), and the electricity consumed could power 750 homes for 24 hours.
The yeast is enough to bake more than 350,000 loaves of bread; the animal feed byproduct sufficient to sate the appetites of 7,000 cows for a day. And the carbon dioxide produced in a 24-period could put the fizz into 18m cans of Coke. Or Tennent’s lager, if you prefer.
Some of this is more than purely theoretical. The dark grains produced by North British make a nutritious animal feed with 25% protein levels. A nice little earner on the side? Not really. This arm of the business normally runs at a slight loss, but is still cheaper than the alternative of paying costly effluent charges.
Meanwhile, the carbon dioxide is compressed, processed and liquefied, then sold to bring some sparkle to the likes of Highland Spring, beer and soft drinks.
Even the baskets of ‘sacrificial’ copper pipe, used within the stills to strip out unwanted sulphur compounds, are impressively hefty.
The plant uses 30 tonnes of cooked grain (maize, with more than 10% of green malt) every 90 minutes, does 12-15 mashes a day (18’s the record), and the three older stills can get through 38,000 litres of wash an hour (48,000 litres for the newer still).
In a warehouse sit three neatly stencilled casks: one commemorating the Victorian plant reaching 1.5bn litres of spirit produced, in February 1998; next to it another, marking 2bn litres, achieved in 2008; then the third: 2.5bn litres, in December 2015.
By now you’re probably thinking that everything here is inescapably industrial, the focus exclusively on maximising yield, efficiency of process, producing as much as you can for as little cash as possible.
But then your tour might take you into the labs to meet the team who spend their time ensuring that North British keeps producing a spirit that is… North British. Oily, a bit solventy, with a sweet-and-sour edge that whispers of the sulphurous.
Here, for all the gadgetry and computer screens, the ledger recording spirit quality remains hand-written (although the calligraphy was admittedly a bit neater back in the day). What is more, the pride in the liquid is as unmistakable, unfakable and as passionate as that of any master distiller on Islay or Speyside.
So if you’re offered the chance to visit, don’t be put off by any preconceptions of it being boring or lacking in romance. Glamorous it ain’t, but it’s honest, and it’s real. Take the tour, and take it all in. It’s another world of Scotch whisky, but a vital one in every sense of the word.
09 May 2017
Silas slaps the sawn-off section of an oak trunk for emphasis. ‘Look closer,’ he says, and we do. ‘There are two types of year rings. The lighter is the spring growth. It’s the same every year, but it contains lots of little straws bringing water and nutrients up through the tree. That makes it brittle.
‘The summer and autumn growth gives a darker and denser ring. So you need a wood with a higher proportion of summer/autumn growth to build a strong boat.’
Silas is one of a team at Roskilde in Denmark using traditional tools to construct modern facsimiles of Viking ships and other boats from the pages of Nordic history – clinker-built craft, ships from the Faroes constructed without the aid of any written plans.
Look closer: There are parallels and contrasts between shipbuilding and cask construction
How did the Vikings do it? Take a good, straight oak log, split it into halves, then quarters, eighths, sixteenths. Then use an axe (broad, rather than bearded, since you ask) to plane the wood. An axe? It does the job – and it saves having to make another tool.
Silas’ sermon on boat-building is part of the launch of Highland Park Valkyrie and the single malt’s new ‘Viking Soul’ brand ethos. The idea is to draw parallels between boat and cask construction (Martin Markvardsen and Keith Moar from Highland Park are here too) – but, in the end, the differences are as fascinating as the similarities.
While the oak used for whisky casks is allowed to season for a year or two, the Vikings wanted their wood green for its flexibility. Heating it to 60C in the fire liquefies the lignin (the glue holding the grains together), allowing the wood to be twisted, grain-against-grain, moulded to the shape required, clamped and allowed to cool and set.
Green wood was also vital for the tannins that helped seal the vessel – the same tannins that whisky-makers are generally keen to prevent from finding their way into your glass.
The level of knowledge about these ancient techniques is astonishing. The museum at Roskilde holds the remains of five Viking ships, scuttled in the main channel approaching the town as a blockade to ward off invaders well over 800 years ago.
Clinker-built: The workshop at Roskilde aims to revive ancient techniques
By examining the fibres of the wood and checking the growth rings against an extensive database, historians can tell that the two smaller ships were made from oaks growing near Roskilde in about 1030. The biggest ship – a King’s Ship, 30m long, built for speed and to carry up to 75 warriors – has a keel constructed from a tree felled near Dublin in 1042. Dublin? Those Vikings got around.
Why scuttle such an impressive vessel? Because it was dying. After 30-40 years of service, the iron nails fixing the planks had been rusted by the salt waters, expanding and cracking the hull.
So how about trying to construct a Viking ship in the 21st century, using old methods and tools (but copper nails for greater longevity)? Sure. But it took Silas and the team at Roskilde four years and 50,000 man hours.
Compare this to the Viking Sagas, which talk casually of building a ship in a northern winter – six to eight months – and, even allowing for modern employment law and health and safety rules, something doesn’t quite add up.
It’s the same with the sails. The Vikings’ adoption of the sail – some time between 750 and 850 – revolutionised their ships, allowing them to cross the North Sea, discover Greenland, Newfoundland. No sails, no Vikings.
But these sails were big – 112sq m big – and each of their many strips was hand-woven on a loom. At Roskilde, the museum’s skilled weaver can complete one strip of 15cm in a day (5-6 hours’ work). How the hell did the Vikings do it? Again, it doesn’t add up.
Plane truth: The Viking axe was a multi-purpose tool, not the bloodthirsty weapon of myth
The answer is simple, says Silas. There are some skills that have just been lost – honed and passed down by word of mouth and practice of hand through the generations, then forgotten in the bustle and din of industrialisation. In the rush to move on, something vital has been mislaid.
Despite a weakness for nostalgia, our Darwinian view of evolution tends to assume that human beings are constantly finding better, faster, more efficient ways of doing things. From Olympic sprinters to computer chips, it’s all about progress.
Roskilde calls that view into question and, given the parallels being drawn with whisky, makes you ponder whether a multi-billion pound industry’s drive for increased efficiency, economies of scale and profitability has unwittingly led to something being lost along the way.
Barley, yeast, fermentation and distillation techniques, cask maturation. What can whisky’s written record teach us? Are some of the secrets of the past lost to us now – as with the Vikings – or can they be resurrected and revived, moulded into something fresh for the 21st century?
Might, progress, after all, turn out to be a two-way street?
03 May 2017
‘Try this.’ It’s upstairs in the Smuggler’s Cove. I’ve just finished rambling about rum and only broke into song once. Martin Cate clearly thinks I need a drink. I probably do. The liquid he gives me is funky, oily, weirdly resinous, pungent with the effects of age and dunder. It reeks of a wildness that you know spells danger and drags you ever further down a shady alley of depravity. We’ve all been there. It was bottled by Ellis & Co of London in 1936 and hails from Jamaica.
To explain, Smuggler’s Cove is the greatest rum bar I’ve been to. To enter it is to be absorbed into a darkened, jetsam-festooned cave (with added flotsam for balance). There’s an anchor above your head, a waterfall running down into the basement lagoon and shrines to masters of tiki past. Oh, there’s also close to 600 rums.
As I sit and chat with my new rum buddies, the bar is filling up. It’s 5pm. Clearly they like to start their drinking early in San Francisco. There’s vintage aloha shirts and work clothes. People sipping neat rum, punches and tiki drinks being mixed, a soundtrack of exotica.
Smuggler’s Cove: The bar stocks more than 600 different rums (photo: Kelly Puleio)
My friends are members of the Cove’s Rumbustion Society, all of whom have drunk a minimum of 100 rums (including some of Cate’s ‘Immortal’ bottlings). Some have topped the 400-rum mark. There are some who have gone 200 beyond that. Dedication. But not beyond the call of duty.
‘There’s something wrong with your hands.’ Cate’s back. ‘They seem to be empty. Name your poison.’ I drift across the Caribbean and go for agricole. ‘Vieux, or très vieux?’ I go for the former. No need to be greedy.
He reappears with two glasses. ‘You have two hands.’ If I keep up this pace, I’ll soon have four. One glass is a Dillon from the ’70s, the other a Neisson of similar vintage. If that’s vieux, who knows what très vieux means...?
The Dillon has a cool restraint to it, a tailored gent carrying a sword stick. The Neisson, on the other hand, starts off like a pungent denizen of the opium den he is walking past. It smells of earth and horse sweat, savoury and deep. In time, this flies off, like Sherlock Holmes throwing aside a grimy disguise. Rum does that to you. Below us the tiki drinks are still being rocked out. Someone is ordering his 608th rum.
Would I have got this from a whisky bar, I wonder. I mean, this is… fun. Here – and at all the great rum bars I’ve frequented – a balance has been struck between the geeks who sip on their rums and the outrageous concoctions being mixed. It allows everyone to feel welcome.
Whisky doesn’t do tiki. It would be absurd to reverse-engineer it into that space, but there is a lesson to be learned from places like this. One where passion and fun can combine contentedly. Where people learn as much as they want in a relaxed way.
The folks worshipping at the altar of tiki aren’t considered unsophisticated. They are part of the crew. They are here because they love rum – it’s just tonight that love is manifested in a different way to those who are taking their medicine neat. When was the last time you saw that in a whisky bar?
Whisky is getting better at talking about the primacy of flavour, but what of the fun? Any of us who have bellied up to the bar with a bottle or two know that it can be the spark which can ignite an evening, as well as the sinuous thread that pulls people together. There is fun within the bottle, but the spirit is released only when we forget what we have been told whisky should be. It’s like having a drink with a vicar, then discovering he’s a wizard with a pool cue.
The new whisky bars – think Black Rock or Swift – know the importance of fun as well as flavour, but to many the whisky bar is not a destination for enjoyment. Rather, it is a place for worship: bar as a church, not a club. If I was in a bar drinking a whisky from the ’30s or the ’70s I can pretty much guarantee that my neighbour wouldn’t be sipping on a Bobbie Burns or whisky punch. Y’see?
Rum is learning from whisky – single malt especially – but whisky can also learn from rum, and there’s no more important lesson than this.
25 April 2017
‘Whisky is for everyone’ is an easy line to throw into a conversation. It sits there alongside ‘it’s all about flavour’, ‘drink your whisky whatever way you want’, or ‘blends are as good as malts’ phrases, which drift ever downwards through repetition into cliché, paying lip disservice to their truths.
None of these phrases are wrong; they should act as the foundation of the way in which we all talk of, understand, and educate about whisky. They have to be more than words, though. They have to be backed up by deeds and belief.
The failure to act on them is why I wasn’t too surprised to read the account of a recent whisky show for ‘high rollers’. After all, the industry has been slowly, insidiously gravitating towards this grouping for a number of years. Perhaps the rest of us have tried to ignore it, or wished it might go away – or at least be balanced by a more open and welcoming attitude. That clearly hasn’t worked.
You cannot say: ‘Whisky is for everyone,’ if you corral it into an area which is only accessible for one grouping, and then praise them for being ‘an elite’.
Global spirit: Scotch whisky’s success is not down to an elite few
They already feel that they are the only ones worthy of this whisky because they have the money, the power and (it would seem) the right sort of genitals. You have just fed their already bloated sense of entitlement. They’re not interested, or passionate, or intrigued about whisky. It exists simply to further boost their egos. It is ‘theirs’ – ie it is not ours. That’s how elites operate.
‘Don’t get worked up Dave, it’s just a few rich guys.’ No. It’s more than that. If the universality of whisky is not key to education, then we have all failed. If its qualities aren’t actively demonstrated through talk, and action, laughter and fun, then this ‘elite’ will own the narrative, one which declares that ‘old is good’, ‘single malt is the best’, ‘price is a determinant of quality’, and ‘it is for us and not you’.
In their dreams they look down from their gated apartments at us and wave their tumblers. ‘You can aspire to this,’ they sneer, ‘but you can never afford it, or become one of us.’ It’s the Kardashianising of whisky. Scotch ceases to be a drink for everyone; it is an object for a specific group and it is tainted by association.
All of this runs counter to everything that Scotch should stand for. Whisky is democratic. It is a drink made from humble ingredients, which are elevated by way of skill, art, experience and intuition into a liquid that encapsulates place, mood, emotion and time. At its best, it speaks to your heart.
Throughout its history, Scotch has always managed to balance the seemingly contradictory notion that it is a drink of the farmer and the working class, and the drink of the gentleman in his club. It has done this because its message has never been: ‘I am a whisky drinker, therefore I am better than you.’ It is why it became a global spirit.
Reject elitism: Whisky is not a commodity reserved for rich men
There is an important difference to be drawn between Scotch as a signifier of success and becoming a drink for an ‘elite’. Everyone measures their personal success in different ways. Buying a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label, or Ballantine’s Finest is as much a reward for someone with little money as a rich person buying a bottle of King George V or Ballantine’s 30-year-old. Scotch succeeded because it never defined itself as a drink for a specific class, creed, or colour (sadly, it’s struggled to say it’s also for women, but that’s changing).
Now, however, we see brands, blenders, distillers forgetting that important point and positioning whisky as some form of lifestyle choice for this self-perpetuating, self-aggrandising clique.
Can you stop them drinking it? Of course not. That’s as absurd as their inferred argument that the rest of us are not worthy. What the whisky industry can do, however, is stop pandering to them, stop saying something to one group of people and something else to the rest of us.
‘How do you know when a politician is lying?’ goes the old joke. ‘When his lips move.’ If we cannot believe in what we are being told, if we suspect that brands themselves are looking down on the majority of existing and potential drinkers, then what hope is there? Whisky’s message must be consistent and egalitarian because it belongs to all of us.
Every year after this particular show, friends come up to me and say: ‘It’s hideous, but I hold my nose and attend… because… you know…’ Well, enough.
Have the courage to stand up for what you believe in.
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