Loch Lomond Group’s blended whisky loss sparks official environmental investigation.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
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.
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.
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.
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.
14 December 2016
Brown-Forman, the company that owns Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve Bourbon and, since earlier this year, BenRiach, makes its own barrels. A lot of barrels. About 600,000 barrels a year, to be precise.
Why so many? Because, whether each barrel is filled with new make Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, or with Woodford Reserve or any of the company’s other Bourbon brands, it can only be used once. By law.
American whiskey is on fire right now. Spearheaded by Jack, it’s sexier than ever in its home US market, but also finding new fans around the globe, from Berlin to Brisbane. More demand means more production, and more new barrels from the Brown-Forman cooperage.
Both financially and environmentally, it makes obvious sense to recycle these once-used casks and find a fresh purpose for them once they’ve been emptied of Jack, or Woodford: typically, that means selling them on to Scotch whisky distillers to mature their own spirit.
This is a nice extra source of cash for Brown-Forman and other US distillers; nice enough for the sale of used barrels to account for about 2% of the company’s revenues in its last financial year. If my sums are correct, that’s about US$80m.
But there’s a problem: just as Brown-Forman is producing more barrels to surf the whiskey renaissance, the makers of blended Scotch are buying fewer of them because their own market has softened.
Brighter prospect: Falling cask prices offer good news for distillers like Glenmorangie
It’s a lesson in the rigours of supply and demand: more supply of used whiskey barrels coinciding with less demand from the Scotch whisky company. Result? Used barrel prices down more than 10% over the past year, and still falling.
It’s concerning enough for Brown-Forman executives to spend some time discussing the issue at the company’s recent second quarter results announcement – hardly surprising if several million dollars has been wiped off your top line.
It’s also a commentary on the current fragility of the blended Scotch market around the world, thanks to a number of issues including macroeconomic factors and, in some countries, an unhelpful pro-malts, anti-blends prejudice.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Bad news for Brown-Forman means a brighter prospect for Diageo, Chivas Brothers and the Scotch whisky industry in general. There’s a plentiful supply of casks out there, they don’t cost as much as they did – and it’s a buyer’s market.
Something to be cheerful about at the end of a trying year…
07 December 2016
I was watching an old BBC documentary about the Clyde shipyards the other night, which took me back to my childhood; memories of standing on the doorstep at midnight on Hogmanay, listening to the horns of the ships on the river.
I’m old enough to remember the docks still in operation, the Black & White horses in their stable at Washington Street and, further along the Clyde, those shipyards. On occasion, we’d go down to watch launches, as enormous hulls rattled splintered logs, dragging chains sliding into the green-and-brown murk of the river.
I’m also of the age to recall the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work-in, that inspired piece of industrial action. Faced with a disputed bankruptcy the workers, instead of striking, locked the management out and kept on building ships.
Shipyard on the Clyde: Distillers must learn from the lack of forward planning that destroyed shipyards
It’s perhaps easy to be nostalgic. No-one misses the lack of safety and the tough working conditions, but the ultimate failure of shipbuilding on the Clyde was the start of Scotland’s great industrial decline, the ramifications of which are still being felt. The closures also destroyed communities and a sense of worth – something that was commented on in the film by the great trade unionist leader, the late Jimmy Reid.
He recalled once walking into a Clydeside pub and noticing that a lot of the old guys were crying. He figured that someone had died on the yard – an occupational hazard – but discovered that their grief was because the Queen Elizabeth, built at the John Brown’s yard on Clydeside, had caught fire and sunk in Hong Kong.
No matter that none of them would ever have been able to afford to sail on her; she remained their ship, forged out of steel and sweat on the clarty banks of the river. She was part of them.
His reminiscences had an echo of talks I’ve had over the years with distillery workers – especially those of an older generation. ‘I was on holiday,’ the story would begin, ‘and there was a bottle of [he’d name his whisky] behind the bar. It gave me real pride. Imagine that, my whisky going all that way around the world.’ Sometimes they’d mention it to the bartender, but more often they’d just sit and smile inwardly.
It was the same when overseas visitors started to arrive at distilleries, the same sense of amazement and pride that this tiny speck of a place could so affect people’s lives that they would spend time and money to make a pilgrimage there.
That warm and fuzzy side of whisky is not how it is often viewed by those in charge. To them it, like shipbuilding, is a business – and businesses are there to make profit. Seeing Jimmy Reid again took me to his extraordinary inauguration speech as rector of Glasgow University in 1972, which The New York Times compared to the Gettysburg Address.
‘Profit is the sole criterion used by the establishment to evaluate economic activity,’ he said. ‘From the Olympian heights of an executive suite, in an atmosphere where your success is judged by the extent to which you can maximise profits, the overwhelming tendency must be to see people as units of production, as indices in your accountants' books.
‘To appreciate fully the inhumanity of this situation, you have to see the hurt and despair in the eyes of a man suddenly told he is redundant… Someone, somewhere has decided he is unwanted, unneeded, and is to be thrown on the industrial scrapheap.
‘From the very depth of my being, I challenge the right of any man or any group of men, in business or in government, to tell a fellow human being that he or she is expendable.’
Pride and joy: Distillery workers will often feel immensely proud to spot their whiskies on back bars around the world
Firms have a duty of care to the people who work for them. All of the major distillers are currently, quietly, embarking on sly and brutal cuts to their workforces. People who have dedicated their lives to a company – and to whisky – are being let go in the name of supposed ‘efficiencies’. Rather, they are the collateral damage from poor business decisions made by others whose jobs are safe.
This might seem strange when all the indications are that this is a time for opportunity for Scotch – and therefore a time when investment, rather than cutbacks, is needed – but at the corporate level there is a sense of unease.
The people who pay are usually those who care the most. They don’t just work in distilleries; they are the unseen ones, who assiduously work behind the scenes. They may not all distil whisky, but they help make it what it is.
They are the ones with tears in their eyes when something they have made disappears, the ones with that quiet smile of pride when they see their bottle in some far-flung bar, or a stranger nods at them in acknowledgement of the pleasure that their work has brought.
The shipyards went as a result of bad forward planning, poor industrial relations and lack of investment in equipment, but also a lack of faith in people. There’s a lesson to be learned.
29 November 2016
‘So we’re drinking and we’re dancing, and the band is really happening, and the Johnnie Walker wisdom running high.’ – Leonard Cohen, Closing Time
I’ve been confined to my scratcher [he means bed – Ed] for a few days. I’m better now, thanks for asking, or maybe it’s just the drugs. Anyway, it stopped travelling, drinking, tasting and (up until now) writing.
The advantage was that, other than mainlining daytime antique shows and drifting into crazy and crazed sleep patterns, I could listen, uninterrupted, to music. Leonard Cohen’s never far away in normal circumstances, but he’s been on heavier than usual rotation recently for obvious reasons. He became the foundation of the sick bed soundtrack.
Leonard Cohen: The late singer used whisky to ease his stage fright
And so to Closing Time’s opening phrase. We’ve all been there, or wish we had, or fooled ourselves into thinking that we were. We have experienced the whisky wisdom running high, been energised by a flood of erudition and intellect, the sudden blazing revelation of truth, and words that come too quickly to articulate.
A place where the problems of the world seem to solve themselves after one amber kiss, where madcap schemes are hatched, lifetime friendships formed and rivalries banished. Where everyone is spinning and dancing in a room which is revolving on a planet that is hurtling through the void.
We know, as Cohen tells us, that ‘there will be hell to pay when the fiddler stops’, but she is still there, elbow bent, and as long as that music continues there is hope that these mad possibilities may become reality; the world will change and be better.
Why did he pick whisky to help fuel this? ‘Johnnie Walker wisdom’ works in terms of rhythm and alliteration, but Cohen always chose his words precisely, laid them down gently. Whisky is a wise drink when treated with respect. It has a quality which, in the right company and at the precise moment, will suffuse the company with a golden glow of possibilities. It binds you all tight, illuminates and warms. It is a drink of the heart.
He knew this because he was a whisky drinker. He would have one before going on stage to calm the stage fright that he still suffered from, even in his eighties. His voice, he once said, was the result of ‘about 500 tonnes of whisky and millions of cigarettes’.
But Closing Time is a Leonard Cohen song. On the surface, it’s about decadence and debauchery, but it’s also about love, lust, ageing, parting and death. It’s a mad dance at the end of time, where we have one eye looking out for the dawn to break behind our left shoulder.
It asks: should we stop dancing and be sensible, or keep dancing because connecting with life is what matters? It says this hedonism has to be balanced, that the wisdom accrued fades in the morning light as the hangover hits. The party will stop. Closing time will happen.
You search for the possibility that the moment can be stalled, that maybe a balance can be achieved and the wisdom retained. There was a glimmer of that possibility contained in a video interview Cohen gave when he was sequestered at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in California. On entering his quarters, he offers his interviewer a whisky. She’s surprised.
One more pour: When treated with respect, there’s wisdom to be found in whisky
‘When one isn’t working and is entertaining, it would be entirely appropriate to drink,’ he replies. ‘In fact, it would be a great breach of hospitality if I didn’t offer you something to drink.’ She’s still clearly bemused. Zen monks aren’t meant to have a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label and Riedel glasses.
‘If you want to take a nip of Scotch and still follow the [Zen] regime then… fine,’ he explains. ‘If you can incorporate it into your practice, then go ahead. People worry that I am not working hard enough, or suffering enough… or following the regime as seriously as I should, [but] even though I smile occasionally and raise my glass, I am suffering sufficiently and following all the rules.’ He grins.
As the song slides into 5am introspection, he sings: ‘It looks like freedom, but it feels like death, it's something in between, I guess it's closing time,’ which seems a particularly prescient phrase at this point in history.
At a time when wisdom seems to be in short supply, we need to find that bar and that fiddler, then create some of our own. The music of hope will play until we tell it to stop. The hangover is too dreadful to contemplate. One more sip. It’s not closing time yet.
23 November 2016
Oslo. It was snowing. The kid inside, never far away, woke fully and poked its tongue out, allowing the first flake to melt on my tongue. Later, there would be snowball fights. It wasn’t settling thickly in the city, but friends reported that in the hills above the city it was lying deeper.
The skis had been brought out, tyres changed, and plans were being laid for the winter’s cross-country expeditions. When winter arrives, Norwegians seem to wake up. As the rest of the northern hemisphere draws its whisky festival schedule to a close, so theirs begins.
Community spirit: The ambience at Oslo Whisky Festival is akin to a family gathering
Maybe it makes perfect sense. Whisky to many is a drink of the darker months, to be taken indoors, as central heating. Who am I to disagree with that Nordic frame of mind?
I certainly wouldn’t ever dispute the insider knowledge of the show’s presiding genius, the indefatigable Chris Maile, Norway’s ambassador for Scotch and Scotland.
At a time when many shows are edging themselves away from classic Scottish imagery – am I the only one to notice the distinct lack of kilts at events these days? – at Oslo’s, every announcement was preceded by a skirl on the bagpipes, played by Chris of course. When you have a show on three floors you need something to draw people’s attention.
If Oslo often has the feeling of a small town, then the show gives the impression of a family gathering. There’s a sense of community, as people take time to chat and socialise in between dramming. At times it seems as if the whisky is only there as a support for socialising, and that’s not a bad thing either. There’s no rubber legs, no barging in to get drams, just a slow and gentle appreciation.
While Scotch-centric, the buzz at the show (other than an excellent ‘Chris Maile’ single cask from Highland Park) were the whiskies from three Norwegian distilleries: Gjoleid from Arcus; a selection from Grimstad’s Det Norske Brenneri (DNB), already showing the influence of new blender Jon Bertelsen; and the first offering from Myken, an island (with a population of nine) in the Arctic Circle, a five-hour sail off the west coast. I know dedication to whisky-making has now reached new levels of madness.
What’s it like you ask? Myken’s peated new make was truly excellent; Gjoleid’s akvavit casks showed great balance; while the mix of ex-Cognac and Sauternes casks by DNB showed huge promise.
If, on an initial glance, Oslo is a traditional show, it was the reaction to these whiskies which showed how the market is changing. After all, the toughest audience to win over is often the domestic one – just look at Scotch in Scotland.
Sip and savour: Oslo Whisky Festival offered three floors of spirits to sample
The snow was still falling on the Sunday morning as I skittered over the ice to the station. A quick turnaround – home, what’s home? – a swap of case, and I headed to Singapore for Whisky Live. Safe to say, it wasn’t snowing, though I suppose anything is possible. If Dubai can have a ski slope, then I’m sure it’s not beyond the wit of Singaporean engineers to do something similar.
Think of this as Paris Whisky Live with extra humidity. It is, after all, run by La Maison du Whisky. Long days, pop-up bars (Tokyo’s stellar Trench Bar re-appeared much to my distinct joy), Marlène’s chamber of secrets and a specialities room.
It was also the first time I’ve seen a binocular and camera stand at a whisky show, but it was for Leica. This probably says as much as you need to know about who drinks whisky in Singapore.
If Norway was a guy’s night out, then Singapore was more inclusive: younger, with a probable 60:40 male: female split and, on the Sunday, more bartenders.
Here, as in Oslo, there seemed to be a general trend away from established brands towards smaller players and independents, and a willingness to explore non-Scotch whiskies and other spirits.
For me, the equivalent to the Norwegian whiskies was the discovery of Chalong Bay rum from Phuket in Thailand, while in a joint class with Luca Gargano of Velier we found a new and eager audience ready to treat rum as a quality spirit – the equal of Scotch.
The only way a show can prosper is by understanding its audience and being willing to lead them into new directions. For Scotch, that means having new stories to tell.
14 November 2016
Recently, the singer Shirley Collins was described as being a ‘radical traditionalist’, which seems a somewhat paradoxical statement. Tradition, after all, is permanent, unchanging, the sound of the past being handed down through generations. It is sober, constant, conservative even, built in established truths.
Radicalism, on the other hand, challenges everything that tradition stands for. It is innovative, iconoclastic, edgy.
Yet Shirley Collins is just that. She has just released her first new record for 38 years – Lodestar – and at the age of 81. Her singing is deeply embedded in tradition, but has never been purist or restrictive. Rather it has always seemed to exist in a different timeframe, simultaneously modern and ancient while being neither.
It is ‘folk’ in the sense of ‘folk tale’, a fabulous place of metaphor and symbolism; a place of death and blood; betrayal and love; murder and innocence; celebration and nonsense. It is unadorned, but never simple. She doesn’t sing as much as let the song possess her, allowing those old words and music to rest gently in the air, slowly altering your perceptions. Radical, yes, but traditional.
Golden Decanters: Is the independent bottler really challenging the norms of Scotch?
While listening to it, I remembered something which Eriko Horiki had said to me earlier in the year. She is an extraordinary, Kyoto-based artist who has taken Japanese paper-making (washi) into the world of fine art and sculpture. ‘Hand crafts like washi were innovative,’ she said. ‘That is why they have lasted for 1,500 years. Nothing can last without innovation.’
In other words, to maintain a tradition you have to be radical. Tradition has to adapt, be open to new voices, and needs to change while being respectful. There’s a lesson there for Scotch, surely?
Maybe, but maybe not one everyone has learned, as it was around the same time that I made this connection between the two women that news of the launch of Golden Decanters emerged.
I know Richard has dealt with the issues surrounding their price in his usual perceptive fashion, but that wasn’t my concern. Instead, it’s the firm’s claim that they were ‘tired of tradition, tartan and twee’ and as a result had commissioned Glasgow-based textile designers Timorous Beasties to create the aforesaid decanters.
The fact that Famous Grouse had worked with the design firm a few years ago was not an issue. I’m a fan of the studio’s work, which challenges norms and takes a tradition forward. They came to people’s attention with their ‘Glasgow toile’ fabric, which on first glance is an accurate recreation of 18th-century French toile with its scenes of rural life.
On closer examination, the figures in the Beasties version were junkies shooting up in graveyards. Radical? Yes, but within a tradition.
The Golden Decanters are anything but. Their scenes of shooting, fishing, golfing and, er, a Heilan coo are the very symbols of the Balmorality*, which has ossified so many parts of Scottish culture for the past 170 years.
Whisky prospers when it challenges tradition, questions the norm and takes it gently forward. It respects the past, but sees the need for change. It succeeds when it has the same mindset as Shirley Collins when she allows a song to glow through her.
* Thanks to George Monbiot for the term.
09 November 2016
It’s International Sherry Week this week, so naturally I want to talk about Port – because what’s happening in the spectacular vineyards of the Douro Valley might have resonance for Scotch.
Gripped by misty-eyed nostalgia, Port anoraks will rhapsodise about the superlative vintage Ports made during the early 20th century…
‘Sure, this 1994 is nice, but did you ever taste the 1931? And what about the 1912? Before the big companies took over and standardised everything? They don’t make ’em like that any more…’
Any of this sound familiar?
It’s easy to dismiss such fond remembrances as yearnings for a world that never existed – the Olde England of unlocked doors, affable British bobbies and honey still for tea. But even a cynic like me is beginning to wonder…
Port vineyards are historically anarchic; even today, more than 100 grape varieties are permitted, and the vines planted in the late 19th century, after the phylloxera plague wiped out nearly everything, were done so haphazardly and at high density. And yet these packed, chaotic terraces were the source of some of the greatest wines ever made.
Come the 1970s, rationality and science coughed politely, tapped the anarchic wine farmers on the shoulder and suggested a more logical approach. Focus on the ‘best’ grape varieties (five in particular were identified), plant them in separate blocks, pick them at optimal ripeness and make each one into wine before blending them all together.
The reasoning, it seemed, was faultless: use only the finest ingredients, maximise the potential of those ingredients, then use your blending skills to create the best wine possible. In terms of vineyard management, it was cost-effective too.
A river runs through it: Do the vineyards of the Douro hold a lesson for Scotch?
But, about 10 years ago, some began to question this received wisdom. A new generation making unfortified table wines in the Douro noticed that the neglected old vineyards, in which dozens of different grape varieties were sprinkled at random, were making more characterful, complex, simply better wines.
Now the scent of revisionism is in the air. All but forgotten grape varieties replanted, mixed vineyards acquiring a renewed appreciation, different grapes fermented together. No, not everything will be perfectly ripe when it’s picked – but those imperfections, when moulded with skill and experience, only add to the final wine’s quality.
What’s this got to do with Scotch? Listen to David Guimaraens, head winemaker at The Fladgate Partnership, producer of Taylor’s, Fonseca and Croft Ports. He reckons the changes in the Douro during the 1970s did their job in terms of achieving greater consistency – but at a price.
‘We pulled the bottom up,’ he says. ‘But we also believe that we have pulled the top down… we have lost some of the complexity and we have certainly lost the diversity.’
Did this happen to Scotch? The entirely rational drive for greater efficiency and consistency may well have improved the average quality of blends – ‘pulled the bottom up’, in other words – but in the process, was something precious mislaid?
The chaos of distillery floor maltings, different strains of yeast and manual operation undoubtedly resulted in some pretty inconsistent spirit – but, when the whisky gods conspired, did that chaos also create lasting greatness?
And, if it did, how can we get it back?
02 November 2016
How much would you pay for a bottle of whisky? Nearly US$200 for a 16-year-old Longmorn? More than £7,000 for four single cask single malts from an independent bottler? How about £16,000 for a Black Bowmore 50 Year Old?
The fact of whisky price inflation has become as predictable as the outrage that greets it on the blogosphere. Assessing true value in this age of ‘whisky investment’ and flipping has never been more challenging.
But, rather than throw up your hands and mutter dark things about ‘capitalism gone crazy’, how about using a bit of old-fashioned common sense?
For two of these three launches – Golden Decanters and Black Bowmore – forget any noble notions of ‘pure’ value based simply on the quality of the liquid.
Releases at this level of the stratosphere are more bets on future monetary value than assessments of current worth; the trick for those selling them is to pitch them at a level low enough to attract buyers, but high enough to maximise returns – rather than seeing the same bottle sold on for twice the original price one month after release.
Getting this right is – to judge from these two examples – not easy. No quarrel with the Black Bowmore 50 Year Old release price of £16,000. Given that the 29-year-old 1st Edition is now offered at £12,000, it seems fair enough (if you’re really happy to spend more on a bottle of whisky than I’ve ever spent on a car).
Last in line: The final Black Bowmore bottling will set you back £16,000
But Golden Decanters? Four single cask single malts, including a Glenlivet 34-year-old, a Bowmore 26-year-old, an Auchentoshan 22-year-old and a Ben Nevis 19-year-old. You have to buy all four, and they’ll set you back £7,250.
Yes, the gorgeously tactile packaging from Scottish design studio Timorous Beasties more than lives up to its luxury brief. But the company’s claim that collectors are now ‘a little tired of tartan and twee’…?
Really? What tartan and twee? At this level of the market, bagpipers yielded the stage long ago to Lalique crystal and handmade oak. And anyway, Golden Decanters’ rejection of Scottish cliché might hold more weight if the company hadn’t identified its whiskies with, er, fishing, shooting, golf and Highland coos. Can the deep-fried Mars bar expression be far away?
Luxury look: But does that make Golden Decanters’ whiskies worth the money?
Single cask whiskies like these also involve more than the usual level of trust on the part of the purchaser. More than £7,000 for four malts is pushing it for an independent bottler with a long and distinguished reputation; for a debut range, it’s frankly astonishing.
However, I’m not remotely angry (unlike a number of people on the internet) about the Golden Decanters release – just utterly bemused by its wild optimism. If it works, and the whiskies sell, it’ll certainly tell us something about the current state of whisky collecting and investing.
But Longmorn? Pricing the 23-year-old north of US$1,000 is ambitious enough. But almost doubling the price of the entry-level (in age stated terms) 16-year-old single malt to US$189 on the pretext that it’s been ‘reinterpreted’ is breathtakingly cheeky. They might at least have had the decency to up it to an 18-year-old (after all, The Age Matters, doesn’t it?).
‘Breathtakingly cheeky’: Longmorn’s 16yo has nearly doubled in price
Rare whiskies aimed at collectors and investors are playing a different game to the Longmorns of this world. Succeed or fail, will Golden Decanters have any significant impact on the overall Scotch whisky market? I seriously doubt it.
But you can’t say the same about a more mainstream whisky such as Longmorn, and the range revamp reads like an exercise in market-led cynicism. Not so long ago, its 15-year-old bottling was replaced by the now ‘old’ 16yo, accompanied by howls of anguish on the internet about the concomitant price rise.
Now the price (but not the age) has gone up again, while the lower bracket has been filled by NAS expression Longmorn The Distiller’s Choice, introduced last January.
Price hikes and NAS whisky… There’s an awful lot of ill-judged, knee-jerk hysteria about both subjects on the internet, but on this occasion I have more than a little sympathy with it. Sometimes this industry does itself no favours at all.
24 October 2016
‘Things have moved on,’ my friend Z was telling me. ‘It’s less about the strength and effect these days. Now we’re all more concerned with flavour.’
It struck me that anyone with more than a passing interest in a flavour-led substance makes a similar journey. To begin with, it is taken for the impact: the euphoria, the talking, the sense of fun, the loosening of inhibitions, everything which allows whisky to become a social lubricant.
Over time, however, a more considered approach begins to take over. The fun aspects may remain, but now the drinker has moved beyond wanting the blunt hit of alcohol and is seeking out the subtleties, the quieter transportative trails of aroma which bring to mind place, memory, fruits and flowers.
But Z wasn’t talking about whisky – he’s more of a rum drinker anyway. He was talking about cannabis. Let it be said from the outset that I am not advocating the ingesting of illegal substances. Z’s findings were undertaken in countries where the partaking of such things is perfectly legal.
Cannabis calling...: Will consumers turn away from whisky to new worlds of flavour?
The shift, he explained, was away from THC (tetrahydrocannabinol – the psychotropic element in cannabis) and towards the plant’s terpenes – and specifically the different terpenes contained in each strain. A shift away from strength and on to subtlety. ‘A guy like you would love it,’ he enthused. ‘It’s what you’re always banging on about. Anyone who loves flavour will get off on this.’
Keeping things in simple terms, terpenes and terpenoids are the compounds which give aroma to the essential oils contained in plants. They’re used in perfumery, important in winemaking – and exist within whisky.
The list of terpene-drived aromas contained in cannabis is familiar to any whisky lover. ‘Myrcene’ gives clove, hops, citrus fruits, bay leaves, eucalyptus, wild thyme and lemon grass; ‘pinene’ is as piney as you’d expect; ‘limonene’ is contained in citrus fruits and rosemary; there’s the peppery accents of beta-caryophyllene; the floral elements given by linalool… you get the drift.
It’s an area of research of great interest to those involved in the potential medical applications of cannabis, and website Greenhouse Seeds has even created a cannabis terpene flavour wheel, which is worth comparing to the Scotch one.
This is of more than academic interest: cannabis has been legalised in many states in the US and the repeal movement is growing internationally. Only last week, the SNP (Scottish National Party) backed the decriminalisation of cannabis for medicinal use and requested the UK government to devolve the power to regulate the drug to Holyrood. As we’ve seen in North America, medical use inevitably leads to full decriminalisation.
Could we see a time when a next generation turns its back on alcohol and goes instead for the impact of THC, and then terpene-derived bliss? Will there be Scotchcannabis.com? It’s entirely possible.
Favouring flavour: There is even a cannabis terpene flavour wheel
There have been numerous financial reports in the US predicting that the alcohol industry could be damaged by the legal cannabis industry, though it is too early to say whether people will make the choice between smoking and drinking – or simply do both.
The potential threat has been serious enough for that most sober of drinks producers, Jack Daniel’s owner Brown-Forman, to state in its last four annual reports that the legalisation of marijuana should be considered ‘a business risk’.
A report by financial services firm Cowen and Co senior analyst Vivien Azer concluded that ‘while the alcohol beverage category has looked insulated from cannabis thus far – from a revenue perspective – with the legal market still in its infancy we think the risk to alcoholic beverage consumption will become increasingly apparent… In the last 10 years, alcohol incidence for US men has fallen 200 basis points, while cannabis has risen 260 basis points. Beer and whiskey are the most at risk of losing business’.
After all, as Z said, it’s all about flavour.
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