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From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
17 May 2016
We live in an age when every element of a brand’s image is constantly and painstakingly controlled, fine-tuned; this press release picked apart by an in-house committee of sceptics, that new label endlessly trialled in focus groups.
Each potential association or partnership is carefully vetted – will this project chime with our target consumer? Does that celebrity share our brand’s values and reinforce its core strengths?
But you can’t control everything. Take the case of the Russian doping scandal and Chivas Regal.
In a jaw-dropping New York Times article last week, former Russian anti-doping chief Grigory Rodchenkov lays bare the scale and sophistication of that country’s alleged doping programme, especially in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
Years of planning, cloak-and-dagger stuff involving the FSB (successor to the KGB), swapping urine samples via a hole in the wall to ensure drugs cheats escaped detection. Russia finished top of the medals table. No athlete was caught.
Since named as the lynchpin in Russia’s allegedly state-sponsored doping programme, Rodchenkov was forced to resign and fled to Los Angeles (while two of his former colleagues died suddenly shortly afterwards in Russia).
Head start: Did Russia's athletes use drugs (and Chivas Regal) at the Sochi Winter Olympics? (Photo: kremlin.ru)
The intricacies of the Russian programme, he claims, took many years to perfect, particularly his favoured cocktail of performance-enhancing substances, which involved three anabolic steroids – metenolone, trenbolone and oxandrolone – designed to aid recovery and maintain peak performance.
But it’s the method of delivery that interests us: to accelerate the absorption of the substances and to reduce the window within which detection was possible, Rodchenkov dissolved the drugs in alcohol to a precise recipe – 1mg of steroid cocktail per 1ml of alcohol.
Given that this is Russia, you might have thought a patriotic shot of vodka would do the trick, but no… Chivas Regal Scotch whisky for the male athletes; Martini vermouth for the women. Discerning choices perhaps, but listen carefully and you can hear the heads of the respective brand managers hitting their desks.
Then again, come to think of it – a dram for the men and a nice glass of Martini for the ladies? I’m not sure what’s most shocking here – the allegations of a massive doping programme and cover-up… or the casually sexist way in which it was perpetrated.
11 May 2016
Have you ever considered the multitude of coffee that’s available? There are over 30 different drinks, from espresso to Americano, plus options to go skinny, Mocha, iced and now even the trendy cold brew.
Starbucks UK sells 19 different types of coffee bean including blends, flavoured batches and single origin varieties from exotic countries. I couldn’t be bothered to count all of Starbucks USA’s offerings, but help yourself – the list is endless. Just calculating the number of options available at the chain’s UK outlets alone you’re looking at around 2,000 coffee combinations, and that’s without factoring in syrups. There are 152 varieties of latté alone; has anyone tried them all?
This isn’t a free advert for Starbucks – far from it. Having too much choice is overwhelming, and according to American psychologist Barry Schwartz in his book, The Paradox of Choice, can actually make consumers feel less satisfied with their decision than if they were given fewer options.
Ironically most people choose the same coffee regularly (mine’s a white Americano if anyone’s buying), perhaps as a result of this coffee besiegement and a lack of comprehension of the various styles – anyone know the difference between a latté and a flat white?
Coffee confusion: can too much choice be a bad thing? (Image: Starbucks)
The same confusion exists over single origin coffee and single estate. Unless you’re a hipster or coffee buff you probably won’t know the difference, which is why some Scotch whisky producers’ recent adoption of the latter term could be a dangerous move.
During the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival I was given a tour of the relatively new Ballindalloch distillery by owner Guy Macpherson-Grant, whose family owns several acres of arable land and the nearby Ballindalloch Castle. Since its inception in 2014, Ballindalloch has maintained a USP as a ‘single estate’ distillery. In Macpherson-Grant’s view, because the distillery processes barley grown on the family’s estate it qualifies as single estate. Except for the fact that the site doesn’t malt its own barley. Neither does Arbikie in Angus, which has recently begun distilling barley for its own ‘single estate’ whisky. One might argue that malting is the first step in the whisky production process and if it’s conducted elsewhere then how can a distillery claim to be single estate? (NB to Ballindalloch’s credit it doesn’t mask the fact that its malting is done elsewhere).
This is just an example of two separate Scottish farming families moving into whisky distilling using crops that already belong to them. However, with the number of small, artisanal farm distillery planning applications on the rise, the Scotch whisky industry could very easily be joined by a wave of ‘single estate’ distilleries soon.
Single estate? Ballidalloch's barley is harvested from the estate, but not malted on-site
As far as whisky is concerned, the term ‘single estate’ hasn’t been defined (the new ‘craft’, perhaps?). In respect of tea, coffee and cocoa it refers to produce grown on one single plantation, or a collective of local farms. And therein lies the problem.
If consumers, eventually, come to understand single estate as referring to produce from one farm, how can it be applied to a distillery, and even then, to a distillery which doesn’t control 100% of the process? Particularly when new distilleries that do malt their own barley come online.
Furthermore, if the debate surrounding the effect barley terroir has on flavour continues (and it will), we could eventually see an influx of farm-specific whisky on the shelves. Bruichladdich from Sunnydale Farm, anyone?
I’m all for innovation and broadening choice of flavour, but it must be done with purpose and not simply for the sake of establishing a USP. Even so, the danger of inaugurating too many ‘single estate’ whiskies that have varying definitions could – like coffee – end up overwhelming consumers and encourage them to stick with what they know, ultimately leading to – in Schwarz’s view – dissatisfaction with their choice.
04 May 2016
It’s fair to say that Vic Cameron’s article for this website – Does barley variety affect whisky flavour? – provoked a reaction. Thanks to the dubious pleasures of (anti-)social media, that reaction was not always either elegantly expressed, or free of personal prejudice against Vic, and/or the company (Diageo) for which he used to work.
For the record, I’ve no reason to doubt Vic’s credentials or his honesty. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s right, either – so let’s have the debate, but let’s keep it civilised. That ok with everyone?
Anyway, it seemed somewhat serendipitous, given the subject matter of Vic’s piece and the affiliations of many of those who spoke out against it, that I should happen to be visiting Bruichladdich on Islay last week.
If ever there were a place to explore the counterpoint to the Cameron view, this was it. Bere barley, organic barley, Scottish barley, Islay barley… never mind fermentation times or cut points, the raw materials themselves are the hot topic here.
So did I discover an answer to the questions raised by Vic’s piece and the reaction it sparked? You’ll have to wait a few weeks to find out in more detail, but here’s a suitably ambiguous teaser: yes and no.
The discussion at Bruichladdich was not so much about barley variety as barley origin: isolating and making whisky from batches of the same strain, but grown in different locations. The Black Isle, Aberdeenshire, Lothian.
Nosing new-make spirit from all three, then cask samples of them after one year in first-fill Bourbon, one thing was clear: they were different. Not vastly different – I’ve had vodka flights with more diversity – but different nonetheless.
Enigma variations: Bruichladdich has distillates sourced from barley grown in different regions
That variation answers one question, but prompts others, and one in particular. Why are they different? Is it, to borrow a French winemaking term much used at Bruichladdich, down to terroir? Is it just because the growing season in 2015 (or 2016) was a bit wetter in, say, Lothian than in Aberdeenshire?
We’ll need years more of experimentation, data-gathering and careful analysis before we can even begin to identify the character of Black Isle barley versus Lothian barley (assuming that there is one), leave alone the impact this might have on your glass of Classic Laddie years after that barley has been harvested.
(And, as the chief engineer of this parish has noted, it’d be nice to see the spirit go into some refill, rather than first-fill, casks, minimising the wood influence and allowing the grain to speak more clearly over time.)
Anyway, it’s potentially ground-breaking stuff. Potentially. Crucially for Bruichladdich, it plays well to the company’s audience: literate whisky lovers with a more than passing interest in the way their spirit of choice is put together.
For these Laddie-ites, it’d be great if, years down the line, they could do a horizontal tasting of a flight of ‘regional’ 10-year-old Bruichladdichs, noting every nuance along the way. But, even if that isn’t to be, the journey promises to be fascinating and, if nothing else, they’ll have a bit more information about the origin of the whisky in their glass.
A bit more transparency, if you will.
02 May 2016
There’s a mountain in my legs. For the past eight years, the Sunday of the Spirit of Speyside Festival has seen a walk up Ben Rinnes. On the summit there’s a toposcope attached to the trig point which points out all of the distilleries which you can see (memo to self, Ballindalloch and Dalmunach need to be added). It’s a chance to catch up with like-minded masochists and learn a little more about the area.
The Ben is a focal point; a triangular extrusion of pink granite among the folded hills whose flanks provide water for many distilleries. Distilleries emerge slowly as we head off. Allt-a-Bhainne on one side, then Glenallachie on the other, next The Glenlivet in the distance, and as the first saddle is reached we see Macallan, then Rothes and on to the coast.
On we tramp, seeing raven, curlew, grouse, and mountain hare. The talk is of old smuggling days and the slow repopulation of parts of forgotten glens. There’s snow too, a mighty drift near the top which has to be traversed before the wind-blasted summit is reached. We’ve lugged the giant quaich up [presented to Dave at the start of the festival – Ed] and pour in some drams, diluting them with snow.
Treat at the top: Alan Winchester pours a dram at the summit of Ben Rinnes
Beneath us is Speyside, bounded on one side by the white Cairngorm massif to the south-west, on the south-east by Bennachie and the Buck, and the Moray Firth grey to the north. Weather is flying in from the south-west, veils of rain falling on towns which slowly disappear: there goes Dufftown, Rothes, Craigellachie, Elgin, Archiestown. Then the clouds begin to break and one settlement is lit up. Sunshine on Keith.
The walk is followed by another tradition, a tasting in Edinvillie village hall where I choose drams from distilleries you can see from the top and try and make connections between them. We went back in time from Dalmunach via Glenallachie, then Glenrothes, Craigellachie, finishing with a double bill of hefty old-style whiskies: Macallan (Edition No.1) and Benrinnes. It told Speyside’s tale in reverse, of how its styles evolved and of the region’s diversity.
It is this reach which is both the region’s advantage and, to some extent, disadvantage. It is impossible to see everything, visit every distillery, attend every event at the festival. There’re 500 of them (probably more). Are there too many? Should there be a festival hub – Dufftown or Craigellachie? Is the festival’s growth limited to the number of beds available? All things that the organisers will address for 2017.
Keep up, Broom: The Glenlivet's Alan Winchester takes a solid lead
Thankfully, by this stage of proceedings stories of other events emerge as people bump into each other like dancers doing a Strip the Willow. The Copper Dog running out of beer at the stramash, barrel-rolling down the streets of Dufftown, a remarkable day-long Mortlach experience which ended up on the battlements of Drummuir Castle; and many more.
The airport is calling, however. There’s just time to slip into the Highlander Inn for a farewell pint. Tatsuya Minagawa pours me a wee deoch and doras of his latest bottling, Oishii Wisukii (delicious whisky), a 36-year-old blend. It is indeed oishii, a rich and elegantly mature unfolding of textures and rich fruits. A blend seems to be the right way to end.
There’s the team from Chichibu in the corner alongside some Germans. A party from Washington DC invite us to have dinner with them, there’s Dutch being spoken in one corner, Swedish in another, all linked by whisky’s remarkable ability to bind people together.
The spirit of Speyside indeed.
01 May 2016
‘Tusitala’, the t-shirt said. It means ‘Teller of Tales’ in Samoan and was the name given to Robert Louis Stevenson when he moved there in his final years. It – the t-shirt, that is – was made by Elgin firm www.smadug.com, whose wares I heartily recommend for both design and quality (and yes, I did pay for the new garment).
It seemed somehow appropriate, not that I am in any way comparing my wretched scribblings to RLS’s lofty prose. As my friend and mentor Nick Faith once told me: ‘Remember, dear boy, we deal in higher-level bullshit.’
I bought it at The Glenlivet Open Day, a mini-festival within the festival, with local traders, drams, and the sma’ still puffing away outside. Behind the warehouses is a huge hole that can probably be seen from the moon. This will be the location for the new distillery which is being added to the site, bringing production up to around 20m litres.
Over in Dufftown, there are new stills going into Glenfiddich, while on the hill opposite Aberlour, Macallan’s Hobbiton is being constructed. Speyside is witnessing the distilling equivalent of a nuclear arms race.
Tusitala: Both Dave and Alan Winchester have earned the moniker 'Teller of Tales'
The t-shirt really should have been worn by Alan Winchester, with whom I sat in the afternoon, occasionally prodding him with questions as he wove stories around the passing of time at The Glenlivet.
Using drams from six decades as reference points, he spoke of old managers and owners, the adaptations in production techniques, casks, overseas travels and the importance of community, and how through all of these changes the character of the spirit had remained the same.
‘Fruity, floral, toffee,’ was repeated like a mantra through his talk, and was echoed in the six glasses in front of us. Expansion doesn’t mean loss of character. Or shouldn’t.
‘You know, Dave,’ he said as we sipped on the 1959, ‘we’re the old ones now.’ It’s true. We’ve been yarning with each other for decades now – and it probably felt like that for the audience, for which I apologise. Sort of.
How times have changed, from days when whisky was hard to sell, to now, with gigantic building sites and a feeling of confidence as people of a new generation from around the world come to this nexus point of whisky-making to learn.
‘Time,’ as Dylan Thomas wrote, ‘passes. Listen. Time passes. Come closer now… Only you can hear and see, behind the eyes of the sleepers, the movements and countries and mazes and colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and wishes and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams. From where you are, you can hear their dreams.’
Here, on Speyside, you can taste them as well.
30 April 2016
‘Do you know what that is?’ asks Mark Fresson, pointing at a strange, small green hill. I hazard a guess of an ancient burial mound. ‘Nope. That’s Imperial.’
It seems churlish to point out to him that I am, sort of, correct. We’re standing in the stillhouse of Dalmunach distillery, Chivas Brothers’ new 10m lpa (litres of pure alcohol) plant on the banks of the Spey, a distillery which, it’s fair to say, is one of the most stunning of new builds. Mark was the architect.
What could have been a shed by a river, a functional box containing whisky equipment, is instead a mix of soft curves and three long arms mimicking a sheaf of barley.
The bowed front of the building is made out of reclaimed wood from Imperial’s washbacks, the massive stills – twice as big as Imperial’s but the same shape – commune in a circle in the massive, glass-framed stillhouse. The impression is of attention to detail, the need for aesthetics, as well as pipework and engineering in an industrial building.
Manager Trevor Buckley pours a dram of the new make which has flowed down a copper waterfall into the receiver. It’s filled with blue fruits and grape skin, blackcurrant and hint of Ribena with a clean finish and just a drying touch of cereal.
Outside, Imperial, that most unlucky of distilleries, slumbers under grass. In the evening, bats will flit above its tomb, snatching gnats from the air and, perhaps, returning to roost in the red-brick cave which Chivas Bros had to build to house them when their former home was demolished. That’s a first for me.
Dalmunach’s hidden away, as is its neighbour, the mighty Dailuaine. They are blending malts, that term which is used, somewhat disparagingly, for whiskies which aren’t commonly bottled as single malts.
That doesn’t mean their make is inferior. In fact, you could argue that one reason they are invisible distilleries is because their make is so highly prized. Speyside is hoaching with sites like these; its past has been built on quiet service.
Clean lines: Dalmunach’s design embraces aesthetics as well as practicality
My next destination was a car park. Admittedly there was a marquee protecting me from the snell wind, but there was no hiding the fact that it was a car park. The Craigellachie Hotel’s car park to be precise.
Inside, Cadenhead’s Mark Watt, all suited and booted, was sitting down with his guests to a food and whisky lunch. Out here, it was cold. Writer, know thy place.
There was, however, central heating in the form of a bodega full of Sherried whiskies which my partner in crime Charlie MacLean and I chatted through for a couple of hours with a tentful of hardy souls huddled in heavy jackets.
A couple of copitas of Sherry (a fino and oloroso) to start with and then into a conversation about wine influence, oak influence, refill, distillery character. We’d been bountifully supplied with cask samples by Bob Dalgarno of Macallan, and Brian Kinsman of Glenfiddich, including a Macallan PX cask, an opaque 9-year-old Glenfiddich from first fill, a gentle 21-year-old from a third fill butt, followed by Rothes ‘78 and a meaty treat of Benrinnes 21.
There was more whisky than glasses, and I had one half-litre of Macallan to share – an astoundingly rich and complex nine-year-old from first fill.
Part of the deal of winning the International Brand Ambassador title is you have to take the gigantic ceremonial quaich with you. No glasses, the need for one more dram, a giant quaich? Sorted. In it went and the sharing cup was passed around and drained, but with due reverence and appreciation.
These were whiskies which would never see the light of day on their own, they were components, adding structure and framework to single malts or blends, the hidden engineering of a whisky, their architects the whisky makers, men and women who don’t need the bright lights of fame, but quietly serve.
There was more to come, with a dash to Strathisla and a two-hour blind tasting on blending. Blind not because I’m a bastard (a term used somewhat regularly as the tasting progressed), but because that removes prejudice and allows you to discuss and understand how flavours exhibit themselves, and then how a blender could use them and fit them into his (or her) creation.
Among our samples a peppy Tormore, all jazz hands and pineapple, a thick, banana cake Strathclyde and more: sherried Longmorn, a relaxed, mature Strathisla, smoky Glenlivet (I know, that was evil) and then a vatting of the malts which go into Chivas Regal 12, then Chivas 18 at cask strength.
It was fun – well, I enjoyed it. The quaich was passed around again, now with a blend in it, elements quietly holding together to make a greater whole. It seemed very Speyside.
29 April 2016
It might not seem like it at times, but a certain degree of preparation goes into a masterclass. While a degree of improvisation is preferable – the roads less travelled are always more interesting than the main highways – a sort of structure does help.
It also helps to have tasted the whiskies you are talking about. There’s improvisation and there’s sheer recklessness. Which is why at 9.30am I’m sitting in Strathisla with 10 drams in front of me. These are for two classes, one of which is blind, so don’t expect me to divulge what they are. They are all, however, great.
Being at Strathisla also allows me to have a quick snoop around the Chivas Brothers Archive, run by the estimable Chris Brousseau. It is, sadly, only relatively recently that firms have realised how important the past is to their brands.
Living history: The industry is belatedly waking up to the importance of archives
No matter what efforts are being made now, the fact remains that until the industry realised that the past is important, the meticulous written records were more often than not consigned to bonfires or landfill.
‘That’s it?’ I ask. ‘Yeah, but…’ and his eyes light up, ‘it’s the first book – there’s the date and time of the first filling.’ It’s not a lot, but it’s something.
Chris shows me a letter from Charles Dickens praising Glenlivet, one from John Smith, Charles Doig’s original plans for distilleries, the legal document which enshrined The Glenlivet’s prefix.
There’s bottles galore, some real, others fake… Anyone fancy a ‘Balentye’s’ from Casablanca? Archives are a vital role in combatting counterfeiting.
‘We’re running out of space,’ he says. This is good. That means there is a realisation of the importance of history. Archives – and archivists – are a forgotten but vital component in whisky’s future.
Bottles galore: Just a few of the items in the Chivas Brothers Archive
Then it was time for the ‘light lunch’ proposed by my dear buddy Mr MacLean, over which we could discuss our Sherried whisky class. (You see? Preparation).
‘Light’ in MacLean’s lexicon can often tend to mean what other folks call ‘boozy’, but moderation was the watchword on this occasion, although in these days of the ‘just water for me’ culture, beer and wine might be seen as wildly excessive.
Lunch was taken in the Copper Dog, the marvellous, stone-flagged pub in the basement of the newly refurbished Craigellachie Hotel. Upstairs, Lyndsey Gray and her team run the Quaich bar with its serried ranks of bottles rare and fascinating, cocktails and views over the Spey.
The Craig’s revival has created a focal point for quality, like the village in which it sits, a hub. The Quaich Bar is no longer a hidden, small, dark green nook, accessible only to members of the Church of Drams, but open to all, bright and proud.
It’s not alone. On a whim, Mr MacLean and I then decided to spend the rest of the afternoon stravaiging around the higher-end drinking establishments of Speyside (thankfully, we had a designated driver).
First stop was the Dowans in Aberlour. It’s a hotel I’ve long loved though, like many of its kind, was always one where an eyebrow would be raised if you didn’t have a faithful hound with you when you checked in. A sporting place, stuffed with fishing rods and the smell of cordite and dog hair.
Now it is transformed into a stylish, modern hotel, with a sleek silver-and-black cocktail bar and another, The Still, with a wall of whisky, a club and regular tastings.
I didn’t ask if dogs were welcome. No longer do you enter through the back door, trailing mud. Now the entrance is at the front, giving you a sublime view over the river.
We drifted on to the four-star Station Hotel in Rothes, another establishment which has been gutted and redesigned, and now boasts two bars – Toots as the public, and a main bar.
There’s copper everywhere – you could make a sma’ still from the coasters alone – which is no surprise since it’s owned by the genial and humble Richard Forsyth. There’s another wall of whisky, but Dutch bar manager Bert Macor has smuggled in a fine selection of genever – which is where Charlie and I start.
Wall of whisky: The bar at the Station Hotel, Rothes
Tourism is important to the region. Forty percent of the visitors to the 2015 Spirit of Speyside festival stayed for six nights, but it isn’t just for this time of year. People come all year round; distillers bring in guests.
The issue for many years was a lack of bed space, a need for more hotels, restaurants and fine bars – quality, in other words. Offer all of that and people don’t come for a day trip, they stay, they spend, they sit and drink, and talk. These hotels are vital to a new, confident Speyside.
In many ways, what they are doing is learning from the past, from people like Alexander Edward, the young tyro who built the Craigellachie Hotel (and most of the village, and a distillery or two).
He saw the middle classes coming up by train to the Highlands and gave them a reason to stay by building a hotel. The new generation are doing the same. The past, you see, is always alive.
Today, Mr MacLean and I are doing our Sherried whisky class featuring two Sherries and eight drams, then comes a blind tasting on blends, and finally I am being deposited on a (hopefully fictitious) desert island to choose some drams.
For those of you up here already, a few of us are wandering up Ben Rinnes on Sunday morning. Meet at 10am on the Edinvillie road (Glenrinnes end).
Now… breakfast. If I hurry, I can squeeze in a visit to Dalmunach.
28 April 2016
Over the years I’ve seen seaweed in stillhouses and been attacked by midges in them as well. This, though, was the first time I’d ever experienced snow being blown in.
Sunbursts of daffodils shone out across the bleached hillsides, on which well-camouflaged, new-born lambs shivered. ‘Lambing snow’ they call it in these parts. You could tell who was local. They were the ones who raced into the stillhouse; we incomers dawdled, drinking it in.
It was worth the slower pace. It’s not every day, after all, that you get a chance to see Auchroisk, that modernist sculpture of a distillery that is, for some reason, little talked-of. Rarer still for folk to stand in the stillhouse, sipping on cocktails, as the hiss of steam mingles with the conversation and we all inch closer together for warmth as the wintry wind blows up the kilts.
Spirit of Speyside’s opening gala is a chance for a get-together, for a certain degree of scene-setting, the inhalation before the activities start.
Deeper breaths than usual this year, with close on 500 different events being run and in excess of 26,000 visitors attending. Seventeen years in, this is no longer just a local celebration, but an event which, this year, could bring in £1.5m to the region.
The evening is also a great place for gossip, the evening’s conversations underpinned by a steady stream of secrets – not that I can divulge anything… at the moment.
Eyes were flitting about, trying to spot anyone from BenRiach to find out what was going on there and, while there was general surprise at the deal (and the amount paid (‘£100m more than I reckon it’s worth’ was repeated a few times), there were some canny souls who claimed they knew something was afoot – and who was next.
Whisky and smiles: Friends old and new meet every year at the festival
The guest speaker was Jim Naughtie, broadcaster, author and, as was pointed out on more than one occasion, a local loon. His talk touched on the hard-drinking days of old-time journalism, when bottles of whisky would be hidden in cornflake packets, and his early memories of ‘bottles filled with viscous liquids’, that were smuggled out of distilleries, then pulled out of back pockets at dances.
It was a speech which touched on politics, while cleverly avoiding them, and framed by his roots in ‘this robust landscape, buttressed by granite’.
As he sat down, Capercaillie’s Charlie McKerron started on his last set of magical fiddle tunes, and bottles began to be passed around the room. Old buddies from around the world embraced, new friendships and introductions were made. Writers, hoteliers, barmen, operators, engineers, coppersmiths and managers mingling together.
I met Sandy McIntyre, Tamdhu’s manager whose brother, I discovered, I went to primary school with. ‘There’s amazing connections everywhere you look,’ he mused.
It summed up the evening: friendships rekindled, new promises made, and what seemed a disparate collection of frozen folk at the start of the night, leaving as one band, united by whisky.
Now, inspired by Jim Naughtie’s tales, I am heading off to do a preliminary tasting for a blending class tomorrow, followed by ‘a light lunch’ with Charlie MacLean.
Wish me luck.
27 April 2016
I’m sitting here in a state of confusion. The cistus is in flower in the garden, the bluebells are out and the birds are flitting about trying to pick up moss and twigs for nests – while avoiding my cat. The sun is shining out of a cobalt sky. It’s spring. I look away for a second and when I glance up again it’s snowing. Maybe the weather is mourning Prince in the most appropriate manner it can (come to think of it even the clouds look purple).
According to the forecast, the meteorological grief is even greater in Scotland, with blizzards predicted for the next couple of days which should add a certain frisson to this year’s Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival especially as I plan to be standing on the top of Ben Rinnes on Sunday lunchtime. If you are in the vicinity watch out for details – and bring a dram (memo to self, repack that case and think again about the tiki get-up for the desert island drams night).
But hey, the snow will just add to the magic of this celebration of the region and its whiskies. That’s the joy of the festival. You never quite know what is going to happen.
The Blackening: Neither snow or soot could spoil Speyside's annual festivalOver the years we’ve seen wild ceilidhs in Fochabers [town motto: too whit to whoo, tae Fochabers wi’ you!], and a room of baffled drammers trying to dance to Ziggy Campbell’s Moonhop disco; malt barns have become venues, warehouses turned into elegant restaurants; distilleries normally out of bounds to casual visitors fling their doors open. The public can wield hammers on the shop floor of the Speyside Cooperage, drambling tours of distilleries are organised – and descend quickly into chaos, and the pubs are filled with the languages of the world as glasses are clinked and drams are shared.
The fact that you are unsure of what is about to happen seems appropriate. Speyside isn’t one thing, but many. Its whiskies cannot be easily categorised, rather they occupy every niche of the flavour spectrum. Speyside is light, but also heavy, it is floral, but fruity, it can be smoky or free of peat. Speyside grows barley, it malts and coopers, and smiths copper. Its landscape ranges from the wilds of Glen Livet to the foggy mosses, and the Moray shoreline. How then can its whiskies be identikit? This week therefore is a chance to celebrate diversity, and to rejoice in confusion. I’ll see you there.
20 April 2016
How does a whisky become a cult? It’s a thought which sprang to mind when I was tasting this year’s release of Yamazaki Sherry Cask. Why this whisky? Or rather, why this whisky which isn’t the same whisky which did become a cult? Once cult status has been achieved, is it held in perpetuity? Once a cult, always a cult – as I’m sure I overhead someone muttering in a Glasgow bar one night.
Anyway, to get back to the question in hand, cult status is linked to scarcity. It can be granted to a whisky thanks to a (often belated) realisation that it is in finite supply – Port Ellen, Brora, Karuizawa. It can be a limited edition whisky where demand always outstrips supply: Ardbeg limited editions, Bowmore Devil’s Casks, and Yamazaki Sherry Cask.
In both scenarios, it produces a reaction akin to mass hysteria. ‘I haven’t tried it, but I have to have it because people are talking about it.’ It’s drams as Pokémon cards, limited edition trainers, or handbags.
If the cult has momentum, critical faculties also disappear. Possession of the sacred object is all that matters. The liquid (in this case) is meaningless. The fact that it might only be of average quality is irrelevant. It’s whisky as fetish.
Object of desire: Feverish interest greeted the release of the 2016 Yamazaki Sherry Cask
This might seem an enviable position for a producer. In actuality, it can be a nightmare, particularly when it comes to distribution. Who gets it? How many do they get? What’s the price? The same dilemma is then passed down to retailers, who have to deal fairly with cult members, knowing that it will be impossible to satisfy them all.
How, then, to be even-handed with what is an inevitably tiny allocation? Two retailers had an interesting response with the Yamazaki. ‘The issue is how you appear fair and not make more people than necessary angry, because that anger is there,’ says Arthur Motley, buyer at Royal Mile Whiskies.
‘A man gives an award to a whisky, so the distiller decides to increase its price. People get angry. The retailer doesn’t know how many they’ll get or what the price will be, so people get angry with us. We get a small allocation and can’t sell a bottle to everyone who wants one. People get angry. We’re living in new times.’
How, then, to be even-handed in selling the stock? ‘We could alert our most loyal customers and pre-sell the allocation, but that isn’t an option as you’ll be criticised for selling to an inner circle. Or we could sell on a first come, first served basis with one bottle per customer, which is what we did. We Tweeted that it had arrived and it went in seconds.’
That still leaves the fact that many (most?) whisky lovers will never try the dram. Is there any way to spread the love? Master of Malt devised A Cunning Plan for its six-bottle allocation of Yamazaki. Four were bottled as 3cl miniatures and sold in a lottery, which in theory meant 93 folk got to try it – maybe more if they were happy to share a glass. One went for auction, with all profit above the retail price going to charity.
The last full bottle went to a lottery, sporting a back label saying: ‘I hereby swear not to sell this bottle – but to drink it with my chums. May my taste-buds and olfactory bulb shrivel and die if I should break my word.’
How likely is that? We all know that these bottles are now as often bought to flip, not drink. That possession of the sacred object is no longer the main driver within the world of cult. Profit is.
In Royal Mile’s case, someone had tried to cheat the system and ordered two bottles, meaning that there was one left over. ‘Everyone believed when it was released it would resell for £800 to £1,000,’ says Motley. ‘The individual then makes more profit that we or the distiller makes. So we were faced with this issue – do we sell this spare bottle, put it into auction, or do we effectively give it away? Which is what we did.’
The bottle was sold to Edinburgh bar Bramble for £180 (0% profit) and the bar then sold 25ml drams at £6.43 (0% profit). It sold out in 10 hours (search #breakevenbottle on Twitter to see the video). Again, more people were able to try it, which gives this whisky lover a warm, fuzzy feeling.
But is it up to retailers to try to subvert the flipping culture? ‘How do you judge whether a customer is someone who wants to buy for a collection, or is going to drink it, or who wants to flip it?’ asks Motley, somewhat rhetorically. ‘If they do flip it, is that less valid? Is it even our business?’
Here, though, is the dark side of the cult business. Suntory knew that there would be huge demand for this bottle, so the company raised the price, to around (gasp!) £200 retail.
It also raised the spec of the whisky, so that the liquid was commensurate with the price being asked. That is to be applauded. Then you look at auction sites and see it selling for £2,000.
Now, I ask you, seeing this, what price do you think Suntory will charge next year and, if it is a four-figure sum, can you blame them?
The industry gets criticised for greed. Ask yourself. Who is being greedy here?
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