The triennial event provided a snapshot of the latest scientific Scotch whisky developments.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
30 May 2018
When was the last time you paused and thought about what malt whisky is made of? I know that, like good children at primary school, we can all recite by rote: ‘Water, barley, yeast’ (with the teacher’s pet at the front of the class adding, correctly: ‘And oak, Miss’), but when was the last time you actually paused to think about what you just said?
A cereal, a fungus and an omnipresent liquid; oh, and a tree. As a recipe, it’s startlingly simple. In fact, you might think it is an unprepossessing combination.
Seeing it laid out like that reminds me of the story of the person asking for directions to a town in Ireland. ‘Well, I wouldn’t start from here’ being the considered response. A wise one too, I hasten to add.
It seems barely possible that ingredients as basic as these can combine to produce a palatable drink. What is even more miraculous is how they interact to produce a myriad of flavours which ensnare us with their complexities. There is mystery at the heart of it all.
Yes, distillers have their part to play – this is not spontaneous (even if some might just test that theory out) – but what they do is nudge and cajole, control and guide, rather than force.
There’s no gussying up – no acidification or tannin addition, no chaptalisation or spinning cones. Despite the industrial-looking equipment, whisky-making is a natural process.
The secret is unlocking potential, allowing the flavours to rise and develop. It is an art of concentration and selection, of interplay and balancing.
The end result is a spirit which can speak to the soul like no other, a distillation of place, time and people, and it all comes from such humble beginnings.
Whisky, for all its boldness of flavour and attack is, at heart, modest. That in turn means that its makers have to have a respect for the ingredients. There is no place to hide when you are dealing with the original trio.
Simplicity itself: All of us making a living from whisky are servants of the spirit
The same term, ‘humble’, is also the word which which springs to mind whenever you encounter anyone engaged in whisky’s production: from malting to distilling, coppersmithing to coopering, and blending.
As a nation, we Scots tend to be self-effacing (we talk ourselves down rather than up), and whisky people take this to the Nth degree. They are modest, lacking in arrogance or ego when it comes to what they produce.
They go about it quietly, letting the spirit speak. ‘It is a team effort’ … ‘I just helped it along’ … ‘It’s the whisky that’s important’ … ‘It’s quite good’ (the last © David Stewart MBE). They serve the spirit.
It’s a lesson worth remembering when we pick up a glass. The moments of maximum enjoyment of whisky, for me at least, are also the simplest ones.
Not fancy dinners or gilded palaces of sin, no lights and lasers, but friends, glasses, a bottle and talk. Little has changed in that scenario since whisky’s earliest days.
The same applies to selling, talking or writing about it as well. Those of us fortunate enough to make our livings in this way need to always be aware that we are at the service of the whisky.
We can make it fun, crack jokes, play with it (in fact, I’d say all are essential), but we all need to remember that all we are doing is simply passing information along.
People come to our shop or bar or class, or read our writing, not because it is us, but because they want to learn about whisky.
As soon as we think we are more important than the story, the moment when ego takes over, then that simple aim is lost. We are servants of the spirit as well. We are all learning as well, sitting quietly at the feet of the people who know more than we do, asking why and then passing it on in a way which entertains and informs, but focuses on the whisky itself.
We all have to remain humble.
23 May 2018
We start our whisky life with a moment of sudden clarity, when the whisky speaks to us directly. We may have drunk whisky – maybe even this brand – before, perhaps regularly, but this time it is somehow different.
The dram need not be special in terms of rarity, or price, or being the ‘best’ that a range offers. Rather, the combination of the situation, the people and our mood triggers a wholly emotional response. This thing called whisky becomes something greater than just the liquid. The gateway swings open. Our heart has spoken.
This came to mind during a six-day tour of China, taking in Guangzhou, Xiaman, Shantou, Shenzhen and (now) Beijing. Living out of the case (albeit in rather swish hotels), talking to bloggers, bartenders, retailers and punters about the juice.
All the folk were in some way associated with the Diageo Whisky Academy (DWA), an astonishingly bold initiative on the part of the distiller to try to teach as many people in China about whisky as possible.
In the few months since its launch, more than 4,000 folks have entered its three-tier certification scheme. Some will be content with the grounding given by Level 1. By the time that those who are really smitten reach Level 3, they are fully-fledged whisky warriors. It is a category-building programme – competitor brands are given equal status – the like of which I’ve not encountered before.
Engaging the brain: We are insatiable in our desire for whisky information, says Dave Broom
Anyway, I was on stage, about to start a flavour-led run-through of production, when I had second thoughts. The students had read the books and done the classes. They knew their wort from their washbacks, their cut points from their condensers, the differences between oak types – all the stuff that, these days, comes with being a whisky lover.
This is how we all progress. We start with the heart but, once the door is open, our head takes over. That moment of revelation is quickly followed by a mass of questions: how is it made, what is that flavour and why is it there, what goes on at that part of a distillery, why does that distillery do this and its neighbour do that? Names, figures and statistics; books, websites and talks. We become insatiable in our desire for information.
It is a natural response and it is a good one. The fact that whisky shows are growing in number, that courses like DWA are prospering, that a website like Scotchwhisky.com exists, is proof of how much interest there is. All of it is essential if whisky is to build and grow (and if all that juice which is about to flood onto the market is to be sold).
And now for pleasure: When heart and head work together, whisky can be truly joyous
The downside of this is that we can forget what made us turn to whisky in the first place – that moment when our heart spoke. Shunryu Suzuki once wrote: ‘If your mind is empty, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.’
Too true. The intellectual clutter gets in the way of the honest response to the glass. We all need to get back to that beginner’s mind. So that’s what I spoke about.
In some schools of karate, when you achieve the top grading you are given the same white belt of the beginner. It says: you know this intuitively, you are not using your mind any more, but responding naturally and openly to what is in front of you.
It’s the same with whisky. We can make whisky as complicated as we want, but should never forget that it is a really simple proposition: a drink made from humble ingredients which hopefully speaks to your heart as well as your head.
Later that night, at Shenzhen’s new go-to bar Whisky Life, I watched Hidetsugu Ueno (the legendary bartender from Tokyo’s Bar High Five) effortlessly creating great drinks (his new creation, Queen Mary, a mix of Singleton of Glen Ord 12 Year Old, Pimm’s and Suze, is a delight) for the same people who had been at the classes listening attentively.
The music was up, the lights low, the laughter loud, the whisky flowing. After the head-focused afternoon, it was time for the heart to take over again. When both work together, it is marvellous to behold.
16 May 2018
It’s a funny sensation when an atmosphere becomes tangible and you feed off others’ energy: the mood is palpably tense, or anticipatory, or enthused and excited.
In some ways that’s been what those of us who lived through whisky’s Bad Old Days™ have experienced. Assembled in sheds and halls around the world, we clustered together nervously and, slowly, more and more excitedly.
I’ve seen the Tokyo International Bar Show (or TIBS as it’s more commonly known) morph from being an add-on to Whisky Live into a stand-alone event. This year it took the next step into being one of the best of its kind.
At about 3pm on Sunday, you couldn’t move for people tasting, talking, laughing, listening. The buzz was unlike any other similar event. People were (shock) enjoying themselves.
Old friends from when it was a whisky-only event were still there, but the balance between whisky and other spirits has been addressed. This is a showcase for all spirits, giving lessons on how to navigate, work with and celebrate an entire category.
There was a hefty Scotch presence – exclusive bottlings from Glenfarclas and Bruichladdich, strong representation from many single malts – but there were as many gins (Japanese and imported), and some rum (Diplomatico’s new range of single still distillates a highlight).
Japanese whisky, inevitably, had a strong showing. In one corner you had Chichibu unveiling a nine-year-old rum cask, or the ultra-limited bottling aged in casks with new Mizunara heads (one of the more exciting Japanese whisky experiments I’ve tasted since… well… since the same firm’s IPA casks).
Nothing to see: Japan’s whisky shortage has led to the withdrawal of Hibiki 17-year-old
You had Suntory with its Essence limited-edition range, again highlighting its experimental areas, while Gotemba had brought along a cask of its heavy grain. But that was it. A Japanese bar show with a relatively low representation of its own whiskies. No great surprise there.
Walking the streets of Kyoto the day after the show, I pop into a bottle shop just to see what’s on offer. Force of habit, I suppose, because I know what the answer will be. The Scotch shelves are full, but the Japanese whisky section is decimated. The talk at the show was of Hibiki 17 being withdrawn because of lack of stock. This is the reality.
If there is a dearth of better-known brands, however, there are unfamiliar names in the devastated fixture – whiskies purportedly from Japan, but containing not a drop of Japanese distilled whisky in them. Blends of Scotch and Canadian bottled here, and, because of the lax (or non-existent) legal framework around Japanese whisky, able to be sold and exported as something which they are not.
It’s deeply concerning, at this time of rising global interest in Japanese whisky, that its image may become fatally corrupted because of these new arrivals. Legislation is badly needed. The good news is that a working party on regulations is meeting and hopefully we’ll see a set of rules in place by 2020. There will be more on this soon.
In the meantime, the show also demonstrated what was happening on the ground. As well as the single malts, Scotch blends are pushing hard at the still buoyant Highball category, seeing potential stock-related issues on the part of their Japanese competitors.
Matrix of flavour: TIBS attendees were there to explore a range of spirits – not just whisky
There were free samples of White Horse Highballs being handed out (and the 12-year-old to taste), while the Walker stand wasn’t a blinged-up journey into Blue, but loudly proclaimed about the ‘Johnnie Highball’. Blended Scotch knows what it has to do.
Wandering around the stands (or, to be more precise, trying to fight through the happy boozers), you got the feeling of a modern, coherent industry realising that all spirits are now on the same plane, and that consumers are as happy drinking Ki No Bi gin as a single malt, or a rum cocktail as much as a whisky Highball.
That press of people in the Sunday afternoon was mostly comprised of bartenders and owners on their day off, there to enjoy themselves, but also learn and suss out what is next.
We live in a whisky bubble; we think of it as being the most important spirit in the world. Because we love, we are protective and loyal, but the reality is that whisky is not alone, it doesn’t have a self-given right to consider itself superior.
In the minds of those who are serving and drinking, it is just one other element within a matrix of flavour that we all play in.
Yes, whisky is in a stronger position than it was in the Bad Old Days™ when the bartenders were specialists and the attendees were the geeks who helped save a category, but the world has moved on and we ignore that fact at our peril.
Today we browse our way through a wider world. And celebrate it.
09 May 2018
What I’ve noticed over the years is the way in which the Spirit of Speyside festival has matured, undoubtedly slightly better than I have. Every iteration has seen a tweak or two and, in more recent times, there’s been a greater willingness to take chances and anticipate what people might want, rather than sticking to the same formula (or formulae).
It struck me that this year was the most radical yet, something which struck home at the opening dinner. This event is hosted by a different distiller each year – this time it was Benromach’s turn. Every year, each distillery manages to somehow put on a grand event in a space not intended for grand events, such as a warehouse. This year, the Benromach team decided to put up a massive marquee instead.
It’s always hard to put your finger on exactly why an event like this works. The food, the company, the speeches, the pace, all affect the mood of the space. This year I reckon it was all of those, plus the lighting. Bear with me.The event started in daylight, and finished at 11pm, but the lighting level stayed the same allowing everyone to see each other. So what? Well, I’ve noticed that in dimly-lit occasions, tables end up becoming islands of people talking to each other. Keep the lights up (but not blazing) and a collective experience is created.
Come together: The festival’s closing nights at Craigellachie Hotel's Dogfest reflected the collective experience of Benromach’s opening (Photo: Till Britze)
This feeling was replicated throughout the festival’s duration. The advantage of holding the festival over a bank holiday weekend is that it allows locals to attend events. This year their numbers seemed to be higher, giving more of a community feel and balancing the huge number of incomers from around the world. Perhaps that helped give events a different, lighter and more relaxed feel. Perhaps whisky has embraced the fact that there is more to a festival than just a tasting or a masterclass. These days they are just part of an ever more complex mix.
Once again Scotchwhisky.com teamed up with the Craigellachie Hotel, which meant that I hardly made it through its portals for the duration – twice across the road to the Highlander Inn, and once to the beach. Right enough, most of the festival seemed to come to the Craig at some point for the fun and games.
Whisky? Fun? Yes, it does seem to be happening, though there are some who still moan about there being too much of it and not enough ‘serious whisky talk’. You can’t win ‘em all. The fact is that this year the hotel hosted the second Battle of the Villages blind tasting which featured amazing drams and record levels of insults being flung by both teams, a film and whisky quiz, and a night of cocktails with Pulp Fiction on a giant screen. It was during the last of these that I got into one of those detailed (and serious) chats about whisky which always occurs at some stage during a festival. I enjoy geeking out, even if having Uma Thurman being given an adrenaline shot over my shoulder was not necessarily the usual setting for such a discourse.
‘I’m not sure about all of this mixing,’ my questioner said at one point, looking around the room. A minute later he was sipping happily on a $5 Shake. That’s how it happens. Whisky breaks free and reaches new drinkers, or converts older ones. We should all now be confident enough to discard the rules – our whisky dinner this year featured mock turtle soup which had to be eaten with a knife and fork and a trifle that had to be tackled with a steak knife. Norms are challenged, as they should be. Whisky needs to extend its remit and reach as many people in as many ways as possible to show it is for all occasions.
Sharing spirit: Georgie Bell, global malts ambassador for Dewar’s, shares several bottles of whisky with the crowds at Craigellachie Beach
At my trip to the beach this idea took a surprising turn. The bottle of Craigellachie 51-year-old (inevitably) lasted about five minutes. No surprise there. Everyone there realised that it would be the only chance to try a dram which none of us would ever be able to afford – it would probably retail for the same price as a Merc.
It turns out however that Dewar’s has decided not to bottle the 50 bottles worth that was left in the cask, but use the liquid (which is utterly delicious by the way) in tastings instead. It’s a bold move to share the rare, which should be applauded – and copied.
After that interlude it was back for Dogfest, then a blur of more tastings, and blending sessions. It worked. My personal thanks to the quite incredible team at the hotel, led by the amazing Lyndsey Gray, all of whom who were working 13+ hour shifts without complaint.
They all deserve huge credit for turning what was once a sad, staid, old hotel around and making its elegant rooms a perfectly natural fit for Tarantino films, cocktail bars, a music festival and disco without damaging its image as a home of whisky. That, my friends, is what 21st century Scotch is about.
02 May 2018
The manatee conversation had taken place at New York’s Japan Society, a remarkable institution, founded in 1907, which promotes and explains Japanese culture – if you are in the city, do go and see what’s happening.
As well as running a season of films shot by Kazuo Miyagawa, one of Japan’s greatest cinematographers (he shot The Spider Tattoo, Ballad of Orin, Yojimbo and Rashomon, for goodness’ sake – all of which you should watch), there was an exhibition of rare works by the artist Hasegawa Tōhaku (1539-1610).
There were some which were lustrous, gilded landscapes of waterfalls and trees obscured by golden clouds, each with moments of abstraction and distorted reality, but the works which made the greatest impact on me were the large ink screens (byōbu), including the masterpiece Pine Trees (Shōrin-zu-byōbu), painted at the end of the 16th century, which has been designated national treasure status in Japan.
Space to think: A visitor meditates in front of a reproduction of Pine Trees in New York (Photo: Japan Society Gallery)
The greatest ink paintings have what in the West seems like a recklessly daring use of blank space, but is in fact an exquisite balance between space and forms which can be delineated by a single brushstroke, and where entire screens can be left almost blank: in one of Pine Trees’ screens there’s the mere suggestion of a mountain peak in the top corner. The trees hang in mist.
Yes, the more you look, the more you seem to discern other shapes: ghostly trees, a shrouded, retreating forest, maybe the same trees in the future. The imagination begins to fill in the space, which is the point. These are works of meditation.
They also seemed to chime with what came from that manatee talk, that first revelation of whisky – the flash of inspiration seen through the mist.
The blank space is called ‘Ma’ in Japanese. It is as much part of the landscape as what is painted, it’s more what isn’t there, or rather it is there and you are aware of it existing, even if it is not portrayed. Your gaze fills in the gaps. The effect is of a landscape in movement: the mist moves, the trees reveal themselves and then hide.
Less is more: Ghostly forms and blank space on the left-hand screen of Tōhaku’s Pine Trees
What it boils down to is a willingness to show restraint, a quality which is shared with Japanese whisky, where the notion of humbleness, modesty and lack of showiness (shibui) is a guiding principle. Less is more.
You could argue that, at times, Scotch seems too eager to please. Rather than letting things rest and be as they are, every crevice is filled, even overstuffed (here's another layer of flavour from a different wood, a different finish).
Equally, there are those whiskies which, on first acquaintance, seem to mimic the pale washes of ink perfectly. Light in colour, wispy in flavour, they might carry just a suggestion of fruit, or play up the peat. They aren’t, however, the same. In them the blank spaces aren’t part of the whole, they are simply blank.
The apparently empty spaces in these ink paintings are part of the whole, they give balance to what is painted, and balance is one leg of the three-legged stool which underpins any whisky’s quality – the other two, in case you’re interested, are complexity and character. A whisky can be bold (those golden clouds), or it can whisper like the pines, but it must always have balance.
Perfectly poised: Fine whiskies, like the right-hand screen of Tōhaku’s work, have balance
The space in the painting opens your mind to possibilities, encourages you to sit and think, and imagination is a field in which to play. It is the same, surely, with whisky. The taster, like the viewer, must have a space to meditate in, there has to be an openness so that you can fill in the gaps with your own memories and interpretations.
Not doing so is like looking at Pine Trees with a critic’s analysis being bellowed at you, telling you what it ‘means’. So with whisky. Comment is good, but it can only guide. You must trust yourself and allow your senses to get lost in the work, fill in the spaces, be they in ink, or drink.
A Giant Leap: The Transformation of Hasegawa Tōhaku is at the Japan Society Gallery in New York until Sunday, 6 May.
25 April 2018
The manatee wasn’t expected. In fact, this was the first time, for me at least, that the two words ‘manatee’ and ‘whisky’ had appeared in the same sentence. But there it was – and it sure wasn’t going to leave without explanation.
We all have our first moment of whisky revelation tucked away somewhere. It’s the moment when whisky first leaps into your consciousness as being more than just a thing to be consumed, and becomes a compelling experience requiring close and dedicated attention – the ‘first kiss’ moment if you like.
My epiphany, which I’ve mentioned before, came with Talisker while driving (or rather, in a car with someone else driving) in the far north-west of Scotland en route to a ceilidh in Ullapool. The manatee was Pablo’s.
Manatee magic: Whisky epiphanies can come from the most unlikely of places (Photo: Keith Ramos)
‘I was working in an aquatic research centre in Mexico,’ he started. ‘One day we got a call from an aquarium in Japan. They told us that their manatee had died and wondered whether it would be possible for us to send them one.’
I reckon that this counts as a pretty unusual occurrence. I mean, to the best of my knowledge, there’s not a whole load of manatees out there just waiting for a new home.
‘Anyway,’ he continued, ‘we found them one [quite how he didn’t say, but I’m sure it was above board] and worked out how to send it to Japan.’ I pictured in my mind a manatee sitting in JAL Business Class contentedly munching on seaweed and sipping Champagne (I’m not sure if manatees like Champagne, so apologies to any marine biologists out there).
Pablo was still speaking. ‘I had to go out separately to ensure that everything was ok. When I arrived, the head of the project gave me a bottle of Japanese whisky by way of thanks. I hadn’t really tried whisky. It changed me.’
‘But the manatee?’ I asked. He looked surprised, expecting me to me more interested in the whisky side of the tale. ‘I think it was ok,’ he said. Stupid me. I don’t suppose they have much time to send postcards, what with the endless Champagne and seaweed parties.
The evening had been filled with similar whisky epiphany chats: the thank-you gift, the dram bought by a parent or friend. The scales had fallen from our eyes in different ways, but the result was that we were all now in a similar place. The fact that you are (maybe) reading this, is evidence that this has happened to you at some stage.
It would be fascinating to discover what process causes these moments of revelation – what has to be in alignment for whisky to suddenly speak to you. Perhaps it’s the occasion, season, company, some mysterious manner in which the aromas and flavours resonate with your memories.
Revelatory dram: What creates those moments when whisky suddenly speaks to us?
It could be the moment when prejudice falls away, or that the vestigial hangover left from teenage over-indulgence finally lifts, or the culmination of a long period of laudable perseverance to try to find the right whisky for your palate.
Who knows? Maybe the god of whisky (or one of those lushes of angels who float around above distilleries) simply looks down and says: ‘Right. Now.’ (Out of interest, I wonder if anyone has any thoughts as to what ratio of angels there are to volume of whisky maturing on one site? Messages to my secretary, A Manatee, Okinawa, but don’t expect a quick reply.)
That thrill is what we need to retain and work on as our explorations of whisky continue and we are sucked down various rabbit holes concerning the intricacies of production or history.
That moment of clarity can be seen as an atavistic response to a situation – an unprompted, direct, intense reaction between you and the liquid. An emotional response such as this is not something which can be learned from books; there is no analysis of phenols at work here, no concerns over what the mashing temperature is, whether the wort is clear or cloudy, how long the ferment may be, and the flow rate of distillation. It is simply about what is in the glass at this moment and how it is speaking to us emotionally.
The geeky stuff may deepen our fascination with whisky, but it should never obscure the fact that this is a drink which we have now fallen in love with. If we are lucky, we then emerge from that rabbit hole of geekdom and obsession into a world remarkably similar to the one revealed to us at that first moment of clarity.
Us, liquid, glass. Don’t let your manatee swim away.
18 April 2018
The familiar flight can fill you with excitement, or a feeling of ‘oh no, not again’. Thankfully, the latter never occurs whenever I head to Aberdeen, though this time the sense of anticipation was different. It could have been partly because, in its infinite wisdom, easyjet has decided that there should only now be two flights a day from Gatwick, morning and evening. With the former leaving at 06.20, it means a 03.15 wakeup.
I reckon that’s what put my brain in a funny place. Maybe still half asleep (or awake, it was hard to tell) I went into a fugue-like state where I seemed to be simultaneously experiencing all the previous versions of the same flight, each of the hopes and thoughts, the smells and feelings of all of the trips for this particular venture – a training course which I’ve taught on for the past 15 (I think) years.
I’ve seen the road to Ballater in all seasons: the slow creep of blue-skied springs leading to the greens of spring; long, low-lit umber and golden autumns, the white and grey of snowed-in winter; of the wind-twisted coils of ancient pines, and darting red squirrels, pathways of crow feathers, a river at peace or in spate; and at road-end a cupboard filled with rarities and good company.
Whisky landscape: Ballater in the springtime from the River Dee (Photo: Nigel Corby)
Returning is always good. Every time we try a whisky it is for the first time. It is reassuring and simultaneously challenging, there is comfort in the familiar and a chance to reassess the beliefs of the past and bring new thoughts forward for discussion. The aims of the course – a deep-dive into malt’s intricacies in order to enthuse people and give them new ways to talk about it – remain the same, but the delivery alters.
Now there’s less talk about the (once) bright new world of the whisky dinner, and more about occasion and how to drink. It’s not odd today to discuss cocktails, while everyone has heard about umami. In general, the folk on the course seem more comfortable with the idea of whisky. Engaged is one way of putting it. The same; but different. A return, but also a progression.
Those changes also come through in where we drink. The old watering holes (hole being the operative word) of Speyside’s The Pole, the Allargue Arms on the Lecht, both gone, Blairgowrie’s Stormont Arms no longer en route. As whisky changes, so Scotland does, albeit slowly. New layers are being laid down.
That said, there are still too many hotels and bars who believe that ‘Highland hospitality’ means the smell of damp tweed and even wetter dogs, where the dust of ages settles on top of the breaded haddock and age-toughened venison, and where ‘an extensive selection of whiskies’ means five lonely bottles on the back bar and a clueless bartender who hasn’t been trained to realise that many of the tourists who are arriving in increasing numbers are there to, er, taste whisky.
Inverness was like that until relatively recently. No longer, thanks to The Malt Room. A nook which at first glance looks Japanese in its stripped-back decor, and groaning shelves. Japanese restraint in terms of service is not evident however, which is A Good Thing. That wouldn’t be an ideal fit for Inversneckie. This is a bar where whisky is enthused over, a place for opinions and bottles (or drams) on the table being talked over. If you’re heading north I urge you to go, or to Drumnadrochit’s Fiddlers, or Rothes’ Station Hotel, or the embarrassment of riches in Craigellachie, or Elgin’s Drouthy Cobbler. The fact that as I write I’m thinking, ‘and Skye’s Eilean Iarmain, or Sligachan, or Portree’s Merchant…’ shows how things have shifted.
The way whisky has been served and talked about has shifted almost imperceptibly in recent years. One day it was bartenders saying, ‘Whisky? Haven’t a clue, pal, I drink vodka’, to, ‘have you tried this? It’s amazing.’
This in some ways is also a return. In the best whisky pubs across the Highlands and Islands you see glimpses of how it all started, of people, and communities coming together over the local drink, laughing and discussing, singing and enjoying. Layers upon layers.
11 April 2018
I like to think that I’m an optimistic sort of fellow [Hang on, who is this? – Ed], but this, I knew, was pushing it. I’d been writing about the revamp of the Jura single malt range, cheerfully plundering the books on my shelf (thank you, Messrs Broom, Jackson and Townsend) for a little historical context.
Then a thought occurred to me – I wonder what Alfred Barnard had to say about Jura? After all, his formidable tome, The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, had given me some useful insight into late Victorian Campbeltown for a piece I’d written a year ago.
True enough, he’d had more interesting things to say about the town and the latter days of the herring boom than he had about the whisky itself, but hey; as I say, I was feeling optimistic.
Not for long. Barnard’s entry for Jura begins – as it so often does – with an account of his journey to the distillery, in this case via ‘Mr MacBrayne’s steamer Fingal’ from Tarbert.
That’s fine. Nothing wrong with a bit of colour and scene-setting. Not really relevant to my researches, but never mind. And then we arrive at the distillery itself.
‘The works cover nearly three acres of ground, and are situated close to the pier, and a beautifully wooded glen. The Distilling and Mashing House consist of a lofty and solid stone block of buildings, which are visible for many miles round, and attached thereto are the old Maltings and Warehouses, which are built round a courtyard.’
Swathes of dross: Was Alfred Barnard more like an estate agent than a journalist?
Theroux it ain’t, and don’t get me started on the illiberal use of Capital Letters, but it’s ok in its own way – although it’s not exactly news that distilleries tend to be quite big buildings. Anyway, Barnard only really gets into his stride half a page later.
‘We were next taken to the Mill, which contains a pair of Malt Crushers, and from thence to the Grist Loft, in which there are two large Grist Hoppers, which feed the Mash-tun. Still descending, we then passed on to the Brewing House, a neat building 35 feet long by 25 feet broad, which contains a metal Mash-tun 20 feet in diameter by 5 feet deep, with stirring gear driven by the water-wheel; here also we observed two Heating Tanks, holding together 3,000 gallons, which supply hot water to a Mashing-machine, which mixes the grist before it reaches the Mash-tun.’
Anybody still awake out there? I could go on [Please don’t – Ed] – Barnard certainly does and, apart from a single sentence on the old smuggler’s hole next to the distillery, it’s deadly dull.
Now let’s be fair: there’s the odd useful sentence in Barnard if you look hard enough. The line in Lagavulin’s entry about tasting some ‘exceptionally fine’ eight-year-old whisky prompted a 200th anniversary release in 2016 that is now part of the Islay distillery’s core range; a similarly glowing verdict (in a sister work about breweries) on the James Eadie blend helped inspire its revival by Rupert Patrick, Eadie’s great-great-grandson.
Commemorative bottling: Barnard was the inspiration for this Lagavulin release
The trouble is that you have to wade through vaste swathes of dross to locate these gems; Barnard seems to have approached each distillery visit not so much as a writer or journalist, but rather as if he were casing the joint, or performing an estate agent’s valuation.
Now I know he had no particular whisky expertise, that he was catering for a trade audience and that what he accomplished in visiting well over 150 distilleries with all the limitations of Victorian travel was remarkable.
But it seems to me that the value of Barnard lies not in his writing per se, nor even in his selection of what (and what not) to write about. Instead, it lies in the timing of his tour, at the near-peak of the late Victorian whisky boom, and the fact that he’s describing an industry that would be on its knees within a decade or two, with a number of the distilleries visited closed, never to reopen.
Maybe Barnard just needed a good editor, or some constructive feedback early on in his endeavours to point him in the right direction. Instead, what we’re left with is a comprehensive, but frustratingly flawed chronicle of the whisky world in the 1880s.
Barnard, let’s remember, was no trained journalist, but a former ad man and toilet soap exporter – and that fact is painfully obvious when you read his accounts.
Then again, perhaps he was a man ahead of his time. In his obsession with extraneous, irrelevant details, his love of sequential first-person narrative (‘We did this… then we did this’) and his inability to self-edit, could it be that Alfred Barnard was the world’s first whisky blogger?
04 April 2018
It all started with cucumbers, or to be precise when I was doing a class with Bernard Lahousse from foodpairing.com on shared aromas between whisky and foods.
Bernard is a scientist, and he and his colleagues on the site are continually researching how these shared aromatic molecules can widen the potential for different and fascinating combinations – who would have thought oysters and chocolate would go together, for example? The potential uses for chefs and bartenders are vast.
Anyhoo, during the talk, he pointed out that cucumber only smells of ‘cucumber’ when it is cut. In other words, a cucumber is a cucumber, but not a ‘cucumber’ until there is an intervention. It exists in two worlds simultaneously.
‘So, it’s Schrödinger’s vegetable if you like?’ I asked. He looked at me in the way that scientists often do when I blunder into their world. ‘Well, not exactly...’ he started.
‘I know, because Schrödinger’s conundrum was to do with waves and quantum physics, but you know it boils down to the fact that there’s this cat in a steel box with a Geiger counter, a vial of poison, a hammer and a radioactive substance, all of which will at some point kill the cat, but as you won’t know if the cat’s dead or not until you open the box, it’s both alive and dead at the same time. Like, er, the cucumber,’ I finished. He gave me a look.
I thought that the only possible whisky connection with the cat was through this tenuous link until, suspiciously close to April Fool’s Day, I was alerted to a potential fake by a concerned reader.
Real thing?: The bottle may not be entirely genuine, but what’s inside it?
I checked the label and compared it to the others which the house had sold, and it was certainly suspicious. The colour of the label was wrong, the printing was crude, it had a spelling mistake and there were no cut-outs on the back label allowing you to see the liquid.
So I got in touch with Tam Gardiner at Scotch Whisky Auctions and they withdrew it immediately pending investigation. All good and in line with what all auction houses should do.
Then Tam called. ‘I’ve been in touch with the vendor,’ he told me. ‘It turns out that this was bought at Royal Mile Whiskies’ auction, and he’s just put it up for sale with us.’
Off I went again and, sure enough, in RMW’s archive there was the offending bottle, which had a hammer price of £735. This time, however, there was an explanation as to why the label was incorrect. Apparently, the bottle had been used for photographic purposes, and they couldn’t guarantee what was inside.
I spoke to RMW’s auctioneer Dr Chris White, who explained that ‘a prototype label was created, which was designed to be as similar as possible to the final label; however, time pressures meant the label was printed on regular gloss paper, and applied to the bottle in order to get the photos done ASAP.
‘The photographer says he wasn’t told at the time if the liquid inside the bottle is indeed the 1977 HP liquid or not. As such, we added a disclaimer to the product description before the bottle went live in our auction.’
Poorly printed: At first glance, this 1977 Highland Park bottle looks like a clumsy fake
So no-one has done anything wrong. In fact, you could say that RMW’s openness is laudable. Sadly, Highland Park can’t confirm what is in the bottle either.
‘We do occasionally mock up bottles for photography, but they are labelled “sample” on the base or the rear, and this obviously has not,’ said brand director Jason Craig.
‘This liquid might be the legit liquid bottled early, with a mock-up label for photography – but, regardless, it is not a real bottle. The liquid of course could be Famous Grouse with spirit caramel to darken it down to match the real liquid tint, and not formally labelled. It’s hard to provide a definitive answer.’
While I really don’t think anyone from the original vendor onwards was trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes here, it does show the absurdity of the auction market that someone is willing to take a £735 punt on a bottle which they know might not be what the label says it is. What’s even more absurd is that they then flip it, assuming that they’ll make a profit!
So we have a Schrödinger’s bottle which is and isn’t Highland Park, which is and isn’t a fake. Come to think of it, even if it is the real Highland Park, it’s still a fake. Wonder what Schrödinger would have made of that?
Like his cat – or the smell of cucumbers – the truth can only be proved one way or another by intervention. Which maybe is the message to take from all of this. Whisky only gets its true value when it is destroyed – and you drink it.
28 March 2018
I must confess that I pay very little attention to Twitter, much to the despair of the editor, who is a whizz at such methods of (apparent) interaction.
When I do scan through the folks I follow, the words or retweets of Randall Grahm always give me pause for thought. Grahm is owner/winemaker at California’s Bonny Doon – an erudite, witty, enraged, questing intelligence.
I’ve loved his wines for years, while his writings (assembled in the must-have Been Doon So Long) are a must-buy for those who are interested in deep musings on terroir, parodies and the surreal.
Last week this tweet caught my eye: ‘Many of us live in two wine worlds,’ he wrote. ‘The world of attributed meaning (point scores) and the world of real meaning (actually distinctive, original and delicious wine with vinous life-force). We conflate these two worlds at our peril.’
He was writing in response to a cheeky tweet from wine writer Jamie Goode congratulating him on ‘a Suckling 91’ (a score of 91/100 from wine critic James Suckling) for one of his wines. ‘I can’t keep track of all these scores,’ Goode added. ‘Is he using the 120-point scale yet?’
It led to a philosophical diversion – this is Grahm, after all – on whether this duality applies to the wine world, or life in general. ‘Absolutely [the latter],’ said Grahm. ‘Virtually all of us (at least those who are conscious) have some version of these two worlds.’
Intrigued, I dropped him a line. Do we need to exist in both of these worlds, I asked him? Is the world of attributed meaning necessary, or is our conception of quality being skewed because of its dominance?
Numbers game: But is real meaning to be found in the score given to a particular whisky?
He wrote back: ‘I think this duality exists in virtually every aspect of life. It often comes down to whether you work to please yourself or to please others. Truly great wine is certainly not appreciated by the general public; ‘successful’ wine has (too) obvious charms.’ Ahh, duality. Trips us up every time.
The world of wine (especially in the US) has been in thrall to attributed meaning for many years, to the extent that it could be argued that winemakers are creating ‘successful’ (ie high-scoring – and profitable) wines, rather than relying on their own innate talent, or understanding what their location can give them.
Whisky is not at this stage – yet – but the tension between the two worlds does exist within its confines. While I don’t want to be dragged into a discussion about the efficacy of numbers again (at least for the time being), Grahm’s comments made me wonder how we use them as a navigation aid.
I grew up in a flat nav world: one of maps, AA guidebooks and doodles on bits of papers with wiggly streets and an occasional landmark (usually a pub) scratched onto it.
Sat nav allows you to get to your destination by the quickest, most direct means. As someone who hates being late, I can see the advantage of this, but what happens outside the blue line? Sat nav obliterates the side streets, the country lanes, actively discourages you to get lost or rely on chance or intuition and make real discoveries. We march onwards, rather than stumble over things.
Numbers are the sat nav of appreciation. The world of real meaning is to be found though being gently diverted from the blue line through the numbers. Instead of heading straight for number 90 Whisky Street, take a wander through the weeds on either side.
Wine wisdom: Randall Grahm believes that most of us live in two worlds of attributed and real meaning
In Doon so Long, Grahm writes: ‘Wine criticism, despite its best intention, often seems to verge on trivialising the splendor of its subject matter.’ Does it? If it does, it is not deliberate.
Most writers will always emphasise the importance of the words over the score. Language is slippery, words are a diversion compared to the blunt instrument of the score.
Language’s vagueness and inability to wholly articulate meaning means it can be seen as a barrier, diverting the reader away from the task at hand; yet, for those of us who want to celebrate the world of real meaning, it is this diversion which is important because it opens up new connections, finds new ways to connect on a personal level.
That whisky has a lower score? Sure, but the way in which it has been described intrigues me, I think it appeals to my palate, or mood.
We don’t have time for all of this, we tell ourselves, although we often spend so much time trying to find the quick way that we could have taken the more rewarding, scenic route.
Tangled by apps, we rely ever more heavily on the world of attributed meaning, to our detriment. Whoever controls the data controls the world – and how have we seen that play itself out in the past few weeks.
I’m not saying that marking wine or whisky is as serious as undermining democracy, but the same underlying principle is there. In a data-based world we become slaves to the number, but whisky, wine, pleasure itself cannot be measured by ones and zeroes.
It isn’t digital but analogue, existing in the real world with all of its messiness and perversity. It comes down to trusting our own palate, working out our own routes through the maze, speaking with guides and passers-by as we wander.
Welcome to the world of real meaning.
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