From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • A postcard from Islay

    09 August 2017

    ‘It’s at its best like this.’ The glasses were raised at Clàs Uig. Perhaps in memory of the audacious German U-boat commander who slid into its waters to steal sheep, maybe just to the landscape, or to the wildlife we’d seen, to the waves, or just for being there and alive at this moment.

    I hadn’t been deliberately depriving myself of whisky, but neither had I actively sought it out. Maybe that’s the nature of a holiday – you do the things you don’t normally get the chance to – so for me it’s rambles rather than drambles.

    Clàs Uig: Dave Broom raises a glass to 'U-boat Bay', Islay

    ‘You’re here… on Islay… on holiday?’ say some when I meet them in the Co-op, the pub, or the ferry. ‘A working holiday?’ And they smile slightly and look at my wife and daughter as if to say, ‘Poor you – ­what a bastard he must be, dragging you round distilleries when you’re meant to be relaxing’.

    But it’s true, we come here because we can switch off and not work (he said, writing this piece while they sleep, but the relentless nature of the web dictates against not remaining silent for too long).

    Anyway, the glasses were raised. It seemed saltier, more attuned to the environment, the slow slither of seaweed mirroring the gentle viscimetry taking place in the glass. A hint of the moorland, a bracing gasp as if, on that first sip, you were immersing yourself in the waters of the bay. As thick as the sodden peat bog, as gentle as the curve of the seal on the rocks. Salt on the lips, an encapsulation of place.

    The day after, we headed north through the islands of the sea, then onwards to Tiree, birds careening in our wake. Shearwaters ­– those enigmatic, wave-dancing acrobats, in the Sound of Islay the week before. If gannets take issue with the water, punching holes in its surface, shearwaters and fulmars caress it, using the updrafts lifting off the crests to help them in their endless loop of the oceans. There is no battle here, rather a fusion of mind, intuition and understanding.

    For a second, it seemed as if my mind had pulled them into being. I’d been reading Adam Nicolson’s The Seabird’s Cry and had just finished the chapter on shearwaters. As I put the book down, there they were.

    Shearwaters are sea wanderers, cousins to albatrosses and fulmars. It’s long been wondered how they navigate themselves on their pelagic roamings, how they can find their way home to their chicks, or to food. Recent research has given a surprising answer. With larger than normal olfactory systems compared to other birds, these members of the tube-nose family achieve the seemingly miraculous by their sense of smell.

    Prof. Nancy Devitt of UC Davis had long believed this to be the case but could never find the clincher to her theory until, in conversation with another scientist working in a different discipline, the topic of dimethylsulfoniopropionate – DMSP to its friends – arose. As it does.

    It is emitted by dying phytoplankton and smells, Devitt realised, of newly-opened oysters. DMSP means phytoplankton has been eaten by krill, and the krill is being eaten by larger fish. The tube-noses, drifting above the waves, pick up the aroma of DMSP clouds at levels of 1 part in 10 billion and use them to find their food source.

    For them, it is the smell of home. The birds flying up the Sound were impregnated in it; their chicks, cocooned in their burrows, would smell little but for the first weeks of their lives. An aroma lesson: ‘this smell means comfort and a full belly, seek it out’. It operates, albeit in a more intense way, in the same fashion as our own olfactory memories which are triggered when we smell a glass of whisky and the childhood memory – a snack, a sweetie on the way back from school, our grandmother’s house – snaps into focus. Our first navigations around the world are embedded in smell memory.

    It would appear that aroma doesn’t simply show the shearwaters and their relatives where food is, but plays the vital element in how they navigate. Shearwater research by Prof Anna Gagliardo posits that different parts of the ocean have distinctive smells. What to us is ‘sea smell’ is in fact complex and multifaceted – each part as identifiable as a rose is from an orange. Aromas guide them, warn them, act as markers. A landscape which to our eyes is hard to read, whose only constant is that its features are forever in flux, is to a shearwater a tapestry of aroma, with each thread of scent redolent with meaning. Some tugging them home, others suggesting danger.

    Briny minerals: The aroma of Islay whisky is often reminiscent of the Hebridean seaWe can get a sniff of that when we stand on the shoreline, or on the deck of a boat, maybe with a glass of Islay whisky. That briny smell, the minerality is also the aroma of those shucked oysters and scallops. For a second, we are like the birds. As they dip their wing tips into the sea, so we raise the glass to our noses. The sea doesn’t smell like the sea, but of the elements within it – the death pulses of phytoplankton and algae, seaweed pheromones and much more. And the same elements are detectable in the glass.

    That whisky smells best here because it’s where that fusing of liquid and place is at its strongest – thanks partly to emotion, but also a literal (or littoral) link to place. It’s also there, ready to be drawn out, when we sit at home or in bars thousands of miles away across the oceans. A filament of aroma, bringing us back home. 

  • Let’s hear it for cheap blended Scotch

    02 August 2017

    For lovers of ‘rare’ Scotch whisky, these are rich times indeed – provided, that is, that their passion for the spirit is matched by the thickness of their wallet.

    In the past couple of weeks alone, we’ve seen whisky at UK auctions clearing £2m a month, with the average bottle of Scotch single malt fetching £286; a new Dalmore 40-year-old expression with a £6,000 asking price; a 50-year-old blended grain from Angus Dundee for close to £900; and, my personal favourite, a 12-year-old Port Charlotte reduced with some iceberg water that’s attracting auction bids of ‘upwards of £1,000’.

    But it’s a big world out there, and these scarce bottlings attract a hugely disproportionate share of the headlines. Taken together, the Dalmore, the Angus Dundee and the iced Port Charlotte account for less than 1,250 bottles of Scotch whisky. For an industry that sells well over one billion bottles a year, that’s a drop in the proverbial ocean – or the merest chip off an iceberg.

    The results recently announced by leading Scotch producer Diageo amply illustrate this fact. It was no surprise to see that the company’s Scotch whisky sales had risen during the year to the end of June – but the manner in which that growth was achieved might give us pause for thought.

    The company’s stable of single malts – including The Singleton, Talisker, Lagavulin and Oban – increased their sales, but not as much as Diageo’s formidable roster of blends, spearheaded by the remarkable Johnnie Walker.

    At this rate, it won’t be long before Scotch’s most famous name shifts 20m cases of product a year, meaning that more than one in five bottles of Scotch sold around the world will have a striding man on its label.

    But Walker wasn’t (for me, at least) the big story that emerged from the figures. Instead, the unlikely hero of Diageo’s whisky year was a low-priced blend with a label featuring a pair of lovable/sickly (delete as appropriate) canines: Black & White.

    Black and White

    Top dog: Black & White has successfully recruited people into Scotch whisky

    A brand of Scotch conceived by James Buchanan while on his way back from an 1890s dog show, Black & White is now Diageo’s tactical, affordable blend designed to drive recruitment into the Scotch category in emerging markets such as Mexico and India.

    That’s working well, but a new use was found for Black & White during the past year. Brazil, previously a golden market that drained more than 2m cases of Johnnie Walker a year as recently as 2013, is now beset by economic woes and political scandals.

    When that happens, people tend to have less money to throw around on fripperies – and expensive Scotch whisky, however great its joys, is almost the definition of a frippery. If large numbers of Brazilians can’t afford a bottle of Black or Red Label, you either sell them something less expensive, or they go back to the cheap cachaça they were buying before, perhaps never to return to Scotch.

    This is the lucrative (relatively – the profit margins are much slimmer than Walker’s) furrow that Black & White is ploughing in Brazil right now. And, if we broaden our gaze to a global perspective, it isn’t alone.

    Diageo has White Horse, Old Parr and VAT 69 also inhabiting what company boss Ivan Menezes calls the ‘primary Scotch’ hinterland, and together they sell something like 8m cases of Scotch whisky a year – and all have had a decent time of it in the last 12 months.

    Outside Diageo, there’s Passport, 100 Pipers and Clan Campbell (Pernod Ricard/Chivas Brothers); there’s William Lawson’s (Dewar’s/Bacardi); there’s William Peel, Label 5, Sir Edward’s.

    Passport

    Foot soldier: Chivas’ Passport is one of a number of less heralded blends

    These aren’t necessarily household names (you may not even have heard of some of them), but they all sell more than leading single malts Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet, even if at substantially lower prices.

    They are the foot soldiers of the Scotch whisky industry, doing the hard yards by combining a low price with an acceptable quality level to create a product that somebody wants to buy. It may be that person’s first foray into the world of Scotch, or it may be a way for them to stay in that world when the good times recede and cutbacks have to be made.

    These blends are the products that may have provided us with that often terrifying first sip of Scotch whisky at 15 or 50, drawing us into the tantalising web of single malt, aged grain, of Islay, Campbeltown and Speyside. Given this pivotal role, it’d be nice if they were celebrated more and shown a little greater respect and gratitude by all of us who love Scotch whisky.

    After all, despite their modest price tags, they form the bedrock of the industry, and without them no rare single malt or self-indulgent ‘limited release’ would exist in the first place. 

  • Port casks: what’s in a name?

    26 July 2017

    As a huge Port fan, the headline of the press release was enough to grab my attention: ‘Port X Whisky: The Dalmore Releases Unique Vintage Port Collection.’ It even distracted me (briefly) from the clichéd, ‘press release bingo’ terminology that followed, with all of its ‘luxury’, ‘ground-breaking’, ‘iconic’ and ‘crafted’ marketing BS.

    Anticipation, however, soon changed to mystification and then frustration. Yes, the first sentence of the release talked of a ‘three-bottle, limited edition collection of whiskies matured in vintage Port casks’, but the truth was hidden several paragraphs further down.

    ‘Tawny Port pipes from Graham’s vineyard in [the] Douro, Portugal, add the finishing touches…’ Eh? Tawny Port? Turns out that the ‘Vintage’ in the name of the range refers to the whisky, not the Port. Dalmore 1996, 1998 and 2001, matured in ex-Bourbon casks, then finished in ex-tawny Port pipes.

    Confused? I certainly was. And so, it seems, was the person who wrote (and signed off) the press release. But the differences here are glaring.

    Graham's Vintage Port

    Long wait: vintage Port is often matured in bottle for decades before consumption

    Vintage is the zenith of Port, the product of a single ‘declared’ year taken from the finest vineyards and bottled within two years of the harvest. Cask maturation – such as it is – takes place more often than not in huge, vertical wooden vats known as balseiros, and sometimes in stainless steel or cement. So sourcing an ex-vintage Port cask to mature whisky in would be rather tricky.

    While vintage Port is a dark, fiercely tannic wine, typically allowed to age in bottle for decades before reaching its peak, tawny Ports are – as the name suggests – gold-coloured and softly oxidative in style.

    Tawnies are matured in wood, sometimes for just a few years, sometimes for a decade or more, and bottled when ready to drink. They are almost always a blend of different years and often bear an age statement of 10, 20, 30 or 40 years (there are ‘vintage’ tawny Ports, usually called colheitas, but let’s not make an already confusing situation utterly bewildering.)

    In either case, it’s important to note that the wood is primarily a vessel, not a contributor to character. New oak plays almost no part in Port ageing and, instead, older wood is wanted to provide a secure, neutral environment, allowing a gentle, gradual oxidation in the case of tawny Port.

    What does this mean to the distiller? Essentially, that what was previously in the cask is far more important than the cask itself. Important, then, to make it clear that that cask contained Graham’s tawny Port, rather than Graham’s vintage – because the influence from the wine leached into the wood will be entirely different.

    Graham's Port balseiros

    Vast vats: Huge balseiros used to mature Port in Graham’s lodge at Vila Nova de Gaia

    There’s no doubt that the Scotch whisky industry has made massive strides in analysing and understanding the myriad effects of various cask types on spirit, from the ‘standard’ vessels acquired from the Bourbon and Sherry industries to the more esoteric wood sourced from Madeira and the fine wine world.

    But there’s still some laziness about in the way in which this is communicated. It’s all very well to talk of a single malt being ‘Sherry cask-matured’, but (without even getting into the American/European oak question) what kind of Sherry? A bone-dry fino? A nutty amontillado? A darkly unctuous Pedro Ximénez or PX?

    Most likely it’ll be the dried fruit and rich spiciness of an oloroso, for which ‘Sherry cask’ has become shorthand in whisky circles, but the imprecision is irritating and potentially confusing.

    When drinkers do discover a whisky matured or ‘finished’ in ex-amontillado casks (for instance, Glenmorangie Dornoch), or one that has seen the inside of an ex-fino cask (see Glenfarclas 1966 47-year-old), it won’t taste like most ex-Sherry drams they’ve tried. Just compare that Glenfarclas with most of the distillery’s regular output.

    Dalmore Vintage Port Collection

    Source of confusion: The vintage here refers to the whisky, not the Port

    There’s an opportunity here. Single malt Scotch is a disarmingly simple product in terms of ingredients (water, barley, yeast); one that creates a blank sheet of paper on which to tell a tale of distillery character and geographical place.

    The cask adds another layer to that back-story, enables Scotch to piggyback on the heritage of another of the world’s greatest drinks, whether that be Port or Sherry (or Madeira, or a winemaking region).

    It also adds to the broader discussion of flavour creation and the preservation, enhancement or obscuration of distillery character, but for that discussion to carry weight and credbility, let’s make sure we get our facts straight in the first place.

    And knowing the difference between vintage and tawny Port would be a good place to start.

  • Whisky’s age of uncertainty

    19 July 2017

    Britain is currently gripped by the era of über-uncertainty, according to Gary Keogh, marketing director of William Grant & Sons UK. And, just to be clear, we’re not agonising about where our next taxi is coming from.

    Brexit, Trump, terrorism, the General Election result… The one thing we can rely on, it seems, is the unreliability of forecasts, predictions and polls.

    This was quite a brave opening gambit from Keogh, coming as it did at a company presentation outlining the likely dominant trends in the UK drinks market for the year ahead.

    How is Scotch doing in this slightly scary environment? Well, I could give you all the facts and figures, but anyone with a passing acquaintance of the UK drinks scene won’t find anything to shock them. Blends declining, malts growing, American and Irish whiskey more dynamic (but still much smaller).

    That, at least, was predictable. The greater interest for me lies in the consumer psychology that underpins the unexpected series of events of the past year or so. This is complex, sometimes contradictory, but for anyone wanting to sell more stuff to more people for more money, vital.

    Bottles on shop shelves

    Dizzying array: ‘Repertoire drinkers’ no longer stick to just one favoured brand

    We often live in an echo chamber of our own making, where our social media algorithms bounce our own opinions and prejudices back at us; and yet, it seems, we increasingly crave authenticity and provenance in the products we choose to buy and the brands with which we wish to interact.

    We value loyalty and expect those favoured brands to stay ‘true’ to us; but we have become fickle, restless consumers, flitting from one gin/whisky/wine/craft beer to the next in search of yet another new experience. Keogh reckons that Glenfiddich drinkers consume an average of 18 other spirits brands.

    Eighteen?! Growing up – and yes, I appreciate that this was a fair while ago – my parents drank Bell’s and, sometimes, Gordon’s, plus Cockburn’s and Emva Cream (the latter for the grandparents) at Christmas. I well remember the shift from Bell’s to The Famous Grouse in the 1980s – a seismic event.

    My dad’s in his 80s now, and he drinks Smoky Black Grouse – or Black Bottle – or Bowmore, Jura, Talisker, Balvenie or any number of other single malt brands he comes across at the right price, or is given at Christmas, birthday or Father’s Day.

    He’s clearly not a ‘Millennial’, to use the marketing term applied to those in their 20s or 30s, but in his ‘repertoire drinking’ he exhibits some of the traits associated with that demographic grouping. And he’s far from alone.

    If nothing else, this shows just how nonsensical these lazy labels are – or ‘meaningless’ and ‘worthless’, to quote Keogh. There are 11m so-called Millennials – people aged between 21 and 40 – in the UK, and does anyone seriously think they have a ‘shared’ and common character? Or, if they do, that it mirrors the life view of the urban hipster elite that is all too often viewed as encapsulating the Millennial psyche?

    These shifts in consumer behaviour may prompt broader social concerns – people living in an echo chamber don’t tend to be the most tolerant or empathetic creatures on the planet – but what do they mean for the future of Scotch?

    Adventurous – or fickle – consumers are, in theory at least, more easily persuaded to try your product; but getting them to buy another bottle – and another, and another – is the tough one.

    Traditionally, times of uncertainty are thought to be good for big, established brands, as people take refuge from a chaotic world in the names they know and trust. There may still be some truth in that, but it increasingly runs counter to what is becoming established consumer behaviour – flitting from product to product like frenzied butterflies.

    If Scotch is to thrive in this brave new world, its standard-bearers need to forge a deeper understanding of this fast-evolving consumer mindset than ever before – and stop relying on lazy demographic labels to get it out of trouble.

    That, at least, is a certainty.

  • The joy of consensus

    12 July 2017

    ‘What is the piece of technology you would like to see removed from your discipline?’ It’s fair to say none of us were expecting that as an opening question. While panel discussions are rarely as benign as a post-match Wimbledon press conference, this one was a doozie. ‘Dave,’ said host Angela Clutton, ‘perhaps you could start?’ A tip to anyone planning on sitting on a panel soon ­– never be seated next to the host.

    It’s hard to think what to get rid of in distillation. I mean, without the equipment you can’t, er, distil. After what seemed an unseemly delay I put chill-filtration units into Room 101 for daring to remove mouthfeel.

    Borough Market

    #LoveBorough: The market has bounced back in defiant fashion from the events of 3 June

    Catriona Felstead MW of Berry Bros & Rudd went for the spinning cone which reduces alcohol levels in wine, but ‘removes its soul’. Wish I’d thought of that line. Dan Tapper from the Beak Brewery went for filtration – hey, a theme! and old mucker Tony Conigliaro of The Drink Factory went for bad cocktail books.

    We were all on stage at the latest of the excellent Borough Talks, held at London’s Borough Market to talk about the state of play in our respective branches of the drinks industry: wine, beer, cocktails and spirits; and also to give advice on how to start a career.

    I’m always slightly amused by this last one as I didn’t exactly plan a career – maybe a background in improvised music finally paid off. Listen, ask why, never think you are an expert, and pass on the information humbly was what my careers advice came to.

    That there was consensus was the most rewarding element of the evening. Do the hard yards, get stuck in, work in retail, listen and learn… we all agreed.

    Tony summed up how the drinks trade is evolving when he said: ‘To create chaos, you need a lot of order. The more ordered we have become, the more creative we've been.’

    Any move forward has to be disruptive, but in order for that to happen you have to have a structure; there’s no use just flinging every idea at the wall and seeing what sticks. That’s a waste of time, energy… and money.

    His conclusions mirrored Felstead’s talk on minimum intervention winemaking in what used to be called the New World. This involves having the guts to step back and allowing the wine to make itself, which takes enormous skill, faith... and money. It’s like a musician understanding silence (that improv training again).

    Tapper picked up the theme. His is an intriguing model. He’s a nomadic brewer who moves around the country, borrowing tank space: I envisage him descending on wires, Mission Impossible-style, into a brewery at night, pockets bulging with hops, yeast under his balaclava.

    He acknowledges that some of the beers he makes won’t make money, but those are the ones which have helped establish his style: he mentioned a porter being aged in Bolney Estate wine casks, or another made with raspberries foraged around the outskirts of Leeds. Create the personality, focus on provenance and quality.

    Borough Talks

    On the panel (l to r): Angela Clutton, Dave Broom, Catriona Felstead MW, Dan Tapper and Tony Conigliaro

    If the same questions had been asked 10 years ago, the answers would have been very different. There would have been little consensus. Instead the four arms of the trade would have looked with mild amusement on the activities of the others. There was little dialogue, no co-operation and precious little consensus. Now shared themes exist and are welcomed and acted upon.

    I’d seen some of Felstead’s colleagues the week before at the Imbibe Live trade show. In the old days there was an invisible line. On one side sommeliers sipped, on the other bartenders caroused.

    That barrier has gone. On the Berry’s/Fields, Morris & Verdin stand there was whisky, gin and rum as well as Lustau’s Sherries and vermouth – the last two being the hot trends in bartending. There is now no separation, no ghettoisation of the drinks industry. We are in it together and have common goals.

    That this manifested itself at Borough Market was appropriate. I started my writing life opposite the market, drank in its pubs early in the morning and watched the site transform into one of the world’s great food centres – produce from around the world next to the best of artisanal British, be that meat, fish, cheese or drink.

    Borough is a celebration of the local and the international, of the diversity of food cultures alive in Britain, a community to browse and graze in and, with every mouthful or sip, you see connections and learn that little bit more about how the world should be – which is what we do when we take a sip of a new whisky, or wine, or beer, or Sherry.

    A community, in other words, and one which remained resilient after the hideous events of 3 June. London didn’t reel, the traders reopened the market and the place got on with doing what it does so effectively, showing how the world can come together. #LoveBorough.

  • Tasting by numbers

    05 July 2017

    The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted a couple of changes to our tasting section this week. Firstly, it now rejoices under the title of ‘Whisky Reviews’; secondly, we have made significant changes to our scoring system

    Essentially, we have moved from a scoring system which ran from 0 to 10, to one which runs from 0 to 100 (though it starts at 50). So, instead of having a 10-point scale which, thanks to the use of decimal points, became a 100-point scale, we now have a 100-point scale which is effectively a 50-point scale. As someone with dyscalculia this is not an easy concept to grasp but, as even I have managed to get my head around it, I hope that you will be able to as well.

    Whisky glass

    Question of taste: The words remain more important than the numbers, says Dave Broom

    Personally speaking, I would have preferred a star system to be used, one in which whiskies would have been placed in bands of excellence. It seems to work for hotels, restaurants, films, theatre and even the malign Tripadvisor.

    This, I will always believe, allows readers an indication of quality, rather than then obsessing over what the difference might be between a score of 83 rather than 82, but it’s not the system which governs alcohol, apparently, so numbers it had to be.

    Why then, if we already had numbers, did we have to change how they were utilised? In order for scores to be brought into some sort of alignment with other media (though not all use a 100-point scale, many do). This, it is believed, will allow you, gentle reader, to more easily compare and contrast between the same whisky tasted by different people on different sites.

    Again, personally I’d have thought that reading what was written about the whisky, rather than what it scored, would have given more accurate information, but you might as well have belt and braces. There is a psychological reason as well. One hundred points just seems better than 10. A score of 92 is far more meaningful than 9.2. Apparently.

    ‘But Dave,’ some of you might be saying at this point, ‘it isn’t really 100 points, but 50.’ This is not only in line with other grading systems, but considerably better than some which only run from 80 and which, in my opinion, artificially inflate the ‘worth’ of the whisky being assessed.

    If your bottom score is actually the same as most readers’ idea of excellence, then not only does the taster have little room for manoeuvre, but the score is inaccurate. Any scoring system needs to have sufficient breadth for the tasters – and the reader – to be able to discriminate between one whisky and another. So, a 50-point scale it is.

    I would hope, as a whisky lover, that most of the drams sitting on my table would be 70 and above. There’s no excuse for faulty or poor whiskies these days (though, if they do appear, they’ll be marked as such).

    If a whisky gets a 70, then it’s still a decent dram, just not one whose balance is as good as one which scores 75 and above… and so on. Hopefully having 50 points to play with will not only allow you to differentiate between the whiskies tasted, but also give you reassurance that the lower-scoring whiskies are well worth trying.

    As the key shows, it’s easier to look at our new system as being split into five or six bands, with tiny amounts of fine tuning within each band. A bit like a star system, in other words.

    Inevitably, our scores will differ from those on other sites or magazines, but I’d like to think that the overall impression will be the same. Comparing our scores with those on, say, Whiskyfun (which you all should read) will give an idea of how the whisky falls into another band of shared – and, more than likely, agreed – opinion.

    That opinion is contained in the words, which are infinitely more important than the numbers. When I taste, I’m constantly thinking about how the whisky fits into the three main criteria: complexity, balance and character. The words are my objective opinion of how well these are delivered.

    When I’m tasting, I’m looking for the positive points and whether they outweigh any negatives; how persistent is the dram’s flavour, how does it develop over time and on the palate; how complex is its aroma; does it take you on a journey; how could it be consumed?

    Only then does the score come into play. What band does it sit in; are there subtle differences between whiskies of similar character? The score is the full-stop at the end of the process. It doesn’t lead or dictate it. For me, it’s almost an afterthought.

    If numbers were the most important element in assessment, there would be no need for any words. A score would be sufficient. The reasoning behind the numbers is what is important. It allows a conversation to take place, analysis to be shown, opinion to be offered.

    You might not agree with the score I give, but with the words to hand at least you know why I gave it. Then, hopefully, you can see the logic at work to the extent that the score given becomes irrelevant.

    Clinging to numbers means narrowing your appreciation of whisky. Reading the words increases it. So read the words, my dears, please read them.

  • Rediscovering the wonder of whisky

    28 June 2017

    I’d read the text before, but seeing it painted across an entire wall brought the significance of the words into sharper focus.

    ‘One Theoricus wrote a proper treatise of Aqua Vitae, wherein he prayseth it to the ninth degrée. He destiguisheth thrée sortes therof, simplex, composita, and Perfectissima. He declareth the simples and ingrediences thereto belongyng. He wisheth it to be taken as well before meate as after.

    ‘It dryeth vp the breakyng out of handes, and killeth the fleshe wormes, if you wash your handes therewith.

    ‘It skoureth all skurse and skaldes from the head, beyng therewith daily washte before meales.

    ‘Beyng moderately taken, sayth he, it sloeth age, it strengtheneth youth, it helpeth digestion, it cutteth fleume, it abandoneth melancholy, it relisheth the hart, it lighteneth the mynd, it quickeneth the spirites, it cureth the hydropsie, it healeth the strangury, it poũceth the stone, it expelleth grauell, it puffeth away all Ventositie, it kepeth and preferueth the hed from whirlyng, the eyes from dazelyng, the tongue from lispyng, the mouth frõ mafflyng, the téeth frõ chatteryng, the throte from ratling, the weasan from stieflyng, the stomacke from wambling, the harte from swellyng, the belly from wirtchyng, the guts from rumblyng, the handes from shiuering, the smowes from shrinkyng, the veynes frõ crumpling, the bones from akyng, the marraw from soakyng.

    ‘Vlstadius also ascribeth thereto a singuler prayse, and would haue it to burne beyng kindled, which he taketh to be a token to know the goodnesse therof. And truly it is a soueraigne liquour, if it be orderly taken.’

    Aqua vitae

    History lessons: In the 16th century, aqua vitae was seen as a miracle cure

    This appears in an account of Ireland in Holinshed’s Chronicles, printed in 1577. Who Theoricus was is a mystery, but that mattereth not (enough of the Old English – Ed).

    Its appearance on the wall came, appropriately enough, while I was wandering around the almost completed Lindores Abbey distillery (of which much more in a few weeks). History nuzzles up to you in that part of Fife – ancient trade routes, royal palaces, battles, breweries, beehives and, undoubtedly, distillation. What struck home when being confronted with the text again is the multifaceted way in which people used spirits.

    Is there anything to learn from this, 500 years on? I’m sure today’s distillers would baulk at ever suggesting that alcohol would stop ageing and strengthen youth. They’d probably take issue with any notion that alcohol, even if taken in moderation (how modern the two authors are), could possibly make you happier, wittier and generally more intelligent.

    Not that the Irish in the 16th century appeared to heed any suggestion of sensible drinking. Later in the section, Holinshed reports that they devour flesh:

    Without bread, and that halfe raw: the rest boyleth in their stomackes with Aqua Vitae, which they swill in after such a surfet by quartes & pottels.’

    The Irish, it would seem, had already built a reputation. ‘I will rather trust…an Irishman with my aqua-vitae bottle… than my wife with herself,’ wrote Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor a few years later. The absence of any mention of distillation in the Chronicles in England and Scotland infers that it had become an Irish speciality.

    But I digress. What the account shows is how aqua vitae (be it grain- or grape-based) was the cure-all, the universal panacea, the miracle drug. Today, there is no suggestion of whisky having a similarly multifaceted aspect. It’s rarely used as a medicine, though a Hot Toddy still works miracles in my experience, and compared to its early, miraculous manifestation, is a simple social lubricant.

    Holinshed's Chronicles

    Holinshed’s Chronicles: An extract of text is displayed at Lindores distillery

    It struck me, on reading the extract, how the wonder of whisky, its magical nature, is being forgotten. We rarely dwell on its transportive qualities, which magically summon up place, people and season when it is taken in exactly the right (and moderate) quantities. Even the manner of its drinking has been narrowed.

    Familiarity, while maybe not breeding contempt, has reduced whisky to a drink whose boundaries are understood and tacitly accepted. This, in turn, drives how it should be drunk, and when it should be drunk. The field of vision has narrowed and the opportunities are, as a result, missed.

    Although Scotch cocktails are now an accepted part of the whisky world, they are still restricted. As bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana said to me recently, to ‘vanilla, or smoke’? You can be creative, but only up to a certain point.

    Whether we are bartender or drinker, we need to somehow tap into the open-eyed wonder and joy of these early texts, when all the world was green and all possibilities seemed to not only be open, but the logical approach to take.

    Or perhaps I’m just mafflyng. I’ll let you know after one more draught.

  • Ardbeg, ‘crap whisky’ and serendipity

    21 June 2017

    The next time you feel like moaning about ‘health and safety gone mad’, think about the old pot ale tank at Glen Elgin distillery. Made from 6ft by 3ft sections of cast-iron, it blew apart one night, sending one of the panels 30 metres across the yard. ‘It would have taken your head off,’ Ed Dodson says.

    As anyone who’s read the recent feature outlining the 20-year-old story of the resurrection of Ardbeg will know, Dodson was the whisky veteran sent in to patch up the Islay distillery and get it up and running again following its acquisition by Glenmorangie in 1997.

    The hard part about writing this type of article – and keeping it to a vaguely sensible length – is not so much knowing what to include, but what to leave out. And, even then, there’s that nagging feeling that some of the best stuff has ended up on the cutting-room floor.

    Hence the Glen Elgin story (Ardbeg’s old heating tank for the mash was cast-iron, and was an early casualty of the Glenmorangie takeover) – not to mention the time in April 1997 when blue asbestos was discovered in Ardbeg’s roof, leading to a temporary shutdown.

    Ardbeg stillhouse 1997

    Trial and error: How did Ardbeg’s spirit arrive at its combination of fruit and smoke?

    Dodson was clearly fascinated by the Ardbeg spirit character – had been since the 1970s during his ‘Islay period’ of single malt drinking. ‘I’d never been there, but it didn’t make sense to me,’ he recalls. ‘I always thought Laphroaig and Lagavulin were really heavy compared to Ardbeg. But it wasn’t until I began to nose the new make spirit [in June 1997] that I thought: “This is why.”’

    But where does that quintessential Ardbeg character – the lush fruit keeping the smoke in check – come from? Dodson has a sacrilegious hypothesis: ‘My theory – which didn’t go down well with the marketing department – was that, when they were starting up Ardbeg, the whisky was probably crap, so they decided to put an angle on the lyne arm.

    ‘And it was probably still no good, so they put in the purifier, collecting any liquid and directing it back into the body of the still, allowing it to run back down, but not stopping the vapours from heading up the still.

    ‘It’s serendipity. A lot of the things that have happened in the Scotch whisky industry came about by accident.’

    Serendipity, yes, but also the willingness to make mistakes and the good sense to learn from them, to improve, hone, tinker to get the best possible result out of the raw materials and equipment at your disposal.

    Distilleries, it seems, have an almost human character, full of temperament and idiosyncratic traits that defy scientific analysis. Dodson had thought that he’d be able to get 1.3m litres of pure alcohol a year out of Ardbeg – until he faced the challenge of working with a spirit still that’s almost as big as the wash still. ‘I could only get to the 1.1m-litre mark because of the need to get a balanced distillation,’ he says.

    On the night that the first spirit ran from the stills again at Ardbeg, the plan was to bring the wash still in slowly and gently. ‘That won’t work,’ said Duncan Logan, 35-year Ardbeg veteran and, despite no longer working there, an invaluable source of advice to Dodson at that time. ‘You have to let it come in, then slow it down afterwards. If you shut the steam off, you’ll lose it.’ Logan was ignored – but not for long.

    At Ardbeg, the talk now is not of survival, but expansion. That brings its own challenges and potential pitfalls. Intervening in the serendipitous evolutionary process that has made Ardbeg Ardbeg over a period of more than two centuries is something that has to be done with care and sensitivity.

    But Ardbeg is a distillery, not a museum. And if a distillery is like a person, then change is part of what makes you realise you’re still alive. What will the serendipitous discoveries of tomorrow be? It’ll be fun finding out.

  • Binary thinking won’t work in whisky

    13 June 2017

    Unlike Theresa May (I told you, no politics! – Ed), I’m all for debate. I've been struck, however, by how polarised what passes for debate in Scotch has become. You could, if you were of a philosophical bent, blame Aristotle for bequeathing this ‘either/or’ logic to the western world, a manner of thinking which, in whisky, manifests itself as: blends or malts, independent bottlers or brand owners, big companies or small, condensers or worms, smoke or no smoke.

    Whisky debate

    Preferred pour: What you like may not be someone else’s choice of dram, but that doesn’t make them wrong

    Call it binary thinking, call it logocentrism, but this reductionist approach boils down to: ‘You are either wholly on my side or you are against me.’ There is no grey area, no room for, well, debate, especially when the voices are loud.

    The drinker feels compelled to choose between one or the other, and once that decision has been made the rejected option (blends, condensers, big companies, for example) is either ignored or, in the more extreme circumstances, condemned. In this way of thinking, whisky is comprised of mutually exclusive camps.

    As soon as those lines get drawn, there is no space left for nuance, or accepting that both options are valid. We may prefer one over the other, but that is significantly different to saying that the one we haven’t chosen is wrong.

    We have acted in a specific way at a point in time, but may swing back in the future. So I drink a blend, then a smoky malt, I buy an independent bottling, and then a brand, I buy one dram from a small distiller, and then one from a major, have a cocktail, and then something neat. That is how whisky works.

    It is a spirit of nuance, one where aromas and flavours shift and change in the glass; it pulls your memories one way and then another. It can be a guided missile aimed directly at your pleasure zone, or something contemplative, which needs to be teased out gently. It is layered and therefore contradictory – in other words, it’s complex.

    That quality, along with character and balance, are the foundations of assessing quality. The very nature of balance also rejects the dualistic approach. Every dry element has to be balanced by sweet, for example. If this principle is whisky’s heartbeat, then surely we can extend that approach outwards and look at ways in which we stop thinking in such a reductionist fashion?

    I was chatting about this over a drink with a friend, when he said: ‘You know what? The word I hate the most at the moment [he has an ever-shifting list of pet hates] is “standard”. What’s “standard” about a single malt? What aspect of its being can ever be defined as “standard”?’

    Whisky cocktail

    Change of heart: It’s not uncommon – or wrong – to switch from neat whisky to cocktails, and back again

    It’s a sound point. In the dark ages when I started to write about booze, whisky was divided into two camps: ‘standard’ and ‘deluxe’. In simple terms, ‘standards’ were blends without an age statement, while those with one (usually 12 years old) were ‘deluxe’. Standard was also shorthand for ‘cheap’. 

    To be honest, the only people who ever used these terms were those in marketing – and journalists. No-one today walks into a bar and asks for a ‘deluxe’, ‘super-premium’ or ‘luxury’ whisky. They do, however, still see the term ‘standard’, by which they mean ordinary, or ubiquitous. Its deployment is done in a disparaging fashion, it says: ‘It is beneath me.’

    Glenfiddich 12-year-old, The Glenlivet 12, Glenmorangie 10, Talisker 10, Laphroaig 10 are considered ‘standard bottlings’ – but how can this possibly be true? By its nature, single malt is anything but standard, so why call it that? Perhaps it is because when people explore the malt realm, the most popular bottlings are not considered worthy of the consideration of the serious drinker.

    They may have started with the biggest sellers, but have moved on. Our very human desire for fresh stimulation, when exacerbated by an aggressive consumerist culture, makes it easy for us to dismiss our starting-points as youthful folly. It’s another example of binary thinking.

    I’ve said it many times and will never stop repeating it: revisit these whiskies. Be prepared to be amazed at their quality – and often absurdly low prices. Doing so might just be a starting-point to begin to dismantle this binary world.

  • Twin peaks, single malt and David Lynch

    07 June 2017

    As a frenzied Bill Pullman drove into the night and the credits to Lost Highway began to roll, there was a sharp intake of breath next to me. ‘Ok then,’ said my partner. ‘So what the f**k was that all about?’

    It’s a fair question, one you could justifiably ask at the end of almost all of David Lynch’s works. From the nightmare vision of Eraserhead to his biggest popular success, Twin Peaks (now back on our television screens), Lynch’s filming is typically and deliberately opaque.

    It doesn’t help that the director consistently refuses to explain or, when he does, frequently contradicts himself. Sometimes – as when asked about the blue box that is the fulcrum of Mulholland Drive – Lynch says he doesn’t know the answer himself. Given his stream-of-consciousness approach to film-making, that may even be true.

    David Lynch

    Mystery man: David Lynch has never been keen to explain his films (Photo: Chris Saunders)

    My approach to watching Lynch: don’t actively try to make sense of it; concentrate, but relax; let the film wash over you and, once it’s over, ask yourself the most important question of all: did you enjoy it?

    This suspension of conventional critical faculties is oddly liberating, and there’s still plenty of time afterwards to analyse, theorise and come up with your own personal answer to that ‘what the f**k’ question.

    To one person, Lost Highway is about wish fulfilment and the monsters of the Id; to another, it’s an exploration of the unreliability of memory; to a third, it’s an impenetrably pretentious pile of crap.

    Lynch’s refusal to explain shifts the burden from him to us: we have to form our own impressions and theories for what we’ve just seen. ‘It’s my creative vision,’ he seems to be saying, ‘but you’ve got to do the work and decide what it’s about, and what it means for you.’ Not so much audience participation as audience responsibility.

    I’d love to see philosophy applied to whisky tastings. All too often, the host is telling us what flavours we’ll ‘get’ before our glasses have even been filled – the infuriating whisky equivalent to David Lynch nudging you throughout a screening of Blue Velvet and saying: ‘You’ll like this bit.’

    Then, once things are opened up to the floor, the competitive sport that is tasting note oneupmanship takes over. Everyone’s so busy trying to describe the precise tropical fruit flavour in their whisky that they’ve forgotten to notice whether they actually like it or not.

    Just because formal tastings have a quasi-academic format and atmosphere, that doesn’t mean the pleasure factor should be altogether discounted. Far from that, shouldn’t it come first?

    Do I like it? Why do I like it? Then: what do others think? We might all want to address the question ‘what the f**k was that all about?’, but the answer surely has to begin in our own heads.

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