Golden Decanters launches with a range of four single cask single malts priced at £7,250.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
14 November 2016
Recently, the singer Shirley Collins was described as being a ‘radical traditionalist’, which seems a somewhat paradoxical statement. Tradition, after all, is permanent, unchanging, the sound of the past being handed down through generations. It is sober, constant, conservative even, built in established truths.
Radicalism, on the other hand, challenges everything that tradition stands for. It is innovative, iconoclastic, edgy.
Yet Shirley Collins is just that. She has just released her first new record for 38 years – Lodestar – and at the age of 81. Her singing is deeply embedded in tradition, but has never been purist or restrictive. Rather it has always seemed to exist in a different timeframe, simultaneously modern and ancient while being neither.
It is ‘folk’ in the sense of ‘folk tale’, a fabulous place of metaphor and symbolism; a place of death and blood; betrayal and love; murder and innocence; celebration and nonsense. It is unadorned, but never simple. She doesn’t sing as much as let the song possess her, allowing those old words and music to rest gently in the air, slowly altering your perceptions. Radical, yes, but traditional.
Golden Decanters: Is the independent bottler really challenging the norms of Scotch?
While listening to it, I remembered something which Eriko Horiki had said to me earlier in the year. She is an extraordinary, Kyoto-based artist who has taken Japanese paper-making (washi) into the world of fine art and sculpture. ‘Hand crafts like washi were innovative,’ she said. ‘That is why they have lasted for 1,500 years. Nothing can last without innovation.’
In other words, to maintain a tradition you have to be radical. Tradition has to adapt, be open to new voices, and needs to change while being respectful. There’s a lesson there for Scotch, surely?
Maybe, but maybe not one everyone has learned, as it was around the same time that I made this connection between the two women that news of the launch of Golden Decanters emerged.
I know Richard has dealt with the issues surrounding their price in his usual perceptive fashion, but that wasn’t my concern. Instead, it’s the firm’s claim that they were ‘tired of tradition, tartan and twee’ and as a result had commissioned Glasgow-based textile designers Timorous Beasties to create the aforesaid decanters.
The fact that Famous Grouse had worked with the design firm a few years ago was not an issue. I’m a fan of the studio’s work, which challenges norms and takes a tradition forward. They came to people’s attention with their ‘Glasgow toile’ fabric, which on first glance is an accurate recreation of 18th-century French toile with its scenes of rural life.
On closer examination, the figures in the Beasties version were junkies shooting up in graveyards. Radical? Yes, but within a tradition.
The Golden Decanters are anything but. Their scenes of shooting, fishing, golfing and, er, a Heilan coo are the very symbols of the Balmorality*, which has ossified so many parts of Scottish culture for the past 170 years.
Whisky prospers when it challenges tradition, questions the norm and takes it gently forward. It respects the past, but sees the need for change. It succeeds when it has the same mindset as Shirley Collins when she allows a song to glow through her.
* Thanks to George Monbiot for the term.
09 November 2016
It’s International Sherry Week this week, so naturally I want to talk about Port – because what’s happening in the spectacular vineyards of the Douro Valley might have resonance for Scotch.
Gripped by misty-eyed nostalgia, Port anoraks will rhapsodise about the superlative vintage Ports made during the early 20th century…
‘Sure, this 1994 is nice, but did you ever taste the 1931? And what about the 1912? Before the big companies took over and standardised everything? They don’t make ’em like that any more…’
Any of this sound familiar?
It’s easy to dismiss such fond remembrances as yearnings for a world that never existed – the Olde England of unlocked doors, affable British bobbies and honey still for tea. But even a cynic like me is beginning to wonder…
Port vineyards are historically anarchic; even today, more than 100 grape varieties are permitted, and the vines planted in the late 19th century, after the phylloxera plague wiped out nearly everything, were done so haphazardly and at high density. And yet these packed, chaotic terraces were the source of some of the greatest wines ever made.
Come the 1970s, rationality and science coughed politely, tapped the anarchic wine farmers on the shoulder and suggested a more logical approach. Focus on the ‘best’ grape varieties (five in particular were identified), plant them in separate blocks, pick them at optimal ripeness and make each one into wine before blending them all together.
The reasoning, it seemed, was faultless: use only the finest ingredients, maximise the potential of those ingredients, then use your blending skills to create the best wine possible. In terms of vineyard management, it was cost-effective too.
A river runs through it: Do the vineyards of the Douro hold a lesson for Scotch?
But, about 10 years ago, some began to question this received wisdom. A new generation making unfortified table wines in the Douro noticed that the neglected old vineyards, in which dozens of different grape varieties were sprinkled at random, were making more characterful, complex, simply better wines.
Now the scent of revisionism is in the air. All but forgotten grape varieties replanted, mixed vineyards acquiring a renewed appreciation, different grapes fermented together. No, not everything will be perfectly ripe when it’s picked – but those imperfections, when moulded with skill and experience, only add to the final wine’s quality.
What’s this got to do with Scotch? Listen to David Guimaraens, head winemaker at The Fladgate Partnership, producer of Taylor’s, Fonseca and Croft Ports. He reckons the changes in the Douro during the 1970s did their job in terms of achieving greater consistency – but at a price.
‘We pulled the bottom up,’ he says. ‘But we also believe that we have pulled the top down… we have lost some of the complexity and we have certainly lost the diversity.’
Did this happen to Scotch? The entirely rational drive for greater efficiency and consistency may well have improved the average quality of blends – ‘pulled the bottom up’, in other words – but in the process, was something precious mislaid?
The chaos of distillery floor maltings, different strains of yeast and manual operation undoubtedly resulted in some pretty inconsistent spirit – but, when the whisky gods conspired, did that chaos also create lasting greatness?
And, if it did, how can we get it back?
02 November 2016
How much would you pay for a bottle of whisky? Nearly US$200 for a 16-year-old Longmorn? More than £7,000 for four single cask single malts from an independent bottler? How about £16,000 for a Black Bowmore 50 Year Old?
The fact of whisky price inflation has become as predictable as the outrage that greets it on the blogosphere. Assessing true value in this age of ‘whisky investment’ and flipping has never been more challenging.
But, rather than throw up your hands and mutter dark things about ‘capitalism gone crazy’, how about using a bit of old-fashioned common sense?
For two of these three launches – Golden Decanters and Black Bowmore – forget any noble notions of ‘pure’ value based simply on the quality of the liquid.
Releases at this level of the stratosphere are more bets on future monetary value than assessments of current worth; the trick for those selling them is to pitch them at a level low enough to attract buyers, but high enough to maximise returns – rather than seeing the same bottle sold on for twice the original price one month after release.
Getting this right is – to judge from these two examples – not easy. No quarrel with the Black Bowmore 50 Year Old release price of £16,000. Given that the 29-year-old 1st Edition is now offered at £12,000, it seems fair enough (if you’re really happy to spend more on a bottle of whisky than I’ve ever spent on a car).
Last in line: The final Black Bowmore bottling will set you back £16,000
But Golden Decanters? Four single cask single malts, including a Glenlivet 34-year-old, a Bowmore 26-year-old, an Auchentoshan 22-year-old and a Ben Nevis 19-year-old. You have to buy all four, and they’ll set you back £7,250.
Yes, the gorgeously tactile packaging from Scottish design studio Timorous Beasties more than lives up to its luxury brief. But the company’s claim that collectors are now ‘a little tired of tartan and twee’…?
Really? What tartan and twee? At this level of the market, bagpipers yielded the stage long ago to Lalique crystal and handmade oak. And anyway, Golden Decanters’ rejection of Scottish cliché might hold more weight if the company hadn’t identified its whiskies with, er, fishing, shooting, golf and Highland coos. Can the deep-fried Mars bar expression be far away?
Luxury look: But does that make Golden Decanters’ whiskies worth the money?
Single cask whiskies like these also involve more than the usual level of trust on the part of the purchaser. More than £7,000 for four malts is pushing it for an independent bottler with a long and distinguished reputation; for a debut range, it’s frankly astonishing.
However, I’m not remotely angry (unlike a number of people on the internet) about the Golden Decanters release – just utterly bemused by its wild optimism. If it works, and the whiskies sell, it’ll certainly tell us something about the current state of whisky collecting and investing.
But Longmorn? Pricing the 23-year-old north of US$1,000 is ambitious enough. But almost doubling the price of the entry-level (in age stated terms) 16-year-old single malt to US$189 on the pretext that it’s been ‘reinterpreted’ is breathtakingly cheeky. They might at least have had the decency to up it to an 18-year-old (after all, The Age Matters, doesn’t it?).
‘Breathtakingly cheeky’: Longmorn’s 16yo has nearly doubled in price
Rare whiskies aimed at collectors and investors are playing a different game to the Longmorns of this world. Succeed or fail, will Golden Decanters have any significant impact on the overall Scotch whisky market? I seriously doubt it.
But you can’t say the same about a more mainstream whisky such as Longmorn, and the range revamp reads like an exercise in market-led cynicism. Not so long ago, its 15-year-old bottling was replaced by the now ‘old’ 16yo, accompanied by howls of anguish on the internet about the concomitant price rise.
Now the price (but not the age) has gone up again, while the lower bracket has been filled by NAS expression Longmorn The Distiller’s Choice, introduced last January.
Price hikes and NAS whisky… There’s an awful lot of ill-judged, knee-jerk hysteria about both subjects on the internet, but on this occasion I have more than a little sympathy with it. Sometimes this industry does itself no favours at all.
24 October 2016
‘Things have moved on,’ my friend Z was telling me. ‘It’s less about the strength and effect these days. Now we’re all more concerned with flavour.’
It struck me that anyone with more than a passing interest in a flavour-led substance makes a similar journey. To begin with, it is taken for the impact: the euphoria, the talking, the sense of fun, the loosening of inhibitions, everything which allows whisky to become a social lubricant.
Over time, however, a more considered approach begins to take over. The fun aspects may remain, but now the drinker has moved beyond wanting the blunt hit of alcohol and is seeking out the subtleties, the quieter transportative trails of aroma which bring to mind place, memory, fruits and flowers.
But Z wasn’t talking about whisky – he’s more of a rum drinker anyway. He was talking about cannabis. Let it be said from the outset that I am not advocating the ingesting of illegal substances. Z’s findings were undertaken in countries where the partaking of such things is perfectly legal.
Cannabis calling...: Will consumers turn away from whisky to new worlds of flavour?
The shift, he explained, was away from THC (tetrahydrocannabinol – the psychotropic element in cannabis) and towards the plant’s terpenes – and specifically the different terpenes contained in each strain. A shift away from strength and on to subtlety. ‘A guy like you would love it,’ he enthused. ‘It’s what you’re always banging on about. Anyone who loves flavour will get off on this.’
Keeping things in simple terms, terpenes and terpenoids are the compounds which give aroma to the essential oils contained in plants. They’re used in perfumery, important in winemaking – and exist within whisky.
The list of terpene-drived aromas contained in cannabis is familiar to any whisky lover. ‘Myrcene’ gives clove, hops, citrus fruits, bay leaves, eucalyptus, wild thyme and lemon grass; ‘pinene’ is as piney as you’d expect; ‘limonene’ is contained in citrus fruits and rosemary; there’s the peppery accents of beta-caryophyllene; the floral elements given by linalool… you get the drift.
It’s an area of research of great interest to those involved in the potential medical applications of cannabis, and website Greenhouse Seeds has even created a cannabis terpene flavour wheel, which is worth comparing to the Scotch one.
This is of more than academic interest: cannabis has been legalised in many states in the US and the repeal movement is growing internationally. Only last week, the SNP (Scottish National Party) backed the decriminalisation of cannabis for medicinal use and requested the UK government to devolve the power to regulate the drug to Holyrood. As we’ve seen in North America, medical use inevitably leads to full decriminalisation.
Could we see a time when a next generation turns its back on alcohol and goes instead for the impact of THC, and then terpene-derived bliss? Will there be Scotchcannabis.com? It’s entirely possible.
Favouring flavour: There is even a cannabis terpene flavour wheel
There have been numerous financial reports in the US predicting that the alcohol industry could be damaged by the legal cannabis industry, though it is too early to say whether people will make the choice between smoking and drinking – or simply do both.
The potential threat has been serious enough for that most sober of drinks producers, Jack Daniel’s owner Brown-Forman, to state in its last four annual reports that the legalisation of marijuana should be considered ‘a business risk’.
A report by financial services firm Cowen and Co senior analyst Vivien Azer concluded that ‘while the alcohol beverage category has looked insulated from cannabis thus far – from a revenue perspective – with the legal market still in its infancy we think the risk to alcoholic beverage consumption will become increasingly apparent… In the last 10 years, alcohol incidence for US men has fallen 200 basis points, while cannabis has risen 260 basis points. Beer and whiskey are the most at risk of losing business’.
After all, as Z said, it’s all about flavour.
19 October 2016
When it comes to drinks awards ceremonies, it’s always the recognisable names called to the stage: the celebrity distillers and blenders, the globally-renowned brand ambassadors, the trend-setting bartenders. It’s often those already in the limelight that are given recognition for their achievements, as is the nature of the awards beast. You have to be known to be nominated.
That’s not to say their praise is undeserved. These are people who give themselves over completely to their work, for the promotion and sustenance of the drinks industry, all for our enjoyment and the enjoyment of future generations. These are the drivers of innovation and keepers of tradition, the passionate high achievers who go above and beyond. They are the practitioners of craft and skill on a never-ending quest for perfection. But they aren’t the only ones.
Some awards can only be bestowed upon one recipient each year, making it near-impossible to recognise the achievements of all those deserving praise. The Scotch whisky industry, however, has developed its own tradition of ensuring that all those demonstrating dedication and outstanding achievements are given apt acknowledgement.
The Keepers of the Quaich (pronounced ‘quake’) is a semi-secret society that you may only join if invited. You don’t choose it; it chooses you. To be inducted as a Keeper is recognition of an outstanding contribution to the Scotch whisky industry for at least five years and anyone, anywhere, in any manner of role within the industry, can be nominated to join – as long as they’re worthy. There are now more than 2,500 Keepers and 150 Masters of the Quaich (who have at least 10 years’ service as a Keeper), hailing from all over the world.
Raise your cups: The bi-annual Keepers of the Quaich toasts the success of many Scotch whisky contributors
Inductions take place during one of the society’s grand, bi-annual ceremonies, held at the imposing Blair Castle in Pitlochry. It’s a Scottish Cinderella’s ball, complete with red carpet, ball gowns, kilts, pipers and plenty of toasts, all presided over by Sarah Troughton, Lord Lieutenant of Wiltshire and grandmaster of Keepers of the Quaich, and the Atholl Highlanders – Europe’s only private army.
This autumn’s ceremony, held on Monday evening (17 October), inducted 47 new Keepers and five Masters. Among them were master blenders and distillers, but also independent bottlers, event organisers, whisky retailers, still makers and regional directors, many of whom have been a part of the industry for several years, quietly making their mark without fanfare.
Among them was Alison Morton, head of Asia market access for the Scotch Whisky Association, whose work has been instrumental to the support of many Scotch brands launching in the region.
Niall MacGinnis, director of corporate security at Diageo, has for the past seven years provided vital support to the world’s largest Scotch producer on improving cyber and physical security.
Jean-Baptiste Mouton, who recently became general manager at Pernod Ricard Chile, had for the past four years founded the whisky producer’s first office in Angola, ensuring the company’s Scotches, such as Chivas Regal and Ballantine's, reached consumers in the region.
Johnnie Walker, the world’s largest blended Scotch whisky, is used to attracting awards for its liquid and the talent of its master blenders. Rarely does its global brand director, Guy Escolme, who has 14 years’ experience working in whisky, gain recognition for his dedication to the Scotch industry.
Eduardo Heusi Pereira is the global head of liquor at travel retailer Dufry in Spain; Julie Fortin is owner of Importation Epicurienne in Quebec, Canada; Thomas Ewers the owner of independent bottler Malts of Scotland in Paderborn, Germany. I could go on, but you’d be reading this all day.
Medal of honour: Keepers of the Quaich receive a medal and are eligible to wear the society's registered tartan
The Keepers of the Quaich are from all walks of life and devote the same level of enthusiasm to the promotion of Scotch whisky as any whisky ‘celebrity’. We should never overlook them, or the work they do to ensure Scotch remains a drink loved by people from Beijing to Birmingham.
Scotch whisky’s success hinges on the dedication of thousands of people, not a select few names in lights.
It is a huge honour to be selected as a Keeper. I should know; I was made one on Monday as well, although when surrounded by so much talent and achievement, often by many with infinitely broader experience and knowledge than myself, it’s also a remarkably humbling occasion.
12 October 2016
‘Let’s talk about the rules of whisky,’ an English female – not Scottish male –voice narrates, as David Beckham and his chums laugh over glasses of Haig Club Clubman and Coke in exciting, lively scenarios. Welcome to the single grain whisky brand’s first UK TV advert, designed, according to Beckham himself, ‘to highlight that there is no right or wrong way to enjoy whisky, as long as you enjoy it, that’s all that matters’. It’s a stereotypical millennial’s dream – trendy parties, city rooftop card games, car bonnet table tennis, desert dancing.
So what are these rules Mr Beckham? ‘They say you should drink it neat, never with a mixer,’ our narrator continues. ‘You’re only allowed a splash of water, or if you must, a single cube of ice. They say it’s best enjoyed alone. Take it seriously, swill it around, let it breathe. Whisky is a man’s drink drunk by an open fire, waiting ’til it’s old; waiting ’til you’re old. But you know what they say about rules; make your own rules.’
You could argue that Haig Club’s £2.5 million ‘Make Your Own Rules’ campaign is simply a clever marketing approach for a whisky that pitches itself as best drunk with cola – a heinous crime among devoted malt enthusiasts. Or, you could see it as an important educational tool the Scotch whisky category desperately needs right now.
There have been countless attempts in the past few years to encourage drinkers to swap their usual tipple for a Scotch whisky. We’ve seen it with expressions imitating the sweet characteristics of Bourbon, with hybrid innovations like Huxley and Glover, and some whiskies dabbling in added flavours like hops and honey.
All are efforts to appeal to a new generation of whisky drinkers by shrugging off the perception that Scotch is a man’s drink, to be sipped neat in a leather-bound study surrounded by a cloud of cigar smog. Yes – remarkably that notion still exists.
These are attempts at making Scotch seem fun and approachable for new audiences through flavour innovation, but really it’s the rules surrounding when and how it should be consumed that need to change, not Scotch itself.
Celebrity effect: David Beckham's support of Haig Club will further its reach
Scotch whisky has maintained a reputation as the most aspirational spirit in the world by – intentionally or not – shrouding itself in conventions that govern when and how it should be consumed. The result is a whole new generation of drinkers (we can call them millennials if you like) who find it simpler to turn to other spirits, such as gin for example, which are easier to understand and come without such strict and often confusing guidelines. In other words, Scotch hasn’t been the most welcoming of spirits.
There are already some distillers and blenders out there banging this drum, driving the message of ‘drink it however the hell you want, where the hell you want’ through brand education, but it’s on a small scale. Very few have the budget of Diageo, or the clout of David Beckham, to reach significant numbers of potential Scotch whisky drinkers. With this one campaign, Haig Club Clubman expects to reach 95% of UK adults.
Just how many of those adults have ever found themselves at a party in the desert and in need of a Scotch and cola I have no clue. Haig Club, for one, believes it to be the usual audience of architectural show Grand Designs, having chosen to air its first advert during this evening’s episode on Channel 4 at 9pm (don’t worry if you’re not in the UK or washing your hair, we’ve provided a sneak preview below).
The next generation of whisky drinkers don’t want to be told what to drink or how to enjoy it. They want to find their own way, do their own thing and make their own mistakes, and it’s only through allowing them to do so that Scotch can hope to win their devotion.
10 October 2016
You can tell by looking into their eyes. There’s a mildly crazed look, half sleep deprivation, with a dash of jetlag, mixed with just a soupçon of excess, garnished with a rasping throat.
Autumn is the time of year when the big consumer fairs, cocktail competitions and trade shows all crash together like mastodons, the fallout from the collision felt in the liver of each participant. We carry the battle scars with pride.
Not that I’m complaining; I’d rather be doing this than working down a mine – or working anywhere come to think of it. The close proximity of the shows does, however, produce a blurring effect which makes you – hopefully – see things in a new way.
It started as ever with Whisky Live Paris, which was – as the report will tell you – as inspiring as ever. It also seeded the idea of a breaking down of barriers. I’m old and grey enough to recall the times when ‘other spirits’, indeed ‘other whiskies’ were relegated to a different room, then rooms and then a wing.
Now, while there are zones containing each category people flow naturally from one to the other, pausing from their dramming to taking a Cognac here, a grappa there, now a rum or three, and then downstairs for gin. In one sense it was liberating. In another, you couldn’t help but wonder what Scotch’s role might be in this new egalitarian world.
Class act: Diageo World Class finalists didn’t shy away from Scotch
Twenty-four hours later I was sheened with sweat beside a Miami swimming pool watching the global finals of Diageo’s World Class competition, the world’s toughest test for bartenders.
Scotch has steadily inveigled itself into the event. Rarely used in early years, it now has equal billing with other quality spirits. No eyes widen when a bartender reaches for a single malt or blend to make a drink.
This year, Scotch again had its own challenge, as evil a test as I have witnessed. The finalists had to identify whiskies in a blind tasting, then dissect a blend and say what percentage of each whisky was in it, before plotting said blend on a flavour map, tasting a cocktail made with the blend and saying what the other component parts were. Impossible? Damn right.
Even though I always thought the idea of blending was to subsume individuality in favour of unity, thus making separation well-nigh impossible, this was still fiendishly difficult. Anyone who did well has a palate to die for, so step forward the winner of the challenge, Dandelyan’s Aidan Bowie.
As well as surreptitiously sipping mezcal (as any sensible person should), we talked Scotch, its future and the way in which throughout its history it has always been flavoured, mixed and lengthened.
Our weapons? An ‘improved’ Mamie Taylor made with Johnnie Walker Red (which like most standard blends is intended to be drunk long) and what has become a standby, Lagavulin and Coke. Before anyone writes in complaining about the latter – guys, it works as a combination but it is not the only way to drink this malt, merely an option.
If Scotch is to grow its presence behind the bar, then there has to be an acceptance that it has a role to play in mixed drinks as well as being excellent when taken neat, with rocks or water. Those who want to enjoy a single malt on its own are right – it is an amazing multi-faceted drink. But it is the fact that it is an amazing multi-faceted drink that means it has a role to play in bartending when used in a considerate and judicious manner.
Anyhow, from there it was overnight to London for the Whisky Show where the balance, as Angus MacRaild rightly points out, was perfectly struck between the ultra-rare ‘dream drams’ – the Bowmore class featuring Tempest, 1970s Deluxe, 25-year-old Small Batch, 30-year-old Sea Dragon, Black Bowmore and 1964 will go down in legend (and more on this later) – and new releases.
The Whisky Show: Imbibers were brought together by their love for Scotch and other whisky styles
Like Paris, this wasn’t restricted to Scotch. Amrut appeared with a 100% malted rye, there was Westland’s Garryana oak and the English Whisky Company’s pot still grain to name but three on the floor. In the ‘three masters’ class, Suntory’s Shinji Fukuyo blew us all away with the first all-Mizunara (Japanese oak) blend, which had that restless innovator Dr Bill Lumsden of Glenmorangie salivating.
As with Paris, or Miami, there was a sense of tectonic plates continuing to shift. It is not as simplistic as Scotch being under threat, rather that the drinker is more open-minded as to where their whisky (or beverage) comes from. Prejudices are being shelved; quality and character rule.
This, as I’m sure I’ve said before, offers a great opportunity for Scotch. Rather than just leading, it can build on this interest and further develop its own identity.
That’s one to ponder on my way to Bar Convent Berlin today following last week’s annual London Cocktail Week...
Rest? Who needs it?
30 September 2016
9.21pm, Wednesday, 21 September, One Marylebone, London; Diageo Special Releases tasting:
‘Have you done the maths?... I’m sure you have.’
The last question I was asked at Diageo’s Special Releases tasting was also the most perplexing (but, when you’ve just tasted 10 cask strength whiskies, perhaps that’s not surprising).
Had I done the maths? Well, I’d worked out that the nine age-stated whiskies among this year’s 10 Special Releases (barring Cragganmore) had a collective minimum age of 250 years-plus. Was that what my fellow taster meant?
‘No no no. The Port Ellen. Less than 3,000 bottles for £2,500 a pop. That’s nearly £7.5m!’
As Oscar Wilde once wrote, a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. So – for just a moment – let’s be cynical.
If we strip out Caol Ila and Lagavulin from this year’s Special Releases (unknown, but ‘limited’, quantities available), we have eight whiskies, 32,618 bottles, worth £22,551,020. Average price per bottle? £691.37.
Lucrative line-up: Secondary market trends have forced up Special Releases pricing
How did we get here? Simple. If you sell a product for a few hundred quid, then see the person who buys it flip it shortly afterwards for a few thousand, you might want to rethink your pricing strategy. This year’s Port Ellen takes a bit longer to sell out? So be it.
I get that. The confusion kicks in when I taste the whisky. Not because it’s bad. Not because it’s anything other than excellent, in fact. It is, indeed, special, in almost every case. But that beguiling Auchroisk 25-year-old that wouldn’t let me go? It’s £280 and it’s my bargain of the tasting. I still can’t afford it.
At the end of the room, the salivating masses jostling for a drop of the latest four-figure Brora and Port Ellen might have been queuing for a thimbleful of the latest en primeur Lafite or Latour.
And why shouldn’t it? If we can agree that the finest Scotch offers a transformative, transcendent sensory experience, why would the monetary value placed on it differ from fine wine, designer fashion, classic cars or luxury watches?
I left Brora and Port Ellen, and went back to the near-deserted Auchroisk table, and was happy. But it’s still £280, and I have a toddler, a house that needs work and a mortgage, so I’ll buy the Lagavulin – or, more likely, nothing at all.
11.58am, Tuesday, 20 September, The Union Club, Soho, London; White Horse retrospective tasting:
‘How good is that? Seriously, how good is that?’
Spirits entrepreneur Marcin Miller has the air of a proud father as he contemplates the glass in his hand. We’re not sure quite how old this whisky of his is, but best guess is it’s a pre-war bottling of White Horse. And it is, on its own terms, without even a thought of its age and provenance, stunning.
Tasting old bottlings is a hugely entertaining (when they’re not yours) game of Russian roulette. Of the six on show, three are at various stages of decrepitude thanks to closure imperfections; three, including this pre-war bottling, are simply beautiful.
Russian roulette: Tasting old bottlings is a fascinating and entertaining exercise
Their combined value, at current prices, is roughly equivalent to a bottle of the 2016 Special Release Brora. When they were purchased… Well, they were somewhat cheaper. And, even when they’re not perfect, they are huge fun to open.
So yes, I have done the maths. I loved the Special Releases, and it was a privilege to taste them, but that particular market has left me, and most people I know, behind. I’m a little sad about that, but not bitter or angry, because I’ve seen fine Bordeaux and Burgundy do the same in my lifetime, and these whiskies deserve that kind of billing.
And yes, I could go back again to that near-deserted Auchroisk table, and be happy. But: £280; toddler; house; mortgage. So I’ll buy some early 1980s White Horse instead. And be happier still.
27 September 2016
We walk down the hill, detectors aloft, waiting for the click as the orange glow of Brighton dips away. The sun has gone. Sheep sit like boulders in the grass; a crow on a fencepost pretends to be an owl. It’s a time of settling down and seeming silence.
I did my first bat walk on Islay, leaving the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) centre at Loch Gruinart and heading along the road towards the loch in the gloaming, as long-eared and pipistrelle bats flitted out of farm buildings and started dive-bombing us for the mealworms we were flinging into the darkening air. When we arrived home, we bought two bat detectors to reveal this invisible sound world.
As we pass the badger sett, the bat calls start sounding like some strange mutant dub, growing in intensity as we group together in a little glade listening as they loop crazily above our heads, caught in torch beams guzzling gnats, fattening up for a long sleep. A tawny owl, hidden in the trees, starts murmuring.
Nocturnal behaviour: Can the sights and sounds of silent distilleries be recorded, like bats?
This magical little place is Balsdean. It was once a hamlet – just two farms, some workers’ cottages and a Norman chapel. The chapel went first, converted into a barn. One of the farms was next, spending time as a lunatic asylum. The final farm was evacuated in 1940 and the buildings used as target practice by the Canadian infantry.
Nothing is left; a community gone, leaving the hollow to the bats, owls, shapeshifting crows and startled sheep.
It’s strange how fragile things are, how places can just be wiped away; made invisible. It happens with whisky too. The Balsdean bats reminded me of a chat I’ve been having with photographer Sean Dooley about a potential project.
Not a catalogue and history of lost distilleries – that has been well-charted by Brian Townsend (there’s a new edition of his excellent book just out) – but how silent stills act as palimpsests, images of empty spaces, an examination of the untrustworthy nature of memory.
Is a former distillery site always just that, or does the space change as its former use is forgotten? Can echoes still be heard in each location? What sort of detector do we need for that? A camera? Words?
Thoughts about silent stills were floating about anyway, what with Brora and Port Ellen making their annual reappearance at the 2016 Diageo Special Releases tasting, the ghosts at the feast. I’m doing a tasting of two 50-year-old Karuizawas later today. The same applies there.
Drinking whiskies from silent stills becomes a process of exhumation because the distilleries only live in the taste. With each sip there is one less mouthful in the world, with each swirl of the glass more aromas are released never to return. With each year, the men who worked there dwindle.
Perhaps there’s little surprise that when we encounter whiskies such as these we lapse into sentimentalism and reverence. Critical faculties are suspended because we have all been brought up not to speak ill of the dead.
Better, surely, not to mourn but celebrate, and when tasting them meditate on the transience of things and the invisible world.
16 September 2016
Late night in downtown Bangalore: street food carts and alleys, electrical shops and eye clinics, faltering neon. Push through crowds along rutted pavements, with the constant pulse of horns and drone of motorbike engines, down some steps into a blasted out concrete bunker with a warren of side rooms.
Men – all men – move in a strange choreography, weave and dodge to the high bar, order from the pink shirted barkeep, hands blurring as a tetra pak of local whisky is bought, corner snipped, its contents poured into a glass, topped with water and brought to mouth.
Some slam it back, some take three gulps and others stand in groups talking. More take their place – order, hand over notes, take the packet, snip, pour, top up, drink… and repeat.
Apart from one guy who buys two miniatures of 100 Pipers for his ritual serve, everything served was local. This is whisky drinking Indian style.
Why isn’t Scotch breaking through? Look around. ‘We have two sorts of connoisseurs,’ my friend Vikram tells me. ‘The single malt ones and these guys. Don’t be fooled. They know what they want and if you alter your whisky in any way, they will tell you. Their fathers drank this brand, and their grandfathers.’
With Scotch three times as expensive as the local whisky, it looks like a tough road for many brands – but I’m not concerned here about strategic approaches for Scotch. Daniel Jones has done that recently (and if you haven’t read his piece yet, I recommend that you do, here). Instead, standing there in the noise and elbow jostle it made me wonder what we think of when we think of whisky, and what that response says about our own prejudices.
Logic suggests that the best place to see how whisky is drunk is where the bulk of whisky is consumed – call it a pub, dive bar, cantina, shebeen, or these ‘retail’ and ‘wines’ in India. You find them in almost every country – the hole in the wall where people have always congregated to drink, sing, debate and laugh. Places of domino tile slam and noise, camaraderie and purposeful drinking.
The whisky could be a taken from a bottle on a table, or in bulbous glasses littering the bar; in half-pints of Highballs in red-faced, sleeved-shirt, smoke-filled izakayas beside the tracks in Japan, or here in the dim light of snip and drink India. You don’t find out how South Africa drinks whisky by cowering in five star hotel bars in Sandton, but by going to Sowetan shebeens.
What whisky? What we call ‘standard’ brands. Whisky might have gained credibility and momentum when it became an acceptable middle class drink but it has continued to be built in places like these, and by brands such as these.
As a category, Scotch cannot survive on cocktails or high-priced single malts. There always has to be something (and by extension someone) doing the heavy lifting, and that will be what is known as – often dismissively – ‘standard’ blends.
Whisky grew thanks to Jack or Jim, or the two Johns – Jameson and Walker. (Enough of the Js, Ed). Yes, single malt is vital to the growing health of Scotch. It widens the notion of what whisky is (and can be), pulls in new drinkers, gussies the image up, and it will continue to have a growing influence. But – and it’s a big but – the importance of the ‘standard’ brand remains crucial.
It’s also worth pausing to consider what ‘standard’ means – a word for the basic, or instead something which sets a standard? Don’t sneer at them, don’t dismiss them, because when you do, you insult the people who drink (and make) them.
Instead, next time you are in a bar order one, mix it and enjoy.
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