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From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Texture’s vital role in whisky tasting

    05 December 2018

    I’m sitting there looking at the duck’s flipper on the plate in front of me. The first question buzzing in my brain is why? Judging by the reaction of my fellow diners, I’m on my own when it comes to considering the appendage a somewhat unusual addition to a dinner. After a week in China I thought I was inured to such arrivals, but every meal brings a new surprise.

    ‘Don’t ever ask what it is,’ old China hands have told me, ‘just eat it.’ But this is clearly a flipper and the question is still why? (although the supplementary how? is rapidly pushing it out of the way). Judging by my companions’ actions you just pick it up and bite.

    Someone appears at my side. He’s holding a glass. Time for a toast. I stand up, we clink glasses and drain the whisky. I’m secretly hoping that he strikes up a conversation and the flipper will be whisked away and the next course set down. No chance. It’s still there.

    I pick it up and bite. To be honest, there’s not much flavour, bar soy. The texture however is exactly what you expect. Chicken feet are crunchy. Duck flippers are… well… flippery. It’s a cultural thing.

    Unique nose: Our perception of an aroma is based on our own personal experiences

    Each of us interprets the world in different ways because our experiences are so varied. Upbringing, culture, preferences and aversions all impact how we read and speak about our experiences. Because of this, no two people will describe an aroma in the same way.

    The downside of this is that trying to understand what someone means when they describe an aroma is akin to cracking a code. If we all say different things for the same smell — I smell a clean hamster cage in this glass, you smell porridge — then how can we reach some type of consensus, or understanding? We are both correct, but how do we understand what the other is saying?

    One way is by creating an agreed terminology. My hamster cages and your bowl of porridge both mean ‘malty’. It’s a step in the right direction, while also reinforcing the point that you must trust your own nose.

    Having this shared nomenclature is important, especially as we’re told that nosing a whisky is the most important element within ‘tasting’. Given this, there’s little surprise, then, that Richard Paterson’s conk is insured for US$1 million, just like Kim Kardashian’s arse (I apologise for the image this has created in your mind).

    Sacred snifter: Dalmore master blender Richard Paterson's nose is allegedly insured for more than US$1 million

    ‘The nose knows’ makes sense if you are assessing a huge number of whiskies, but it’s a line which, I think, downplays the importance of the palate.

    The same issues over language still apply in the mouth, because there we are dealing not just with smell but with taste, and specifically the fusing of those two senses into the thing we call flavour. There is however another sense which we overlook, that of touch.

    A whisky doesn’t give all its secrets up at the same time. It develops and changes on the nose and in the mouth. What appears at the start of the tongue is different in the middle, and changes again at the end. There’s a journey, a narrative, and texture’s role in this is hugely significant — if underappreciated.

    I’ve found out over the years that while smell is cultural (and therefore hard to translate), our sense of textures are shared. We will use different words to describe aroma and flavour, but we’ll agree about the whisky’s texture and the shape it makes in the mouth. It can be thin and sharp, or it can fatten in the middle of the tongue. It can whizz along, or slowly coat the mouth. We concur when smoke emerges, or at what point tannins grip.

    If you ignore texture, you lose a significant element of the whisky’s story. Within texture lies a way to discover a common language. By thinking and talking about feel and shape, we can discuss more easily how things evolve on the palate.

    That flipper now makes more sense. Asian cuisines always take texture into consideration. Foods are eaten not just because of their flavour, but because of complementary and opposing textures: soft, rigid, pliant, gluey and slippery. They are there to give the senses something else to think about, and to add to the overall balance of a meal. It’s the same in whisky. Being aware of feel and the way things change in shape, are both things we can share. Allow them to flow.

    Now… back to the flipper.

  • Cognac’s lesson for single malt lovers

    28 November 2018

    The damp inside the cellar is palpable, seeming to soak into your lungs with every breath. As the light flicks on, it illuminates a scene of apparent desolation: rows of ancient, mould-encrusted casks, many with their chestnut hoops broken and pointing to the blackened rafters like the crooked fingers of a long-dead corpse.

    It looks abandoned, derelict; but this is one of the ‘Paradis’ cellars at Cognac Frapin’s home, Château Fontpinot, where some of the casks are a century old, and some of the eaux-de-vie have rested for decades.

    We move on to another cellar, this time upstairs. ‘I like this one,’ says Patrice Piveteau, Frapin’s cellar master. Here the air is drier, the warmth – even in the weak November sunshine – a welcome contrast.

    Piveteau’s affection for this chai is partly due to its maturation conditions – it houses many vintage Cognacs, their casks splashed with the red wax seals used by the Cognac authorities to guarantee their authenticity – and partly to its stunning roof, with its huge, beautifully irregular, hand-cut beams and trusses.

    Frapin is as close as Cognac gets to single malt. In a region dominated by big names (Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin, Courvoisier), where the prevalent business model is that of the négociant (buying in grapes, wine and/or spirit to bottle under your own name), Frapin goes the other way. 

    Vintage Cognac casks in a dry cellar

    Upstairs cellar: Drier conditions will give these vintage Cognacs greater finesse 

    Every grape harvested from the 240 hectares of the company’s vineyards in the heart of the pre-eminent Grande Champagne sub-region is used to make Frapin’s Cognacs; nothing is bought in, nothing is sold on.

    In an age when, more than ever, we want to know where our food and drink comes from and how it’s made, tracing the journey from soil to plate and glass, Frapin’s is a compelling back-story. But, for Piveteau, it’s one that comes with a challenge.

    ‘We have one range for everywhere in the world,’ he explains. ‘Frapin is not big enough to make segmentation – there is no variability through using different wine growers or different sub-regions. We do have two types of terroir, but they are both in the heart of Grande Champagne.’

    In this context, the Frapin philosophy is almost puritanically restrictive, meaning that the only path to differentiation and diversity for Piveteau lies through maturation and, in particular, the age and location of the cask.

    There are ‘new’ casks (up to five years old), in which the spirit will spend between six months and a year, with lots of interaction and flavour from the wood; casks of five to 15 years old, where the influence is more subtle and slow; and casks of 15 to 100 years old or more, where it’s all evaporation, oxidation and concentration.

    Old Cognac casks in a damp cellar

    Downstairs cellar: This damp ‘Paradis’ will make for a supple, rounded character

    Then there are the cellars. Four groups of them, spreading the fire risk, but also giving Piveteau options. Some humid, promoting the loss of more ethanol than water; some dry, where the opposite occurs.

    The former gives a rounded, supple Cognac; the latter something with a stronger character, but more elegance and finesse. ‘It’s a way for me to produce something different,’ explains Piveteau.

    And in the glass? Frapin’s Cigar Blend has a full year in a new cask, which adds a touch of tannin, and is aged in a humid cellar, which tames any austerity and gives a richly rounded texture.

    Meanwhile, Château de Fontpinot XO (six months in new oak, aged in a dry cellar) has classic Frapin fruit-and-flowers purity, underpinned by a firm structure and a supreme elegance. Go back to your empty glass after five minutes and a perfumed tobacco leaf aroma lingers.

    This is as precise as Cognac gets in terms of provenance: vineyards, winemaking, distillation, maturation and bottling all in one place. But, as Piveteau is at pains to point out, the liquid remains a blend. ‘And to have a good blend, you need knowledge and a lot of stock,’ he says.

    Frapin Cognac cask

    Single cask: But even single-property Cognacs like Frapin’s Fontpinot are still blends

    ‘It’s like painting – to have a good green, you need lots and lots of good blue and yellow.’ On average, the Cognac region has seven years of stock; Frapin has 16, scattered among the diverse cellars of Segonzac, Fontpinot, Chez Piet.

    It’s an instructive example that should remind all of us about the true nature of single malt Scotch whisky. We spend so much time dissecting the singularity of what makes Laphroaig Laphroaig, or Glenfarclas Glenfarclas, that we risk forgetting the old truism about all single malts being, at their heart, a blend.

    Where Piveteau plays around with cask age and location, a master distiller on Islay or Speyside tweaks cask types, ‘finishes’ and spirit maturity, combining whiskies of all hues in order to create complexity and maintain continuity of character.

    It is a space where science and art collide, and where location and process are moulded by human judgement and experience into something greater than the sum of their parts.

    Maybe if we all thought and talked of single malts in this manner – in terms of the plurality rather than singularity of their character – we might grow to understand and love them in a different way.

    And maybe, just maybe, it might elevate the all-too-often maligned world of blends – without which, let’s remember, most single malts would long ago have become extinct – and restore them to their rightful place in the collective whisky consciousness.

  • How to ‘not taste’ whisky

    21 November 2018

    It’s the same every week. There’s work to be done. So, I pour them out, cover them, wait, and then get started. Don’t rush, take your time, don’t force it – trying to nail that elusive aroma that’s on the tip of your nose often ends up with you falling over from inhaling too many fumes. It’s never good to collapse during a tasting. Learned that the hard way. It’s a routine, but a pleasant one.

    Yes there should ideally be silence and no intrusive aromas, sounds etc. providing you with a sensory blank slate for the tastes and flavours to emerge. Simple really. Why then is it so hard?

    Why does it work some days and not others? Why do the aromas fly out and hit you when you go through the same ritual, at the same time of day. It seems like the same conditions – but of course the conditions have changed because you are not the same today as you were yesterday. So you do the best you can and work at it, steadily.

    Zen approach: Focus, analyse, but simultaneously relax into ‘not tasting’ (Photo: Proof on Main)

    Concentrate, focus, you bugger. Go through the flight, get the initial impressions, go back, and compare one whisky against the others. Then go back again and compare another against the rest, but in a different order. Repeat. Write it all down.

    Then taste neat. Think about texture, taste again, now work out how the flavours emerge across the tongue, what’s the structure, is it balanced, what happens on the finish, what can you tell about wood, maturity or oxidation, what of the distillery character, the positives, and faults? There are so many permutations. What’s the story, what’s the whisky trying to tell you about itself? Concentrate. Focus. Write. Rest. Add water, repeat. Rest. Repeat.

    It’s revealing, it is necessary, but it is unnatural. You find yourself thinking about the mechanics of tasting: form, structure, aromas, acidity, fruit, complexity, balance. Boxes to tick. It’s at times like this that I wonder whether all this talk of sensory evaluation and tasting techniques are just putting more barriers between the whisky and the drinker.

    I have to be uncharacteristically methodical in this, but while I’m concentrating I also realise that I’m also stopping thinking about what I am experiencing and am thinking instead of what the next box on the ticklist of techniques has to be. I’m thinking about the ‘tasting’, and not the whisky.

    Recently though, I’ve done the session, covered the glass, walked off, and returned later. There’ll be music on, as I sit down again and sip. I’m not thinking about ‘tasting’ anymore, but relaxing with a dram. And, you know what? New things emerge, hidden qualities appear. I’ve been so busy thinking about how to untie the knots and find the secrets that I’ve missed the heart. It’s not drinking, rather it’s ‘not tasting’ which, unsurprisingly perhaps, sounds somewhat Zen.

    Hang on Dave, you say (and not unreasonably, as I said it to myself just a moment ago), isn’t that just drinking? Not really. Drinking is when the whisky is part, an important part, but nonetheless just a part, of a wider experience. During the drinking you may suddenly taste, but tasting isn’t the main purpose.

    ‘Not tasting’ happens when you’ve allowed the technique to slip into the background, leaving just you, and the whisky, and the moment. I suppose that the ultimate aim is to have the focus there, but simultaneously not worry about it and relax into ‘not tasting’. The analytical side is important, but never at the expense of the enjoyment. It’s there in front of you. Just be open and aware.

  • Stop analysing whisky and just enjoy it

    14 November 2018

    I serendipitously discovered my favourite painting in Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado last week. I’d been told the art museum was just full of ‘old paintings’ and wasn’t worth my time, but it was a beautiful building and, with a day to kill in the city following the opening of Johnnie Walker’s new whisky store on Calle Serrano, I didn’t see the harm. Culture is good for the soul, after all.

    Two things surprised me that day. Firstly, the discovery of Diego Velázquez’s towering seminal work, Las Meninas, hanging in the Prado’s lofty labyrinthine halls. The second was how much the discovery reminded me of a scene in Bean: The Movie (no, I didn’t sneeze on the painting!).

    Depicting the young Princess Margarita Theresa being tended to by her babysitters as Velázquez himself looks on, Las Meninas has been described as one of the most important paintings in the history of Western art, and even as embodying the ‘theology of painting’.

    The babysitters: Velázquez’s royal portrait (left) has been adapted multiple times by others, including Picasso (right)

    The 1656 work has been studied, critiqued and even mimicked and explored by a string of artists since, most notably by Pablo Picasso, who painted 58 recreations of Las Meninas and its characters in 1957 alone. They now reside in Barcelona’s Museu Picasso, if you’re interested.

    But it wasn’t the painting’s importance in the sinews of art history that drew me in. Not Velázquez’s delicate brushstrokes, the princess’ doll-like stature, nor the fact this work is considered a ‘Master’. I just like it. It spoke to me. And that was enough to keep me enthralled until a soft, authoritative (English) voice broke me out of my trance.

    Narrating the painting’s importance to a crowd of tourists all sporting earphones, the guide explained: ‘See how the composition of the characters and the way they interact with one another, and even ourselves as viewers, makes us question the relationship between illusion and reality. But the true meaning of Las Meninas has eluded scholars until this day.’

    Naturally, the elusiveness of meaning invites curiosity, as the tireless reproductions of the work can attest. According to Velázquez expert Jonathan Brown, who studied Las Meninas meticulously, ‘few paintings in the history of art have generated so many and varied interpretations as this’.

    But Brown also added during a lecture in 2014: ‘I feel in my bones that I may be suffering from the early stages of LMFS – Las Meninas Fatigue Syndrome.’ Scholars could study and study one of the greatest pieces of art the world has known and still be none the wiser as to its meaning. The devoted, magnified study of a single subject without any meaningful conclusion is endless, ineffective and ultimately exhausting. Something that was once loved so affectionately becomes tiresome to embrace.

    Look closer?: Mr Bean’s appreciation of art [here with Whistler’s Mother] exists on a basic level, but it’s appreciation nonetheless

    It was this sentiment that reminded me of an exchange in Bean: The Movie. The haphazard Mr Bean, an incompetent art gallery security guard who continuously falls asleep on the job, is mistaken for an eminent art professor on a visit to the fictional Grierson Art Gallery in Los Angeles, much to Bean’s obliviousness.

    Curator: ‘Tell me, Dr, what exactly is your position at the gallery?’

    Bean: ‘Well I sit in the corner, and look at the paintings.’

    Curator: ‘Ugh, that is brilliant. If only more scholars would do that – you know, just sit and look. Not lecture and write and argue. Just sit and look at the paintings themselves.’

    Sometimes, all that’s needed is a simple reminder of what’s important. The same sentiment is true of whisky. How often has a cult bottling been dissected, analysed, tasted, reviewed and scored, discussed, debated and argued over to the point that we have lost sight of what its purpose is in the first place? Like art, whisky is there to be enjoyed.

    The whisky world is throbbing with the noise of so many critical voices and opinions. We’re so busy arguing whether whisky should be chill-filtered, if malts from the ’60s are unparalleled, or drilling down into the intricacies of flavour creation that we stop appreciating whisky for the sake of pure enjoyment. How many of us have felt early-onset WFS – Whisky Fatigue Syndrome – settle in?

    Ultimately, whisky’s meaning lies in our enjoyment of what’s in our glass. It’s time we were all a little bit more Bean, and took a step back to just enjoy the beauty in front of us.

  • Storytelling brings whisky to life

    07 November 2018

    As my friend, the recently departed Nick Faith, told me many times, ‘remember, dear boy, we deal in higher level bullshit. Higher level, always.’ I laughed the first time he told me; then wondered quite what he meant. Shouldn’t we, as writers, always be telling the truth and avoid bullshit? Maybe it was just said with a hefty dose of self-deprecation.

    Nick, to the best of my knowledge, never dealt in the world of fantasy. His books on Cognac are masterpieces of accuracy, the same for his work on wine, or trains, but he balanced the facts within the frame of a good story. His writing was never dry. He was a master of self-deprecation though.

    Nick had also mentored me during my time as a judge on spirits competitions. ‘Dear boy,’ he said to me on one memorable evening when I was the last to leave the building, ‘I just realised that we still have to do cream liqueurs and advocaat. Fancy giving me a hand?’ That’s why the rest had turned tail so quickly. I don’t believe that a drop of a cream liqueur has passed my lips since that day.

    The Storyteller: Nick Faith always dealt in facts, framed within entertaining anecdotes

    Along with other spiritous luminaries greater than I, we were part of an eccentric bunch of educators called Taste & Flavour, led by our ringmaster Mark Ridgwell. It was in those sessions of competitive judging – yes even of cream liqueurs – and listening to him holding forth on Cognac that I got to understand about the importance of balance and authenticity, but also about having a wryly cynical eye on the machinations of companies, and the importance of story-telling, because it is through the last that we make connections. That self-deprecation is important as well. No-one can be judge and jury on all spirits. Best to deflate any thoughts that that might be the case early on.

    I began to realise that Nick’s ‘higher level’ didn’t mean being inaccurate, or deceptive, or plain wrong. That’s plain bullshit (and we’ve seen plenty of examples of that recently). Higher level was totally different. It meant to enter the world of story-telling, of making people laugh with you, at you, and engaging with them.

    Working in this higher level means you can weave in the tall tales, the people, the heritage, the rootedness of it all because that is what people, I think at least, are interested in. Who are the best presenters in whisky? The ones who tell stories. Here’s a case in point.

    Pillars of Islay: Jackie Thomson, Georgie Crawford and Lynne McEwan brought their island home to life through story

    Recently, I had the honour of moderating (because I am moderate in all things – apart from excess) a class at The Whisky Show between Georgie Crawford of Lagavulin, Lynne McEwan of Bruichladdich, and Jackie Thomson of Ardbeg. They were, rightly, insistent that it was to be a relaxed conversation about Islay by women who, in Georgie’s words, ‘love the work we do, the place we do it, and the people we do it with’. It was agreed that any mention of ‘women in whisky’ would result in the questioner being ejected from the room.

    The whiskies – which were amazing – became props on a wide-ranging, often hilarious, and also emotionally engaging and touching 90 minutes where Islay and its people took centre stage. They talked about each other’s drams, told tales and showed how community is at the heart of whisky. As a result, the drams shone with a new relevance. 

    Dealing solely with hard facts reduces whisky to a list of processes and chemical compounds. You can read the scientific papers on those (and I do) but it misses the point because whisky-making isn’t just about strike temperatures and seeding rates, grind ratios and speed of flow. While all of that is necessary to make the whisky, the same information is used to create something which communicates and connects on a different, higher, level. And that, I realise, is part of what Nick meant. Find what you enjoy at this moment. Raise a glass. Have faith.

  • How rare do you like your whisky?

    31 October 2018

    It was a summer’s day, many years ago. A beach bar in Brighton. Not the place you’d expect to try whisky. It was, I think, the first time I met Jim Beveridge. We were tasting Blue Label and the many meanings of the term ‘rarity’: age, scarcity, and flavour. As the afternoon progressed it was clear that Jim, in his quiet way, was gently nudging the conversation towards the last. Rarity of flavour is what intrigues the blender.

    Fast forward to this month and the UK launch of Johnnie Walker Ghost & Rare Port Ellen Edition and Jim, being Jim, once again talked about rarity in terms of availability and flavour.

    All of the discussion about the bottling steers the rarity issue towards the scarcity of the Port Ellen, but  – for me at least – it’s the bed on which it sits which matters and that is all about the rarity of flavour given by the grains. The success of the blend wasn’t about dialing up Port Ellen, but seeing how the rare and unusual can be made to work together. 

    Rare synergy: It’s the way Port Ellen works in tandem with the grains in Ghost & Rare that makes it unique

    Two of rarity’s other facets, availability and age, came into focus the night after (it was quite a week) with the unveiling of the Craigellachie 51 Year Old. Deciding to give away the oldest-ever expression of a distillery is an unlikely move by a major player working in today’s whisky world.

    Most would have said, 51 years? Let’s sell 51 bottles at £51,000 each – and you know what, they would possibly have sold them all. That Dewar’s took the other path is stroke of strategic genius and one to be applauded.

    Bizarrely, the previous evening Chivas Regal had launched its 50-year-old, all four bottles of it. I was busy in the Welsh Chapel with Walker, but my esteemed colleague Mr. Woodard made the trek to Old Trafford to catch the story (and chat with former footballer Denis Law). For him, it spoke of rarity in yet another way.

    ‘While Craigellachie 51 takes old and rare whisky to one end of the exclusivity spectrum, theoretically giving anyone – whatever their wealth or status – the chance to try it, Chivas 50 appears at first to embody a diametrically opposed philosophy,’ he said.

    Short supply: Sandy Hyslop (left) and Denis Law stand with one of the four decanters of Chivas Regal 50 Year Old 

    ‘This is rare whisky employed as marketing tool, released to mark 50 years since Matt Busby’s team triumphed in the 1968 European Cup final (four goals, four bottles) and to trumpet Chivas’ freshly-minted partnership with the club.

    ‘One bottle will reside permanently at Strathisla, while two of the others will be sold through auction and private sale, no doubt for mind-boggling sums.

    ‘But follow the money, and the destiny of the fourth and final bottle, and the picture changes. All proceeds go to charity – the Manchester United Foundation – and that fourth bottle will be given away, Craigellachie-style, to a Manchester United fan who has supported the club “through every high and low”.’

    All three releases raise questions about how we gauge rarity. Should a whisky’s use of liquids, which are by their nature limited, be the justification of a higher price? A quick scan of other 50-year-old whiskies suggests that this is increasingly the case.

    In this mad week Walker itself released 100 decanters of a 50-year-old blend retailing at US$25,000. Also this year we’ve seen Macallan launching 200 bottles of a 50-year-old at £25,000, roughly the same price area as Glenfiddich and Balvenie’s 50-year-olds, while Dalmore’s 50 is £50,000 (by the way, you can pick up Glenfarclas 50 for £1,850).

    Rarity here has been imposed. These are market-driven releases. Because there is a perceived market for the ‘rare’, therefore we will supply. The restriction imposed by scarcity of stock has been reinforced by the high price. Most of these will never be opened, but will exist in display cabinets, or be flipped in auctions, not so much ghosts, but zombie whiskies doomed to a half-life.

    Mass giveaway: Every drop of Craigellachie 51 will be given to whisky lovers, free of charge

    But rarity also means uncommon and unusual. A rare whisky doesn’t have to be old, but carry within it a quality which sets it apart. That could be maturity, or cask, environment, technique, or some inexplicable quirk. Rarity in this reading has a sense of transcendence that goes beyond age. The greatest single casks – which by their nature are rare – have this quality, the greatest vattings and blends as well.

    True rarity, I’d argue, comes through a layering of these elements. It’s more than just ‘an old whisky’ (and it’s fascinating to observe how Ghost & Rare’s lack of an age statement is never discussed), rather it’s the liquid which deepens the conversation (which is as it should be).

    The Craig plays with rarity by challenging the norms. It is a remarkable whisky, and while it is unlikely to reshape other distillers’ thinking about how to handle their rare stocks, it suggests that there was a moment of clarity which saw that scarcity should not automatically mean restricting its availability.

    Maybe, it says, sharing is better than hoarding. In their different ways, the two whiskies show the number of ways in which we can talk about, and enjoy, rarity.

  • Whisky is becoming over-complicated

    24 October 2018

    ‘What’s the difference between a first-fill cask, an ex-Bourbon cask and a fine oak cask?’ This seemingly complex question, posted by a curious mind in one of Facebook’s many whisky groups recently, along with its equally confused responses, couldn’t be more appropriate in its timing.

    ‘What’s a fine oak cask?’
    ‘Some have fine oak written on the label.’
    ‘That’s not really a thing.’
    ‘Isn’t it the opposite of coarse oak?’

    If you weren’t already aware, ‘Fine Oak’ was the name given to a line of Macallan expressions matured in a combination of Sherry-seasoned European and American oak casks, and ex-Bourbon casks. The range was renamed in April 2018 as Macallan Triple Cask to reflect the three types of cask used during maturation, and as a means to simplify whisky terminology for puzzled consumers.

    It’s no wonder we’re confused. The whisky industry uses so many different terms for cask types, and several even to describe exactly the same thing – first-fill, ex-Bourbon, American oak, whisky cask, traditional cask – all apparently denote a barrel used once by America’s Bourbon industry and shipped to Scotland to be filled with Scotch. Yet perky marketing departments continue to believe there’s a need to invent new ways to describe an ex-Bourbon cask, presumably because us whisky drinkers don’t understand the concept of refilling a barrel.

    For well-heeled whisky enthusiasts, navigating this minefield of ‘clever’ marketing terminology has become second nature (do you guys understand what all these terms mean, or are you making educated guesses?). But wouldn’t it be nice to be able to purchase a whisky without having to consult a thesaurus?

    For beginners: Aerstone’s Sea Cask and Land Cask are designed to demystify language associated with Scotch

    Every few weeks Scotchwhisky.com hears about a new malt or blend introduced for a ‘millennial’ audience who are new to whisky. The flavour profile is inoffensive, the branding bright and engaging, and occasionally some ‘witty’ new way to explain whisky is introduced for obtuse shoppers who don’t go to bars, use Google, or have a mind of their own. All this with the aim of simplifying what has become infamously known as an ‘intimidating’ drink.

    The latest attempt at recruiting the new whisky drinker comes from William Grant & Sons’ new single malt brand, Aerstone – a fictional name fusing the Gaelic word for ‘air’ and the word stone, denoting the earth. Two expressions have been launched as Tesco exclusives in the UK, with names designed to represent the flavours found within the whisky: Sea Cask and Land Cask.

    ‘A lot of people new to single malt are confused and intimidated by all the language around it,’ Kevin Abrook, global whisky specialist for William Grant told me. ‘They want to know more but they find it a bit overwhelming, so we wanted to launch a single malt that appealed to those people breaking down the barriers, focusing very much on flavour.’

    Although both expressions are distilled at the Ailsa Bay distillery in Ayrshire, one is peated, the other isn’t. One might assume that because many coastal distilleries produce a smoky malt, the Sea Cask expression is the peated one, but not so. Peat comes from the land don’t you know, so Land Cask is the peaty one. So what does Sea Cask mean? Surely it’s not matured under the sea… ‘This whisky develops its character from the time spent ageing in warehouses located close to the sea on the Ayrshire coast, giving the whisky a subtle salty note on the finish,’ says the press release. However the casks used for Land Cask are also matured at the same site at Girvan, albeit slightly further inland where the salty sea air supposedly has less of an impact on the cask.

    OK, so what we’re really talking about here is terroir, that the location of a cask has an impact on a whisky’s flavour, even if it’s a few metres apart. Individual casks mature differently, even within the same warehouse, imparting unique flavours depending on the cask’s size, prior filling, treatment, age, location at the top or bottom of the warehouse or – in Aerstone’s case – its proximity to the sea. That’s pretty in-depth stuff, isn’t it? For a new whisky drinker cask terroir represents a new world of whisky geekery that has to be intimidating, surely.

    Cask terroir: A maturing cask’s location affects whisky’s flavour, but is it the most important factor?

    Furthermore, by only communicating the location of a cask as a signpost for flavour (alongside a 10-year-old age statement I should add), William Grant & Sons – perhaps inadvertently – is telling new whisky drinkers that terroir is a cask’s most important contribution to flavour.

    In its defence, Sea Cask and Land Cask feature flavour notes in smaller typeface on each bottle, respectively ‘smooth and easy’ and ‘rich and smoky’. This I understand – this is easy for anyone to understand (let’s not start a debate on the loose meaning of the term ‘smooth’ though). Why confuse things by inventing whisky names that could be mistaken for new cask types?

    When I, like many others, began my whisky journey I was initially taught how the two main types of cask used to mature Scotch – ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry – influence flavour. One gives it vanilla fudge flavours, the other spicy, dried fruit and Christmas cake notes. Simple enough to understand, and any blender, distiller, whisky maker will agree the cask type has an impact on flavour. By prioritising cask terroir as the primary flavour contributor, and introducing new ‘cask types’, Aerstone is arguably starting new whisky drinkers off on the wrong foot. Soon Facebook forums will be filled with questions about why other distilleries aren’t using ‘land’ or ‘sea’ casks. Perhaps, as Brian Kinsman, master blender for William Grant told me, the whisky landscape ‘would be bland if everybody says this is Bourbon and it gives you vanilla, and this is a peated malt and that gives you smoke’.

    From conversations I’ve had with new drinkers, many believe whisky is distilled in barrels, without really understanding what distillation is. Those of us fluent in Scotch have to remember beginners’ level of knowledge is low – ultimately the only thing they’re looking for when choosing a whisky is ‘what does it taste like’? ‘Will I enjoy it?’ The industry needs to appeal to consumers’ fundamental understanding of flavour with a uniform approach to common whisky terms that doesn’t lead to confusion later down the line. The invention of marketing gumpf to promote a single brand is short sighted.

    But maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe I’m the one over-complicating things.

  • Navigating whisky’s dense woodland

    17 October 2018

    As I watched the landscape through the rain on my return from the Cheltenham Lit Fest (a worthwhile visit but, Jesus, the train companies do their utmost to make it almost impossible to get there and back easily, or comfortably), I thought back to the previous night’s post-gig drink at John Gordons, which is both a wine and spirit merchant, and a whisky bar with a cleverly chosen selection of 200 drams.

    Looking at the shelves, it was clear that the range on show wasn’t just an exercise in box ticking, nor did it seem to be one where personal preferences had been allowed to dominate. It covered the basics well, but was eclectic enough for the whisky convert to discover new things.

    It was the end of 10 days of talking for me. A few days previously, at the Berlin Bar Convent – where it seems as if every distiller and vermouth producer on the planet is vying for your attention – I’d been discussing ways in which bars could maximise their whisky range and help newcomers navigate their way through this most baffling of territories.

    Heaven or hell?: A fully-stocked bar can be overwhelming for whisky novices (Photo: The Pot Still, Glasgow)

    One way was to plot their range on a flavour map and see if all the points were covered. In my experience most bar owners, if left to their own devices, head towards smoke and sherry, not because that’s what sells, but because it’s what the owner or staff like to drink. This can be a good thing if it gets them promoting it, but on the other it’s bad news for the punter who doesn’t like peat or dried fruit. It’s that word balance once again.

    I’d also used an image of the well-stuffed back bar and asked whether it filled people with excitement, or terror. What is nirvana for the whisky geek is hell for the newbie – and never forget that there are many more in the latter category.

    Even as a paid-up whisky nerd when I’m presented with a gantry like that, the thrill at seeing the selection is tempered with fear. Is there something at the back which I’ve missed; where do I start, where and when do I stop? Choice can be overwhelming and off-putting as well as enticing.

    I’d been looking out of the window at the forest. Pine, silver birch, ash, willow, whitebeam, the rest a mustard and green blur, too many to discern, so much information that I couldn’t see the trees for the wood.

    It’s similar to the dilemma faced by bars around the world. Do you cram every inch of the available space, or work with its limitations and select the best, and most representative bottles – ones which will sell and not just gather dust? The customer’s eye flickers over the forest of labels, only settling on one of the shapes it identifies. 

    Does each added layer make the selection better, or is there a point when it brings about despair to drinker and owner alike? I’d asked the question to Frank Murphy at Glasgow’s Pot Still a few weeks earlier. ‘Everything must sell,’ he’d said. ‘We’ve only got so much space. I have to make the choice as to what we buy, what stays, and what goes.’

    This is an issue for new producers the world over. If shelves are already full, then the only way you’re getting your whisky into people’s hands will be if it replaces something from an established distiller. They, in turn, cannot just approach new releases in the manner of a trigger-happy teenager spraying a road sign with shotgun pellets.  

    It isn’t as simple of too much choice, but how well the person behind the counter knows the stock and can guide the drinker into the wood. The task isn’t just about selecting the bottles; it is also about explaining (and justifying) the range in order to make things less terrifying for the customer.

    That is why every town needs a place like John Gordons, or the Pot Still, Black Rock, Swift, or the Bow Bar (I could go on). It is why training is paramount, why finding new ways of cutting paths through whisky’s thickets is so vital.

  • Whisky’s road less travelled

    10 October 2018

    ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
    I took the one less travelled by,
    And that has made all the difference.’

    We all like a bargain. I recently picked up a couple of bottles in one of those ‘flash’ online sales – one a dependable old friend, the other a marginal gamble risked on the positive verdict of others.

    Both are excellent whiskies. Bowmore Vault Edition First Release was the calculated risk, but a worthwhile one – a ballsy Bowmore with lots of savoury charm. The old friend was Ballantine’s 17 Year Old, and it is, as ever, simply sublime.

    The sale having passed, I Googled them both again, to find the latter a tidy sum less expensive than the former. Whatever the perceived sexiness of single malts from Islay, this set me thinking: why? Have blends fallen so far from grace? Sadly, it seems, the answer is yes.

    The easy comparison here would be between a 17-year-old and an NAS (no age statement) product. But then I have to stop myself, and run through a checklist of the stunning NAS whiskies I have tasted, matched against the impressive ages of some singularly unimpressive bottles on the other side of the equation.

    To put it another way, Ballantine’s 17 Year Old is not a better whisky because of the number that is attached to it; it is a better whisky because it is, well, better.

    Then again, age statements seem to be back in vogue. In a seeming age of stock shortages and NAS ubiquity, Old Pulteney is bucking the trend, Tamdhu is swapping a 10-year-old for a 12-year-old, The Glenlivet 12 Year Old should be back soon, and Tomatin is taking out a vintage malt in favour of a 30-year-old (which, incidentally, is a beauty).

    And then there is Glenrothes. Now fully under the ownership of Edrington, the attachment to vintage releases has been cast aside in favour of a (mostly) age-stated range named the Soleo Collection that is, like much of Edrington’s output, matured in ex-Sherry casks.

    Glenrothes Soleo Collection

    Numbers game: The new, age-stated Glenrothes range is a departure for the malt

    We’re told by the company that ‘premium drinkers are more confident when choosing a whisky with an age statement, as it acts as an important cue in navigating the range’. Beyond my befuddlement about what exactly a ‘premium drinker’ is, I can’t really argue with that.

    ‘What’s more, to them, the age statement is indicative of a whisky with better taste and a higher quality.’ (My italics.) Now this is interesting. ‘To them…’ The implication here is that Edrington doesn’t believe this statement to be true – and, by the way, it certainly isn’t – but it’s willing to go along with it because these ‘premium drinkers’ mistakenly believe it.

    This takes us back to the rationale behind Glenrothes’ espousal of vintage releases in the first place, back in 1993. I well remember the sainted Ronnie Cox, of former Glenrothes owner Berry Bros & Rudd, trumpeting the supremacy of maturity over age, of releasing whiskies when they were at the perfect pitch, rather than just because they’d reached a particular birthday.

    This philosophy also gave Glenrothes a quirk, a slight sense of idiosyncrasy in an increasingly crowded and homogenous marketplace of malts. Did it take a bit longer to explain to people? Did those people have to spend a few minutes more getting their heads around the concept? Yes. So what?

    This is not to say that the new Glenrothes Soleo whiskies are bad. They’re not, they’re perfectly decent single malts from a fabulous distillery. Nor is it to say that age statements have no place in whisky; they are what they are, a serviceable but imperfect and never definitive signpost to relative quality and value.

    I think, in the end, it’s the lack of courage that bugs me about the Glenrothes revamp. A 10-year-old, a 12-year-old, an 18-year-old, a 25-year-old and a 40-year-old; the riskiest move is a ‘premium’ NAS whisky which costs more than the 12. Soleo, but where’s the soul?

    It’s safe, it’ll probably be successful, but it also smacks of an opportunity lost to reinvent the Glenrothes vintage USP for a new generation, just because it might be a slightly harder sell, and represent a road ‘less travelled by’.

    Still, at least they kept the bottle.

  • Whisky’s journey began millions of years ago

    26 September 2018

    ‘Why aren’t we told about this stuff?’ my walking companion asked. I’d been pointing out the rickle of stones and the lines of lazy beds the slanting sunlight was picking out among the heather. The stones would have been a small township, the lazybeds its occupants’ strips for cultivation, fertilised by seaweed dragged up from the bay where we’d landed, spread on piles.

    I’d started to explain that the abandonment was unlikely to have been optional.  We were on South Uist – north-east South Uist to be precise. Between 1841 and 1851 the island’s population was halved as its then landlord, John Gordon of Cluny, embarked on brutal clearances of the island, Benbecula, and Barra. His former tenants were forcibly shipped to Canada and left abandoned on the dockside.

    ‘It’s a forgotten history,’ he said, shaking his head as we head along the moor towards the lighthouse. ‘It needs to be told, it explains so much about how people spread over the world.’

    Ancient foundations: This South Uist rock pool is lined with impenetrable Lewisian gneiss

    Maybe wandering, whether by choice or enforced, is in Scottish bones. Over a week’s expedition we’d followed the whale-road from Orkney to Loch Ewe, Rum, and now the Uists (an attempt to reach St. Kilda having been nixed thanks to stormy weather). On board the ship I gave talks, wandering through whisky’s roots, flavours, styles often picking up on what information we’d gleaned in the morning hikes with the attendant geologists, historians, and naturalists.

    A new picture of Scotland was beginning to form. One rooted in rock and migration. A year ago I wrote of shearwaters, now they were on the waves once more getting ready to head south. We travelled, picking up knowledge, fitting pieces into this new frame. The Clearances were now part of it.

    On one side, over the Minch, were the hills of Skye, to the north the shattered landscape of the Hebrides. We sat next to one of the pools which stud the Uist landscape, its dark brown waters lit by flashes of cornflower blue.

    I picked up a fist-sized lump of rock, gritty, zebra-striped, kibbled with crystals. Lewisian gneiss. It is old, and I mean old. 3,000 million years, which is so absurd a number it is impossible to compute. It is so ancient it contains no fossils, just the sparkles of those early minerals. I hold the roughness of unimaginable time in my hand, a rendering of liquefied rock from the earth’s heart, warped and buckled over eons.

    As tectonic plates shifted, these rocks were heaved out of the planet’s belly to its surface to cool. They drifted across the globe as the continents continued their slow dance, starting close to where Antarctica is now, then settling into what is now Canada, before splitting off and fusing with what is now England. Odd that the emigrants took the same journey, but in reverse. Wandering rock, people, ship.

    Distant beginnings: Looking out from South Uist across to the Isle of Skye

    When the gneiss appears we have reached the basement. It is the bedrock, obdurate, unchanging, impermeable, and because of this, water cannot penetrate hence the pools, and the boggy ground. Gneiss flares red on geological maps, which is appropriate enough for these boggy, oxygen-starved conditions, and means that peat starts to build up, and peat means fuel, and fuel means home.

    The thin soils were suitable only for some crops: kale, potatoes, bere barley or oats. Basic sustenance, and also the roots of what we call whisky.

    All that’s left behind are the stones, the lines in the turf and the lost memories of the songs they sang and the drink they made. The scent of peat gone as they started their wanderings. The memories fragile, worn away. It’s perhaps too neat a metaphor.  

    We’ve caught up with Chris Edwards, the expedition’s geologist. I ask him if this scoured landscape is the result of erosion, is this is what was left behind after people, rock and soil had been removed?

    ‘We don’t know fully, but what we can say is that this landscape now is what it would have been like just after the ice left,’ he replies. ‘Isn’t that amazing? How things stay the same, and yet change.’ Time seems to compress, the houses rebuilt, smoke through the thatch, boats in the bay, crops in the field, the buzz of bees and, who knows, a wee sensation of spirit after the day’s work is done.

    This is how it started. This is whisky’s bedrock.

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