From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Whisky, porridge and personal preferences

    04 January 2017

    Porridge wars have broken out in the house. The in-laws are in between moving houses and have moved in for a few months. At least, they say it’s only a few months. While all is peaceful (bar my Highland Park collection taking a battering from the f-in-l), tensions are rising at breakfast time. They like their morning porridge. So do I. The only problem is that we like it in different ways.

    I use coarse or pinhead oatmeal, cooked gently on the stove top with a mix of milk and water, stirred with a spurtle [Apparently, a stick elevated to the status of cooking implement in Scotland – Ed]. They use rolled oats nuked with water in the microwave. I add naught but a pinch of salt. They add all manner of things, including tinned prunes.

    My mother-in-law says mine is no more than gruel. I feel that what she assembles – it can hardly be called cooking – is little more than grey papier mâché. You can see why there might be a slight difference in opinion.

    I have no problem in admitting that I am a porridge traditionalist. My late mother – and her mother before her – would steep the meal (always pinhead) in water overnight. A spurtle would be used, salt would be the only thing allowed. That’s just the way it was.

    Some feel this approach reflects classic Scottish parsimony. Others point out that this most traditional of fare was peasant food, and that sugar wasn’t widely available. Nor, I would add, were tinned feckin’ prunes.

    Porridge whisky

    Porridge wars: If you can drink whisky however you like, you can make porridge (almost) however you like, says Dave Broom

    You could add milk and stir it in, though my aunt who lived on a croft in Lumsden had a different approach to serving. She’d place a bowl of fresh cream on the side, into which she would dip her spoonful of porridge. Extravagant, perhaps, and therefore uncharacteristic for Aberdeenshire, but it couldn’t be denied that it was good.

    Sugar, it was felt, was an English thing and one that should be spurned, or perhaps unspurtled. On reflection, this is perhaps strange as sugar could be added without restraint to Corn Flakes or Rice Krispies. Porridge, its making, its consumption, was somehow sacrosanct.

    Feeling that I was in need of winning my now daily argument, I sought out a potential ally in the shape of the Golden Spurtle awards. This annual competition for the best porridge, surely, would be where the rules of classicism would be respected. They are – up to a point… Every contestant has to make a traditional porridge, made with pinhead, coarse, medium or fine oatmeal, water and salt (hardcore! they’d sneer at my use of milk).

    But then they also make a ‘speciality porridge’. All manner of adulteration is permitted: blueberries and almond mascarpone; spinach and mussels; whisky, cinnamon and apple; and others which make you wonder if magic mushrooms had been ingested... or, perhaps, used.

    Chastened, I sat and mused on this. Hang on, isn’t your fundamentalism with porridge-making just the same as those who apply the same narrow and restrictive rules to whisky enjoyment? The ‘drink it neat’ brigade. The ones who dismiss dilution and sneer at Lagavulin and Coke. How can I, Mr ‘Enjoy your whisky however you want’, lay down conditions for porridge-making?

    So I’ve relented. If whisky can be mixed, then what’s wrong about porridge mixed with sugar, or honey, or rooibos tea and banana brûlée if the result is one that gives you pleasure? After all, by eating oats you are doing yourself good. They’re low in calories and they lower cholesterol, though my traditionalist side points out that adding loads of sugar to them will slightly reduce those efficacious qualities. So, though, does salt. Tricky stuff, this.

    Does fighting over the type of oatmeal matter? Surely that’s no different to entering into an absurd debate over which style of whisky is better – one with structure or one that is soft? So, while I’ll contest that coarse and pinhead give better flavour and bite, I won’t moan if other types are used. Magnanimous, eh?

    The microwave is one step too far, though. There are still some standards which need to be observed and maintained.

  • The long history of fake whisky

    22 December 2016

    The recent news that Rare Whisky 101 had fearlessly uncovered a fake Laphroaig certainly generated a lot of publicity. It deserved to. We need to know these things.

    It is also a sign of the health of the rare and collectable market. As soon as forgers sniff a quick profit, they will act. So I’m pleased that they have brought this to people’s attention. I am surprised, however, that they appear to suggest that this problem is new and that they were the first to properly investigate it.

    Fake whiskies started to appear in volume at auctions in the 1990s but, apart from a flurry of media attention in 2004, the issue has been quietly forgotten as the whisky world moved on to far more pressing topics, such as NAS and sulphur.

    Only by understanding how long fakes have been commonplace (and, though it seems strange, tolerated) do we get a proper perspective as to the scale of the problem.

    Initially it seemed as if the arrival of large volumes of rare whiskies in the ’90s were simply a consequence of whisky auctions gathering pace and prices rising accordingly. What was bewildering was the number of pristine bottles appearing, purporting to come from the 19th or early 20th centuries. Neither was it the odd bottle, but multiples of the same whisky, with labels in the same, excellent, condition.

    Some hailed from established distilleries – Macallan, Bowmore, Laphroaig, etc – but many were from distilleries whose wares had never been seen. Most appeared to have originated in Italy. As one source said to me in 2001: ‘It was almost too good to be true. I had one person saying: “I can get anything you want.”’

    Fake Laphroaig 1903

    Not quite right: The bottle at the centre of the latest fake whisky scandal

    As well as seeding their wares into the auction market, the fakers also began approaching distillers directly. Those firms with archivists (Diageo, Chivas, Allied (since bought by Chivas)) rejected what was being offered. (This, incidentally, shows that firms who do take the time and effort to preserve, respect and cherish their past are less likely to be caught out.)

    Others were more gung-ho. You can, perhaps, understand why. The market for old whisky is rising. You are building a reputation at this high end and now there is a seemingly endless stream of old whiskies which will only add to the glory of your back-story – or at least that’s what the nice Italian gentleman is telling you when you meet him in a hotel in Elgin.

    It’s entirely possible, because no-one seemed interested in old whisky until recently, that an old lady in Bologna would simply keep hold of her huge stash of 19th-century booze.

    Macallan, while far from being the only distiller to be duped, drank the most deeply from this pool, even ‘replicating’ some of their purchases. It was only when liquid from an alleged 19th-century bottle was ceremoniously syringed out to try at the first replica product launch that people’s fears were confirmed. It was obvious to most of us in the room that this was not an old whisky.

    The experts, however, were often ignored – even vilified. Some collectors bought bottles, knowing they were fakes. ‘After all,’ I was told at the time, ‘even a fake van Gogh is worth a lot of money!’ As a result, more fakes appeared.

    In 2003, Macallan bowed to pressure and had a selection of its purchases carbon-dated at the same Oxford laboratory used by Rare Whisky 101. All of the bottles were shown to be fakes.

    While they had been duped, at least there was now a clear methodology to test for potential fakes: check the label for inaccuracies, examine the glass, use archives, test the liquid – either at Tatlock & Thomson, or send it to Oxford.

    Andy Simpson David Robertson

    Trail-blazers?: Andy Simpson and David Robertson, directors of Rare Whisky 101

    My question is: if this system has been in place for 13 years, why is Rare Whisky 101 making out as if it is the first firm to expose this? It wasn’t. Maybe David Robertson – who was at Macallan at the time when the fakes were being purchased – has had a bad attack of amnesia?

    Surely a firm which sets itself up as the expert on rare and ‘investment-grade’ whisky ought to have placed fakes front and centre of its advice to potential clients – especially given the personal experience of one of its directors?

    I hope, now that the extent of the problem has, again, been flagged up, that collectors, investment firms, and auction houses – who have regularly employed a Pontius Pilate-esque defence when they have been found to have sold a fake – pay attention to the scale of the problem.

    If the rare market continues to be run on nothing more than blind trust, naivety and avarice, you can guarantee that another wave of fakes will appear. Chancers beget chancers.

    If the provenance of the bottle cannot be proved, if there are no historical records, then avoid. In 2004, Iain Russell, now archivist at Glenmorangie and who has been assiduous in his monitoring of the fakes market, said: ‘My advice is “caveat emptor”.’ How depressing that, 14 years later, the same phrase is being used once again.

  • Is gin a serious threat to Scotch?

    19 December 2016

    It started with the assertion that gin revenues in the UK would overtake those of blended Scotch whisky by 2020 – a forecast made last week by research company Euromonitor International. Things escalated rather quickly from there.

    Within a day or two, UK sales of Scottish gin were about outstrip those of Scotch, according to some headlines. By the time I was asked to comment on the issue on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme last Tuesday, it was Scottish craft distillers who were driving this gin-naissance at the expense of their whisky-making compatriots.

    And so an initially compelling headline, propelled by the media equivalent of Chinese whispers, quickly became – depending on your point of view – a source of Scottish national pride, or a betrayal of one of the country’s most lucrative exports.

    And the truth? Well, that’s become an over-valued currency in 2016, as global political events have taught us.

    A little clarity. Euromonitor reckons gin sales in the UK were worth £1.07bn in 2015, versus blended Scotch at £1.28bn. By 2020, it predicts the respective figures will reach £1.37bn and £1.17bn.

    Read that again. Blended Scotch. No mention of single malts, which now account for roughly 15% of Scotch whisky sales by volume in the UK – and considerably more by value. Bring in the likes of Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet and Glenmorangie, and there’s no story.

    Gin Martini

    On-trend: But can gin really overtake Scotch in the UK?

    Secondly, the Scottish ‘craft’ angle. Scotland, we’re told, now produces 70% of the gin consumed in the UK. Well… yes. Given that multinational Diageo produces market leader Gordon’s and number four-selling Tanqueray at Cameronbridge in Fife, that’s hardly surprising.

    Add in Hendrick’s (made by William Grant at Girvan, south Ayrshire) and Glen’s (Loch Lomond’s Glen Catrine, also Ayrshire) and that’s roughly half the UK gin market taken care of. None of the companies named could realistically lay claim to being ‘craft’ operators, however you define the term. Nor would most people readily identify Gordon’s and Tanqueray with Scotland (they were initially distilled in Southwark and Bloomsbury respectively).

    Beyond the hype of the ‘gin overtakes Scotch’ soundbite, however, there’s an underlying truth. Gin is hot in the UK right now, and the ever-expanding army of small-scale craft distillers in Scotland – while not troubling the market leadership of Gordon’s or Bombay Sapphire – are a crucial part of that resurgence.

    But there’s another reason why some Scots have taken to infusing neutral grain spirit with bizarre botanicals: in many cases, these same distillers are also making Scotch – and gin is a nice source of short-term revenue while they wait at least three years (and often far longer) for their whisky to mature.

    Far from being threatened by the craft spirits zeitgeist, Scotch whisky is, in fact, part of it. Strathearn distillery released a number of gins before recently selling its first bottle of Scotch whisky (aged three years and a day) for an eye-watering £4,150 at auction; demand for immature spirit made by Ardnamurchan has outstripped supply by more than three times.

    Euromonitor’s predictions are honest ones, and based on the experience and knowledge of their analysts. But that’s all they are – predictions – and I know of at least one rival company whose forecasts directly contradict them.

    In the end, while these figures are a useful generator of (sometimes misleading) headlines, I’d give them as much weight as – to pluck an example out of the air – pre-election opinion polls.

  • Remembering Wallace Milroy

    16 December 2016

    I first met Wallace Milroy in 1988. At United Distillers’ (UD) old headquarters in Landmark House, Hammersmith, to be precise. A perfectly logical place to meet a whisky giant, you may think, but we were actually both there to taste a range of new Greek wines. I had only recently started at a drinks trade weekly and was trying to get to grips with the complexities of the UK drinks trade, so was being sent everywhere.

    As far as I recall, the tasting went well and, as was the custom in those days, was followed by lunch. Wallace caught my eye. ‘I think it might be time for a dram,’ he said, striding purposefully across to a display cabinet on which were sitting the then brand new Classic Malts. He paused for a nanosecond, eyeing up the range.

    ‘Let’s have a look at Glenkinchie,’ he said, uncorking the bottle and pouring two of the biggest measures I’d ever seen. I looked around, expecting some UD executive to take issue with someone helping themselves, but reprimand came there none.

    We steadily worked our way through some of the selection before lunch intervened, accompanied by wine, then more whisky. I stayed close to Wallace, listening.

    Post-meal, and now somewhat emboldened, I decided to head back to the office. As I lurched out of the lift door and stumbled towards my desk a cry of: ‘Dave, can you come in for a second please?’ came from the editor’s office. I did, propping myself up against his wall.

    Wallace Milroy

    1931-2016: Wallace Milroy was a fountain of knowledge and kindness to Dave Broom when he first started in the drinks industry

    ‘This is entirely my fault,’ he apologised, ‘I meant to tell you that we have an office rule. If one goes out for lunch, one does not return to work afterwards. You can go home.’

    I had learned so much in the space of a day. Most significant, though, was meeting Wallace.

    His Malt Whisky Almanac was the book we’d referred to when I worked at Oddbins as we were trying to work out what these single malts were all about. It was on my desk at the office. I hadn’t just met him, I’d had a drink with him and he’d answered my questions without laughing at me.

    Over the years, he became a touchstone; a source of scurrilous gossip and sound leads; a confirmer of facts; a bearer of drinks; and a companion at meals where any thought of returning to work was banished.

    I now realise that I was witnessing the passing of the old whisky world. The era when business would be conducted mostly over lunches – at Matthew Gloag’s Bordeaux House in Perth, Teachers’ fine offices in St Enoch Square in Glasgow, or Morrison Bowmore’s in Springburn.

    UD preferred the Buttery in Glasgow, while lunch with Lang’s and R&B usually took place in one of Glasgow’s discreet, high-end Italian establishments. This is where relationships were established, friendships made, projects planned and my education slowly progressed.

    There is a Chinese belief that you only do business with someone after you have seen them drunk, because when in that state any front dissolves and the real person emerges. I’m not sure that was the intention in whisky – I have a feeling it was simply generosity, the way things were done.

    This was, (and indeed is) a convivial spirit. This was the world which Wallace, and later Michael Jackson, introduced me to. A place where you could ask questions, meet the people who knew, tap into generations of experience and encounter people who were as generous with their time as they were with their measures.

    That world has gone. A few years ago, around this time of year, I was speaking to Charlie MacLean and asked him how Edinburgh was. ‘Terrible,’ he retorted. ‘Every restaurant is full of people who don’t know how to do lunch.’

    The spirit world appears to have joined that band. Events are at night, in noisy bars. There is little time to sit down and yarn, to have the quiet, off-the-record chat. I’m sure relationships and friendships are formed, but as everyone is apparently so busy and important, the events have to be highly managed.

    In the old days, if there was a PR involved, they tended to be old hacks who loved a drink as much as everyone, so if there was a key message to take home they’d probably forgotten it as well. Have a good time, relax, talk and a richer story will emerge, was the attitude. It seemed to work.

    Do I miss it? In many ways no – there was often too much booze involved. I do, however, miss the fact that this way of working allowed me time to talk to people like Wallace and ask my naive questions, and they would gladly open their repository of knowledge, verbal and liquid. I’ll certainly never forget the kindness and patience he showed this kid from Glasgow, lost in this new world.

    May he rest in peace and his spirit never be forgotten.

  • The Bourbon boom’s boost for Scotch

    14 December 2016

    Brown-Forman, the company that owns Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve Bourbon and, since earlier this year, BenRiach, makes its own barrels. A lot of barrels. About 600,000 barrels a year, to be precise.

    Why so many? Because, whether each barrel is filled with new make Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, or with Woodford Reserve or any of the company’s other Bourbon brands, it can only be used once. By law.

    American whiskey is on fire right now. Spearheaded by Jack, it’s sexier than ever in its home US market, but also finding new fans around the globe, from Berlin to Brisbane. More demand means more production, and more new barrels from the Brown-Forman cooperage.

    Both financially and environmentally, it makes obvious sense to recycle these once-used casks and find a fresh purpose for them once they’ve been emptied of Jack, or Woodford: typically, that means selling them on to Scotch whisky distillers to mature their own spirit.

    This is a nice extra source of cash for Brown-Forman and other US distillers; nice enough for the sale of used barrels to account for about 2% of the company’s revenues in its last financial year. If my sums are correct, that’s about US$80m.

    But there’s a problem: just as Brown-Forman is producing more barrels to surf the whiskey renaissance, the makers of blended Scotch are buying fewer of them because their own market has softened.

    Glenmorangie casks in warehouse

    Brighter prospect: Falling cask prices offer good news for distillers like Glenmorangie

    It’s a lesson in the rigours of supply and demand: more supply of used whiskey barrels coinciding with less demand from the Scotch whisky company. Result? Used barrel prices down more than 10% over the past year, and still falling.

    It’s concerning enough for Brown-Forman executives to spend some time discussing the issue at the company’s recent second quarter results announcement – hardly surprising if several million dollars has been wiped off your top line.

    It’s also a commentary on the current fragility of the blended Scotch market around the world, thanks to a number of issues including macroeconomic factors and, in some countries, an unhelpful pro-malts, anti-blends prejudice.

    But it’s not all doom and gloom. Bad news for Brown-Forman means a brighter prospect for Diageo, Chivas Brothers and the Scotch whisky industry in general. There’s a plentiful supply of casks out there, they don’t cost as much as they did – and it’s a buyer’s market.

    Something to be cheerful about at the end of a trying year…

  • Shipbuilding and whisky: history’s lessons

    07 December 2016

    I was watching an old BBC documentary about the Clyde shipyards the other night, which took me back to my childhood; memories of standing on the doorstep at midnight on Hogmanay, listening to the horns of the ships on the river.

    I’m old enough to remember the docks still in operation, the Black & White horses in their stable at Washington Street and, further along the Clyde, those shipyards. On occasion, we’d go down to watch launches, as enormous hulls rattled splintered logs, dragging chains sliding into the green-and-brown murk of the river.

    I’m also of the age to recall the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work-in, that inspired piece of industrial action. Faced with a disputed bankruptcy the workers, instead of striking, locked the management out and kept on building ships.

    Clyde Shipyards

    Shipyard on the Clyde: Distillers must learn from the lack of forward planning that destroyed shipyards

    It’s perhaps easy to be nostalgic. No-one misses the lack of safety and the tough working conditions, but the ultimate failure of shipbuilding on the Clyde was the start of Scotland’s great industrial decline, the ramifications of which are still being felt. The closures also destroyed communities and a sense of worth – something that was commented on in the film by the great trade unionist leader, the late Jimmy Reid.

    He recalled once walking into a Clydeside pub and noticing that a lot of the old guys were crying. He figured that someone had died on the yard – an occupational hazard – but discovered that their grief was because the Queen Elizabeth, built at the John Brown’s yard on Clydeside, had caught fire and sunk in Hong Kong.

    No matter that none of them would ever have been able to afford to sail on her; she remained their ship, forged out of steel and sweat on the clarty banks of the river. She was part of them.

    His reminiscences had an echo of talks I’ve had over the years with distillery workers – especially those of an older generation. ‘I was on holiday,’ the story would begin, ‘and there was a bottle of [he’d name his whisky] behind the bar. It gave me real pride. Imagine that, my whisky going all that way around the world.’ Sometimes they’d mention it to the bartender, but more often they’d just sit and smile inwardly.

    It was the same when overseas visitors started to arrive at distilleries, the same sense of amazement and pride that this tiny speck of a place could so affect people’s lives that they would spend time and money to make a pilgrimage there.

    That warm and fuzzy side of whisky is not how it is often viewed by those in charge. To them it, like shipbuilding, is a business – and businesses are there to make profit. Seeing Jimmy Reid again took me to his extraordinary inauguration speech as rector of Glasgow University in 1972, which The New York Times compared to the Gettysburg Address.

    ‘Profit is the sole criterion used by the establishment to evaluate economic activity,’ he said. ‘From the Olympian heights of an executive suite, in an atmosphere where your success is judged by the extent to which you can maximise profits, the overwhelming tendency must be to see people as units of production, as indices in your accountants' books.

    ‘To appreciate fully the inhumanity of this situation, you have to see the hurt and despair in the eyes of a man suddenly told he is redundant… Someone, somewhere has decided he is unwanted, unneeded, and is to be thrown on the industrial scrapheap.

    ‘From the very depth of my being, I challenge the right of any man or any group of men, in business or in government, to tell a fellow human being that he or she is expendable.’

    Whisky bar

    Pride and joy: Distillery workers will often feel immensely proud to spot their whiskies on back bars around the world​

    Firms have a duty of care to the people who work for them. All of the major distillers are currently, quietly, embarking on sly and brutal cuts to their workforces. People who have dedicated their lives to a company – and to whisky – are being let go in the name of supposed ‘efficiencies’. Rather, they are the collateral damage from poor business decisions made by others whose jobs are safe.

    This might seem strange when all the indications are that this is a time for opportunity for Scotch – and therefore a time when investment, rather than cutbacks, is needed – but at the corporate level there is a sense of unease.

    The people who pay are usually those who care the most. They don’t just work in distilleries; they are the unseen ones, who assiduously work behind the scenes. They may not all distil whisky, but they help make it what it is.

    They are the ones with tears in their eyes when something they have made disappears, the ones with that quiet smile of pride when they see their bottle in some far-flung bar, or a stranger nods at them in acknowledgement of the pleasure that their work has brought.

    The shipyards went as a result of bad forward planning, poor industrial relations and lack of investment in equipment, but also a lack of faith in people. There’s a lesson to be learned.

  • It’s not closing time... yet

    29 November 2016

    ‘So we’re drinking and we’re dancing, and the band is really happening, and the Johnnie Walker wisdom running high.’ Leonard Cohen, Closing Time

    I’ve been confined to my scratcher [he means bed – Ed] for a few days. I’m better now, thanks for asking, or maybe it’s just the drugs. Anyway, it stopped travelling, drinking, tasting and (up until now) writing.

    The advantage was that, other than mainlining daytime antique shows and drifting into crazy and crazed sleep patterns, I could listen, uninterrupted, to music. Leonard Cohen’s never far away in normal circumstances, but he’s been on heavier than usual rotation recently for obvious reasons. He became the foundation of the sick bed soundtrack.

    Leonard cohen

    Leonard Cohen: The late singer used whisky to ease his stage fright 

    And so to Closing Time’s opening phrase. We’ve all been there, or wish we had, or fooled ourselves into thinking that we were. We have experienced the whisky wisdom running high, been energised by a flood of erudition and intellect, the sudden blazing revelation of truth, and words that come too quickly to articulate.

    A place where the problems of the world seem to solve themselves after one amber kiss, where madcap schemes are hatched, lifetime friendships formed and rivalries banished. Where everyone is spinning and dancing in a room which is revolving on a planet that is hurtling through the void.

    We know, as Cohen tells us, that ‘there will be hell to pay when the fiddler stops’, but she is still there, elbow bent, and as long as that music continues there is hope that these mad possibilities may become reality; the world will change and be better.

    Why did he pick whisky to help fuel this? ‘Johnnie Walker wisdom’ works in terms of rhythm and alliteration, but Cohen always chose his words precisely, laid them down gently. Whisky is a wise drink when treated with respect. It has a quality which, in the right company and at the precise moment, will suffuse the company with a golden glow of possibilities. It binds you all tight, illuminates and warms. It is a drink of the heart.

    He knew this because he was a whisky drinker. He would have one before going on stage to calm the stage fright that he still suffered from, even in his eighties. His voice, he once said, was the result of ‘about 500 tonnes of whisky and millions of cigarettes’.

    But Closing Time is a Leonard Cohen song. On the surface, it’s about decadence and debauchery, but it’s also about love, lust, ageing, parting and death. It’s a mad dance at the end of time, where we have one eye looking out for the dawn to break behind our left shoulder.

    It asks: should we stop dancing and be sensible, or keep dancing because connecting with life is what matters? It says this hedonism has to be balanced, that the wisdom accrued fades in the morning light as the hangover hits. The party will stop. Closing time will happen.

    You search for the possibility that the moment can be stalled, that maybe a balance can be achieved and the wisdom retained. There was a glimmer of that possibility contained in a video interview Cohen gave when he was sequestered at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in California. On entering his quarters, he offers his interviewer a whisky. She’s surprised.

    Scotch whisky

    One more pour: When treated with respect, there’s wisdom to be found in whisky

    ‘When one isn’t working and is entertaining, it would be entirely appropriate to drink,’ he replies. ‘In fact, it would be a great breach of hospitality if I didn’t offer you something to drink.’ She’s still clearly bemused. Zen monks aren’t meant to have a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label and Riedel glasses.

    ‘If you want to take a nip of Scotch and still follow the [Zen] regime then… fine,’ he explains. ‘If you can incorporate it into your practice, then go ahead. People worry that I am not working hard enough, or suffering enough… or following the regime as seriously as I should, [but] even though I smile occasionally and raise my glass, I am suffering sufficiently and following all the rules.’ He grins.

    As the song slides into 5am introspection, he sings: ‘It looks like freedom, but it feels like death, it's something in between, I guess it's closing time,’ which seems a particularly prescient phrase at this point in history.

    At a time when wisdom seems to be in short supply, we need to find that bar and that fiddler, then create some of our own. The music of hope will play until we tell it to stop. The hangover is too dreadful to contemplate. One more sip. It’s not closing time yet.

  • What do Oslo and Singapore have in common?

    23 November 2016

    Oslo. It was snowing. The kid inside, never far away, woke fully and poked its tongue out, allowing the first flake to melt on my tongue. Later, there would be snowball fights. It wasn’t settling thickly in the city, but friends reported that in the hills above the city it was lying deeper.

    The skis had been brought out, tyres changed, and plans were being laid for the winter’s cross-country expeditions. When winter arrives, Norwegians seem to wake up. As the rest of the northern hemisphere draws its whisky festival schedule to a close, so theirs begins.

    Community spirit: The ambience at Oslo Whisky Festival is akin to a family gathering

    Maybe it makes perfect sense. Whisky to many is a drink of the darker months, to be taken indoors, as central heating. Who am I to disagree with that Nordic frame of mind?

    I certainly wouldn’t ever dispute the insider knowledge of the show’s presiding genius, the indefatigable Chris Maile, Norway’s ambassador for Scotch and Scotland.

    At a time when many shows are edging themselves away from classic Scottish imagery – am I the only one to notice the distinct lack of kilts at events these days? – at Oslo’s, every announcement was preceded by a skirl on the bagpipes, played by Chris of course. When you have a show on three floors you need something to draw people’s attention.

    If Oslo often has the feeling of a small town, then the show gives the impression of a family gathering. There’s a sense of community, as people take time to chat and socialise in between dramming. At times it seems as if the whisky is only there as a support for socialising, and that’s not a bad thing either. There’s no rubber legs, no barging in to get drams, just a slow and gentle appreciation.

    While Scotch-centric, the buzz at the show (other than an excellent ‘Chris Maile’ single cask from Highland Park) were the whiskies from three Norwegian distilleries: Gjoleid from Arcus; a selection from Grimstad’s Det Norske Brenneri (DNB), already showing the influence of new blender Jon Bertelsen; and the first offering from Myken, an island (with a population of nine) in the Arctic Circle, a five-hour sail off the west coast. I know dedication to whisky-making has now reached new levels of madness.

    What’s it like you ask? Myken’s peated new make was truly excellent; Gjoleid’s akvavit casks showed great balance; while the mix of ex-Cognac and Sauternes casks by DNB showed huge promise.

    If, on an initial glance, Oslo is a traditional show, it was the reaction to these whiskies which showed how the market is changing. After all, the toughest audience to win over is often the domestic one – just look at Scotch in Scotland.

    Oslo Whisky Festival

    Sip and savour: Oslo Whisky Festival offered three floors of spirits to sample

    The snow was still falling on the Sunday morning as I skittered over the ice to the station.  A quick turnaround – home, what’s home? – a swap of case, and I headed to Singapore for Whisky Live. Safe to say, it wasn’t snowing, though I suppose anything is possible. If Dubai can have a ski slope, then I’m sure it’s not beyond the wit of Singaporean engineers to do something similar.

    Think of this as Paris Whisky Live with extra humidity. It is, after all, run by La Maison du Whisky. Long days, pop-up bars (Tokyo’s stellar Trench Bar re-appeared much to my distinct joy), Marlène’s chamber of secrets and a specialities room.

    It was also the first time I’ve seen a binocular and camera stand at a whisky show, but it was for Leica. This probably says as much as you need to know about who drinks whisky in Singapore.

    If Norway was a guy’s night out, then Singapore was more inclusive: younger, with a probable 60:40 male: female split and, on the Sunday, more bartenders.

    Here, as in Oslo, there seemed to be a general trend away from established brands towards smaller players and independents, and a willingness to explore non-Scotch whiskies and other spirits.

    For me, the equivalent to the Norwegian whiskies was the discovery of Chalong Bay rum from Phuket in Thailand, while in a joint class with Luca Gargano of Velier we found a new and eager audience ready to treat rum as a quality spirit – the equal of Scotch.

    The only way a show can prosper is by understanding its audience and being willing to lead them into new directions. For Scotch, that means having new stories to tell. 

  • Radicalism is good for tradition

    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

    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.

  • Whisky and Port: can chaos create greatness?

    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.

    Douro Valley

    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?

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