The William Grant distiller on his successes, failures and balancing innovation with brand identity.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
18 July 2018
In the sunlit Champagne vineyards above Epernay, Hervé Lourdeaux is holding two vine leaves in his hands. One is a dark, glossy green; the other lighter, its paler green punctuated by a delicate white line. ‘Coton,’ he says, tracing it with one finger – and, indeed, it is as if someone has patiently stitched a thread into the leaf’s veins.
The darker leaf is Pinot Noir, the star Champagne grape variety alongside Chardonnay; the pre-eminent pairing here, as it is further south in Burgundy. The cotton-veined leaf belongs to Pinot Meunier.
Pinot what? If you’ve never heard of it, don’t worry. Champagne producers are nothing if not savvy marketers, and most of them would much rather talk about the sexy Chardonnays of the Côte des Blancs or the vibrant Pinot Noirs of the Montagne de Reims. Pinot Meh-nier? Not so much.
And yet Meunier is vital to Champagne. It makes up almost one-third of the vineyards, meaning that your favourite fizz is likely to have a healthy dose of it in the blend. Fan of Krug Grande Cuvée? It’s 25% Pinot Meunier.
Fruity and rounded, Meunier is strong and stable in the vineyards when Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are temperamental, challenged by Champagne’s marginal climate for growing grapes. More than once, Meunier has got Champagne houses out of jail in a difficult vintage.
Marne Valley: In Champagne, Meunier plays a similar role to grain whisky in Scotch
Recently, belatedly, this is being acknowledged in the region – and beyond. There are single varietal Pinot Meunier Champagnes; English sparkling wine producer Rathfinny of West Sussex describes Meunier as a ‘revelation’, while over in Hampshire, Jacob Leadley includes a healthy dose of the grape variety in his excellent Black Chalk wines.
Meunier is no longer the grape variety that dare not speak its name, the Cinderella of the vineyards. ‘You need it for the non-vintage,’ says Laurent Fresnet, chef de cave at Champagne Henriot and a colleague of Lourdeaux. ‘It’s young, it’s sweet and it’s quick to mature.’
Remind you of anything whisky-related? Here’s Grant’s master blender Brian Kinsman, talking about Girvan grain at the recent relaunch of the Grant’s range: ‘Very light, very easy-to-mature whisky… From the time it goes into the cask, we’re adding flavour from the cask.’
Blends built Scotch; non-vintage blends built Champagne. Both are the youngest incarnations of their respective drinks, and both need the mellowing influence of their unheralded components: grain whisky and Pinot Meunier.
Without them, luxury single malts and prestige cuvée Champagnes would be a pipe dream. They pay the bills – and they should never be undervalued.
11 July 2018
Jon Hassell, creator of ‘Fourth World’ music (a mix of electronics, trumpet, minimalism, jazz and ethnic sounds), has released a new album called Listening To Pictures: (Pentimento Volume One).
Any new work by him is something to be welcomed – his music has the ability to create strange, sometimes eerie, sometimes calming dream states, summoning up impossible places; it is a soundtrack to dreams.
Recently, as part of a beginners’ guide to his works, he talked about his approach to the new piece in an interview for the excellent music website The Quietus.
It started, rightly enough, with an explanation of that strange-looking Italian word, pentimento which, for those of us who are not art historians, is probably not a term we will have encountered in our daily lives.
It’s a term used in art, referring to any marks, brush strokes, or images of earlier workings which reappear in a picture and are then used as elements in the final composition.
‘I started seeing (or was that hearing?) the music we were working on in the studio in terms of that definition,’ says Hassell in the interview. ‘Seeing it in terms of a painting, with layers and touch-ups and start-overs, with new layers that get erased in places that let the underlying pattern come to the top and be seen (or heard).
‘Most of the world is listening to music in terms of forward flow – based on where the music is “going” and “what comes next”.
‘But there's another angle: vertical listening is about listening to “what's happening now” – letting your inner ears scan up and down the sonic spectrum, asking what kind of “shapes” you’re seeing, then noticing how that picture morphs as the music moves through time.’
Vertical listening: Jon Hassell’s music challenges us to hear it in the moment
The mention of shapes piqued my interest because, for me, shape is the first clue in trying to tease out a whisky’s secrets. Is it round like a ball, or angular? Does it narrow to a point at the back of the tongue, or start in that way, expanding at the finish? Does it ripple, or it is angular? Does it touch the top of the mouth or skim along like some kind of stealth bomber?
I then like to taste in tiny sips, taking some on to the tip of the tongue and seeing what flavours are there; then another, this time holding it in the middle of the tongue; then another for the back-palate and the finish; then a final, larger sip, flooding the mouth to get the full impression.
It’s the best way (for me at least) to see how flavours arise and then disappear, and to pick up characters which otherwise may have remained hidden – a way of seeing the complete picture. Then, like Hassell’s music, you begin to see the layers within the whisky as it reveals its heart.
Pentimento can sometimes only emerge after time as the paint begins to thin, revealing what lies beneath. This is exactly the same as what happens in a cask: the loss, the absorption, the integration and the angel’s share: the way in which time and air, spirit and oak move in strange accords, shifting in emphasis, flowing, covering, obscuring and revealing. Those angels work in mysterious ways.
Rancio is a good example of this process: the precursors for those enigmatic flavours of tropical fruits and wax, slowly forming and concentrating over time, waiting for the lighter aromas to dissolve into air, finally unveiling themselves. Layers accrue over time, but some also disappear.
They are there to be noticed when we sip the whisky, just as they are there in the cask as the spirit matures. Hassell’s way of listening is also our way of tasting – not just horizontally: ‘what’s next?’ – but vertically as well.
Where does that place us? Right in the moment once again, observing what is happening at each point; observing the moment each flavour appears, allowing them to intrigue and thrill, helping you peel back the layers and see what is there: the original intent of the distiller, the influence of the cask, the caress of air, the taste of time.
04 July 2018
It might be the heat, it might be age, but some things just seem to make me somewhat tetchy at the moment. The latest was a press release [no names – I may be irritated, but I’m not going to go down the name and shame route] which claimed that a certain distillery was, ‘one of the most unique in Scotland’.
Let’s pause for a second and figure out what (if anything) this phrase means. Part of the tetchiness is ingrained. My first editor had a profound hatred of the world ‘unique’ and it was banned from our pages. ‘Everything is unique,’ he would point out in a rare moment of Zen-like clarity. ‘It is absurd to emphasise this point. Bad English!’ and out would come the red pencil. It’s a rule which has stuck with me.
Anyway, I think we can agree that the whole premise of single malt whisky is that each distillery makes a spirit which is (careful now, Dave, Ed) singular and representative of that place alone, i.e. (and sorry, Peter) it is unique to that place.
‘Unique’ regime: Individual approaches to processes such as fermentation are part of what sets distilleries apart
‘Most unique’ is a tautology. If something is already unique then it can’t be more unique than anything else because of the whole notion of it being unique in the first place. The logic twists even further when you consider the phrase, ‘one of the most unique’. This infers that there are some distilleries which are more unique than others – a cadre of the uber-unique. This is where it gets even more convoluted.
Saying this suggests that there are other distilleries – one would expect from the term ‘one of the most’ that this refers to the majority of them – which are somehow less unique. If this is true, then the notion that single malt is built on a foundation of individuality has come crashing down.
My initial exasperated response was that this was simply (another) example of bad English being used in a press release, but the more I looked at it the more I began to wonder whether the writer might have placed a coded message within what appears initially to be a jumble of words held together by tortuous logic.
It was a topic which seemed to repeat itself throughout the recent World Whisky Forum when speaker after speaker, no matter the size of their production, said in some way diversity is key, risk is vital, moving forward is what matters.
In other words, what keeps whisky alive, no matter where it is in the world, is a constant, rigorous, examination of what makes each distillery or blend different from its fellows.
Why this consensus? Why now? I’d suggest that there is a reaction against an industry which has for too long worshipped at the altar of efficiency. Getting more alcohol for your bucks is one thing, but is that a price worth paying if it strips away your individuality leaving us with a sleek, highly efficient industry with a homogenised product?
The shift can come in any number of ways: from efficiencies in mashing, from using the same barley variety, or the same yeast; it could come from cutting the ferment times to increase throughput, or using the same shape and size of still and then running them the same way, or through a heavy reliance on the blunt instrument of new wood (or small casks). If everyone in the world makes the same decisions then where is the individuality?
Is the convergence happening? In some places I think it is. Elsewhere, I think that distillers have seen why they have to ensure that their product is substantially different to the existing ones with a 200-year head start. In these cases they are heading out into new (or old, adapted) areas.
Whisky is fragile. Each distillery’s character is built upon a set of interrelated occurrences which are in fine balance. The subtle equilibrium which holds the whole edifice together can easily be shattered if one of those elements changes. Distilleries therefore succeed or fail because of their ability to keep this balance in place.
Whisky is a drink which is growing globally because of its diversity. That must always be its abiding principle. Everyone must be unique.
27 June 2018
Whisky producers are visionary by their very nature. They spend every day looking to the future, forecasting what demand will be like in 10, 20, 30 years’ time. This constant crystal ball gazing shapes how they think about whisky – what flavours will consumers be craving next, what lifestyle choices will influence their spending decisions?
With the future on their minds, distillers, blenders, marketers and owners congregated at the Cotswolds distillery last week for the second World Whisky Forum, a space for sharing ideas with the common goal of developing the gloal whisky category. International producers rubbed shoulders with small ‘craft’ operations, while innovative Asian distillers shared insights with traditional Scottish blenders. With such openness, it’s hard to imagine there once was a time when distillers were forbidden from speaking to rival companies.
Developing the whisky category is not just about looking forward and predicting the future, it’s also about being cognisant – aware of what developments are occurring right now, within and without the sector.
With 13 speakers from the likes of Johnnie Walker and Irish Distillers through to New York’s Kings County and Finland’s Kyrö, the Forum was a hotbed of discussion for what trends will shape the future of whisky. The following areas were the most commonly raised, from the global growth of ‘single rye whisky’ to the death of craft.
Safe space: The World Whisky Forum is a trade-only conference for producers to share insights
Challenge everything; ignore the dogma
One of the key issues challenging Scotch whisky in particular is how to innovate sufficiently to stay relevant and appeal to whisky consumers’ changing palates, while remaining within the strict legal guidelines. However Ian Palmer, managing director of InchDairnie distillery, was resolute that the existing guidelines allow sufficient headroom for innovation. ‘The definition isn’t the problem,’ said Palmer. ‘Working within the definition takes imagination – challenge everything and everybody.’
The new Lowlands site became one of the first in Scotland to begin distilling rye (more on that later), and one of only two in the country to use a mash filter instead of a mash tun. Last year InchDairnie used seven different types of yeast, and is introducing two new strains this year. They’re all ways the distillery is experimenting with flavour while staying true to Scotch whisky’s identity, even if sometimes that boundary is blurred. ‘We’re happy to produce whiskies that taste like they should have an ‘e’ in the name,’ he said.
From Scotland’s perspective the rest of the world’s whisky producing countries seemingly bask in looser regulations that allow for greater innovation. ‘Should Scotch be worried?’ challenged moderator Dave Broom. There was a moment of reflective silence before Cotswolds head distiller Nick Franchino replied: ‘Scotch or not, if you make it badly you should be worried.’
Have courage; take risks
Similarly, having the courage to challenge the status quo was a common theme from speakers, one raised early on by Simon Coughlin’s tale of Murray McDavid’s purchase of Bruichladdich distillery in 2000. With only limited stocks of whisky and no new spirit since the mid-1990s, the team began bottling whisky from other distilleries under independent labels. ‘The fringe IB business was doing better than the Bruichladdich brand,’ he said. Realising they were in difficulty, the team was forced to do something daring. ‘We launched the Botanist gin, and it saved our bacon,’ Coughlin said. Never before had a gin been produced on Islay, but using an old still sourced from Dumbarton’s Lomond distillery, the Botanist was born. ‘We had to take the risk,’ Coughlin said.
Honesty and truthfulness
‘Today’s consumer is inquisitive, knowledgable and noisy,’ InchDairnie’s Palmer noted. ‘A thin veneer will be very quickly exposed.’ Foresight indeed from a man whose first whisky won’t be released for at least another 10 years, but it’s an insight that many speakers identified as being a cornerstone of success. ‘You need to believe in something in this industry,’ commented Coughlin. ‘If it’s all built on marketing bullshit you’ll be found out.’
The Cotswolds’ Franchino agreed. ‘There are too many gimmicks going on. When people try to weave something like that into their brand story that shouldn’t be there, it devalues it.’ Similarly, he said, releasing too many expressions in a short space of time that have no correlation to a genuine brand story is confusing for consumers. ‘If you only have one layer and someone scratches below it, you’re in trouble. You don’t have a coherent brand.’
The death of ‘craft’
‘There’s a craft distilling bubble coming if we carry on this way,’ Colin Spoelman of Kings County said. According to his presentation, just five ‘craft’ distilleries were operational in the US in 1990. ‘Now there are more distilleries in New York State than in Scotland.’ Kings County, he pointed out, is smaller than Scotland’s second-smallest distillery, Edradour. But although his operation in Brooklyn pales in size next to some of its global industry peers at the Forum, he claimed that ‘craft distilleries should just be called small distilleries.’ Every distiller and their mouser refers to itself as craft these days, even Irish Distillers’ Brian Nation, whose photograph of Midleton’s sizeable 1,500 litre ‘micro distillery’ stills generated laughter from the room.
There has been much talk of barley terroir, of a distillery’s sense of place, its unique water qualities and climate which contributes to maturing whisky’s flavour. Far less is said of social terroir, of the people who make it, who influence the whisky with their personalities, experiences and skill.
Every speaker spoke of the people that makes their product great. ‘Our area is important to the distillery and the quality of our whisky, but so are the people,’ said Kavalan’s Ian Chang.
Country conference: Some 60 delegates packed into the Cotswolds distillery for the Forum (Photo: Tristan Stephenson)
Age hangups will become obsolete
Greater education is already shifting consumers’ preconceptions that age equals quality, but advances in warehousing technology is likely to drive the conversation toward other signifiers of quality and flavour. Spoelman of Kings County, said: ‘Over the years the focus on age will diminish, but not entirely – the use of controlled warehousing will change it, lower the emphasis on age and allow consumers to focus on other elements.’
On the other hand, the question of how important rapid ageing technology will be in whisky’s future was raised, and very quickly shot down. ‘There are lots of processes that earn a lot of press, but it isn’t interesting to most distillers,’ Spoelman added.
Rye will be a global phenomenon
The majority of speakers at the World Whisky Forum spoke of distilling rye, and not all from countries typically associated with that style of whisky. The explosion in popularity of American rye whiskey, coupled with a resurgence in rye-based cocktails such as the Sazerac, has inspired global distilleries to give it a shot. Under current Scotch whisky legislation a rye whisky would be classed as ‘grain whisky’, but should the category continue to grow around the world a movement to establish a ‘Scotch rye’ or ‘single rye’ definition could take shape. After all, Bruichladdich’s Coughlin spoke of purchasing an adjacent farm on Islay on which to – possibly – grow a rye crop. Miika Lipiäinen and Kalle Valkonen from Finland’s Kyrö distillery are already working on the establishment of a Nordic rye and single malt rye category. Could it be just a matter of time before Scotland catches up?
Meanwhile Hiram Walker’s Don Livermore believes the future of the category won’t include questions about the content of mashbills. ‘Rye has the highest lignin content of all grains, which is the world’s most unappreciated molecule. Don’t ask me how much rye is in my whisky, ask me how much 4-ethylguaiacol it contains.’
Keep moving forward
One of the final takeaways, which not only encapsulated the mood of the Forum but spoke of an ongoing theme driving the global industry, was a need for progression. Not just from the Scotch producers, who are often – perhaps mistakenly – perceived to be behind the curve when it comes to innovation, but for world whisky as well. Not just for individual operations, but for the entire industry as one. A need to continue speaking to one another, to share ideas and collaborate. To look to other industries, take inspiration from bartenders and brewers, chocolatiers and coffee roasters (guest distilling was one, wonderfully exciting, suggestion).
Palmer said: ‘The Scotch industry is weak; they all just talk to each other and so the spiral [of knowledge] is closing in.’ InchDairnie is taking its inspiration from distilleries around the world, as well as other producers across the food and drink sector. ‘We’re even looking at the world of chocolate to see how they create flavour,’ he said.
20 June 2018
In my folly, I once hosted a tour around Ardbeg. Among others, the party contained my mother, then 80, who had never been round a distillery before, my brother-in-law who was interested in whisky, my sister-in-law who doesn’t drink, and my (then) young niece who was more interested in trying to put a Mars bar into the mash tun than listen to her stupid uncle.
It was nothing compared to what most tour guides have to cope with on a daily basis, but it was instructive as it showed me how hard it is to pitch a tour to suit all levels of interest.
It means being geeky enough to satisfy the whisky lover, but not so far out there that you put off the newbie; it means having a talent to field ‘stupid’ questions, and trying to enthuse people who, let’s face it, are often only there because their partner/ parent likes whisky, or who only came along to the distillery because it was raining. Aye, being a tour guide is not an easy gig.
People pleasers: Tour guides must have the ability to tailor their presentations to all manner of visitor
So, the news that distilleries have invested over £500m in creating ‘world-class tourism experiences’ is welcome evidence of how whisky firms are no longer seeing the visitor centre as a place to sell shortbread and drams, but as part of their whole brand strategy.
That’s all great, but with that shift in focus comes a greater responsibility on the part of the owner to also invest in the people who are on the front line. If the number of tour guides outstrips the number of operators, so the balance shifts.
As a distiller or brand owner you have to ensure that the front of house staff are aware of every part of the process. They need to know when to engage the big guns of geekery and when to keep it light; they must have the ability to read a group of strangers and know which ones are only there because of the weather and which are a whisky club.
There is more to the job than being taught a script, it means being trained to think on your feet and being able to tell the truth and not some marketing guff created by agencies who have never stepped in the distillery, or faced the challenging demands of a tour group.
It is all very well saying that these days the visitor experience should operate on an emotional level, but the stroppy whisky geeks who want to berate you over your company’s approach to NAS will not be assuaged by your New Age vibes about ‘being’ and ‘feeling’ – they want answers and they want facts, just as the members of the coach party want to know where the toilet is.
This is a difficult and complex job and if the visitor centre is being upgraded so should the training. It is all very well investing millions in the look, but the whole experience falls flat if, in the desire to equip the distillery with all manner of bells and whistles, the brand owner forgets to pay attention to the staff and the complex job they have to do.
Distillery managers and brand ambassadors have superstar status. So should the folk who take the tours, and investment in their training should be uppermost. You can’t have a superstar chef in the kitchen but untrained front of house staff running the restaurant.
It’s not just spending more money on better facilities, or amazing merch, or distillery bottlings, it is about investing in people and training to ensure that they know the history, the process (inside out) and where the flavour in the final whisky comes from. They are the real brand ambassadors.
13 June 2018
It’s the hope that kills you. Time spent as an England football fan – time spent as a football fan of almost any stripe, come to think of it (says the Ipswich Town supporter) – is an ultimately futile exercise ending in disappointment. The conclusion, whether through missed penalty, goalkeeping calamity or red card, always leaves you bereft. Unless you actually win the damned thing, of course.
But that hope is addictive. By the time the next big tournament comes around – in this case, the World Cup starting in Russia tomorrow (14 June) – you’ve forgotten the pain and trauma of the comedown and you’re ready for just one more hit. ‘This one will be different… It’s our time.’ Except that it almost certainly isn’t. Almost…
In England, we’ve become rather good at this particular form of rose-tinted self-deception. The trick, as exhibited in the run-up to this latest episode in (probable) national humiliation, is to start with your expectations slightly to the north of zero: young squad, relatively unheralded manager, atrocious record in knock-out football and aversion to scoring penalties.
Then, slowly and gradually, and even though we know we shouldn’t, we start to hope. ‘They’ve got a fantastic team spirit’ … ‘Young players have no fear’ … ‘Maybe they’re starting to build something special’ … ‘Get to the knock-out stages and who knows what might happen?’ But, deep down, we all know what’s going to happen. Germany again. Or Iceland.
If only we could just resist the temptation to dream, to believe, it would be so much easier to bear. Damp down the expectation and maybe we could actually enjoy the football for once.
Ultimately futile: But hopes start to build as the start of the tournament beckons
After all, it happens with whisky. Often, the most memorable glasses are the ones that startle us, shock us simply because, although we weren’t expecting fireworks, they turn out to be so bloody good. We lower our expectations and we open our mental windows to delight.
In a perfect world, of course, we would approach each new whisky unencumbered by any form of preconception, positive or negative; because, while lowered expectations can be liberating, prejudice can leave us blind and deaf to all sensory delights.
‘Oh, I don’t like blends’ … ‘Smoky whiskies aren’t my thing’ … ‘Sherry bombs are a monstrosity.’ Armed only with our own fixed views and a paucity of facts about the liquid in front of us, we make up our minds without taking a sip. Why bother even tasting it?
We’re all human. Even at a blind tasting – unless you’ve gone to the trouble of using opaque glassware – a whisky’s hue and depth of colour will spark synaptic associations related to perceptions of age, cask type, use (or not) of spirit caramel.
However inevitable these auto-suggestions may be, the trick is not to be shackled by them, to hear them but not to let them make up your mind for you, to leave yourself open to the possibility of surprise.
Put your nose in the glass. Take a sip. It won’t happen every time, but just once in a while you may be amazed.
I’d love to be able to relate this back to football, but I’ve been on this planet for more than half a century, and England’s sole moment of real triumph happened before I was born – so I have absolutely no problem managing my expectations.
After all, as I write this, we’ve just been beaten at cricket… by Scotland.
06 June 2018
There’s a dark, graffitied stair leading into the bowels of the building. Heavy German techno is playing. In the smoke- and incense-filled chamber there’s a ballerina on stage, dwarfed by an image of her – mid-leap, graceful, perfect, doing the sort of thing that 99.99% of us wouldn’t even attempt; but ballet dancers are super-human.
Then the next slide comes up. It points out all the mistakes she was making in the move; wrist wrong, foot not turned out, hips not squared off, knee should be hyper-extended (which I always thought was something to be avoided, and which reduces footballers to squealing messes but, as I said, ballerinas are hardcore).
Our image of the perfect was a mass of (self)-criticism. The ballerina, Shelby Williams, speaks of the striving for perfection, and the despair which overcame her when she analysed how imperfect she felt compared to her standards and, more personally, her classmates’ abilities.
‘I felt inferior,’ she says. ‘I saw in my reflection in the studio mirror how perfect they were and how imperfect I was… and I cried.’
It is not what you might expect when turning up to what is ostensibly a drinks event, but then again the annual P(our) symposium is all about widening our understanding of what the ‘drinks’ or ‘bar’ industry is about.
Established by Monica Berg, Alex Kratena, Simone Caporale and other industry luminaries, P(our) is devoted to widening the thinking of what bartending is and can be.
The symposium is one manifestation of this, an interdisciplinary platform where distiller and sake-maker, crop scientist, architect, gastrophysicist, writer, chef and ballerina can offer up their thoughts.
Super-human: But Shelby Williams’ flaws made her despair (Photo: Shelby Williams)
This year’s theme was perfection and, interestingly, all of the speakers (full disclosure, I was one) chose to speak instead about the various manifestations of imperfection – and why we should embrace it.
We are surrounded by images of what is deemed to be ‘perfect’. There is an ideal which we should always strive for, be that in ballet or drinks. And yet, surely, perfection is impossible.
It suggests something which is fixed, yet the world is in a constant state of flux. Because things are impermanent, nothing can be said to be perfect.
A falling leaf, a piece of tarnished metal, a battered suitcase or raggedy pointe shoes have beauty because, in their imperfection, they speak of time and the process of change.
When Williams realised that she was being ‘almost smothered by my own ambition’, she created an alter-ego on Instagram showing the world everything she did wrong in a self-deprecating way.
She discovered that in accepting that perfection wasn’t possible, ‘you fall in love with the process and the striving, and not the result’. There’s echoes here in whisky-making.
Are they trying to make the perfect whisky? Or even the perfect example of a single distillery? If there was perfection, then what would be the point of releasing different age statement, or finishes, or blends?
That little touch of sulphur might add lift, that hint of silage might add a quirky extra layer of intrigue; and, while the filthiness of funk or over-intense esters might be considered flaws, elements which get in the way of purity, they are often what make a whisky exciting… and, weirdly, perfect for the moment – and it’s the moment which is important for us as drinkers.
Self-criticism: Williams learned to accept the perfection is impossible (Photo: Shelby Williams)
The drink which you have in front of you is changing. Its vapours are rising and changing, some flying off, others emerging late. You may have added water or ice. The whisky changes from one sip to another. The light in the room, the comment of a fellow drinker, a smell from the kitchen, the level of the liquid in the glass (or bottle) all impact on the moment.
All you can do is be focused and enjoy it because it is your drink. The distiller may have made it, but they would be wrong to say that their whisky is complete or perfect, because the whisky is only complete when you taste it. You are the final piece in its life.
The same applies to tasting notes. I hope that the ones I write are as honest and fair as I can make them, but ultimately they are my notes, the images in my mind are my images, my response is personal, just as yours is – and I am not perfect.
It is arrogant to believe otherwise, and that you can possibly set yourself up as an arbiter of taste, a writer of scripture who should never be challenged. As Williams says in her conclusion: ‘You can’t latch onto other people’s ideas of perfection. I am an imperfect person in a world of perfection… and it doesn’t bother me.’
Imperfection makes you human.
05 June 2018
Eight full days of dramming, dancing, socialising and eating can take their toll on the hardiest of festival-goers, which is why it’s always best to go in prepared. This was my second Islay Festival, and possibly the most hectic (as anyone who’s followed our journey on Scotchwhisky.com the last week or so can understand). Exhausted, elated and armed with the power of hindsight, here are a few lessons I’ve picked up along the way:
We are Islay: The distillery open days are a chance to meet festival visitors and island residents
People are friendly – talk to them
Right at the heart of Fèis Ìle is its community, the people who make the whisky and welcome the rest of us to their island with open arms, but also those who regularly join them for one extraordinary week a year. It’s only now, having returned for a second year, that I really ‘get’ it.
Seeing familiar faces, catching up with old friends and sharing outstanding whiskies is an experience you don’t come across often. Those attending Fèis are united in their passion for whisky. It becomes one giant, global family.
To make the most of the festival, you simply must immerse yourself in that community spirit. Say hello to strangers, share your experiences and stories, pick up hitch-hikers. You’re on Islay now.
Leave the distilleries and go somewhere – anywhere – else. Whether that’s across to Jura to visit Barnhill, George Orwell’s cottage where 1984 was written, or up to Gruinart where they land those famous Islay oysters.
Check out the glorious white sandy beach beneath the airport, which is largely untouched and completely secluded. Visit the far reaches of Portnahaven and take a trip past Ardbeg to the Kildalton Cross. There’s so much to see and do on Islay that to just stick to whisky will only contribute to festival fatigue.
Attending every distillery open day (as we did) will only result in exhaustion by the end of the week. Choose your favourite distilleries and spend the other days doing something a bit different. Go for a walk, a bike ride or chill out on the beach. You could even go on a fishing trip or go horse riding on the beach.
Chill out: You’re on Islay time now, and that means taking things at a relaxed pace
Quite why Calmac decided to take one of Islay’s two ferries offline for planned maintenance during the island’s busiest fortnight is a mystery. It was eventually reinstated, but the confusion meant crossing times were severely restricted.
Even when both ferries run, they get full very quickly. Book your place early (the 2019 festival runs 24 May – 1 June), particularly if you’re driving. The same goes for your flights, accommodation and car hire.
The festival is only going to get busier and more popular in future – judging by the number of film crews on the island – so to avoid disappointment you need to plan ahead.
The increasing number of camper vans on the island’s narrow roads are becoming a concern for residents, so drive slowly and carefully, and take care to park vehicles in designated areas. Free camping is allowed in Scotland, but with such freedom comes a responsibility to preserve the countryside.
Navigating Islay’s many single-track roads is also an art form. Make sure to use passing places on your side of the road to allow traffic to pass by, and reverse to the nearest one if you have just missed it.
Don’t forget the indies
Queues for limited-edition festival bottlings can begin very early in the morning (sometimes in the preceding afternoon), and create a lot of chatter both on Islay and online as they are quickly – sadly – flipped over.
Both the SMWS stand in the grounds of Islay House, and Hunter Laing’s shop in Islay House Square were steadily busy, but those collecting festival editions barely mentioned either bottler. In fact, the indie whiskies were among the finest created for the festival, and at extremely reasonable prices. Best keep your eye on what the indies are doing next time.
Independent gems: Don’t forget about the unofficial distillery bottlings during Islay Festival
To flip, or not to flip?
It’s individuals’ prerogative to do what they like with their whisky, but it was also sad to see adverts encouraging flipping on the Finlaggan ferry across from Kennacraig, with the Whisky Auctioneer van parked up outside the distilleries, ready to collect bottles the moment they were bought.
Over the week many visitors lamented the increasing price of festival bottlings, some of which have been driven up by demand on the secondary market. It’s a shame for those who really want to drink the whisky, open a bottle and enjoy it.
One question to consider is: with Fèis Ìle being all about community spirit, is making a quick few bucks at the expense of others’ wallets really worth it?
If you’re vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free, bring your own packed lunch to the distillery open days. Options are limited and nearly always restricted to oysters, seafood and burgers, although a pizza stand does appear from time to time.
The Islay Festival is a manic, hectic, crazy eight days. Finding accommodation is hard, the restaurants are fully booked, and getting a taxi is nigh-on impossible if you’ve not pre-booked. This is Islay at its busiest, but to get a real sense of the island, of its people, its pace, come back and visit another time. It’s not going anywhere.
It’s going to grow
Ardnahoe wasn’t quite ready to open in time for Fèis, but that didn’t stop Hunter Laing giving scenic tours to curious passers-by. It will be operational soon, and by next year will get involved in the fun – as will, no doubt, the handful of gin distilleries being planned for the island.
With Port Ellen and Elixir Distillers’ projects also planned for 2020, and David Cameron’s father-in-law reportedly building a site on Jura, you’d better plan a visit over the next few years. The festival is about to get busier and more exciting than ever.
30 May 2018
When was the last time you paused and thought about what malt whisky is made of? I know that, like good children at primary school, we can all recite by rote: ‘Water, barley, yeast’ (with the teacher’s pet at the front of the class adding, correctly: ‘And oak, Miss’), but when was the last time you actually paused to think about what you just said?
A cereal, a fungus and an omnipresent liquid; oh, and a tree. As a recipe, it’s startlingly simple. In fact, you might think it is an unprepossessing combination.
Seeing it laid out like that reminds me of the story of the person asking for directions to a town in Ireland. ‘Well, I wouldn’t start from here’ being the considered response. A wise one too, I hasten to add.
It seems barely possible that ingredients as basic as these can combine to produce a palatable drink. What is even more miraculous is how they interact to produce a myriad of flavours which ensnare us with their complexities. There is mystery at the heart of it all.
Yes, distillers have their part to play – this is not spontaneous (even if some might just test that theory out) – but what they do is nudge and cajole, control and guide, rather than force.
There’s no gussying up – no acidification or tannin addition, no chaptalisation or spinning cones. Despite the industrial-looking equipment, whisky-making is a natural process.
The secret is unlocking potential, allowing the flavours to rise and develop. It is an art of concentration and selection, of interplay and balancing.
The end result is a spirit which can speak to the soul like no other, a distillation of place, time and people, and it all comes from such humble beginnings.
Whisky, for all its boldness of flavour and attack is, at heart, modest. That in turn means that its makers have to have a respect for the ingredients. There is no place to hide when you are dealing with the original trio.
Simplicity itself: All of us making a living from whisky are servants of the spirit
The same term, ‘humble’, is also the word which which springs to mind whenever you encounter anyone engaged in whisky’s production: from malting to distilling, coppersmithing to coopering, and blending.
As a nation, we Scots tend to be self-effacing (we talk ourselves down rather than up), and whisky people take this to the Nth degree. They are modest, lacking in arrogance or ego when it comes to what they produce.
They go about it quietly, letting the spirit speak. ‘It is a team effort’ … ‘I just helped it along’ … ‘It’s the whisky that’s important’ … ‘It’s quite good’ (the last © David Stewart MBE). They serve the spirit.
It’s a lesson worth remembering when we pick up a glass. The moments of maximum enjoyment of whisky, for me at least, are also the simplest ones.
Not fancy dinners or gilded palaces of sin, no lights and lasers, but friends, glasses, a bottle and talk. Little has changed in that scenario since whisky’s earliest days.
The same applies to selling, talking or writing about it as well. Those of us fortunate enough to make our livings in this way need to always be aware that we are at the service of the whisky.
We can make it fun, crack jokes, play with it (in fact, I’d say all are essential), but we all need to remember that all we are doing is simply passing information along.
People come to our shop or bar or class, or read our writing, not because it is us, but because they want to learn about whisky.
As soon as we think we are more important than the story, the moment when ego takes over, then that simple aim is lost. We are servants of the spirit as well. We are all learning as well, sitting quietly at the feet of the people who know more than we do, asking why and then passing it on in a way which entertains and informs, but focuses on the whisky itself.
We all have to remain humble.
23 May 2018
We start our whisky life with a moment of sudden clarity, when the whisky speaks to us directly. We may have drunk whisky – maybe even this brand – before, perhaps regularly, but this time it is somehow different.
The dram need not be special in terms of rarity, or price, or being the ‘best’ that a range offers. Rather, the combination of the situation, the people and our mood triggers a wholly emotional response. This thing called whisky becomes something greater than just the liquid. The gateway swings open. Our heart has spoken.
This came to mind during a six-day tour of China, taking in Guangzhou, Xiaman, Shantou, Shenzhen and (now) Beijing. Living out of the case (albeit in rather swish hotels), talking to bloggers, bartenders, retailers and punters about the juice.
All the folk were in some way associated with the Diageo Whisky Academy (DWA), an astonishingly bold initiative on the part of the distiller to try to teach as many people in China about whisky as possible.
In the few months since its launch, more than 4,000 folks have entered its three-tier certification scheme. Some will be content with the grounding given by Level 1. By the time that those who are really smitten reach Level 3, they are fully-fledged whisky warriors. It is a category-building programme – competitor brands are given equal status – the like of which I’ve not encountered before.
Engaging the brain: We are insatiable in our desire for whisky information, says Dave Broom
Anyway, I was on stage, about to start a flavour-led run-through of production, when I had second thoughts. The students had read the books and done the classes. They knew their wort from their washbacks, their cut points from their condensers, the differences between oak types – all the stuff that, these days, comes with being a whisky lover.
This is how we all progress. We start with the heart but, once the door is open, our head takes over. That moment of revelation is quickly followed by a mass of questions: how is it made, what is that flavour and why is it there, what goes on at that part of a distillery, why does that distillery do this and its neighbour do that? Names, figures and statistics; books, websites and talks. We become insatiable in our desire for information.
It is a natural response and it is a good one. The fact that whisky shows are growing in number, that courses like DWA are prospering, that a website like Scotchwhisky.com exists, is proof of how much interest there is. All of it is essential if whisky is to build and grow (and if all that juice which is about to flood onto the market is to be sold).
And now for pleasure: When heart and head work together, whisky can be truly joyous
The downside of this is that we can forget what made us turn to whisky in the first place – that moment when our heart spoke. Shunryu Suzuki once wrote: ‘If your mind is empty, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.’
Too true. The intellectual clutter gets in the way of the honest response to the glass. We all need to get back to that beginner’s mind. So that’s what I spoke about.
In some schools of karate, when you achieve the top grading you are given the same white belt of the beginner. It says: you know this intuitively, you are not using your mind any more, but responding naturally and openly to what is in front of you.
It’s the same with whisky. We can make whisky as complicated as we want, but should never forget that it is a really simple proposition: a drink made from humble ingredients which hopefully speaks to your heart as well as your head.
Later that night, at Shenzhen’s new go-to bar Whisky Life, I watched Hidetsugu Ueno (the legendary bartender from Tokyo’s Bar High Five) effortlessly creating great drinks (his new creation, Queen Mary, a mix of Singleton of Glen Ord 12 Year Old, Pimm’s and Suze, is a delight) for the same people who had been at the classes listening attentively.
The music was up, the lights low, the laughter loud, the whisky flowing. After the head-focused afternoon, it was time for the heart to take over again. When both work together, it is marvellous to behold.
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Latest news 04 February 2016
Alwynne Gwilt, aka Miss Whisky, has joined the Glenfiddich and Balvenie producer’s prestige team.
Features 15 February 2016
From Kirkliston to Ailsa Bay via many detours, the history of the flexible whisky-making facility.