Flavour and efficiency are not enemies; embrace the evolution of barley, says Dave Broom.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
24 January 2018
We had been sitting in the terminal, frantically trying to find alternative ways to get to Seattle as the ferry had docked with mechanical problems. It wasn’t looking good.
The options seemed to be: wait until tomorrow and hope; catch a different ferry to Vancouver, then bus it to Seattle; or hire a car in Vancouver; or get the train. I was beginning to feel like I was stuck in a John Candy movie.
Then the announcement came. ‘It’s ok, folks, we’ve had divers down and they found a log stuck in the engine. This has been removed and we are good to go.’
Cue 300 people cheering. It was only once we were under way that we began thinking: ‘Log? Engine? Is this really safe?’ Not the ideal start to the trip, but we were, finally, on the move.
The idea of things being unable to sail along smoothly seemed to echo what we had just left behind in Victoria, with the heavy-handed application of an absurd clause in the law. In fact, ways in which whisky’s potential flow was being stalled had become a theme during the past couple of weeks of my stravaiging in northern climes.
The week before, in Norway, I’d discovered how distilleries were unable to sell their whisky in situ, but only at the state-controlled stores which, in remote locations, could be many hours away.
Whisky makers are constantly working within a world of restrictions. In some cases, it can be positive. Understanding constraints and then enhancing what you have is a fundamental element of creativity, but there are also restrictions which have been imposed by mindset. That's what was now coming into focus a couple of days later when I sat with five glasses of new make in front of me.
Mind-blowing: Five new make samples, four barley varieties, one distillery
The first had a rich, malty, roasted nuttiness with a clean, lightly floral taste; glass two smelled of tomato soup/fruity Italian tomato sugo, with added fat, dark fruits; the third was desert-dry, like corncobs, hay and beansprouts, with a taste of toasted sunflower seeds; the fourth light, sweet and malty; and the final glass floral and lifted, with a zingy, citric, apple flavour.
Nothing that unusual in that, perhaps. Malt whisky is, after all, about singularity. Five distilleries, five different new makes is what you should expect. Single malt Scotch has been built upon distillers’ ability to manipulate the simple ingredients of barley, water and yeast into different shapes.
It’s done by malting (if smoke is being added), mashing, fermentation, reflux, condensing and cut points (we’ll leave yeast out of this for the moment). Tiny tweaks which result in maximum impact.
All of these, however, were from the same distillery, Seattle’s Westland. What’s more, the first two were distilled the same way, the remaining three another way.
Their stark differences in flavour hadn’t started at the distillery, or in the maltings, but in the field. Four of the five were made from different barley varieties (numbers one and four were the same variety, the standard US malting variety Copeland, distilled two different ways).
Of the others, that tomato soup one was the ancient variety Purple Obsidian; the parched desert one was Talisman; the zingy, lifted one was NZ (it was originally named Richard, and then Fritz, which I think were better). All were grown locally.
Here you had one distillery creating a wider range of flavours, not through process, but varietal. Now imagine what other elements could be layered on top of that through roasts, smoke, yeast, distillation – and then oak.
My mind was blown. This was the concept of place, writ deep. Westland’s master distiller Matt Hofmann beamed. ‘You see? Amazing, isn’t it? Now imagine if this philosophy can be extended, and how these varieties could pick up different identities in different microclimates.’
I’ve touched on creating flavour in the field before but, bar tasting bere barley distillate, it has been theoretical. Now, here the potential of a radically expanded palette of whisky flavours had been revealed.
Holistic approach: A flavour-led philosophy can benefit all, says Matt Hofmann
For it to work, however, a series of relationships has to be established. ‘All of these, bar Copland, were rejected by the system, but we knew we had to go for it,’ explained Hofmann. ‘If this idea of new varietals is to build momentum, though, you need partners to make it happen.’
Thankfully there are like-minded individuals working in Washington State’s Skagit Valley. It is where cereal geneticist Stephen Jones established his Bread Lab, which trials thousands of potential new crops, all grown for flavour.
The work done with barley is, in turn, giving local farmers the incentive to plant more profitable malting barley strains, rather than the feed barley which they traditionally planted as part of the rotation system to ensure healthy soil for their main crop – be that tulips or potatoes.
There was an issue, however. Even if you could persuade the farmer to grow the varietal, it still had to be malted – and the systems used by the large maltings were set up to process varieties which germinate within a set time period. None of these varieties fitted those parameters – restrictions emerge once again.
What, though, if you designed a maltings which was at the service of the varietal instead? Enter Skagit Valley Malting and the creation of a flexible process which can be tailored to the specific quirks of each varietal.
Just as whisky production is an interlinked chain, here is a similar level of interdependence from soil to distillery. The restrictions, the ‘we can’t because’ mentality, has been broken and creativity can flow. As Hofmann said: ‘If we think solely how flavour can be expanded and improved and made more compelling through the entire process, then we all benefit.’
Philosophically, creatively, this makes sense. Can it happen in Scotch? Of course it can. The restrictions there aren’t down to legislation, but to mindset and a compartmentalised approach to agriculture and food production which works against true, deep, interdependence.
But we could easily see micro-malting, and different varieties being used, and a new stream of whisky start to flow. The log just needs to be pulled out of the engine.
17 January 2018
Thankfully beers named Morning Glory, Deep Throat and (this is ridiculous) Thong Remover are few and far between these days, but as an article featured on the BBC News website this week attests, sexism continues to plague the beer industry.
It’s an issue that doesn’t simply lurk on the leery labels of some poorly conceived craft beers, but according to many women working across the trade, transcends the entire industry. Uncomfortable tales of sexual harassment and misogyny are rife, and far too common. Take beer writer Melissa Cole’s experience of being groped at an industry event by a guy whose only excuse was that he’s ‘a silly old man’. Or the unnamed ‘old-fashioned’ brewery that hires women to work behind its bars as an ‘attraction’ for its male patrons.
While vulgar labels and product names aren’t prevalent in Scotch, the BBC’s article could just as well have been talking about whisky. Our industry is just as full of misogyny, as one would assume is the case with any male-dominated sector. Too many times I’ve been referred to as ‘that woman’ in a condescending tone, or told I can’t possibly like whisky or know anything about it because it’s a ‘man’s drink’ (this last comment most recently from a stranger while queuing at a Waitrose checkout). Last month a man even asked if he could stroke me.
Whisky pin-ups: Women have been exploited to sell whisky and beer for too long, says Paskin
Incidents like these aren’t a daily occurrence, not for me at least, but they are a reality for many women working in whisky, and beer. It’s partially the result of decades of women being exploited in advertising campaigns as a supporting act to the male lead.
With the fallout from Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual misconduct, and the publication of major companies’ gender pay differences, the issue of sex discrimination is at the forefront of international news just now. The spotlight on women’s issues will only get brighter this year, which makes the proposed new whisky release from Johnnie Walker all the more perplexing.
According to labels submitted for approval to the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) this month, the world’s largest Scotch whisky brand is soon to introduce a Jane Walker edition, featuring a female Striding Man.
As Diageo, the brand’s owner, is yet to reveal full details of its new Jane Walker edition, it’s too early to comment on its intentions, though perhaps the release is a defiant statement about the power of women, and is being timed to coincide with International Women’s Day on 8 March. Perhaps a proportion of sales are to be generously donated to women’s charities around the world.
Diageo is a staunch supporter of gender equality in the workplace, having been voted one of the top FTSE100 companies for featuring women on boards and in leadership roles. It operates schemes to train, employ and empower women in emerging markets, and has been a sponsor of a women’s literary prize.
Ban ahead?: Many voices in brewing have called for sexist beer labels like these to be prohibited
Considering its credentials, one would hope the expression is a demonstration of the iconic brand’s support for gender equality, rather than an ill-judged attempt at attracting female drinkers by sticking a woman’s name on the bottle. Anyone remember the sweet, pink, bizarrely named Qream liqueur (it's a cream liqueur but also the 'Q' is for queen, apparently) launched by Diageo in collaboration with Pharrell Williams? Designed to ‘celebrate the beautiful, independent and sophisticated women of today,’ Qream bombed, and resulted in a multi-million dollar lawsuit.
People are individuals, and have their own likes and dislikes not pertinent to their sex. Despite the lingering everyday sexism, the whisky and beer world has come far in establishing gender equality in the industry. The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) will now only select businesses as its Pub of the Year if they ‘avoid causing offence to any sections of society’, while sexist beers are set to be banned at many UK festivals and competitions. Meanwhile, more women than ever are working in leading roles in brewing and distilling.
09 January 2018
Words. Never quite enough, are they? Language. It gets us so far and then it somehow… falters as you grasp for the right way to get some message across. You come across that phenomenon every day, when even the most articulate of people, the greatest orators, somehow fail to quite achieve what they intended. Language is slippery, allusive and elusive. Some feel it is what limits our world.
That’s how this piece was always going to start. I was unsure of what to write in the dog days of the post-festive period when plans are being formulated and news seems scant. What new thing can be said about whisky on a week like this? Probably plenty so, as I’d engaged in some lengthy tasting sessions, I was going to try to worry away (again) at the notion of how we taste, and how communication is about so much more than just what is said, or written.
Loving soul: Carl Reavey touched the lives of many, not just on Islay but in the wider whisky world (Photo: Carney James Turner)
By concentrating on sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, we miss out body and mind. The way we look at the whisky in the glass should be no different to the way we look at anything in the world. It only makes sense if you fully engage with it and then communicate your feelings in whatever way seems fit. It can go beyond language.
So those were the thoughts. Rambling perhaps, but again that’s what happens when you seem to have time on your hands. Then something happens to remind you that you don’t; that the elusive spirit in the glass, so transitory, is also a reflection of where we are: a metaphor for our condition.
There’s a bitter irony to that realisation, because the final whisky I tried in that last session was Bruichladdich. Then came the news that my friend Carl Reavey had died. ‘My’ friend, as if it was only me. Carl was everyone’s friend.
Hugely generous, enthusiastic, quizzical, the sort of person who seemed lit by some unreal energy, always eager to learn, and talk, and share. Someone who knew the meaning, the real meaning, of being human. Someone who could communicate not just in words, but in his actions, and with his whole, huge, loving soul.
He did it about Bruichladdich, of course, but he was equally at home with birds, and bikes, and music, and farming, sea rowing, food. No topic seemed to be out-of-bounds when you talked to him. His life was a lesson in true communication. It was there in his deeds, not just his words.
The glass of his life seemed always to be the fullest, there for us to share. Now it is drained, but it is not empty. The memories remain, they float in air, in our senses, our thoughts, our hearts and hopefully in our actions.
Farewell friend, and thank you. You have no idea how much you will be missed.
08 January 2018
‘I got a really lush whisky for Christmas,’ a friend told me last week. ‘I can’t remember the name but it’s got these little monkeys stuck on the bottle.’ I wonder what that could be. Perhaps it’s the eye-catching bottle design, the accessible price point or the brand’s laid-back ‘street’ personality, but I bet a pound my whisky-drinking friend wasn’t alone in receiving a bottle of Monkey Shoulder for Christmas. The blended malt has become so popular among new whisky drinkers, that it’s been named the trendiest Scotch whisky brand by trade magazine Drinks International for four years running.
Each year the magazine polls the global bar industry’s ‘inner circle of influencers’ – award-winning bartenders and bar owners frequenting various awards lists such as The World’s 50 Best Bars, Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards and various local Time Out awards – on their favourite spirits to work with, most popular classic cocktails and best-selling brands.
Three Monkeys: The blended malt’s eye-catching bottle has helped it gain recognition among consumers
Monkey Shoulder, it turns out, is the most requested Scotch whisky at the world’s leading bars, trumping the likes of best-selling Scotch Johnnie Walker, and luxury malts such as Macallan. Kudos to Monkey Shoulder, but despite its popularity among guests and advent of quirky bar tools for the trade, bartenders overlooked it as a spirit they love to work with. In fact, not a single Scotch whisky featured among the 10 top ‘Bartenders’ Choice’ brands – the trade’s so-called desert island spirits.
It’s no surprise that in the midst of the current gin craze a premium gin like Tanqueray was named the most popular spirit among cocktail bartenders. The list reads like a who’s-who of the spirits world – rum, Tequila, mezcal and even Japanese whisky get a mention – but Scotch appears to be the unpopular kid no one wants in their team. The Macallan ranked in 11th place, a position largely attributed to its popularity among the strong Asian contingent surveyed for the report (Asia comprised 28% of respondents).
Scotch’s absence from the 10 most popular brands may be a symptom of the dearth of classic Scotch cocktails served in the world’s best bars – only three (Blood & Sand, Penicillin, Rob Roy) featured among the top 50 best-selling classics in the last year. Sadly no Bobby Burns in sight, to my dismay. Meanwhile the Bourbon-based Old Fashioned, Whiskey Sour and Manhattan all made the top 10 (that said, no American whiskey made the Bartenders’ Choice ranks either).
Have Scotch cocktails become ‘uncool’, or is their absence a result of a deficiency in brand-led education? Report editor Hamish Smith believes there to be a ‘lack of investment behind bars and bartenders that you don't see in other brown spirit categories’, which hasn’t helped change the belief in some countries that Scotch whisky shouldn’t be mixed.
Modern classic: The Penicillin was the best-selling Scotch cocktail at the world's best bars
As with all sectors, new trends begin with innovators and key influencers, and gradually trickle down to the mainstream. Much of a drink’s success starts with these bartenders, who pass on recommendations to their guests. The bar is a playground for consumers to experiment with tasting new drinks and flavours without the financial commitment of buying a full bottle, and in many ways the world’s high street bartenders look up to the world’s best. If they aren’t excited by Scotch, their peers won’t be, and they certainly won’t be recommending it to their guests. It’s up to Scotch brands to excite bartenders in the first place. That’s where education begins, and that’s where change will happen.
The more brands invest in assisting the creativity of the world’s best bartenders, the sooner we will see a resurgence in Scotch-led cocktails, and even an improvement in the quality of whisky serves in mainstream bars, an issue Scotchwhisky.com raised just last week.
Perennial events such as Old Fashioned Week are a welcome step forward in encouraging bartenders to use Scotch in traditionally American whiskey cocktails (an event Monkey Shoulder sponsors), but to really turn heads the industry needs to get behind a best seller that’s owned by Scotch. Could the Penicillin be Scotch whisky’s Old Fashioned? A short, shaken drink consisting of blended Scotch, lemon juice, honey-ginger syrup and smoky Islay whisky, the cocktail is a crowd-pleaser that appears to be gaining in the popularity stakes – Drinks International ranked it as the 15th best-selling cocktail, having risen four places this year alone.
If ever there was a cocktail a trendy Scotch whisky like Monkey Shoulder should get behind, the Penicillin is it. The brand has just launched a peated expression exclusively for bartenders after all. I know what I'll be ordering.
03 January 2018
I don’t know about you, but I’m still not sure what day of the week it is. Not because of any over-indulgence, but because this is the time of year when, though you may know the date, you haven’t a clue what the day might be.
This probably comes in part from most of us working on a schedule where our days of non-work are fixed. All of that goes oot the windae during the festive season.
As a result, time seems to stretch. The same effect is in play even if you have been pushed back into work mode while the rest of us have been luxuriating on the sofa, wondering whether or not to pop to the pub or fit in just one more slice of pork pie.
The misbehaving of time allows you to spend more time with friends and family, to read that book you always wanted to, to go for walks. In turn, that leads to resolutions that we will make time for those activities throughout the year.
This feeling of slowness (not lassitude or laziness) becomes increasingly important in an environment where speed dominates. Instant response has become the norm, communication has been cut down to a few keystrokes, reaction is more important than consideration.
Whatever you say has to make an immediate impact: so better make it punchy, controversial, offensive. It is the best way to make your voice heard, which these days means you have to be present and commenting constantly, whether you have anything to say or not. Knowing you exist is not enough; you have to prove that you do.
The lust for immediacy leads to an inability to analyse – why bother when everyone has moved on? – or to plan for the long term. It’s easier to send off a quick quip or run an instant check on Google than actually to research and think before saying something.
Every second counts: Why is speed so often valued more highly than quality?
Having information at our fingertips doesn’t make us more intelligent, it just means we have access to more snippets of it. I’m ever more attracted to the option taken by Bartleby, the Scrivener in Herman Melville’s story, where he responds to each request: ‘I would prefer not to.’
We see that within whisky. The need for a new story per day, the instant reaction to a new whisky, the (overly) speedy response to a perceived gap in the market. Even maturation has fallen foul to the lust for speed.
Maybe it’s not that new. At Christmas, The Scotsman reported on the release of documents from the National Archive revealing how, in 1951, Mr AJ Menzies, managing director of Fettercairn, had invented a process ‘for accelerating the maturing … of whisky which reduces the maturing time from about five to 10 years to a few hours’, which was kicked into touch by ‘Government scientists over fears it could undermine the industry by encouraging overseas imitation’.
It’s not stopped folk from trying to speed things up ever since, however. Much has been made of recent developments which claim that whisky or rum can be ‘matured’ in just a few days.
What I’m still baffled by is why we need to do this. Why does everything have to be fast? Is it not more important to concentrate on making things better, rather than quicker?
Is Smash better than home-made mashed potato? Instant coffee better than espresso? Pot Noodles better than noodles in slow-simmered dashi? Is… [Ok Dave, we get the message – Ed].
Perhaps whisky’s complexity and balance is something to do with slow integration and not extraction; maybe it is about letting trees grow for more than a century, or peat to amass itself over thousands of years.
Maybe whisky isn’t about rushing, but quietly listening and understanding the words and actions of the past, and developing them, moving them on, gently, slowly.
Appreciate time. Allow it to stretch. We don’t have a lot of it.
26 December 2017
‘Can you tell where I can get a good one of these?’ ‘I’ve never heard of that drink, it’s amazing.’ ‘How exactly do you make this?’ These phrases and questions seemed to follow me around the world this year. The mysterious drink in question is the Highball.
Those of us who love whisky tend to forget that we live in a bubble and make the assumption that everyone knows as much as we think we do – or are as interested as we are. In reality, the majority of people just want a decent drink – which is what the Highball is.
The fact that whisky and soda is still an outrageous concept says to me how much work still needs to be done. I mean, how hard is it to take a glass, pour in a slug of whisky of your choice, throw in some ice, and top it up to the strength you wish with your chosen mixer. One gentle stir and there it is.
Simple serve: A Whisky Highball contains a dram and a mixer of your choice over ice
Technically, that’s a simple drink to make. Psychologically, it is a huge leap of faith. After all, haven’t we been told that whisky should never be adulterated in any way – other than with a garnish of opinion and pontification that is.
Things are changing. Brands are beginning to embrace the Highball – who could have imagined Smoky Cokeys being served at Lagavulin during Feis Ile? – but that doesn’t mean that the job is over. In fact, I suspect it has barely begun. The new Highball drinker is as likely to be one of us, someone who already drinks whisky. Converting existing whisky drinkers is vital – we are after all keen proselytisers for the drink and can therefore spread the word – but the aim must always to be to get new drinkers who may never have tried whisky before.
From a brand perspective that requires taking a long-term view and being consistent in your message – look at Jameson for evidence of how that can work. It also means not just working with top end whisky bars, but high volume outlets. The battle will have been won when we see Scotch Highballs being drunk as a matter of course in Wetherspoons. Can it be done? I suggest the Scotch industry takes a look at Japan…
The key to the Highball’s success is its simplicity. This is ‘teach a man to fish’ territory: glass, whisky, soda, ice, now go and make your own and tell your friends. Simplicity is also key to Scotch’s future success because it also means being clear-sighted in terms of vision, and uncluttered by contrived marketing.
Simple is often the hardest thing to do. It lies at the heart of the idea that whisky – and single malt especially – is inextricably linked to place. It is fascinating to see how many of the new distilleries are all engaging with the land on which they stand, and their communities.
‘A local distillery for local people’ can have an ominous League of Gentlemen ring to it – a xenophobic mistrust of outsiders. Instead, local means being engaged with the wider world.
‘An understanding of terroir lies in accepting our resources and constraints,’ Fred Revol of Domaine des Hautes-Glaces, said to me earlier this year. ‘The only way we can be happy in a globalised world is to have a sense of place, because it is diversity which makes the world richer.’ The clarity of that statement should lie at the heart of 21st century whisky.
Simplicity is also at the heart of the innovations which are now beginning to emerge within Scotch, such as the extraordinary return of rye. What they say to me is that distillers are looking at the most basic element within whisky – flavour. That is what brings new drinkers into Scotch and keeps them there and while the processes involved may seem complex, the underlying intent is straightforward and clear – create new and compelling flavours for people to enjoy.
Rejoice in diversity and grab that soda.
20 December 2017
Spoiler alert: the three editors responsible for this website get to choose their three whiskies of the year next week, and guess what? Three out of the nine drams in question aren’t Scotch.
That’s not deliberate. There’s no masterplan at work here, no purposeful attempt to put Scotch in its place and suggest that better and more imaginative whisky-making is being practised elsewhere.
We’re not using the increasingly diverse and dynamic world of ‘world whisky’ as a stick with which to beat Scotch (© Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible), but maybe the choices do say something about the changing face of whisky at the end of 2017.
It’s a big world and, practically speaking, there’s no logical reason why you can’t make whisky of a similar standard to Scotch in any country on Earth. Hey, we’ve known that for decades. There are simply more people succeeding in doing it now, putting their own, local twist on the whisky template, and rightly gaining more attention for doing so.
This changing world casts Scotch in the role of complacent incumbent; the flabby Roman Emperor doomed beneath the siege of the raw, but vital, Goths, Visigoths and Vandals. Has there been complacency? Yes. Is that the dominant mood today? No.
Apart from anything else, the same, iconoclastic tide of new wave distillers (let’s avoid the c-word) is as present in Scotland as in other whisky-making countries and, as this movement gains traction, laziness is not a safe option.
Global threat: Scotch whisky is responding to challenges from around the world
Single estate whisky; rye and other cereal grains; barley variety and provenance; yeast types; experimental fermentation and distillation regimes. And so on, and on, into as yet uncharted waters.
When a big-time distiller gets grumpy with a newcomer for bringing an innovative style of Scotch to the marketplace ahead of them (ask me afterwards), you know that there’s more to this than mere tinkering and half-hearted experimentation. This is real.
Look back at the rye question. Yes, InchDairnie’s doing it. Bruichladdich’s doing it. Lone Wolf is doing it. Arbikie, it turns out, was doing it two years ago (without telling anyone). But Diageo’s doing it too, and not just playing around with it at Leven, the company’s pilot plant, but at two of its established distilleries.
The liquid results of Diageo’s experimentation will end up, if the rumours are true, in a bottle labelled ‘Johnnie Walker’ – the Bobby Charlton/David Beckham/Leo Messi (delete as age-appropriate) of Scotch whisky, and surely the last haven for complacency, if complacency were the default option.
One of the problems is that established companies – Diageo, Chivas Brothers, William Grant, Edrington – have a position in the market that makes them wary of being seen to make mistakes. That means that such experiments tend to stay under wraps until they succeed.
Rye revival: But some experiments are kept under wraps until the time is right
That only matters in terms of perception. The reality is that we’re a few years into a period of unparalleled innovation and dynamism in whisky as a whole, and in Scotch in particular. Where will it lead us?
The new generation of start-up distillers (no, I still won’t use the c-word) tends to generate more heat than light, exciting a narrow audience of über-geeks and leaving the wider, more casual audience of whisky cold. A bit like the impact of the more outré creations of Paris Fashion Week – more academic than practical.
But, when the bigger companies begin to follow the example of the newcomers – even to lead the charge – everything changes. There’s some fantastic Scotch whisky on the market right now, and not all of it is sold for an astronomical price, but how about what is to come?
By all means wax nostalgic about the whiskies of half a century ago, and bemoan their passing, but I’d rather look forward, to the great whiskies being created today, and in the years ahead. I’ll say it: we’re entering a golden age for whisky, and Scotch is ready to play a full part in that.
A positive note on which to end 2017, and begin 2018. Happy Christmas, one and all.
13 December 2017
I live a spoiled life, I know that. Every time I complain about some aspect of my work, one of my friends will stop me and say: ‘But you have the best job in the world.’ It’s pretty much true. As I say, probably too frequently, who in their right mind would pay a Glaswegian to drink and then write about his experiences?
One of the perks is getting tasting samples. Not full-size bottles, in case you were planning a raid on Broom Towers, but miniatures. That’s fine; in fact, it’s better.
There are some tasting sessions which are less exciting than others, but even those which are less stimulating will be instructive. Every bottle, every glass will open up some new possibilities, questions, revelations and ways of thinking about this thing called whisky.
Where did the flavours come from, what do they tell me about how it was made and matured, how has time impacted on it and what does it tell me about itself – and about me?
All of this means that I also, occasionally, get access to whiskies I would not otherwise be able to taste or afford. As I said, a spoiled and privileged life, but it bugs me. It bugs me especially when there’s a whisky which is so extraordinary that deserves to be tried by as many people as possible, but which will never be because it is priced at a level beyond the reach of everyone, bar a very few.
Hen’s teeth: Only 74 bottles of Bowmore 1966 50 Year Old are available
I know the arguments: rarity, preciousness, packaging (see Richard Woodard’s piece last week for more on that) and the idea that most consumer goods will have a top end, be that cars, watches, shoes, etc, etc.
I accept that logic and, reluctantly, move on. Most of the time. Sometimes it just nags away at me, not out of some sense of moral outrage, but a thought that sometimes there might just be another way.
It’s been triggered once more by the Bowmore 1966 50 Year Old. Everything about it is amazing: the liquid, the bottle, the box… and the price: £20,000. The price of a car.
Imagine the reaction when you get home from a trip ostensibly to the car showroom and explain to your partner why, instead of dangling a set of keys in front of them, you are clutching a box with a bottle of whisky in it. There again, I suppose the target consumer for this is rarely faced with that either/or dilemma.
One of the reasons for the price is that there are only 74 bottles available, and it was that which got me thinking. If the liquid is so precious, so rare, so fantastic, can you really justify bottling it in the first place? Is there an alternative?
It took me back to Cognac, specifically to the Paradis at Frapin and the large glass bonbonnes of precious liquids, some dating from pre-phylloxera times, which were held there to be used for blending (yes, guys, for blending). They have been retained because they are the treasure of that house, its symbolic core, there to be referred to and used, judiciously, over time. This is common practice in both Cognac and Armagnac.
Paradis found: In Cognac and Armagnac, old, rare spirits are preserved in glass
Why can’t whisky operate in a similar way? This isn’t an argument about whether rare whisky should be blended. Let’s leave that to one side for the time being. This is asking if there is another way to view and utilise precious stocks.
Instead of putting rare whiskies (it could be the 1966, or any other extremely limited, aged whisky) in bottles, why not put it in one glass demijohn and keep it at the distillery?
As a distiller or bottler you can then use it in a myriad of ways, while those visitors who are interested, who are willing to, yes, pay for the privilege can try a sip (and that’s all you need). In that way, more people try it, the pleasure is spread.
It could be used at events globally to show what is possible, to give people the taste of something which seems to defy logic. They gain vital knowledge, you make new converts and generate a hell of a lot more positive PR from the whole exercise. Everyone’s happy.
06 December 2017
I should be watching Andrew Watt’s skilful manipulation of the Arbortech grinder as he transforms a plain oak cabinet into a 3D representation of the dark waves of Loch Lomond, but something’s distracted me: the portable workbench he’s using has a woman’s name scribbled on it in marker pen.
‘Why Nora Batty?’ Andrew looks up, slightly embarrassed (and also way too young to remember the formidable female character from TV comedy Last of the Summer Wine). ‘Um… I guess I just like to give names to things.’
He does. A nearby station, also related to Andrew’s work on the impending Loch Lomond 50 Year Old single malt release, is entitled ‘Madame Lomonde’s Cabinet of Carvering Curiosity!’. The creative process can lead you down some strange paths.
Random pattern: Individual expression is an important facet of Method’s approach
We’re at Beecraigs Sawmill, nestled in the hills above Linlithgow in West Lothian, the home of Method Studio, the company commissioned to design and make the oak cabinets, known as ‘Tempest Chests’, for what is comfortably the oldest and most expensive whisky yet released by the Loch Lomond distillery.
I guess you’d describe the people at Method as furniture and cabinet makers, although their preferred epithet, ‘architects of objects’, hints at the deeper philosophy that underpins what they do for an impressive roster of high-end clients: Burberry, Vacheron Constantin, Jaguar Land Rover, Fortnum and Mason.
Back to that Arbortech. Andrew’s using it to delicately shave and shape the surface of the plain oak, creating a pattern of waves that isn’t a pattern at all, but deliberately and counter-intuitively random. Just like the surface of a loch, in other words.
We move across the workshop, where several sculpted cabinets sit waiting to be painted in a shade of indigo so dark that it’s almost black. Method’s founders, Marisa Giannasi and Callum Robinson, are explaining their approach, which has a strong focus on the expression of individual identity.
Carvering curiosity: Method Studio is making 60 chests for Loch Lomond’s 50yo release
There are three craftsmen making the 60 Loch Lomond cabinets – Andrew, Edward and Tommy – and, while they’re all working to the same brief, each has his own style and approach, and is actively encouraged to explore and express that in the finished article.
Tommy’s the youngest and has a tendency to ‘go at it more quickly and maybe more violently’, while Edward exudes an almost Buddha-like calm, making the ‘waters’ on his cabinet more serene. The differences are subtle but, as we look over the carved cabinets, Andrew can pick out his own – and the others’ – work.
It’s a deliberate effort to focus on and reflect the individual skill of the craftsman, and to create something unique for the final purchaser. What might be perceived as imperfections and inconsistencies elsewhere are encouraged and celebrated here.
There’s a lot of debate these days about the prices charged for these ultra-rare, ultra-old whiskies, and about just how much of that sum is accounted for by the packaging.
Final article: The ‘Tempest Chests’ are designed to echo the waters of Loch Lomond
In the case of Loch Lomond 50 Year Old (£12,000, by the way), it isn’t just about the cabinet – there’s the brass key, the Canada tan leather inlay, the hand-blown Glencairn crystal decanter and the turned brass, glass-lined vial (reminiscent of Loch Lomond’s straight-necked stills) containing a tasting sample of the whisky.
But, if whisky is going to inhabit this demi-monde of high net worth individuals and luxury launches – and it obviously is – then it’s good to see it treading its own path in doing so. No imitation perfume bottles aping the most decadent habits of the Cognaçais, and no falsely modest plain glass or puritanical cardboard cartons.
Instead, a truly bespoke (for once, that horrendously overused word is justified) package that both speaks of where the product comes from and is also, ultimately, an expression of individual character and identity. Which, after all, is what single malt whisky is all about in the first place.
29 November 2017
It can’t be easy to launch a brand, especially into as established a category as Scotch. Full credit to the brave souls who try. They are braver than I.
For it to succeed, or even just be noticed, it has to have a point of difference and, because the market is cluttered, as a brand owner you might just have to shout that little bit harder to get yourself noticed.
Or you make something with high quality that offers a new spin on flavour. The latter is time-consuming as it involves more explanation and hand-selling. The former is, maybe, easier.
Behave like a paparazzi photographer trying to get a shot of a celeb. Shout out something rude, get them to turn their head, get the money shot. Success.
In whisky, that option involves slagging off the industry, calling it ‘clichéd’ and ‘traditional’. You might want to bandy around words around like ‘haggis’ and ‘heather’ and ‘old-fashioned’, and set yourself up as the alternative.
You are Prince (less than) Charming with your flaming sword of truth (© J Aitken), cutting through the thicket of thorns to rescue the Sleeping Beauty of Scotch. Hurrah!
I’ve been doing this gig for three decades now (and on days like this I sometimes wonder why I still bother), and I know that every year there will be some ‘innovative’ and ‘unique’ Prince Charming brand launched, and each year the story of its point of difference gets that little bit more desperate.
This week we got another. I won’t mention the brand, that would be… rude. It, apparently, takes Scotch back to its ‘rebellious history’, so cue mentions of ‘renegades’, ‘rebels’, and ‘outlaws’.
Crowded market: Newcomers to Scotch sometimes have to shout to make themselves heard
The underlying idea is that, if you drink this, you too are part of this wilder, more dangerous world, which is where Scotch has to be. It’s a brand which has to be (cue today’s marketing agency buzzword) ‘disruptive’.
It’s a brand which pays homage to illicit distillers of the past, or rather the ‘independent and unorthodox distillers of the 18th century’. It cocks a snook at the stuffy industry which, according to the brand owner, has closed off the category to new drinkers, making Scotch a spirit only enjoyed by those with ‘an encyclopaedic knowledge and level of superiority’.
It goes on: ‘But rewind time, and whisky wasn’t at all like that. It was enjoyed by all, from all walks of life. In fact, it was quite rebellious.’
There’s some truth in that. Whisky has suffered from being seen as a club for men of a certain age, drinking drams of a certain type, in a specific setting, in a certain way.
The key word is ‘has’. In the past decade, whisky has consciously moved itself away from that isolationist position and become inclusive: look at the bars, the cocktails; look at the new generation of drinkers of all sexes; look at the new distilleries.
Yes, Scotch has to guard against being elitist, but this brand’s view of the category isn’t one I encounter when I go around the world. So either they have new information, or it’s simply marketing bullshit.
But hey… what of the whisky? Well, the premise behind the brand is that whisky was so much better in the 18th century, when moonshiners hid in the hills beside clear Highland burns and crafted their often smoky, high-quality spirit. Funny how brands which purport to be against marketing clichés employ them so heavily.
The reality was that the bulk of those distillers were being harried by gaugers and at the mercy of often violent smuggling gangs. They were more like the coca farmers in Colombia, in thrall to drugs cartels.
The illicit era wasn’t a time of relaxed, quality-oriented distillation. Moonshining was forced upon people because of economic and cultural oppression.
Tough times: Scotch’s illicit past was nowhere near as romantic as some would have you believe
Ok, maybe I just take a different interpretation of history, so what of this liquid which pays homage to the renegade spirit? Is it, too, made in a heather hut in the hills? Does it carry with it the contraband goût?
No. It’s a blended malt. Made at modern distilleries and therefore sourced from the allegedly unfeeling, monolithic firms which brands like this oppose.
It, apparently, is the colour of antique brass, smells of peat, honeysuckle, boiled sweets, apricots and leather books. It’s clearly been aged for a decent period in good-quality casks, just like illicit 18th-century whisky. Aye, right pal.
In saying that illicit whisky was better than what is made today, the brand owner is insulting the men and women of today’s industry and, weirdly, the very firms with which he needs to work to get the juice to continue his ‘renegade’ quest.
He’s thumbing his nose at the people who he should be asking for help. He is – and this is quite some feat – shitting on his own doorstep, standing in it and then shooting himself in the foot.
Yes, we should always challenge orthodoxy, and always look for valid ways to broaden whisky’s remit and the discussion around it. We should never be complacent, but we should also always have our bullshit detectors switched on.
This isn’t a different path for whisky. It’s not innovative or dangerous. It’s a blended malt with a marketing spin attached.
If its owner genuinely wishes to challenge the thinking surrounding Scotch, then there are options open, but that necessitates deep thinking about distillation, liquid, a knowledge of history and an understanding of the way the market could develop.
Back to the drawing board.
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