From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Welcome to the new malt order

    06 July 2016

    ‘To make a quality cocktail you need to start with quality ingredients,’ a bartender explained to me at Imbibe Live in London this week. ‘Of course,’ I agreed, ‘it goes without saying that a drink is only as good as the sum of its parts.’

    Imbibe Live was not short of quality ingredients – or boozed-up bartenders taking advantage of free entry and over 100 exhibitor stands for that matter. The UK’s largest – and loudest – bar show showcases spirits of every ilk from around the world, from Japanese-inspired American whiskey to Spanish vermouth, sweet potato spiced rum and German vodka, as well as beer, wine, sake, juices, purees and barware. Quite simply, this was bartender heaven. An all-you-can-drink (responsibly, of course) buffet.

    Though something was missing. One particular spirit didn’t seem worthy of a place among the cocktail ingredient elite, despite being arguably the most aspirational, high quality spirit in the world.

    It was easier to inadvertently bump into a new brand of tonic water than it was to track down a Scotch whisky. Where had all the Scotch brands gone? Either they’d spent their annual budget on stands at consumer whisky shows, or British consumers have become so entrenched in Scotch snobbery that brands have given up promoting their place in cocktail culture. Is Scotch forever fated to be sipped neat from cut crystal tumblers while imbibers bemoan the lack of an age statement?

    Auchentoshan's bartenders represent Scotch cocktails at Imbibe Live

    Auchentoshan’s UK brand manager told me a focus group with UK consumers found they weren’t interested in malts at the moment (need I say the G word?). If that is the case, some serious work needs to be done – by brands and bars – to bring malts back into the minds of consumers, particularly when they’re ordering cocktails. They are the vessels that will encourage a new generation of whisky drinkers to the category.

    Blends have become the defunct option when making cocktails, even though malts offer so much diversity of flavour, and are often so much more robust.

    But, I hear you gasp, why waste a perfectly good single malt Scotch in a cocktail? We’ve established that to make a quality drink you need to start with quality ingredients, and be honest, you weren’t really going to drink that NAS anyway, were you? (Generally) youthful, flavoursome and affordable, NAS is as good a place to start as any, though the chaps at Whisky Blasphemy over in Philly are using top shelf expressions in their Old Fashioneds and jelly shots.

    Made in Glasgow: Drygate stout and Auchentoshan malt shake up Imbibe Live

    We’ve grown so obsessed with putting single malt on a pedestal that it’s become taboo to taint it with anything (just ask Dave Broom and Colin Dunn about the virtues of mixing Lagavulin 16 with Coke).

    Of the three Scotch exhibitors with their own stand at Imbibe Live (we counted only an additional three brands hidden among the confines of distributors’ sprawling portfolios), only one proudly promoted whisky’s mixability in cocktails. Auchentoshan – which was showcasing its relatively new American Oak expression – went so far as to mix stout and IPA (from Drygate Brewery) with its single malt.

    ‘Welcome to the new malt order’ the bartenders’ T-shirts stated. If this is the new way of things, I thought, sipping on my Scotch ’n’ Stout cocktail, you can count me in.

  • Re-imagining the single malt drinker

    29 June 2016

    Pretending to be something you’re not hasn’t worked out well for anyone in the past. Some good examples include Top Gear’s new presenters, Chris Evans and Matt Le Blanc (who are they kidding trying to be anything other than a radio presenter and Joey Tribbiani?), Donald Trump as a serious politician, and Boris Johnson as likeable…

    It’s concerning then when one of the world’s best-selling single malt Scotch whiskies – in fact one of the first malts to be exported from Scotland in 1963 – begins taking its marketing cues from American whiskey.

    So much so that at first glance Glenfiddich’s new Rethink Whisky campaign for its 14-year-old Bourbon Barrel Reserve could easily be mistaken for an advert for Jack Daniel’s, what with its American bluegrass score and backyard BBQs.

    The next generation of single malt drinkers need to be tempted away from Bourbon

    ‘Think America’s next big whisky is from Kentucky?’ a deep, gravely American voice asks. ‘Introducing the smooth sophistication of Scotland, with the sweet kick of Kentucky.’

    The product itself is still Scotch whisky both legally and organoleptically – it’s matured in Speyside for 14 years in ex-Bourbon casks, before finishing in virgin American oak. However, the expression is described as ‘a true celebration of the American spirit, and the American whisky industry’s contribution to Scottish single malt.’ The truth is, if it were marketed any other way the comparison wouldn’t have arisen.

    As a US exclusive, Glenfiddich has positioned its ‘rich, sweet and vibrant’ Bourbon Barrel Reserve to appeal to American whiskey drinkers. How some can still claim Scotch whisky’s Bourbonisation doesn’t exist I can’t fathom, when this is a clear example.

    As I’ve previously stated on the subject, this is potentially dangerous territory. Scotch has a long-established flavour profile and reputation of its own; the second it starts masquerading as another popular style of whisky it loses that identity. Trends come and go, and in a centuries-old industry like Scotch whisky, a reliance on piggybacking onto other whiskies’ popularity could damage its reputation in the long term.

    However, I’m sticking my neck out here by saying this campaign is something to be applauded. Considering the risks of Bourbonisation to an established brand, it’s courageous of Glenfiddich to break the boundaries of convention to attract a new generation of single malt drinkers.

    Whisky as a whole has done a fine job of shrugging off its stereotype as an older man’s drink (the gains seen on Bourbon (5% according to Discus) and Irish whiskey (16%) in the US over the past few years are in some part testament to this), but single malt Scotch, as arguably the most aspirational whisky in the world, still has some way to go, despite growth of 7% to 1.46m nine-litre cases last year. Ironically, in the UK the brand is still peddling itself to the male elite, through the launch of a ‘gentleman’s whisky lounge’ at a Knightsbridge hotel.

    Stateside, however – the world’s largest malt market by volume – Glenfiddich is using its Bourbon Barrel Reserve to tempt young, modern Bourbon and American whiskey drinkers to try malt. This segment, after all, is key to the future of the category.

    Rethink whisky, the campaign says (really meaning ‘rethink single malt Scotch’), while visibly eschewing every convention associated with the product.

    In the series of four themed digital shorts that are being posted across social media, Scotch is poured not daintily but sloppily into rocks glasses that don’t match; Aunt Evie pours more than a responsible two fingers worth; and a good slug is poured over ice and handed to a woman tending the BBQ. Could Scotch get more radical?

    Next we’ll be seeing limited edition summer bottlings packaged in leather biker jackets and sporting hipster beards.

    And why not?

  • Yumi’s theory of love

    22 June 2016

    So there I was driving through Chichibu with Yumi Yoshikawa, as you do. We’d been round the distillery (she’s its brand ambassador) and were heading for what was to prove a wild and entertaining evening with the team at the town’s top whisky bar, Te Airigh [aka Terry’s Bar].

    The discussion had drifted from mizunara to Craigellachie’s Highlander Inn (where she had worked), country life, the differences between Scotland and rural Japan, and then somehow landed on how there is a branch of whisky connoisseurs who seem to hate the spirit.

    They’re the ones who, in chat rooms and at whisky shows, steer the conversation to how things were always better in the old days, who hate every new release especially if it doesn’t have an age statement on it, resent grain, lauter tuns, steam coils, and shell and tube condensers. Whisky would be better if it were made by noble Highland heroes in bothies hidden in the heather. Until that happens it will continue to be driven ever closer to the edge of a precipice by unscrupulous large distillers (there’s a scale of approval in this mindset which works in inverse proportion to the size of the producer – those who set themselves up as 21st century Highland Heroes in the Heather are safe from scorn).

    I worry about them, and on occasion have mused why if whisky is so bad they don’t move to rum, or Cognac, or Armagnac. Not that I want them to go away – every bottle of Scotch sold is a good thing. I do wonder where the rage comes from, however.

    I finished my rant. Then Yumi said: ‘Maybe people who care passionately about whisky express it in the same way as you do with a lover: you want them to be perfect, ideal, to fit your own idea of what they should be and reflect your love of them. Because they don’t always meet your expectations you complain about them, but it’s only because you love them.’

    Love knows no boundaries when it comes to whisky​

    It made perfect sense. In any case, am I any different with my rants about the need for a wider range of yeasts and worries about direct fire being taken out of some distilleries leading to a loss of character? (The latter is top of mind as I’m currently in a country where direct fire has been reinstalled in distilleries because it gives character). I wasn’t giving up though.

    ‘Surely though, love can also be possessive and jealous? You know, “I want you to myself and no-one else can get you. I am the only one who can understand you.” It starts out as a love story and ends up with a bunny in a pot.’

    Passion is one thing and is something we all have for this spirit, but passion can easily tip over into antagonism. The solution, surely, is tolerance. There is, as the Persuaders once sang, a thin line between love and hate and the latter is never surely the solution to any debate.

    I’m with Yumi, but I’m keeping a weather eye on what’s cooking in the kitchen.

  • Rum, Scotch and the rules of the game

    14 June 2016

    ‘Glenfiddich single malt: made in Italy.’ Can you imagine that on a label? If you can, then can you also envisage the stooshie that would ensue?

    Just before lawyers start sharpening their quills and calculating their fees, this has not happened. Neither will it happen. It won’t, because Scotch is one of the most tightly regulated spirits in the world. It has controls and laws covering everything from production to labelling.

    Some firms may occasionally chafe against the limits of these rules, but they are there for a good reason – such as stopping people making ‘Glenfiddich’ anywhere other than in Scotland.

    It sounds an absurd notion that an internationally recognised brand would have its name stolen by another firm, which then placed it on one of its own bottles. I mean to say, old boy, there’re things called trademarks. It’s just not done to steal another chap’s rights in this fashion. To which I say: welcome to the happy world of rum.

    Just two weeks ago, Bacardi announced the US-wide distribution of a brand called ‘Havana Club’, but made in Puerto Rico. Yes, I know. Havana is in Cuba. What’s more, Havana Club is a trademarked Cuban rum brand. Even the US recognises this. Bacardi, however, doesn’t accept this state of affairs.

    The launch of Puerto Rican ‘Havana Club’ is the firm’s latest attempt to ensure that Cuban rum cannot enter the United States and has more to do with spite and a fear of the erosion of brand share than it has of upholding any noble legal position.

    Havana Club logo

    Rum do: Bacardi’s Havana Club is produced in Puerto Rico

    A Scotch whisky site isn’t the place to enter into the intricacies of the long-running case – which is making various lawyers very rich – but it is evidence of how important strong regulations are in protecting brand rights.

    The current argument in rum – which has acquired the same heat as NAS in Scotch – is over sugar addition. In some countries adding sugar is banned, in others it is legal. Neither is there an upper limit on how much sugar can be added – as there is with cachaça or Cognac – or whether it should be declared on the label.

    Those who add sugar (and other additives such as vanilla and citrus) say it isn’t illegal, and anyway it has been common practice for centuries (which is true). Those who are against it say it fools drinkers into thinking rum is sweet, covers up immaturity and erodes distillery and national rum character. Can you imagine a similar debate in Scotch? No. Because the sugar issue wouldn’t arise.

    Rum has another issue, this time over age statements. In some countries – Cuba and Puerto Rico, for example – the new distillate has to spend a minimum amount of time in cask before it can be called rum. In others it’s rum as soon as it appears in the spirit safe.

    In some countries – Cuba, the English- and French-speaking Caribbean – the age declared on the label is defined by the youngest component in the blend. In others, where solera aging is practised, an average age is calculated. Some firms simply put a number on the bottle. Result: confusion. Again, could this happen in Scotch? No.

    Most rum producers agree that tighter regulations are needed and look at Scotch with a certain degree of envy, but it is difficult to achieve consensus as rum is already governed by various and occasionally conflicting national regulations. It is unlikely that global regulations could ever be applied.

    The result is that a major part of rum education involves trying to explain all of these differing ways of making the product and cutting a clear path through the confusion – before you can even start talking about the spirit in a balanced, generic fashion.

    So for those who rail against Scotch’s rules – be careful what you wish for.

  • Kilchoman’s lessons for whisky start-ups

    08 June 2016

    In December 2005, when spirit first ran from the stills at Kilchoman, it became Islay’s eighth working distillery, and the first new one in about 120 years. Now there are plans, at various stages of development, for at least three more.

    It’s a picture repeated across Scotland, around the world. We live in an era of whisky renaissance, where anyone with a dream and a beneficent investor can become a distiller. Exciting – but risky – times.

    Anthony Wills had a dream when he drew up plans for Kilchoman soon after the millennium. Fast-forward to the distillery’s open day at this year’s Fèis Ìle, when long queues for the superb festival bottling snaked out of the shop and into the grounds, and you might think that the previous decade or so had been one long upward curve. Far from it.

    ‘I never imagined that within 10 years of starting this distillery we would be where we are now,’ an emotional Wills told a Fèis masterclass audience. ‘My dream was to start a distillery and put [the whisky] on the market at a relatively young age.’

    Events conspired to fuel his early doubts. The need to raise more cash, the falling-out with the adjacent landowner, the fire that put the maltings out of commission for a year… The burst pipes, the temperamental boilers… Things go wrong at distilleries, particularly new distilleries, and they’re generally not cheap or easy to fix.

    All valuable lessons for any wannabe whisky-maker. Wills has previously said that, if you think you need £5m in funding, you really need £10m. But things can go right, as well as wrong.

    Kilchoman stoppers

    Uniquely Islay: Kilchoman has had its ups and downs over the past decade and more

    Kilchoman bought the adjacent farm in November last year, ending those rows over the garden fence. Controlling the land means the business can plant more barley for its flagship 100% Islay product – 150 tons this year, up from 100 tons previously – and there are plans for a new malting floor and kiln to be operational by next spring. Total production will be close to 200,000 litres this year; in 2006, it was just 50,000 litres.

    Through all of these ups and downs, the central message of the spirit – created and reinforced by Jim Swan and the late John MacLellan – has remained constant. Small stills, narrow neck to the spirit still, ploughing cash into cask sourcing and letting top-quality wood work its magic.

    And it’s paid off. That exuberant young spirit has shaken off its puppy fat and become something richer and more complex, even in less than a decade: this year’s outstanding Fèis bottling is well under nine years old, and cask samples suggest it is no one-off.

    That, in turn, has given Wills a dilemma: what to release and what to hold on to. ‘We will keep stock back for older bottlings,’ he promises. ‘That’s crucial to the long-term future of the distillery.’

    That said, he doesn’t see Kilchoman releasing a 25- or 30-year-old bottling in the 2030s, reckoning that sweet, floral spirit will hit its peak somewhere between eight and 14 years. I’m not so sure he’s right, but it’ll be fun finding out.

    Wills reckons he could write a book on what not to do when building a distillery which, by its nature, would also be a valuable guide on how to do it right. Part cautionary tale and part inspiration, the Kilchoman self-help manual ought be a best-seller among the emerging new generation of whisky-makers.

  • Expensive but poor cocktails can jog on

    01 June 2016

    One of the most memorable cocktails I ever had – one that honestly gave me a ‘wow’ moment and, dear readers, a single malt-based drink – was From Dusk Till Dawn at the The Gibson in London. It was one of those concoctions featuring such exotic ingredients I expected David Attenborough to sweep through the door with a camera crew: Capuacu butter wash Craigellachie 13 Year Old, Valerian root and tamari soya, black garlic honey, millet amazake and fresh lemon. Yeah, I only recognised the whisky and the lemon juice too, and thought Valerian root was a Game of Thrones reference.

    Often enough bars get carried away listing ingredients with unpronounceable names and elaborate garnishes without a thought for flavour. Not this drink. This was sublime. One of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting to know, and great value for money at £11.

    No, journalism does not pay enough to warrant a Gibson visit very often, but on the rare occasion I do shell out for a cocktail I want a good one.

    From Dusk Till Dawn: a cocktail worth parting with your money for​

    Now, I’ve had the fortune of drinking in some of the best bars in the world, most of them destination bars for good reason – they create cocktails worth a thousand mile trip and a £10-20 hole in my pocket. Others, unfortunately, are more like the Kardashians – beautiful to behold but lacking substance.

    The price of a cocktail – or wine, whisky or beer for that matter – in a high end bar includes the pleasure of sitting in beautiful surroundings, enjoying an ’elite’ experience, but surely the quality of the drink comes into play as well?

    While on my holidays last week, a friend recommended I pop into the most extravagant and historic hotel in Marrakech for a drink in their bar – named after a famous British Prime Minister, and rumoured to be an experience I wouldn’t want to miss.

    Unfortunately the live jazz pianist and charms of the bartender weren’t enough to make up for the poor quality of the drinks: an eggy and unbalanced ‘Lapsang Souchong-smoked’ sour made with Laphroaig 10 Year Old and a watery Old Fashioned (made Pendennis Club-style) with Luxardo maraschino liqueur instead of a cherry. At £20 each, these were more expensive than most London bars. More so than a cocktail at London’s Artesian, the luxurious hotel bar voted the world’s best by Drinks International several times over.

    Now I understand Marrakech is hardly London or New York – the two great cocktail capitals of the world – and this is hardly the first time I’ve been disappointed by an excessively-priced drink in a five-star hotel, but some perspective must be heeded where pricing is concerned. That, or bartenders need to up their game.

    Bars needn’t be elaborate with their drinks to gain favour – simple classic cocktails executed with precision are enough to put a smile on my face, despite a high price tag. I’d happily hand over a tenner for a sumptuous Old Fashioned (made with Scotch, of course), down my local boozer, so long as it was made well.

    Incidentally, you can still try From Dusk Till Dawn at The Gibson (and I recommend you do). Meanwhile, my ‘friend’ with less trustworthy recommendations will be buying the next round.

  • Fèis Ìle 2016 remembered

    31 May 2016

    Looking back on my first Fèis Ìle, I think two things in particular surprised me: the funnels; and the abundant sunshine. For anyone who visited the festival this year, the latter – barring one damp, midgy afternoon on Jura – needs no explanation. We’ll get to the funnels later.

    Even Jura had its moment in the sun. The decision to split its distillery day in two paid off with a glorious Wednesday. Everywhere else, from the exuberant birthday celebrations at Lagavulin to the practically tropical Ardbeg Night shindig a week later, had no reason to complain. ‘You should have been here last year,’ said one veteran Fèisophile with a sad shake of the head. ‘Hideous. Absolutely hideous.’

    Every distillery does it slightly differently during Fèis. As ever, there were queues, most notably at Bowmore, where the fervour to get hold of this year’s bottlings had the dizzy air of the January sales or the first day at Wimbledon. Manager David Turner left the distillery on Tuesday night at about 9.45pm, to be greeted by a dozen hardened Bowmore groupies, desperate to get their hands on one of the 200 Vintage Edition bottles the following morning.

    Others played it differently; there were queues at Lagavulin and Kilchoman, sure, but there were also sufficient quantities of whisky available to satisfy everyone (I think). Ardbeg and Bunnahabhain put their Fèis bottlings up for sale on the Monday; Ardbeg’s and Jura’s will also be sold more widely afterwards.

    There’s a debate to be had here: at one end of the spectrum, the desire to give festival-goers something special and exclusive – but what if you end up disappointing hundreds, who queue for hours only to come away with a bottling from the core range, a fridge magnet and a baseball cap?

    On the other hand, why bother to come all the way to Islay to snag that Fèis bottling if you can order it off the internet a few days later? Somewhere between these two poles, a happy medium must exist.

    Ardbeg Day

    Night and day: Ardbeg’s open day was perhaps the most inventive and original

    There were one or two other gripes among the dedicated festival-goers. While some distilleries made a clear effort to innovate and offer new attractions and activities to keep things fresh for long-time visitors – Ardbeg being perhaps the most shining example – others stuck to the same formula as before. There’s a fine line between ‘tried and tested’ and tedium.

    Contrast this feeling with the buzz surrounding this year’s Spirit of Speyside festival, where visitors were spoilt for choice, with hundreds more events taking place in a much shorter period than the Fèis. Is it just that more distilleries = greater competition = more creativity and dynamism?

    Accommodation is another issue. Of course Ileach business owners want to make the most of their busiest week of the year, but when the punters decide that hiring a camper van is a cheaper and better option than taking a room, something’s gone slightly awry. Reports of vacancies and cancellations reinforce the point, as does the sight of mobile homes trying to edge past each other on the narrow roads to Kilchoman or Bunnahabhain.

    At the end of what was almost entirely a joyous and sun-filled week, these might sound like ungracious quibbles, but an event like Fèis has to keep asking itself difficult and searching questions to become even better than before, and to keep those utterly passionate whisky nuts flocking to this small island from all over the world.

    And the funnels? I first spotted them at Jura, then they resurfaced at Bunnahabhain when, as a masterclass concluded, the two people either side of me surreptitiously decanted the remains of their cask samples into sample bottles (always best to use a funnel when you’ve had a few drams), carefully inscribing them with a handy marker pen.

    Beyond recalling Islay's proud smuggling heritage, it also prompted me to wonder what will become of these whiskies. Retasted later, at leisure? Or taken home to Germany, Finland and South Africa, to be squirrelled away and then dug out again at some future date – Islay malt's bootleg tapes?

    Either way, it illustrates the kind of near-obsessive fascination that this annual whisky extravaganza inspires. Only at Fèis…

  • The long road to Islay

    24 May 2016

    ‘There’s a slow food festival in the Burren next weekend.’ Leslie Williams was giving me the hard sell. ‘You should come…’ The last night of talk at Ballymaloe followed the same pattern as always when gently lubricated friends sit round the table. You don’t want things to end… a few more days are needed to finish conversations and deepen relationships. Time runs away from our plotting and scheming.

    His idea was a good one – stopping off at the festival, then hiring a boat and bobbing under the Cliffs of Moher eating the Burren Smokehouse’s wild salmon and sipping whiskey. It might have been the wonderful, and rare, Alicante wine he was dosing me with, but for more than a second I swithered.

    Islay was calling though, and I had to get there as quickly as I could, which turned out to be not as quickly as you might imagine. Drive to Cork, train to Dublin, bus to Dublin airport… and a wait. Things did take a turn for the better when I asked for a Bloody Mary at the bar and got two. Maybe it’s the accent – and you can take that whatever way you wish.

    In any case, I slept all the way from Dublin to Glasgow. As I sat waiting for FlyBe to consult their Bumper Book of Excuses and choose one to apply to the inevitable delay to the Islay flight, I mused that with a bit more planning I could have grazed my way up the Wild Atlantic Way trail to Ballycastle, then get a RIB across to Islay. Next year.

    It would have been appropriate. The sea was the great roadway of the past, carrying wisdom, goods, warfare and the gospel. Islay’s place names are a mix of Norse and Gaelic, evidence of the meeting of sea-faring cultures from the north and south.

    Distilling could have nipped across from Ballycastle to Islay with the Macbeathas at the start of the 14th century. Islay is not remote, or isolated, but a crossroads, a fulcrum in terms of geography, politics and knowledge.

    When I finally reached Port Ellen, I looked down the street to where the red ‘T’ of the Ardview shone in the gloaming like a blood stain, beckoning me. I like the Ardview: it’s one of those old west coast pubs which seems to be part boat, a place of creaking wood and hidden rooms, its windows battened down, sheltering the drinking crew from the storms of life raging outside. The door to the lounge bar is painted shut as if to say: ‘This is a public place.’

    Port Ellen at dawn

    Final destination: The pink-and-blue dawn at a revitalised Port Ellen​

    Big Margaret’s curry house has been transformed into the very smart SeaSalt Bistro. Soon there was a clattering midden of scallop shells beside me. All for a minuscule price, with free hairdressing advice thrown in.

    Men in kilts wander past – a sure sign of overseas visitors. The bar of the Islay Hotel is bouncing with music as drams are drunk and elbows are bent again and again, the fumes of peat wreathing themselves around the room. Port Ellen, after years of decline, is alive once more.

    Now it’s morning. The loch is calm, a pink-and-blue dawn as housemartins and jackdaws fuss about the eaves. In a few hours I’ll wander along the road to Laphroaig and then up to Lagavulin, where I’ve been promised some unusual cocktails.

  • Ballymaloe and the provenance of oak

    23 May 2016

    There is a noted phenomenon in the world of food and drink called ‘The Ballymaloe Trickle-Down Effect’. A thought, or philosophy, or technique starts at Ballymaloe House Hotel and Cookery School in Co Cork and slowly permeates culture in Ireland, then globally.

    Every year, when the skies are cornflower blue and the feeling of potentiality is bursting from the ground, Ballymaloe hosts a Litfest of Food & Wine, to which the migratory birds of the culinary and libatory world flock in order to discuss and debate.

    It’s a place which links people, creates connections. On Saturday night, for example, the talk was of psychobiotics and kimchi, kefir, the Viagra-like potential of nettles, and olive oil production on Lesbos. The conversations drifted from wine to gin to stovies, all underpinned by a belief in provenance, diversity, tradition, modernisation and a fierce love of the local. Is whisky part of this? Damned right it is.

    Yesterday afternoon I spent an hour co-presenting a class with Kevin O’Gorman, Irish Distillers’ master of maturation (yes, that is his job title). We were talking wood, oak type, flavour, mechanisms and the effects on single pot still whiskeys.

    He and the team had done the heavy lifting, I just rambled on about the drams. Give me a Redbreast and I’m happy. It was the last whiskey, though, which opened up a new world.

    IDL’s Midleton Dair Ghaelach is finished in Irish oak casks. It’s more than that, however. It’s the product of a six-year programme which covered sourcing, coopering, maturation and then releasing a whiskey which not only named the type of oak used, but which forest it came from, and which specific tree was used.

    Oak is central to Ireland. Dair (oak) was the seventh letter of the Ogham alphabet, it gives us Derry and Kildare (church of the oak), it formed the sacred groves of old, and it gave timber for ships, houses and palaces. 

    The only reasons why distillers in Ireland and Scotland use second-hand casks is because the native forests were clear-cut. If they had been managed, then the whiskies would have been significantly different.

    Oak forests

    From tiny acorns: Could anyone in Scotch emulate Irish Distillers’ innovation?

    The first issue faced by Kevin and his colleague Ger Buckley (Ireland’s number one cooper), therefore, was finding the oak. Ireland has the second smallest coverage of forest in Europe – a mere 10%, only 1% of which is native woodland. Although there is a reforestation programme under way, there’s not a lot of mature oak about.

    Certainly a dramatic change from the days, Kevin claimed, when it was said that a monkey could swing its way from Kinsale to Derry without touching the ground. I’m still not quite sure what’s more surprising: the extent of the forest, or the fact that there were once Irish monkeys.

    They sourced 10 trees from Ballaghtobin Estate in Co Kilkenny which, followed by Ger, were coopered into hogsheads in Spain, given a medium toast, then returned to Ireland to be filled with a blend of three types of American oak-matured pot still whiskey for a 10-month period of finishing. The casks from each tree were kept separate.

    The first batch were all Quercus robur, but Ireland’s terroir makes this wider-grained, with more tannin, higher extract and a different flavour profile. They have subsequently felled, or identified, Quercus petraea and Quercus cerris (aka Turkey oak) from other forests.

    Traceability, provenance – and different flavour profiles. Forget single estate, we’re now in the realm of single tree. Only Buffalo Trace has gone further in terms of wood research, I suspect.

    The result? A whiskey with pot still’s unctuous nature, but a completely new flavour profile – there’s added roasted nuts and spices and a heavy chestnut honey element, allied to blackcurrant, clove and dried soft fruit. A whiskey which makes your knees tremble.

    So, once again, the Irish have got there first. I know Glengoyne did a Scottish oak years ago, but not to this level of forensic detail. Could Scotch do something similar to Dair Ghealach? Scotland’s forest is in a poor state, but not as low in terms of coverage as Ireland’s, and there is a target for 4,500ha of native species to be planted every year, helping to reforest 25% of the country by the middle of the century.

    So in theory, yes, there could be a Scotch equivalent, adding further profound links between land and spirit. Irish Distillers is doing it, Japanese whisky-makers are managing the tiny amount of mizunara forests and are replanting to give it a sustainable future.

    If Scotch is serious about provenance, it would be daft not to explore this area. From tiny acorns, ideas trickle down.

  • Whisky’s role in Russia’s doping scandal

    17 May 2016

    We live in an age when every element of a brand’s image is constantly and painstakingly controlled, fine-tuned; this press release picked apart by an in-house committee of sceptics, that new label endlessly trialled in focus groups.

    Each potential association or partnership is carefully vetted – will this project chime with our target consumer? Does that celebrity share our brand’s values and reinforce its core strengths?

    But you can’t control everything. Take the case of the Russian doping scandal and Chivas Regal.

    In a jaw-dropping New York Times article last week, former Russian anti-doping chief Grigory Rodchenkov lays bare the scale and sophistication of that country’s alleged doping programme, especially in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

    Years of planning, cloak-and-dagger stuff involving the FSB (successor to the KGB), swapping urine samples via a hole in the wall to ensure drugs cheats escaped detection. Russia finished top of the medals table. No athlete was caught.

    Since named as the lynchpin in Russia’s allegedly state-sponsored doping programme, Rodchenkov was forced to resign and fled to Los Angeles (while two of his former colleagues died suddenly shortly afterwards in Russia).

    Flags at the Sochi Winter Olympics

    Head start: Did Russia's athletes use drugs (and Chivas Regal) at the Sochi Winter Olympics? (Photo: kremlin.ru)

    The intricacies of the Russian programme, he claims, took many years to perfect, particularly his favoured cocktail of performance-enhancing substances, which involved three anabolic steroids – metenolone, trenbolone and oxandrolone – designed to aid recovery and maintain peak performance.

    But it’s the method of delivery that interests us: to accelerate the absorption of the substances and to reduce the window within which detection was possible, Rodchenkov dissolved the drugs in alcohol to a precise recipe – 1mg of steroid cocktail per 1ml of alcohol.

    Given that this is Russia, you might have thought a patriotic shot of vodka would do the trick, but no… Chivas Regal Scotch whisky for the male athletes; Martini vermouth for the women. Discerning choices perhaps, but listen carefully and you can hear the heads of the respective brand managers hitting their desks.

    Then again, come to think of it – a dram for the men and a nice glass of Martini for the ladies? I’m not sure what’s most shocking here – the allegations of a massive doping programme and cover-up… or the casually sexist way in which it was perpetrated.

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