Rare bottlings, new releases, cocktails and masterclasses in this not-to-be-missed annual show.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
10 October 2016
You can tell by looking into their eyes. There’s a mildly crazed look, half sleep deprivation, with a dash of jetlag, mixed with just a soupçon of excess, garnished with a rasping throat.
Autumn is the time of year when the big consumer fairs, cocktail competitions and trade shows all crash together like mastodons, the fallout from the collision felt in the liver of each participant. We carry the battle scars with pride.
Not that I’m complaining; I’d rather be doing this than working down a mine – or working anywhere come to think of it. The close proximity of the shows does, however, produce a blurring effect which makes you – hopefully – see things in a new way.
It started as ever with Whisky Live Paris, which was – as the report will tell you – as inspiring as ever. It also seeded the idea of a breaking down of barriers. I’m old and grey enough to recall the times when ‘other spirits’, indeed ‘other whiskies’ were relegated to a different room, then rooms and then a wing.
Now, while there are zones containing each category people flow naturally from one to the other, pausing from their dramming to taking a Cognac here, a grappa there, now a rum or three, and then downstairs for gin. In one sense it was liberating. In another, you couldn’t help but wonder what Scotch’s role might be in this new egalitarian world.
Class act: Diageo World Class finalists didn’t shy away from Scotch
Twenty-four hours later I was sheened with sweat beside a Miami swimming pool watching the global finals of Diageo’s World Class competition, the world’s toughest test for bartenders.
Scotch has steadily inveigled itself into the event. Rarely used in early years, it now has equal billing with other quality spirits. No eyes widen when a bartender reaches for a single malt or blend to make a drink.
This year, Scotch again had its own challenge, as evil a test as I have witnessed. The finalists had to identify whiskies in a blind tasting, then dissect a blend and say what percentage of each whisky was in it, before plotting said blend on a flavour map, tasting a cocktail made with the blend and saying what the other component parts were. Impossible? Damn right.
Even though I always thought the idea of blending was to subsume individuality in favour of unity, thus making separation well-nigh impossible, this was still fiendishly difficult. Anyone who did well has a palate to die for, so step forward the winner of the challenge, Dandelyan’s Aidan Bowie.
As well as surreptitiously sipping mezcal (as any sensible person should), we talked Scotch, its future and the way in which throughout its history it has always been flavoured, mixed and lengthened.
Our weapons? An ‘improved’ Mamie Taylor made with Johnnie Walker Red (which like most standard blends is intended to be drunk long) and what has become a standby, Lagavulin and Coke. Before anyone writes in complaining about the latter – guys, it works as a combination but it is not the only way to drink this malt, merely an option.
If Scotch is to grow its presence behind the bar, then there has to be an acceptance that it has a role to play in mixed drinks as well as being excellent when taken neat, with rocks or water. Those who want to enjoy a single malt on its own are right – it is an amazing multi-faceted drink. But it is the fact that it is an amazing multi-faceted drink that means it has a role to play in bartending when used in a considerate and judicious manner.
Anyhow, from there it was overnight to London for the Whisky Show where the balance, as Angus MacRaild rightly points out, was perfectly struck between the ultra-rare ‘dream drams’ – the Bowmore class featuring Tempest, 1970s Deluxe, 25-year-old Small Batch, 30-year-old Sea Dragon, Black Bowmore and 1964 will go down in legend (and more on this later) – and new releases.
The Whisky Show: Imbibers were brought together by their love for Scotch and other whisky styles
Like Paris, this wasn’t restricted to Scotch. Amrut appeared with a 100% malted rye, there was Westland’s Garryana oak and the English Whisky Company’s pot still grain to name but three on the floor. In the ‘three masters’ class, Suntory’s Shinji Fukuyo blew us all away with the first all-Mizunara (Japanese oak) blend, which had that restless innovator Dr Bill Lumsden of Glenmorangie salivating.
As with Paris, or Miami, there was a sense of tectonic plates continuing to shift. It is not as simplistic as Scotch being under threat, rather that the drinker is more open-minded as to where their whisky (or beverage) comes from. Prejudices are being shelved; quality and character rule.
This, as I’m sure I’ve said before, offers a great opportunity for Scotch. Rather than just leading, it can build on this interest and further develop its own identity.
That’s one to ponder on my way to Bar Convent Berlin today following last week’s annual London Cocktail Week...
Rest? Who needs it?
30 September 2016
9.21pm, Wednesday, 21 September, One Marylebone, London; Diageo Special Releases tasting:
‘Have you done the maths?... I’m sure you have.’
The last question I was asked at Diageo’s Special Releases tasting was also the most perplexing (but, when you’ve just tasted 10 cask strength whiskies, perhaps that’s not surprising).
Had I done the maths? Well, I’d worked out that the nine age-stated whiskies among this year’s 10 Special Releases (barring Cragganmore) had a collective minimum age of 250 years-plus. Was that what my fellow taster meant?
‘No no no. The Port Ellen. Less than 3,000 bottles for £2,500 a pop. That’s nearly £7.5m!’
As Oscar Wilde once wrote, a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. So – for just a moment – let’s be cynical.
If we strip out Caol Ila and Lagavulin from this year’s Special Releases (unknown, but ‘limited’, quantities available), we have eight whiskies, 32,618 bottles, worth £22,551,020. Average price per bottle? £691.37.
Lucrative line-up: Secondary market trends have forced up Special Releases pricing
How did we get here? Simple. If you sell a product for a few hundred quid, then see the person who buys it flip it shortly afterwards for a few thousand, you might want to rethink your pricing strategy. This year’s Port Ellen takes a bit longer to sell out? So be it.
I get that. The confusion kicks in when I taste the whisky. Not because it’s bad. Not because it’s anything other than excellent, in fact. It is, indeed, special, in almost every case. But that beguiling Auchroisk 25-year-old that wouldn’t let me go? It’s £280 and it’s my bargain of the tasting. I still can’t afford it.
At the end of the room, the salivating masses jostling for a drop of the latest four-figure Brora and Port Ellen might have been queuing for a thimbleful of the latest en primeur Lafite or Latour.
And why shouldn’t it? If we can agree that the finest Scotch offers a transformative, transcendent sensory experience, why would the monetary value placed on it differ from fine wine, designer fashion, classic cars or luxury watches?
I left Brora and Port Ellen, and went back to the near-deserted Auchroisk table, and was happy. But it’s still £280, and I have a toddler, a house that needs work and a mortgage, so I’ll buy the Lagavulin – or, more likely, nothing at all.
11.58am, Tuesday, 20 September, The Union Club, Soho, London; White Horse retrospective tasting:
‘How good is that? Seriously, how good is that?’
Spirits entrepreneur Marcin Miller has the air of a proud father as he contemplates the glass in his hand. We’re not sure quite how old this whisky of his is, but best guess is it’s a pre-war bottling of White Horse. And it is, on its own terms, without even a thought of its age and provenance, stunning.
Tasting old bottlings is a hugely entertaining (when they’re not yours) game of Russian roulette. Of the six on show, three are at various stages of decrepitude thanks to closure imperfections; three, including this pre-war bottling, are simply beautiful.
Russian roulette: Tasting old bottlings is a fascinating and entertaining exercise
Their combined value, at current prices, is roughly equivalent to a bottle of the 2016 Special Release Brora. When they were purchased… Well, they were somewhat cheaper. And, even when they’re not perfect, they are huge fun to open.
So yes, I have done the maths. I loved the Special Releases, and it was a privilege to taste them, but that particular market has left me, and most people I know, behind. I’m a little sad about that, but not bitter or angry, because I’ve seen fine Bordeaux and Burgundy do the same in my lifetime, and these whiskies deserve that kind of billing.
And yes, I could go back again to that near-deserted Auchroisk table, and be happy. But: £280; toddler; house; mortgage. So I’ll buy some early 1980s White Horse instead. And be happier still.
27 September 2016
We walk down the hill, detectors aloft, waiting for the click as the orange glow of Brighton dips away. The sun has gone. Sheep sit like boulders in the grass; a crow on a fencepost pretends to be an owl. It’s a time of settling down and seeming silence.
I did my first bat walk on Islay, leaving the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) centre at Loch Gruinart and heading along the road towards the loch in the gloaming, as long-eared and pipistrelle bats flitted out of farm buildings and started dive-bombing us for the mealworms we were flinging into the darkening air. When we arrived home, we bought two bat detectors to reveal this invisible sound world.
As we pass the badger sett, the bat calls start sounding like some strange mutant dub, growing in intensity as we group together in a little glade listening as they loop crazily above our heads, caught in torch beams guzzling gnats, fattening up for a long sleep. A tawny owl, hidden in the trees, starts murmuring.
Nocturnal behaviour: Can the sights and sounds of silent distilleries be recorded, like bats?
This magical little place is Balsdean. It was once a hamlet – just two farms, some workers’ cottages and a Norman chapel. The chapel went first, converted into a barn. One of the farms was next, spending time as a lunatic asylum. The final farm was evacuated in 1940 and the buildings used as target practice by the Canadian infantry.
Nothing is left; a community gone, leaving the hollow to the bats, owls, shapeshifting crows and startled sheep.
It’s strange how fragile things are, how places can just be wiped away; made invisible. It happens with whisky too. The Balsdean bats reminded me of a chat I’ve been having with photographer Sean Dooley about a potential project.
Not a catalogue and history of lost distilleries – that has been well-charted by Brian Townsend (there’s a new edition of his excellent book just out) – but how silent stills act as palimpsests, images of empty spaces, an examination of the untrustworthy nature of memory.
Is a former distillery site always just that, or does the space change as its former use is forgotten? Can echoes still be heard in each location? What sort of detector do we need for that? A camera? Words?
Thoughts about silent stills were floating about anyway, what with Brora and Port Ellen making their annual reappearance at the 2016 Diageo Special Releases tasting, the ghosts at the feast. I’m doing a tasting of two 50-year-old Karuizawas later today. The same applies there.
Drinking whiskies from silent stills becomes a process of exhumation because the distilleries only live in the taste. With each sip there is one less mouthful in the world, with each swirl of the glass more aromas are released never to return. With each year, the men who worked there dwindle.
Perhaps there’s little surprise that when we encounter whiskies such as these we lapse into sentimentalism and reverence. Critical faculties are suspended because we have all been brought up not to speak ill of the dead.
Better, surely, not to mourn but celebrate, and when tasting them meditate on the transience of things and the invisible world.
16 September 2016
Late night in downtown Bangalore: street food carts and alleys, electrical shops and eye clinics, faltering neon. Push through crowds along rutted pavements, with the constant pulse of horns and drone of motorbike engines, down some steps into a blasted out concrete bunker with a warren of side rooms.
Men – all men – move in a strange choreography, weave and dodge to the high bar, order from the pink shirted barkeep, hands blurring as a tetra pak of local whisky is bought, corner snipped, its contents poured into a glass, topped with water and brought to mouth.
Some slam it back, some take three gulps and others stand in groups talking. More take their place – order, hand over notes, take the packet, snip, pour, top up, drink… and repeat.
Apart from one guy who buys two miniatures of 100 Pipers for his ritual serve, everything served was local. This is whisky drinking Indian style.
Why isn’t Scotch breaking through? Look around. ‘We have two sorts of connoisseurs,’ my friend Vikram tells me. ‘The single malt ones and these guys. Don’t be fooled. They know what they want and if you alter your whisky in any way, they will tell you. Their fathers drank this brand, and their grandfathers.’
With Scotch three times as expensive as the local whisky, it looks like a tough road for many brands – but I’m not concerned here about strategic approaches for Scotch. Daniel Jones has done that recently (and if you haven’t read his piece yet, I recommend that you do, here). Instead, standing there in the noise and elbow jostle it made me wonder what we think of when we think of whisky, and what that response says about our own prejudices.
Logic suggests that the best place to see how whisky is drunk is where the bulk of whisky is consumed – call it a pub, dive bar, cantina, shebeen, or these ‘retail’ and ‘wines’ in India. You find them in almost every country – the hole in the wall where people have always congregated to drink, sing, debate and laugh. Places of domino tile slam and noise, camaraderie and purposeful drinking.
The whisky could be a taken from a bottle on a table, or in bulbous glasses littering the bar; in half-pints of Highballs in red-faced, sleeved-shirt, smoke-filled izakayas beside the tracks in Japan, or here in the dim light of snip and drink India. You don’t find out how South Africa drinks whisky by cowering in five star hotel bars in Sandton, but by going to Sowetan shebeens.
What whisky? What we call ‘standard’ brands. Whisky might have gained credibility and momentum when it became an acceptable middle class drink but it has continued to be built in places like these, and by brands such as these.
As a category, Scotch cannot survive on cocktails or high-priced single malts. There always has to be something (and by extension someone) doing the heavy lifting, and that will be what is known as – often dismissively – ‘standard’ blends.
Whisky grew thanks to Jack or Jim, or the two Johns – Jameson and Walker. (Enough of the Js, Ed). Yes, single malt is vital to the growing health of Scotch. It widens the notion of what whisky is (and can be), pulls in new drinkers, gussies the image up, and it will continue to have a growing influence. But – and it’s a big but – the importance of the ‘standard’ brand remains crucial.
It’s also worth pausing to consider what ‘standard’ means – a word for the basic, or instead something which sets a standard? Don’t sneer at them, don’t dismiss them, because when you do, you insult the people who drink (and make) them.
Instead, next time you are in a bar order one, mix it and enjoy.
12 September 2016
Was it a surprise that Sazerac stepped in? Initially, perhaps, but when you take a look at how it has developed its Bourbon portfolio – almost single-handedly creating a super-premium sector – you can begin to see why it views The Last Drop as a natural partner to brands such as van Winkle (which it distributes), Blanton’s and its annual Antique Collection limited release series. The firm was quite open in claiming that buying The Last Drop will ‘allow [it] to extend its portfolio into the super-premium, craft market’.
It is certainly good for The Last Drop. The issue for firms such as this is, obviously, access to stock. The Last Drop is well named as it specialises in the rarest of the rare – precious and unusual whiskies. The advantage of this business model is that they are able to supply what few others can.
Unusual offerings: The Last Drop specialises in the rarest of rare spirits
Its drawback is that, by their very nature, these whiskies are in short supply – mere dribbles in some cases. How can you grow a business which stands on the pinnacle of the finite? The answer, it would seem, is investment from a larger player.
It’s a good deal for both sides, giving Sazerac a small but snazzy string to its bow and access to this top-end market, while The Last Drop now has the capital to grow its business and, one would assume, widen the remit further (it has already bottled a Cognac) outwith Scotch.
Already, the naysayers are bemoaning another Scotch whisky firm falling into foreign hands. I’d look at it from the other side. Why are American firms investing (again) in Scotch? In the past few months we’ve had Brown-Forman buying BenRiach. Now, albeit on a smaller scale, here comes Sazerac (and I wonder if this is the only purchase it will make).
They have done so, not because both Scotch firms were being sold at bargain-basement prices, but because Scotch added something to their portfolio.
Firms like these don’t buy into categories which are staid, boring and in decline. They want to invest in ones which are dynamic and which will benefit their bottom line – this is business, guys, not altruism. Scotch has prestige; it has heft. It’s not a stolid, dependable, performer but a drink which people continue to be excited about.
It’s often hard to discern what any of these deals mean to whisky drinkers. I mean, does it matter to us who owns a whisky as long as it is still made and we can still buy a bottle?
What the two American purchases do give us is an indication of how the world sees Scotch whisky – as a drink with a bright future; at the top end, Sazerac says; and with single malt, chips in Brown-Forman.
Scotch isn’t in decline. It isn’t moribund, but in good health and is a drink which people – be they in the corporate world, or bellying up to a bar somewhere – continue to believe in.
Now that is more relevant to the drinker than the intricacies of finance.
01 September 2016
I recently discovered there are around 10 breweries in Brighton and the surrounding area. For a city that’s penned in by the sea and the South Downs, it’s remarkable they managed to fit so many in. Then again, at least one is situated in a restaurant’s basement and another is operated out of a garage, its beers home delivered to the local community by bicycle. That’s resourcefulness for you.
Brighton is a city big on drinking – we have one of the highest number of pubs per capita in the UK, which coupled with our Green-voting, sustainability-loving culture, means we lap up local beers like tap water. It’s no wonder our breweries seem to be thriving, but their success is driven by a more widespread love affair with beer taking hold of the entire drinking population of the UK, and that of the rest of the world too.
In his book, The Ale Trail, beer writer Roger Protz noted that in 1994 there were ‘fewer than a dozen draught beers called IPA’ in the UK, and fewer than 400 craft breweries in the US. In 2015 – some 20 years later – America now has 4,269 breweries, 99% of which are small and independent operations, such as microbreweries, brewpubs and regional craft breweries. Here in the UK, as in the US, pubs are featuring new guest IPAs and ales every week.
Our choice now has never been greater. Experimentation with various hop varieties (there are over 80), kilning temperatures, yeast strains and fermentation times is yielding a rainbow of flavours that’s continuing to swell as interest grows. It really is an exciting time for beer drinkers, but craft beer’s renaissance should also be sparking a fire of intrigue among whisky lovers as well.
Beer’s characteristic flavours – which range from light citrus and tropical fruits through to malt and sweet oak – are also inherent to Scotch whisky, which started life as a beer after all. The two beverages are a match made in heaven, yet when most people talk about pairing beer and whisky they think of the hauf and hauf, or boilermaker – a dram of whisky accompanied by a beer chaser. Sadly, despite sharing so many complementary qualities, there seems to have been little thought given to beer’s potential use in the maturation process.
Beer and whisky: so many similarities yet a partnership explored so little
Cask finishing may be a relatively new practice in Scotch whisky’s timeline, but it has been dominated thus far by wine, particularly the fortified variety. Such is its popularity that just 30 years after its inception, talk is already surfacing of innovation in cask finishing running dry, but beer has barely been given the chance to gift itself to whisky. Many distillers renowned for exploring finishes are still to even experiment with beer casks. I can’t be the only one to think this is a shame.
So far there have been a measly two releases of Scotch finished in beer casks, and both from the same company: Grant’s Ale Cask in 2001, and now Glenfiddich IPA Experiment, released just this month (edit: thanks to Chris Cussiter for bringing a third occurence, the independently bottled Polly's Casks, to my attention). Earlier this week I had the opportunity to taste the latter, which forms part of Glenfiddich’s new Experimental Collection.
The IPA, a bespoke beer created by Speyside Craft Brewery (SCB), was barely distinguishable from Glenfiddich’s signature pear, vanilla and citrus character, such was the seamlessness of its pairing. If it weren’t for a slight hoppy note and acidic edge you wouldn’t have known a beer was involved at all, though according to malt master Brian Kinsman that’s the idea. ‘It’s my view that a cask finish shouldn’t dominate,’ he said. ‘If all you’re smelling is IPA, that’s a failure’.
As with any cask finish, the imparted flavours must complement the whisky rather than dominate it, and above all else be subtle enough to ensure the liquid is still recognisable as Scotch.
Kinsman and SCB trialled three different brews of varying strengths and hop intensities in American oak casks of different char levels for varying lengths of time, before emptying them and refilling with Glenfiddich. In the end, Target and Challenger hops were used – US hops that have made American IPAs so popular were deemed too sharp to complement the whisky – while the IPA was best left in cask for four weeks, and the whisky finished for three months. A lot of trial and error, as with any good experiment, is key, but is that long process why so few distillers today are interested in beer?
Surprisingly, considering the lengthy relationship between beer and whisky, this is new territory for modern distillers. While publicans would have historically stored their whisky in whatever casks they could get hold of – beer included – distillers today are more concerned with the quality of cask, and the flavour its indrink imparts.
To pair an already established cask-conditioned beer with a whisky in the first place, let alone succeed at marrying the two together through the complex process of secondary maturation, is not a simple feat. If distillers must invest in collaborating with a brewery on a bespoke beer to ensure a perfect finish, then so be it. They certainly won’t be short of a brewer or two to work with.
31 August 2016
Recently, I misread a review of Beyoncé’s tour which said: ‘She whips the crowd up by getting them to chant: “I slay! I slay!”’ For a moment, I thought she was outing herself as an Ardbeg fan. It wouldn’t have surprised me. I mean, who doesn’t love Islay? I do, for starters: the place, the people, the whiskies. It’s an endlessly fascinating, layered place that goes way beyond peat and spirit.
Why, though, are people so obsessed with building distilleries there? There are three projects under consideration at the moment – Hunter Laing’s Ardnahoe proposal is due to be discussed by councillors in the next few weeks – and there might be more. In fact, by the time the Islay bush telegraph gets hold of this piece, we’ll be hearing that there’s 12 new stills planned.
The question is: why Islay? There is a theory that the most profitable place to start a new ice cream shop in a seaside town is not at the other end of the prom from an existing establishment, but right next-door.
Starbucks operates on much the same principle. Build a distillery on Islay and you, the theory goes, benefit from the halo effect. If you’re near to a famous distillery, then surely something will have rubbed off?
Aren’t we in danger of getting Islay distillery overload? How many variations on the Islay theme can you get? How much more land is there – or, to be more precise, how much more water is there?
Islay, for all that you might have read and maybe experienced, is not blessed with infinite supplies of water. In fact, in many places it’s scarce. That restricts the number of sites which can be built, and also their capacity.
The other aspect to consider is: how do these new distilleries cut through? If there are eight established distilleries, each with its own character (in fact more, if you factor in the peated/unpeated variants at Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila), where will your point of difference be? More peaty? More Ardbeggy? Less?
If you build it…: Hunter Laing’s Ardnahoe plans are up for discussion soon
Speaking personally, I’d rather be the first distillery on Colonsay than the ninth, 10th or 11th on Islay. That would give me a point of difference immediately. Actually, I might not build on Colonsay, tempting though it is, as it already has a decent wee brewery and semi-regular transport links to the mainland – needed for supplies and, let’s not forget, tourists.
Canna would be fun because I could then also run the Canna Film Festival (©D Broom/C Orr), but transport links would be trickier. Muck would be worth a look, but the same applies.
The outer isles have possibilities, as Harris and hopefully Barra will demonstrate, though St Kilda might be a push. Mull could support a second still, but water issues might make it tricky for a third one on Skye. Building on Raasay, seen in this light, makes a lot of sense.
I’d probably head to Tiree. I said as much to someone who was thinking of building on Islay. ‘Where’s Tiree?’ they said. Maybe that’s part of it. Most of Scotland’s islands are insulae incognitae to many whisky lovers because they don’t have distilleries on then.
The name Tiree, some believe, comes from the Gaelic Tir-iodh land of corn, or Tir-I the granary of Iona. It is the sunniest spot in Britain; it’s also the windiest. It’s fertile as well – hence the name – allowing the possibility of using some locally grown barley. It also has previous, which in itself is a salutary tale of whisky-making in the late 18th and early 19th century.
Sunny spot: Tiree would be Dave Broom’s choice of island distillery location
Up until 1786, most of the farms on Tiree were making whisky, which was either being drunk on the island, used as rent money, or exported (up to 300 gallons a year went off the island).
There appear to have been two legal distilleries in 1790, using local and imported barley, but these seem to have stopped with a failure of crops in 1794. Illicit distillation did, however, continue.
At the same time, the 5th Duke of Argyll was trying to ‘improve’ the island, shifting it away from the old ‘run-rig’ agricultural system and towards crofting and industries such as kelp farming, which would in turn make him more money..
Rather than seeing a distillery as a potential source of revenue (like Talisker or Clynelish), the Duke clamped down on illicit whisky-making which, as in other parts of Scotland, was the easiest way for farmers to pay their now rising rent. He also wished to sell the barley himself on the mainland (actually, barley was being shipped off the island – destination Ireland, where it was being used to make illicit whiskey!).
In 1801, 157 men were convicted of illicit whisky-making and, in a letter to Malcolm McLaurin, Chamberlain of Tiree, in June that year the Duke’s instructions were laid out:
‘His Grace is pleased to order…that every tenth man of these 157 be deprived of their present possessions & of all protection from him in the future…it is left to Major Maxwell & you to select the ring-leaders & and most idle and worthless, or to lay the punishment on the whole 157 by lot as you think best.’
By then, people were leaving the island.
The Duke appears to have had a slight change of heart and tried to set up a legal distillery, but no-one wanted to work it, and so whisky-making on Tiree ceased. Probably.
Anyway, it’s high time this situation was redressed, which is why it’s Tiree for me. Anyone want to crowdfund me?
Cregeen, ER (ed) 1964; Argyll Estate Instructions, 1771-1803. Scottish History Society, 4th series, vol 1
IA Glen, A Maker of Illicit Stills, Glen Scottish Studies, vol 14 (1970)
A History of Tiree Whisky Distilling
24 August 2016
It’s my own fault, of course. I’ve rambled on for ages about how whisky (anywhere in the world) has links with culture and place, which run deeper than the surface gloss of brand. So now I’ve been asked, politely, to prove it.
Sōetsu Yanagi: Philosopher and founder of Japanese ‘folk craft’ movement mingei
This has led me down some pretty interesting rabbit holes of enquiry, looking at how certain cultures ‘read’ the idea of quality and beauty; the logic being that if whisky is a cultural product, then its creation has parallels with other areas of craftsmanship (don’t get me started on the whole ‘craft’ issue… well, not this week anyway).
It’s a vast topic which bifurcates into various other realms, such as the manner in which these crafted objects can be appreciated for their quality which, again, provides us with some salient points regarding how we assess a whisky.
One of the key texts was Sōetsu Yanagi’s The Unknown Craftsman. Yanagi was a Japanese philosopher and the founder of the Japanese ‘folk craft’ movement (mingei) in the 1920s, which brought a new focus on the quality and beauty of simple, honest objects made by craftsmen working in a centuries-old tradition.
Yanagi argued that ‘seeing is a born facility, knowledge is acquired’, and that intuition is more important than clinical application of theory. Often our spontaneous response – that tug of appreciation led by the eyes and heart – is overwhelmed by ‘the owner with the foot-rule [who] is immediately busy with a dozen questions as to age, authenticity, previous ownership, technique and the like’. In other words, appreciation is easily blurred by an analytical approach.
He doesn’t dispute that the questions over provenance are important and should be asked. Rather they should be used ‘only if they lead to better appreciation of the object’.
We know what is good. ‘The ancients did not follow the judgements of others, they did not love a piece because it was old, they just looked at it directly [with] unclouded, intuitive perception.’
I couldn’t agree more. The key when tasting whisky – there’s some on the table behind me as I write – is to look at each glass honestly, openly and without any prejudice. The age (if given) is a guide to assess the interaction between cask and spirit, the distillery name is a clue as to the character from that place, but elements like these are always in the background.
Ultimately, the liquid is the liquid; the only thing which matters is how you react to it. For all the analytics, at some point you have to say, it speaks to me… or it doesn’t. Shelve prejudice; see it honestly and with open senses.
As Yanagi wrote: ‘Put aside the desire to judge immediately, acquire the habit of just looking. Do not treat the object as [one] for the intellect. Be ready to perceive passively without interposing yourself.’
Okakura Kakuzō: Author of The Book of Tea
His urging was hardly new. In his 1906 treatise, The Book of Tea, Okakura Kakuzō wrote how ‘a Chinese critic complained many centuries ago [that] “people criticise a picture by their ear”’. In other words, they listen to critics, they follow fashion and they shelve their own judgements because others who are allegedly better-versed in the subject have decreed what is good… and bad.
If this is to be the case, then doesn’t it make things slightly awkward for a whisky writer? After all, we live in an era where the foot-rule of scores rules, and where age, distillery name and era all seem to matter more than the liquid.
Don’t get me wrong, we still need critics, but those of us who read and use them – be it on art, music, theatre, food or whisky – have to ultimately judge the object with our own senses. As Kakuzō wrote: ‘We classify too much, and enjoy too little.’
Read the words, not the numbers; take advice, but trust your palates and intuition – and enjoy.
17 August 2016
While writing this, I’m ensconced in a farmhouse close to Arcos de la Frontera which is, conveniently enough, a mere 30 minutes from the delights of Jerez. This means that, for purely professional reasons, much Sherry is being consumed.
The Nomad bodega: Bridging the gap between Sherry and Scotch
It’s been too long since I was in Jerez. I was here on a frequent basis during my wine writing days and for a couple of spirits-related visits, but then the trips seemed to dry up. Hey, these things happen. It didn’t mean I stopped drinking Sherry.
It was a time when bodegas were closing, and the Sherry industry was caught in seemingly terminal decline. The producers maintained their passion and belief in quality, but the world seemed to have gone deaf to their appeals.
It was also a salutary lesson on the lack of influence of writers. Every year we would write articles on how versatile and remarkable Sherry (or Port, or German wine) was, and every year all these sectors would lose more cases.
And now? Bartenders are in love with Sherry, chefs and sommeliers praise its ability to partner food and, more importantly, a new generation of drinkers is discovering its complex delights. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Sherry’s symbiotic relationship with Scotch runs deep, and yet it’s long struck me that the two industries have never quite understood each other fully.
Yes, there is the Sherry cask, but there is considerably more to discover about what that actually is, and how the whisky industry ended up with the type of casks it now uses. Whisky lovers who love Sherried whisky have quite often never tried Sherry. There is a huge opportunity for closer links and joint efforts.
Maybe things are changing. What was scheduled to be a two-hour trip around González Byass’ bodega with the firm’s charming ambassador Alvaro Platos ended up being in excess of four hours as we tasted, talked and shared.
The visit included a look at the Nomad bodega that houses a blend made by Richard Paterson of Whyte & Mackay, which was married in oloroso casks in Scotland, then shipped to Jerez for a second period of finishing in PX. It’s not legally Scotch (obviously) but it is a drink which forms another bridge between Scotland and Jerez.
Hybrid whiskies are becoming more common and, while some don’t work because the impulse is a contrived one, Nomad does because it is a genuine collaboration between winemaker and whisky blender. More on that later.
Take your time: Dave Broom enjoyed a four-hour tour of Sherry producer González Byass
Talking of collaborations, I’ve just been told that the recent whisky rancio talk has been given the Golden Spirit Award as the top-rated seminar at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail. It, too, was a joint effort – Ryan Chetiyawardana’s genius with flavour and ease of explanation about bartending skills and philosophy; and the extraordinary ability of restaurant Noma’s Arielle Johnson to explain microbiology in a way that all could understand.
We had thought that we might be able to entice 60 geeks into a small room. Instead, we sold more than 200 tickets. I think that shows how deep the desire for knowledge about Scotch is, and in turn how to use that information to make ever greater drinks.
It demonstrated the links which could exist between cutting-edge food science, blending and bartending, and how that could then be applied in practical ways to enthuse even more people about whisky’s flavours.
None of it would have been possible without the backing of Ewan Morgan, the national director of the Masters of Whisky programme, who saw the opportunities within what was a pretty arcane area and gave us access to hugely expensive blends to prove our points – the moment when Chetiyawardana and I poured Johnnie Walker Blue Label and King George V into giant orange buckets will live with me forever. He, and Diageo's Dr Nick Morgan, also helped us tap the brains of Maureen Robinson and Keith Law at Carsebridge.
It all showed how powerful education can be and why brand-focused activity can only be one aspect of a wider engagement with a new whisky-loving community. It was, it strikes me now, in line with what the Masters of Whisky programme was all about.
And now, if you don’t mind, the internet is being turned off. There’s a cold copita with my name on it.
09 August 2016
To say that the news of the axing of the Masters of Whisky programme came as a shock would be an understatement. I’ve had the privilege to work with most of the ambassadors, either here in the UK or in the US, and know how dedicated and talented they are in teaching people – be they consumers or trade – about the ways of whisky.
I know they will all get jobs, but that isn’t the point. The issue here is the rejection on Diageo’s part of a proven educational model. No matter how it is dressed up, there has been a strategic shift away from education, to delivering sales-oriented ‘experiences’ – a very different thing.
The initiative unlocked the multifarious secrets of whisky. That lock is now rusted, opportunities sealed up, jobs lost, and disillusionment rife. The diminishing of the importance of education removes everything special about Scotch (and, by extension, all whiskies and premium spirits).
It rejects the importance of people, place, provenance and pride, and replaces them all with one word – profit. It is a decision that says: ‘Actually, we don’t care how it is made, where it is made, or who makes it, as long as it sells.’
It says: ‘We are in the business solely of shifting boxes, and what these boxes contain doesn’t matter hugely, as long as they deliver profit quickly.’ It is a short-term approach which sits uneasily within Scotch.
There is a profound irony that the people who are paying the salaries and pensions of the people who make decisions such as this are the very folk who care deeply about the product, who work in distilleries and blending labs, and are out there talking and teaching, keeping the narrative evolving and fresh.
The rusted lock: Diageo’s Masters of Whisky programme opened up opportunities for education within the whisky world
Ambassadors such as the Masters talk to the people in bars and stores, who then, enthused by the story, pass on the knowledge to those of you who walk up to the counter and ask for a recommendation.
In other words, there is a chain of people involved, all of whom drive interest in – and passion for – the product. And you know what? Ultimately, the boxes sell because the Masters have built a network of fresh ambassadors. They just might not sell as quickly as a careerist executive wants them to.
In this world of reductive thinking, everything’s (and everyone’s) worth can only be measured numerically, a spreadsheet realm which blankets the messy, fascinating reality of life. This sales-oriented approach might work in the world of washing powder or biscuits, but it cannot be one which should prevail in whisky – or any drink.
It is also counter-intuitive. Scotch is facing challenges from other whisky styles, and other spirits. These, when viewed in the right way, offer Scotch huge new opportunities. It does, however, have to work harder to show consumers, bartenders and retailers why it matters, what makes it different and compelling. In other words, it needs to educate.
Diageo’s competitors must be delighted that such highly trained ambassadors are now available. Having gleaned the wider trade’s reaction to the decision, there is dismay because of the impact it will have on the category. The Masters of Whisky (like any ambassadors) weren’t just talking about Diageo brands; they were helping to build a category and were best-placed because of training – and because of their number and geographical reach – to deliver.
As the biggest player in the whisky category, there is also a moral responsibility on Diageo to take the lead on this. By turning its back on the programme, the firm is rejecting a category-building strategy at the precise time it is so badly needed – and Scotch is all the poorer for it.
The spin is that they are continuing to educate – just in a different way, with luxury experiences replacing the previous approach. The experiences might be fun – look at the balloons, listen to the cane rapping on the ground, eat the jelly, marvel at the dancers, sip the whisky – but it is no more than a tawdry facade.
There is no depth, no room for discussion, no – in a word – education. Instead, there is a show whose aims disappear into air like scented dry ice.
By reducing a whisky to ciphers, you miss the point, eliminate (or ignore) the questions, and stem the dialogue. The message becomes didactic and simplified. A successful mentoring/ambassadorial initiative does exactly the opposite. It enriches and deepens, and builds resonance over time.
I was angry when I heard the news. Now, I’m saddened because a firm which I know is staffed by people who do care deeply and profoundly about its whiskies has had this new approach foisted upon it.
I’m bewildered as to why a programme which the drinks industry in the US regards as the best in class has been scrapped, and its highly-trained members cast aside; while the callous nature of the manner in which Gregor Cattanach was told of his sacking two days after the death of his father – the man who effectively set up the scheme – will always be remembered as an unforgivably shameful act.
Whisky is long-term; it is complex, frustrating, captivating and contradictory. It takes time to understand it, it takes time and patience to explain and engage people into its weird vagaries. It takes shoe leather, knowledge and empathy.
This is what the Masters of Whisky had. All of that has been cast aside for short-term gain, and you know what? I don’t understand it.
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