What does the striking new look and range rethink say about the modern face of single malt?
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
09 May 2017
Silas slaps the sawn-off section of an oak trunk for emphasis. ‘Look closer,’ he says, and we do. ‘There are two types of year rings. The lighter is the spring growth. It’s the same every year, but it contains lots of little straws bringing water and nutrients up through the tree. That makes it brittle.
‘The summer and autumn growth gives a darker and denser ring. So you need a wood with a higher proportion of summer/autumn growth to build a strong boat.’
Silas is one of a team at Roskilde in Denmark using traditional tools to construct modern facsimiles of Viking ships and other boats from the pages of Nordic history – clinker-built craft, ships from the Faroes constructed without the aid of any written plans.
Look closer: There are parallels and contrasts between shipbuilding and cask construction
How did the Vikings do it? Take a good, straight oak log, split it into halves, then quarters, eighths, sixteenths. Then use an axe (broad, rather than bearded, since you ask) to plane the wood. An axe? It does the job – and it saves having to make another tool.
Silas’ sermon on boat-building is part of the launch of Highland Park Valkyrie and the single malt’s new ‘Viking Soul’ brand ethos. The idea is to draw parallels between boat and cask construction (Martin Markvardsen and Keith Moar from Highland Park are here too) – but, in the end, the differences are as fascinating as the similarities.
While the oak used for whisky casks is allowed to season for a year or two, the Vikings wanted their wood green for its flexibility. Heating it to 60C in the fire liquefies the lignin (the glue holding the grains together), allowing the wood to be twisted, grain-against-grain, moulded to the shape required, clamped and allowed to cool and set.
Green wood was also vital for the tannins that helped seal the vessel – the same tannins that whisky-makers are generally keen to prevent from finding their way into your glass.
The level of knowledge about these ancient techniques is astonishing. The museum at Roskilde holds the remains of five Viking ships, scuttled in the main channel approaching the town as a blockade to ward off invaders well over 800 years ago.
Clinker-built: The workshop at Roskilde aims to revive ancient techniques
By examining the fibres of the wood and checking the growth rings against an extensive database, historians can tell that the two smaller ships were made from oaks growing near Roskilde in about 1030. The biggest ship – a King’s Ship, 30m long, built for speed and to carry up to 75 warriors – has a keel constructed from a tree felled near Dublin in 1042. Dublin? Those Vikings got around.
Why scuttle such an impressive vessel? Because it was dying. After 30-40 years of service, the iron nails fixing the planks had been rusted by the salt waters, expanding and cracking the hull.
So how about trying to construct a Viking ship in the 21st century, using old methods and tools (but copper nails for greater longevity)? Sure. But it took Silas and the team at Roskilde four years and 50,000 man hours.
Compare this to the Viking Sagas, which talk casually of building a ship in a northern winter – six to eight months – and, even allowing for modern employment law and health and safety rules, something doesn’t quite add up.
It’s the same with the sails. The Vikings’ adoption of the sail – some time between 750 and 850 – revolutionised their ships, allowing them to cross the North Sea, discover Greenland, Newfoundland. No sails, no Vikings.
But these sails were big – 112sq m big – and each of their many strips was hand-woven on a loom. At Roskilde, the museum’s skilled weaver can complete one strip of 15cm in a day (5-6 hours’ work). How the hell did the Vikings do it? Again, it doesn’t add up.
Plane truth: The Viking axe was a multi-purpose tool, not the bloodthirsty weapon of myth
The answer is simple, says Silas. There are some skills that have just been lost – honed and passed down by word of mouth and practice of hand through the generations, then forgotten in the bustle and din of industrialisation. In the rush to move on, something vital has been mislaid.
Despite a weakness for nostalgia, our Darwinian view of evolution tends to assume that human beings are constantly finding better, faster, more efficient ways of doing things. From Olympic sprinters to computer chips, it’s all about progress.
Roskilde calls that view into question and, given the parallels being drawn with whisky, makes you ponder whether a multi-billion pound industry’s drive for increased efficiency, economies of scale and profitability has unwittingly led to something being lost along the way.
Barley, yeast, fermentation and distillation techniques, cask maturation. What can whisky’s written record teach us? Are some of the secrets of the past lost to us now – as with the Vikings – or can they be resurrected and revived, moulded into something fresh for the 21st century?
Might, progress, after all, turn out to be a two-way street?
03 May 2017
‘Try this.’ It’s upstairs in the Smuggler’s Cove. I’ve just finished rambling about rum and only broke into song once. Martin Cate clearly thinks I need a drink. I probably do. The liquid he gives me is funky, oily, weirdly resinous, pungent with the effects of age and dunder. It reeks of a wildness that you know spells danger and drags you ever further down a shady alley of depravity. We’ve all been there. It was bottled by Ellis & Co of London in 1936 and hails from Jamaica.
To explain, Smuggler’s Cove is the greatest rum bar I’ve been to. To enter it is to be absorbed into a darkened, jetsam-festooned cave (with added flotsam for balance). There’s an anchor above your head, a waterfall running down into the basement lagoon and shrines to masters of tiki past. Oh, there’s also close to 600 rums.
As I sit and chat with my new rum buddies, the bar is filling up. It’s 5pm. Clearly they like to start their drinking early in San Francisco. There’s vintage aloha shirts and work clothes. People sipping neat rum, punches and tiki drinks being mixed, a soundtrack of exotica.
Smuggler’s Cove: The bar stocks more than 600 different rums (photo: Kelly Puleio)
My friends are members of the Cove’s Rumbustion Society, all of whom have drunk a minimum of 100 rums (including some of Cate’s ‘Immortal’ bottlings). Some have topped the 400-rum mark. There are some who have gone 200 beyond that. Dedication. But not beyond the call of duty.
‘There’s something wrong with your hands.’ Cate’s back. ‘They seem to be empty. Name your poison.’ I drift across the Caribbean and go for agricole. ‘Vieux, or très vieux?’ I go for the former. No need to be greedy.
He reappears with two glasses. ‘You have two hands.’ If I keep up this pace, I’ll soon have four. One glass is a Dillon from the ’70s, the other a Neisson of similar vintage. If that’s vieux, who knows what très vieux means...?
The Dillon has a cool restraint to it, a tailored gent carrying a sword stick. The Neisson, on the other hand, starts off like a pungent denizen of the opium den he is walking past. It smells of earth and horse sweat, savoury and deep. In time, this flies off, like Sherlock Holmes throwing aside a grimy disguise. Rum does that to you. Below us the tiki drinks are still being rocked out. Someone is ordering his 608th rum.
Would I have got this from a whisky bar, I wonder. I mean, this is… fun. Here – and at all the great rum bars I’ve frequented – a balance has been struck between the geeks who sip on their rums and the outrageous concoctions being mixed. It allows everyone to feel welcome.
Whisky doesn’t do tiki. It would be absurd to reverse-engineer it into that space, but there is a lesson to be learned from places like this. One where passion and fun can combine contentedly. Where people learn as much as they want in a relaxed way.
The folks worshipping at the altar of tiki aren’t considered unsophisticated. They are part of the crew. They are here because they love rum – it’s just tonight that love is manifested in a different way to those who are taking their medicine neat. When was the last time you saw that in a whisky bar?
Whisky is getting better at talking about the primacy of flavour, but what of the fun? Any of us who have bellied up to the bar with a bottle or two know that it can be the spark which can ignite an evening, as well as the sinuous thread that pulls people together. There is fun within the bottle, but the spirit is released only when we forget what we have been told whisky should be. It’s like having a drink with a vicar, then discovering he’s a wizard with a pool cue.
The new whisky bars – think Black Rock or Swift – know the importance of fun as well as flavour, but to many the whisky bar is not a destination for enjoyment. Rather, it is a place for worship: bar as a church, not a club. If I was in a bar drinking a whisky from the ’30s or the ’70s I can pretty much guarantee that my neighbour wouldn’t be sipping on a Bobbie Burns or whisky punch. Y’see?
Rum is learning from whisky – single malt especially – but whisky can also learn from rum, and there’s no more important lesson than this.
25 April 2017
‘Whisky is for everyone’ is an easy line to throw into a conversation. It sits there alongside ‘it’s all about flavour’, ‘drink your whisky whatever way you want’, or ‘blends are as good as malts’ phrases, which drift ever downwards through repetition into cliché, paying lip disservice to their truths.
None of these phrases are wrong; they should act as the foundation of the way in which we all talk of, understand, and educate about whisky. They have to be more than words, though. They have to be backed up by deeds and belief.
The failure to act on them is why I wasn’t too surprised to read the account of a recent whisky show for ‘high rollers’. After all, the industry has been slowly, insidiously gravitating towards this grouping for a number of years. Perhaps the rest of us have tried to ignore it, or wished it might go away – or at least be balanced by a more open and welcoming attitude. That clearly hasn’t worked.
You cannot say: ‘Whisky is for everyone,’ if you corral it into an area which is only accessible for one grouping, and then praise them for being ‘an elite’.
Global spirit: Scotch whisky’s success is not down to an elite few
They already feel that they are the only ones worthy of this whisky because they have the money, the power and (it would seem) the right sort of genitals. You have just fed their already bloated sense of entitlement. They’re not interested, or passionate, or intrigued about whisky. It exists simply to further boost their egos. It is ‘theirs’ – ie it is not ours. That’s how elites operate.
‘Don’t get worked up Dave, it’s just a few rich guys.’ No. It’s more than that. If the universality of whisky is not key to education, then we have all failed. If its qualities aren’t actively demonstrated through talk, and action, laughter and fun, then this ‘elite’ will own the narrative, one which declares that ‘old is good’, ‘single malt is the best’, ‘price is a determinant of quality’, and ‘it is for us and not you’.
In their dreams they look down from their gated apartments at us and wave their tumblers. ‘You can aspire to this,’ they sneer, ‘but you can never afford it, or become one of us.’ It’s the Kardashianising of whisky. Scotch ceases to be a drink for everyone; it is an object for a specific group and it is tainted by association.
All of this runs counter to everything that Scotch should stand for. Whisky is democratic. It is a drink made from humble ingredients, which are elevated by way of skill, art, experience and intuition into a liquid that encapsulates place, mood, emotion and time. At its best, it speaks to your heart.
Throughout its history, Scotch has always managed to balance the seemingly contradictory notion that it is a drink of the farmer and the working class, and the drink of the gentleman in his club. It has done this because its message has never been: ‘I am a whisky drinker, therefore I am better than you.’ It is why it became a global spirit.
Reject elitism: Whisky is not a commodity reserved for rich men
There is an important difference to be drawn between Scotch as a signifier of success and becoming a drink for an ‘elite’. Everyone measures their personal success in different ways. Buying a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label, or Ballantine’s Finest is as much a reward for someone with little money as a rich person buying a bottle of King George V or Ballantine’s 30-year-old. Scotch succeeded because it never defined itself as a drink for a specific class, creed, or colour (sadly, it’s struggled to say it’s also for women, but that’s changing).
Now, however, we see brands, blenders, distillers forgetting that important point and positioning whisky as some form of lifestyle choice for this self-perpetuating, self-aggrandising clique.
Can you stop them drinking it? Of course not. That’s as absurd as their inferred argument that the rest of us are not worthy. What the whisky industry can do, however, is stop pandering to them, stop saying something to one group of people and something else to the rest of us.
‘How do you know when a politician is lying?’ goes the old joke. ‘When his lips move.’ If we cannot believe in what we are being told, if we suspect that brands themselves are looking down on the majority of existing and potential drinkers, then what hope is there? Whisky’s message must be consistent and egalitarian because it belongs to all of us.
Every year after this particular show, friends come up to me and say: ‘It’s hideous, but I hold my nose and attend… because… you know…’ Well, enough.
Have the courage to stand up for what you believe in.
19 April 2017
What drew me to Çannakale, an apparently unremarkable small city in the north-west of Turkey, was a fascination with conflicts ancient and modern: the nearby ruins of Troy, home to Hector and Paris, besieged by Achilles and Agamemnon; and the early 20th-century tragedy of Gallipoli, a byword for strategic military blundering and human slaughter.
On that solo overnight bus trip from Istanbul more than a quarter of a century ago, I got into a conversation with a local man from the European side of the Bosporus. It was he that raised the issue of politics, and relations with Greece – I would never have dared, having seen first-hand the blistering hatred with which each nationality viewed the other, fuelled by the conflict on Cyprus.
He – and others I met during my brief stay in the area – described a different world in terms of Greek-Turkish relations. Here, where the countries’ only land border runs, there was more than grudging respect; there was trade, there were familial connections, friendships, love.
United front: Germans stood atop the Berlin Wall days before it was torn down (photo: Lear 21 at English Wikipedia)
Çannakale came to mind earlier this week as I listened to a radio report from Presidio, a city in western Texas, located in what is known as Big Bend – a huge loop of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo river that divides the US from Mexico.
Presidio overlooks the river, and therefore the border, and the links between the area and its Mexican neighbours run deep – as in Çannakale – into family, business and culture. I guess it’s always harder to hate your neighbour when you can see into their eyes.
It might play well in other parts of the US, but President Trump’s election pledge to build a wall between the US and Mexico is greeted with a mix of horror, disbelief and derision here, as much for its geographical impracticality as for its sheer inhumanity. Technically difficult, if not impossible, an unnecessary division of people who don’t wish to be divided – and almost certainly doomed to fail in its central aim.
Where do the walls exist in Scotch whisky? In a multi-billion pound industry, where power has increasingly come to rest in the hands of supposedly soulless multi-national enterprises, you would think that the barriers would divide those involved in producing the stuff.
Counter-intuitively, that isn’t necessarily the case. Check out Angus MacRaild’s report of last week’s An Evening with the Blenders event at the Scotch Whisky Experience, which united luminaries from Diageo, Suntory, Irish Distillers, Edrington, William Grant, Glenmorangie, Nikka, Whyte and Mackay, and Triple Eight Distillery.
According to Richard Paterson, the good humour and open-hearted candour that characterised the event are a million miles away from the prevalent spirit when he took his first baby steps in the whisky industry half a century ago.
Sure, the respective sales forces of Diageo and Pernod Ricard might enjoy some ‘healthy competition’ when plying their wares in bars from Shanghai to San Francisco – but among the blenders the accent was on generosity, mutual respect and camaraderie.
Perversely, as relations have become warmer on the production side of whisky, they appear to have moved in the opposite direction among a noisy minority of the people who claim to love it. People who, as Dave Broom has previously noted, appear happier when trashing the modern whisky world than when celebrating it.
Two months after that 1989 trip to Turkey, I was at home watching in tears – like millions of others – as triumphant Germans ripped apart the Berlin Wall and joyfully reunited their divided city.
Back in 2017, would it be too much to ask for a little of that spirit to find its way into the online whisky discussions and social media streams – if not in the corridors of power in Washington and beyond?
12 April 2017
My window is open – and not just because the cat wants to go out. The sun isn’t just shining, but there’s some heat to it. It’s one of those spring days where things begin to pop.
It was even the same in Edinburgh last week. I shouldn’t really say ‘even Edinburgh’ as if the weather there is always rainy and dreich, but you never quite know what’s going to be flung at you there – warm sunshine or a switchblade of an east wind cleaving you in two.
Spring has sprung: Whisky can be adapted to all seasons, hot and cold
The change in weather usually acts as a cue for friends on Instagram to post images of lambs, daffodils and ice creams, and all that clichéd spring stuff. This year, though, I’ve noticed more glasses of pink wine being snapped, accompanied by the tag ‘first rosé of the year!’, as if you have to put pink wine away as soon as the leaves turn and the clocks go back. Quite why you can’t (or shouldn’t) drink rosé wine in winter I know not, but I can appreciate that sunshine seems to trigger a shift in people’s consciousness.
This would have made more sense in past times when our diet was fixed by the seasons. Spring represented a move away from the preserves, dried foods and roots of the winter and a new season of fresher, more vibrant flavours. Maybe that vestigial memory has been retained within us all.
I’m all for seasonal drinking – hey, I wrote four pieces about seasonal whisky last year – but there was something about these cries of ‘first rosé of the year!’ which nagged away at me and, no, it wasn’t the fact that people were enjoying themselves or that they were drinking pink wine – I love pink wine.
Rather, it was this underlying notion that, in this country at least, drinks are still rigidly compartmentalised. Each one has its correct place and time – and you can apply that to the class system if you wish. Accordingly, Champagne is for celebration, gin is for pre-dinner drinks, pink wine is to be consumed when the sun is out, but only between the spring and autumn equinoxes.
Where is Scotch whisky in this? The ‘Drambusters’ class at Tales on Tour raised this idea that whisky is fixed in terms of occasion, use, demographic and flavour (it’s only useful for adding smokiness to mixed drinks).
The time to crack open the Scotch, it would seem, runs in the opposite way to the time to open the first rosé. Whisky, still, is seen as a drink best-suited to the period between Samhain and Beltane, if you want to be all Celtic about it.
Whisky Highball: A simple, refreshing classic cocktail
‘Whisky: the drink of the dark,’ says many things; it speaks of indoors, of darkened rooms and firelight – it says neat. In fact, it says every image used in whisky advertising for many years. Yes, whisky plays in that field – and does it better than most drinks – but it can also play in the rest of the year.
The fact that this notion of Scotch as a year-round drink is still a tough sell to new consumers (in mature markets) shows how far we still have to go in terms of letting the light into those rooms, dragging people into the sunshine and pouring them a dram – but one with a different set of flavours, maybe at a different temperature, in a different glass, mixed with different ingredients. The conventions that seal Scotch up as the rosé is opened don’t need to be challenged, they need to be overturned.
Before consumers can be convinced, distillers have to be – and bartenders as well. It is time to make a concerted effort that says: ‘Lighten up guys.’ Look at occasion, flavour and serve; explore delicacy rather than heft, experiment with Highballs and, as the days lengthen, bring whisky with you out of the dark and into the light.
05 April 2017
Bemusement? Disbelief? After all, even the most optimistic prognosis from auction house Sotheby’s had suggested it might make roughly half that figure. How about annoyance? Anger? Envy?
To some whisky fans, Macallan is a sell-out. A once credible single malt ruined by some kind of Faustian pact to chase the big money, ‘iconic’ status and the kind of consumer that – to jaundiced eyes – knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
For these self-appointed cognoscenti, each Lalique-clad luxury launch is another harbinger of the passing of Scotch whisky’s golden age, to be greeted with a tut, a sigh and a dismissive shake of the head. How much? Seriously? For that?
In short, Macallan encapsulates all that’s wrong with the 21st-century Scotch whisky industry. Style over substance. This Tellytubby-esque swanky new distillery. That cynical, colour-oriented move into NAS to eke out stocks and keep the Asian markets happy.
In short, Macallan is the anti-Glenfarclas.
Like most views based on prejudice as much as reason, I find that this school of thought has some serious flaws, even though I may bemoan the use of the dead language of luxury to communicate the brand.
But, however great the disapproval of the whisky geek, that hasn’t stopped rival distillers from casting green-eyed glances in Macallan’s direction, or indeed from directly attempting to follow its example.
Just a few days before that Macallan auction in Hong Kong, a press release landed in my inbox trumpeting the luxury credentials of another Speyside malt, which shall remain nameless (this isn’t a witch hunt, and I could cite numerous other examples).
’Ow much?!: This Macallan single malt collection fetched nearly US$1m at auction
Distillery X offers, we’re told, ‘an exquisite range of handcrafted single malt whiskies, capturing the elegance of the 19th century’. Which is nice.
Just in case we didn’t get that, here’s the follow-up: ‘X is a boutique range of single malt whiskies, born in a time of true elegance, capturing a historic moment in time and the essence of the Victorian reign.’ Lovely.
And there’s more: ‘From its birth, X was the pinnacle of exquisite taste and the answer to Scotch enthusiasts that have a hunger for unbridled luxury.’ (True enough: I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve felt a hunger for unbridled luxury.)
I could go on. In fact, I will: the range of ‘precious’ whiskies was ‘realised in the dream of pioneer, <name of distillery founder>, who dedicated his life to creating single malt whisky that would be appreciated for generations and achieve cult status for their unparalleled finesse’.
Well, sort of. He built the distillery to supply the blenders, then had to sell it a few years later when the late Victorian whisky crash happened. Distillery X wasn’t bottled as an OB single malt until roughly a century after it was established, and long after its founder’s death.
The abundant use of cliché and taking of liberties with historical fact make this press release an easy target, a ready source of the kind of journalistic sneering that regularly attracts the #prfail hashtag on social media.
(By the way, I might suggest that some of my colleagues take a serious look at their own profession before aiming pot shots at PR people, but we can have that discussion on another occasion.)
We all have bad days at the office (only yesterday I missed a reference to one ‘Jonny Walker’ in one of our features, but thankfully an eagle-eyed colleague spotted and amended it). What concerns me here is not so much the writing as the thinking behind it.
I can’t become Lionel Messi by lacing up a pair of boots and putting on a replica Barcelona shirt; distillery X can’t just automatically become the new Macallan by simply adopting the brand’s cliché-ridden vocabulary and rewriting its own history in that image. Particularly when it isn’t even among the world’s top 50 best-selling single malts.
Love it or loathe it, but Macallan has earned its right to – borrowing another hideous piece of marketing jargon – ‘inhabit the luxury space’ by first building an unequalled reputation as the single malt for collectors and (yes, that word) investors.
As one seasoned observer of the whisky scene puts it: ‘Macallan will always fall back on the glorious bottlings of old. You need credibility in your sector, I think, before you play the luxury game. Otherwise you are Dalmore.’ Ouch.
Instead, be distinctive, be individual. Don’t tell me that you’re great – tell me why you’re great. Better to explore quirkiness, like Ardbeg, no-nonsense credibility, like Glenfarclas, or gentle self-deprecation, like Laphroaig.
Above all, be yourself – not an unmerited facsimile of who you want to be.
29 March 2017
That old gag about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery popped into my head the other day when I spotted the latest new Cognac release from Martell. Let’s just say the concept and packaging are eerily familiar to anyone well-versed in the world of single malt Scotch whisky.
Martell VS Single Distillery is an assemblage of eaux-de-vie all made in the same distillery, a departure for a product that is more typically the ultimate blend, using spirit from a multiplicity of sources – vineyards, distilleries, warehouses.
Why do this? Well, while Cognac is a big seller in the US – it’s the largest market in the world in volume terms, although China is more lucrative – single malt Scotch is on fire right now Stateside.
Incidentally, if Martell has been taking marketing lessons on provenance from stablemate The Glenlivet (both are owned by Pernod Ricard), the brand has also been indulging in a little Macallan-esque press release bingo in the missive that accompanies the launch.
Three uses of the word ‘iconic’, two mentions of ‘disrupting’ the category, namechecks for ‘craft’, ‘luxury’ and ‘innovative’ – plus the delightfully ugly phrase ‘pushing the boundaries of the competitive landscape’. Lovely stuff. Utterly meaningless, but lovely stuff.
Eerily familiar: Martell VS Single Distillery aims to exploit the single malt zeitgeist
Smartly packaged and aping the consumer-friendly cues of single malt, it’s a little surprising to see Martell VS Single Distillery priced at US$34.99 a bottle – less than the core Martell VS bottling and closer in price to standard blended Scotch than the single malts to which it pays homage.
But then, for all its size, the Cognac market in the US remains heavily skewed to the cheapest VS price tier – even VSOP struggles to gain much traction here – leaving Martell VS Single Distillery as an opportunistic attempt to tap into a hot trend, rather than an attempt to drive the Cognac category upmarket.
It’s also part of a broader movement that extends across the whisky category. As single malt continues to expand, its growth is modifying the language used to talk about blended (and blended malt) Scotch products.
Last year’s launch of Chivas Regal Ultis – the brand’s first venture into blended malt – was rich with descriptions of the roles played by the five single malts that are its constituents. As was the fanfare surrounding the debut of Royal Salute Union of the Crowns a few weeks earlier.
Meanwhile, the publicity accompanying the recent relaunch of Johnnie Walker Platinum Label as Johnnie Walker Aged 18 Years ticked off four malts (and alluded to more) in master blender Jim Beveridge’s description of its creation – even though the liquid remains unaltered.
Yes, blends continue to dominate Scotch whisky, accounting for more than 90% of export volumes last year; but single malts brought in more than 25% of export revenues, breaking through the £1bn mark for the first time.
And, in the ways that we talk about and communicate Scotch whisky, their contribution is becoming stronger still, with an impact and influence that is felt in blends and beyond – even, now, into the world of Cognac too.
21 March 2017
We were tempted to hold on to last week’s report about the world’s ‘oldest’ Scotch whisky being inserted into an expensive watch for a couple more weeks. After all, it would seem to sit nicely alongside the stories of spaghetti plantations and sightings of the Loch Ness Monster traditionally reserved for that annual celebration of human gullibility, April Fools’ Day.
It’s just bizarre, isn’t it? Take what is reputed to be the world’s oldest Scotch whisky, Old Vatted Glenlivet 1862, and put a drop inside a perfectly good Swiss watch, then charge nearly £40,000 for it (there’s a sub-£15k version if you’re on a budget). I mean… why?
I can only assume either that the idea was borne out of an extremely long lunch, or that it was the result of an Alan Partridge-esque brainstorming session where the ideas became increasingly desperate. For ‘monkey tennis’ and ‘youth hostelling with Chris Eubank’, substitute ‘find the world’s oldest whisky and stick it in a watch’.
There are other objections too. This is the third similar venture from partners Louis Moinet and Wealth Solutions (the latter sounding uncannily like an Orwellian parody of itself), and each time the spirit in question has been chosen in the same way.
Cognac: Gautier 1762; rum: Harewood 1780. Now Glenlivet 1862 – in each case, the oldest example that could be found. But, unless you subscribe to a wholly Darwinian theory that only the best examples of a particular craft survive through the ages, this is a purely quantitative judgement.
Quantity over quality: This may be the world’s oldest Scotch, but is it any good?
Gautier 1762 may be the oldest Cognac anyone knows about, but the liquid itself might be awful. Ditto for Harewood, ditto for Glenlivet. It’s no different to an unquestioning belief that the oldest (in terms of maturation period) spirits are the best. Well, I’ve tasted 50-year-old rum, and it was bloody awful.
There’s almost an air of obscenity about the indulgence of the ‘whisky watch’; the kind of extravagant stunt they might have pulled during the most louche days of the Roman Empire, while tucking into some stuffed dormice and electing their horses to high public office.
But, underneath the hype and jaw-meets-floor pricing, the crazy whisky watch says something about the way the world now regards this product of malted and milled cereal grains, mixed with water, fermented, distilled and matured in oak.
It’s up there with Lafite and Pétrus, Louis XIII and Richard Hennessy; with Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Rolex (no disrespect to Louis Moinet).
At this level, whisky’s chosen apparel is Lalique crystal and ebony, not thin glass and a cardboard carton. And it deserves to move in those circles, because of the potentially transcendent sensory experience it can impart to the drinker, and the value people are willing to place upon that experience.
But that status comes with a price, and it’s a price that’s likely to extend into five figures, and into sometimes questionable areas of aesthetics. It’s what begins to happen when the world doesn’t undervalue you any more.
15 March 2017
‘Judas!’ The cry came out during Bob Dylan’s 1966 concert at Manchester from an irate member of the audience resenting the fact that Dylan had moved away from his folky voice-of-a-generation shtick, and was now plugged in with The Hawks chanting new, cryptic, Beat poetry at volume. It was the end, as some like the heckler saw it, of a tradition.
A similar division is happening in Scotch, where the new defenders of the old ways are fighting the good fight against those who they see as betrayers of heritage – a dispute which is under way in many areas.
Take barley. On one hand, we have ongoing research into new varieties which will be disease-resistant, easily-malted and bred to maximise yield (litres of alcohol per ton of barley used). The underlying drive is for efficiency. Yield, we are told, dominates the initial part of the whisky-making process. Character takes over from fermentation onwards.
A new era: Times are changing for barley, but debate continues over flavour and efficiency
A few stick to the notion that barley might also deliver flavour – there’s an ongoing debate about Golden Promise, for example. As a result, the ‘old was better’ camp believes all new varieties are bad (efficiency being the enemy of quality) and that the old ones were automatically better. The reality is more nuanced.
This was brought into focus when I was devouring Dan Barber’s book The Third Plate (which is compulsory reading for anyone interested in sustainability, food and agriculture). In it, an artisan baker says:
‘While people understand the change in seasons when it comes to the availability of fruits and vegetables… they see bread more as a staple. People view bread as stability itself.’
The consumer demands consistency, the millers provide the flour which will deliver it, and in turn demand that farmers grow the type of wheat they need to maintain that consistency. This continues even if each part of the chain knows intuitively that the wheat being grown maximises yield at the expense of flavour.
‘… we don’t dictate the rules,’ the baker continues, ‘we obey them.’
He then compares this to the standard consumer approach to wine.
‘If grapes are soaked with rain one year, the wine tastes different, but people don’t reject it for being different… we don’t give that kind of slack to bread.’
Wine is not only allowed to be inconsistent, it revels in it.
Where is whisky in this paradigm? Maybe we could draw a parallel between standard blends and standard loaves, while single cask malts could be more wine-like.
The actual question is: does the future of whisky lie in bread or wine, or can it play in both? Should distillers be looking at flavour-driven barley varieties as well as efficient ones?
This is something which is already happening in beer. Until recently, the brewing industry operated a very similar model to that seen in bread. Consumer demand drove brewers to ask maltsters (and, by extension, farmers) to grow consistent, flavour-light barley.
Now, however, there is demand on the consumers’ part for new flavours. This could mean the brewer asking the maltster for new varieties, who will pass on the question to farmers, who in turn will ask plant breeders for barleys which will deliver a wider spectrum of flavours. This in turn may lead to new, smaller-scale, localised, specialist maltings.
Obey the rules: Bread is seen as ‘stability’, but should whisky be the same?
Nothing will shift, however, unless consumers, writers, bartenders and retailers show that demand exists. Nothing will go into the ground unless all parts of the chain can benefit from it.
The old ways camp’s eyes light up. Might this mean old varieties being revived? Will we see ‘heirloom’ whisky? Perhaps, but again there is a middle way. Research is needed.
Will the flavour delivered in beer distil over? Rather than just replanting old varieties, might there not be more sense in cross-breeding old and new varieties for flavour and conceivably higher yield without compromising quality?
Flavour-led barley will also necessitate a shift in mindset on the part of distillers who see yield as being paramount. Smaller-scale distillers may find this as a way to differentiate themselves, while one batch of low-yielding flavoured barley a year in a large distillery may be all that is needed to give scale and greater momentum. In other words, the two sides of the debate have a part to play if this is to succeed.
This isn’t just theoretical. In Scotland, we have seen (and will see) different roasts of barley being used. The global rise of single malt has also resulted in distillers looking into their own local varieties – witness what’s happening in Japan.
Barber’s chapter on seed includes a long section on Steve Jones and his work in breeding new cereal varieties (including barley) at his Bread Lab research station in Skagit Valley, Washington State.
A new chapter for barley is starting. To grow whisky, you have to start in the soil.
08 March 2017
Encounter number one: September 2010. A couple of glorious Indian summer days, when the Corryvreckan whirlpool off Jura was reduced to a millpond and we all blinked into the sunlit dazzle of the waves as Mickey communicated his whisky passion as only Mickey can.
Encounter number two: the Islay half marathon in August 2013, which a bunch of drinks journalists ran in memory of our late colleague Alan Lodge, whose favourite spot (and dram) happened to be Ardbeg.
Post-run, post-lunch, whisky in hand, sunbathing on the shore in front of the distillery. It might not be the approved Mo Farah post-race warmdown, but it worked for us, and Mickey was there to pour the drams.
And encounter number three: Ardbeg Day during last year’s Fèis Ìle, when a semi-tropical slice of summer invaded the changeable Islay spring. Mickey was busy – as are all the distillery staff during Ardbeg Day – and a brief sighting suggested that he may also have been slowly melting, dressed in what appeared to heavy priest’s robes as part of the Ardbeg Night smuggling theme.
This trinity of visits suggests two things to me: one, that the sun always shines at Ardbeg; two, that in Mickey Heads, this world-famous but historically fragile distillery has a manager that it richly merits.
Whisky passion: Over the past decade, Mickey Heads has become inextricably linked to Ardbeg
There’s a pleasing numerical symmetry to Mickey’s tenure at Ardbeg: the 20th manager of the distillery, marking 10 years in 2017, having joined almost exactly 10 years after Glenmorangie bought the distillery.
That acquisition ended an uncertain period during which Ardbeg could have become another Port Ellen after a stop-start period of production (it was silent from 1981-9 and 1996-7, and scarcely running at full speed at other times).
Apt, then, that its management should pass to a true Ileach, one born just a few miles from Ardbeg and whose father (a stillman) and grandfather (head maltman at Port Ellen) were also closely involved in the industry. Arguably all the more important to reinforce those local links when the distillery’s current owner (luxury goods corporation LVMH) has its offices in faraway Paris.
That said, Mickey’s career path – or ‘meander’ as he has modestly described it – appeared at first to be taking him further away from Ardbeg, rather than closer to it. From cutting peat for Laphroaig to becoming the distillery’s brewer (during which time he also helped out at Ardbeg, then owned by the same company), then hopping across to run Jura between 1999 and 2007.
But then came the call back to Islay, and Ardbeg. And now, 10 years on, Ardbeggians all over the world are being encouraged to raise a glass, and three cheers, to Mickey.
In a whisky world where hype and marketing cliché all too often overwhelm the truth of an essentially local product, it’s not hard to celebrate someone so down-to-earth, hard-working and humble, and someone whose connection to what he makes is so powerful.
Corryvreckan in my glass, to recall that first Indian summer visit. Sláinte, Mickey.
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