After a call for inclusivity from ‘A Whisky Insider’ last month, here’s an alternative view.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
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.
01 March 2017
I’m reading a remarkable book about trees. It’s called The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and is one of those volumes that makes you view what you think is a familiar and known world in a completely new manner. You realise, in fact, that everything you thought about the natural world was too simplistic – or just plain wrong.
A new path: It’s time for Scotchwhisky.com to explore other styles of whisky
Wohlleben’s opening premise is that ‘a tree isn’t a forest’, which seems pretty self-evident. We all know that lots of trees are a forest. He develops his argument – backed-up by rigorous science – to show that a forest is a not a collection of individual trees, but a complex interdependent system in which the trees help each other, communicate together, and even nurse sickly members of the community. They work together in ways which are quite extraordinary.
As he writes:
‘If every tree were looking out only for itself then quite a few would never reach old age... Every tree therefore is valuable to the whole community.’
That got me thinking about whisky. In our increasingly compartmentalised world, we tend to see Scotch as one thing, Irish as another, etc. From a whisky production point of view this is a good thing.
Each needs to be as distinct as a beech is from a birch, or an oak is from a pine – but that doesn’t mean each ‘species’ of whisky stands alone and apart from the others of its genus.
Like the trees, they refer to each other and are part of one greater organism. Separating them and thinking one is better (rather than just different) from another eliminates any chance to compare and contrast, and have perspective.
Which in turn brings us to Scotchwhisky.com. Not to write about other whiskies, producers, styles and approaches would be a dereliction of duty. Most of you will have some Japanese or Bourbon or Irish sitting at home. Should we write about them? Yes. And we will.
Yes, we are still called Scotchwhisky.com and Scotch will remain the primary focus for the site, but it is time to widen the remit and write about everything that is happening out there in the world of whisky.
It’s time for us to walk in the forest and see what we find.
20 February 2017
Hands up who went to visit Diageo’s mysterious snake in a bottle the other week? It’s a rarity for the Johnnie Walker owner to open its Menstrie archive to the public (in celebration of International Scotch Day on 10 February), but exceptional to see a 19th-century bottle of whisky containing a pickled snake.
Yet Diageo’s archive is full of curiosities – 500,000 of them – from historic bottlings (complete with resident spirits, sans snake) to ledgers, paintings, photographs, vintage adverts, life-size horse sculptures and even a replica hot air balloon. Some day David Beckham’s distant ancestors may visit Menstrie for an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? to dig out the memorabilia associated with his launch of Haig Club.
It’s one of the most comprehensive catalogues of a whisky company’s history in existence, and takes a team of six archivists to maintain and grow. Sadly such a thorough and tenderly curated archive is extremely rare in Scotch, which is shocking when you consider the wealth of heritage in the category dating back hundreds of years.
Whisky log: Chivas Brothers’ archive at Strathisla contains details of the company’s past bottlings and whisky recipes
Scotland’s largest whisky companies all began collating serious archives during the 1980s and ’90s. Chivas Brothers’ archive at Strathisla is in the hands of senior archivist Chris Brousseau, Dewar’s is curated by Jacqui Seargeant in Glasgow, The Glenmorangie Company’s history lies under the care of Iain Russell in Livingston, while Glasgow University Archives houses records from Laphroaig, deposited when Whitbread’s spirits division was sold to Allied Lyons in 1989.
Despite the applaudable efforts of some parties, frustratingly too many whisky producers keep no record of their brands’ histories at all. Not even for those produced as recently as the 1970s or 1980s. No details of when they were first produced, no visual reminders of packaging designs, and no log of blending recipes. Their bottlings are produced, sent out the door and promptly forgotten.
Would you raise a family without logging your children’s first words, their first steps, or without taking photographs of ridiculous hairstyles for their future offspring to ridicule? We compile photographs of family celebrations, diaries and birth and death certificates to remind us of our own faded memories, but also to show our future generations who we were. What we did.
The credit for the Diageo archive’s meticulousness goes firstly to the group’s predecessors at the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL), who had the foresight to hold onto material relating to many of today’s oldest brands, such as Johnnie Walker, Buchanan’s and White Horse. It helped that the brands were the creations of some of the most prolific and successful marketers in the industry, people like James Buchanan and Peter Mackie, who nurtured their whiskies like children of their own.
Following the takeover of DCL by Guinness in 1986, the resulting company, United Distillers, enlisted the assistance of archivist and historian Dr Nick Morgan to establish an archive for the company’s history. Afraid of losing some of its history as a result of the merger, Morgan was entrusted to compile as many artefacts relating to the companies’ history as he could find. In two years he filled three floors of an old warehouse with memorabilia.
Alexander Walker’s blending book: records of past blends can help inspire the whiskies of the futureEagle-eyed readers may have noticed our Whiskypedia section expanding lately. Very soon this section will include details of almost every Scotch whisky distillery, brand and company over the last 200 years or so. It will become the largest information resource for Scotch whisky online. It’s not an easy job compiling thousands of pages of company and brand histories, but it’s made that much harder, often venturing into the realms of the impossible, when producers keep no records of their own.
Keeping an archive not only helps journalists like us build something as in-depth and historically accurate as Whiskypedia, but it also enables companies to draw on their rich past, resurrect brands or production techniques, or bring vintage marketing material or labels back to life. It helps create lineage for brands, and a sense of heritage which, apparently, is what millennials seek in their purchases these days.
My globetrotting colleague Dave Broom returned from the inaugural World Whisky Forum in Sweden last week with reports of the whisky fraternity – large and small producers alike – sharing experiences and advice.
I was thrilled to hear that among the discussions of innovation and traditional production techniques, Ludo Ducrocq, head of ambassador advocacy at Glenfiddich owner William Grant & Sons, had stressed the importance of new distillers establishing their own archive from the off. ‘It will save money in the long term,’ he said. ‘An archive protects your legacy, it tells the story, it adds value and allows you to learn from mistakes.’
Not all brands have been lucky enough to have meticulous owners like the DCL or United Distillers. Many were passed from owner to owner with any collection of past marketing material or notes lost along the way, if they ever existed at all. One company may have started an archive, only for it to be considered superfluous by its next owner.
Archives should be considered as important as the distilleries brands are produced in, and in this digital age there is really no excuse. My hope is that all whisky producers, not just this new wave of distillers, start documenting material right now. Understanding our past is what helps us to move forward.
After all, curating an archive is like setting a footprint in stone. Without it, the past is simply washed away with the sands of time.
Archives to visit:
While the Chivas Brothers archive is not open to visitors, and Diageo’s Menstrie archive allows public pilgrimages just one day a year, there are several attractions across Scotland that welcome history buffs to immerse themselves in whisky heritage.
The largest public collection of whisky, with bottles dating back to 1897, is at the Scotch Whisky Experience on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. It’s a fascinating, somewhat magical experience to be surrounded by so much whisky history, with tours preceded by an equally fun barrel ride.
Meanwhile, some distillery visitor centres do do their brands justice, such as the Dewar’s experience at Aberfeldy in Perthshire, The Famous Grouse Experience at Glenturret distillery in Crieff and The Glenlivet distillery in Moray, each of which have interactive tours designed to bring the brand’s storied past to life.
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