From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Moral compass

    29 October 2015

    It used to happen every month, then every fortnight. Soon it was every week. Now it seems like it is every day that the topic of No Age Statement (NAS) whiskies inveigles its way into conversation. I’m fully expecting my wonderful and long-suffering postie, Rose, to stand on the doorstep tomorrow and say: ‘Dave, what is it with all these NAS whiskies?’

    My line has remained the same. Nothing inherently wrong, difference between age and maturity, allows whisky makers a freer rein, necessity at time of stock squeeze/excessive demand.

    With one caveat: as long as the whiskies replacing (or accompanying) the existing age statement expressions are as good as or better than the products they are replacing/joining, and that producers educate consumers and trade as to what their rationale is.

    An integral part of that education, I’d argue, is being transparent. It’s not just a matter of what’s going on, but what’s going in. After all, what’s to hide? If the whiskies being used include young and old, then why not tell us the age and the cask type?

    That then opens out the (much needed) discussion of the difference between age (a number) and maturity (a character).

    It allows distillers to talk about wood programmes and cask influence, it demonstrates the fundamentals of blending.

    It explains whisky to a consumer who wants to have whisky explained. It helps detoxify the debate.

    Now it would appear that telling consumers everything about what is in a bottle is, in fact, illegal. The latest disagreement between the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and Compass Box (it’s never the other way around) is surely the most ridiculous one yet.

    John Glaser, Compass Box

    Transparency: but the openness of John Glaser and Compass Box is also illegal

    The SWA does sterling work and, in this case, all it has done is to act on behalf of one of its members (though wouldn’t you love to know who complained, and why?). In addition, its hands appear to be tied thanks to an EU law originally drafted in 1989.

    The SWA is following the letter of the law, and all the firm that complained is doing is hiding behind the SWA. 

    The question here is twofold. Can the law be changed? Is there a willingness on the part of the SWA (or its members) to push for that change in the law? I’m no Edinburgh lawyer, but I seem to recall that only a few years ago the SWA did just that, around labelling.

    The reason? The old descriptors were confusing to the consumer. They were, in other words, lacking in clarity, and so the law was changed. Saying: ‘I know it’s wrong, but I’m afraid it’s the law,’ is not a credible defence.

    It might be that derogation from EU law is more problematic than changing a UK law which then becomes EU law. Derogation, however, means ‘an exemption from or relaxing of [my italics] a rule or law’.

    Is there then a possibility that this clause can be relaxed to permit the option of an open declaration of the composition of a blended product in the case of Scotch whisky? The SWA is a lobbying organisation. Is this worth lobbying for?

    If one of the body’s members asked for this possibility to be explored, would the SWA act? History has shown that if there is sufficient demand from its members for change the SWA can change.

    So here’s a question. Which of the members of the SWA doesn’t agree with there being an option to declare fully the make-up of an NAS whisky – and why?

  • 'Special' releases

    26 October 2015

    In the Scotch whisky calendar, it must rank as one of the most eagerly awaited launches of the year. What will be released? From which regions and distilleries? How old? And – for many, most crucially of all – how much will they cost?

    Given all of this, I was taken aback to find, on arriving at the unveiling of these much-anticipated limited editions, no velvet rope, no fanfare and no impatient throng through which it was necessary to elbow my way. In fact, nobody else seemed interested at all.

    There stood the whiskies in front of me. All five of them. Yes, five. No, not nine.

    Other writers were there too, but they seemed more interested in catching up with Charlie Pillitteri to talk about his (admittedly fabulous) Canadian icewine. Someone’s tasting the whiskies? How odd…

    By now, you might have realised that I’m not talking about Brora, Port Ellen, Pittyvaich and Diageo’s 2015 Special Releases, but three blends called Glenalba and two single malts with the distinctly unglamorous name of Ben Bracken.

    Five limited availability whiskies unveiled at discount retailer Lidl’s Christmas tasting. Ranging in age from 22 to 34 years, and in price from £29.99 to £49.99.

    Don’t look at me like that. When Lidl released the 33-year-old ‘Maxwell’ single malt three years ago at a headline-grabbing price of £39.99, it sold out within three days – and secured the retailer a priceless tide of positive publicity.

    Trade drivers: but do Lidl's cut-price whiskies have a bigger role to play?

    The contrast in pricing between Lidl’s whiskies and the Special Releases is glaring: at £49.99, the 34-year-old Glenalba blend and the 28-year-old Ben Bracken Speyside malt are still some £30 shy of the cheapest Special Release, a Lagavulin 12-year-old.

    But the point of the comparison isn’t to have a pop at Diageo’s Special Releases pricing strategy – on which I’m sure we all have our own views anyway.

    Because, let’s be clear, the motivation behind the two launches is entirely different: Diageo showcasing the depth and excellence of its aged whisky stocks through the medium of established brands, Lidl using own-label products to lure shoppers away from Asda to buy their turkey, cake and crackers there instead.

    Is that the overriding point of the Lidl whiskies? To encourage and perpetuate the ‘discount junkie’ mentality among consumers, which – at Christmas in particular – does so much to erode margins for the whisky industry?

    Yes and no. Talk to Lidl head of beers, wines and spirits Ben Hulme and you’ll also get a sense of the pride he takes in sourcing these whiskies at such remarkable prices.

    They’re not loss-leaders, he insists, and while the publicity surrounding them will no doubt draw the punters to the stores, he hopes it will also elevate Lidl’s reputation for quality, once people taste the whiskies.

    They’re also, I’d argue, potentially great recruitment tools to persuade people to expand their whisky repertoire, and – ironically, given the Lidl pricing ethos – to get them to trade up.

    Today’s Ben Bracken consumer may not be tomorrow’s Port Ellen or Brora collector, but that’s not to say they might not be tempted by a realistically priced unpeated Caol Ila or Lagavulin 12-year-old.

    Because value exists at all levels – from the keenly-priced aisles of Lidl to the sometimes rarefied reaches of the Special Releases.

  • In Search of Joy

    22 October 2015

    Maybe it has something to do with hotels. In the excellent book The Beechwood Airship Interviews, Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers tells author Dan Richards how he likes to write in hotels because they are neutral spaces with none of the distractions of home life. Not even a kettle (Stop it with the kettles – Ed).

    Wire’s theory certainly seemed to be proven when I made my way down to the lobby of the hip place in which I stayed recently. There in the gloom – gloom is so 2015 – was an ocean of floating white apples.

    Death pallor faces. Grey light chiaroscuro. The ticking of nails on keys. Peck, pick, gaze downwards. The regular hiss of the espresso machine. In the café, the same scene was repeated. Silence. Gloom. Pick. Peck.

    It wasn’t just there, it’s everywhere. Every social space has been taken over by screen zombies. The only faint flicker of a smile appears when they come across an image of a cute kitten. Where, I wondered, has happiness gone? Where is the joy?

    What, even, is joy? The dictionary defines it as ‘a feeling of great pleasure and happiness’. In whisky terms, joy for me is the feeling of tasting the dram which signifies the end of work.

    It might be in a bar or pub, it could be at home, it might be neat, with water, or in a highball. Joy is in the combination of liquid and moment and psychological state. Joy is being human. In this case, it is about gaining pleasure from whisky.

    Here’s the question, though. These days, are you allowed to say that having a drink makes you happy? I suspect not. Happiness infers that the drink has altered your state. Saying whisky makes you happy contravenes a code, written or unwritten.

    Joy will take you further

    How much further?: in modern life, joy is a precious – and rare – commodity

    A general – but also deliberately detached – sense of joy is possibly as close as you are allowed to go towards happiness before the lawyers come and get you. In this world, the liquid doesn’t provide the joy – some abstract notion about a brand does.

    That’s not a criticism. I’m, er, joyful that there is someone out there trying to get round the restrictions and say, in a subtle way, that whisky can make you smile.

    The question is, looking at the screen zombies, where is the joy? It’s not in front of you. It’s in the streets, it’s in company, it’s in the Apple-free irises of other people, it is in conversing and sharing.

    The irony that you will be reading this on a screen is not lost on me, by the way. Walk away, switch off. Go outside, even if it is raining, and breathe.

    Pour yourself a dram. Better still, pour whoever is next to you one as well. Whisky – taken in moderation – makes you happy. If we can’t say that in advertising, we have to find new ways of communicating that message. Maybe talking might help?

  • Back to the Future Day

    21 October 2015

    Great Scott! Bust out those self-tying sneakers, hop onto your hoverboard and switch on some Frankie Goes to Hollywood, for today is Back to the Future Day.

    Yes, we have finally arrived at the date in time Marty McFly and Doc Brown broke through the space-time continuum to in their Delorean, in the smash-hit 1989 film sequel.

    The day Marty McFly travels back to the future is now a reality.

    For our favourite time travellers 21 October 2015 was a fantastical world apart from the familiar shoulder pads and big hair of the 1980s, though director Robert Zemeckis did accurately predict several innovations.

    Hoverboards are now scarily real, as is 3D cinema and video chat. Heck, Zemeckis even predicted the invention of the Google Glass.

    Certainly technology has evolved in the last 26 years, as has the Scotch whisky industry, which rose from the ashes of a crash in the 1980s to export 1.19bn bottles a year all over the world.

    Even distilleries have implemented new technologies that have streamlined production, yielding more liquid faster than ever before, while biomass plants that convert waste product into energy are now par the course.

    In celebration of Back to the Future Day here’s a look back at some of the highlights occurring in Scotch whisky in 1989.

    'Hey McFly you Bojo! Those boards don't work on water!'

    Ben Nevis. In 1989, Long John International – the whisky arm of brewer Whitbread – sold Ben Nevis distillery to Japanese distiller Nikka, a long-term customer of the business.

    Lagavulin. The now iconic Lagavulin 16 Year Old joined Diageo’s Classic Malts portfolio in 1989.

    Bowmore. Japanese drinks group Suntory bought a stake in Islay distillery, Bowmore, in 1989, going onto acquire the site fully in 1994.

    Glentauchers. United Distillers sold the mothballed distillery to rival Allied Distillers (later purchased by Pernod Richard) in 1989 and became a named component of Ballantine’s.

    Imperial. The mothballed distillery is sold to Allied Distillers in 1989 but not reopened for another two years. Eventually the site was demolished to make way for Chivas Brothers’ gleaming new Dalmunach plant.

    Glenrothes. While much of the whisky industry was struggling under a fall in demand, Glenrothes swam against the tide of closures and increased its distillery capacity with the installation of two new stills, bringing its total to 10.

  • True Irony

    15 October 2015

    The guitar on the wall was unnecessary. It’s not that I want to moan. Perhaps it’s because I spend a considerable part of my life in hotels that I’ve become (over-)sensitive to their design.

    Take the other weekend. Between Friday and Monday I was residing in an achingly hip one in Shoreditch, where my room was stuffed with suitably ironic touches. A pencil sharpener attached to the wall? Yes, of course I used it.

    It has to be said that the room was rather lovely and tried to make you feel as if you were, if not at home, then a guest at someone else’s, perhaps the new hipster mate you ran into at Callooh Callay the night before and who had offered you a bed when you realised you'd missed the last train home (does that sort of thing still happen?).

    Anyway, I felt comfortable – which is what hotels are about. Apart from the guitar, perhaps.

    I mean, the last thing you want in a hotel is everyone serenading themselves, or trying to impress their partner with Smoke on the Water or, even worse, seeing that guitar as a symbol of their inadequacy.

    ‘Oh, can you play?’

    ‘Er... well… no.’

    End of budding relationship.

    Still, there was a kettle. I need a kettle. I get grumpy without my tea (and I mean my tea). It also had an iron. I get grumpy if there isn’t one of those either. Iron over guitar every time. Kettle over iron. It’s the way I roll.

    The guitar was an example of how hotel designers over-think rooms. There was the central London hotel which had an electric guitar – and amp – in the room (double inadequacy, double irritation as Smoke on the Water echoes from 50 bedrooms).

    There was, however, no kettle. Or iron, come to think of it. Maybe the thinking was that no-one who plays an electric guitar would ever need to have a pressed shirt… or a hot drink. I’m sure Robert Fripp would.

    There was another east London establishment which had a hot water bottle on the bed. A lovely, quirky thought that made me feel all fuzzy.

    There was, however, no kettle, meaning the only way you could try and force hot water into the bottle was via the espresso machine in the corridor.

    Of course there was an espresso machine in the corridor! Hipsters don’t drink tea. The result was that I was insanely grumpy.

    Robert Fripp

    Impeccably turned-out: the neatly ironed Mr Fripp (Photo: Sean Coon)

    Over-thinking might not be the worst aspect of modern life, but it is symptomatic of the way in which ‘irony’ (which in this case is, for once, truly ironic as there are so few irons) has replaced any form of deeper thinking.

    The surface is all, the instant, unthinking reaction is all that matters. There is no need to sit down and make a cup of tea and think. All that matters is the sheen, the glance, the smirk, then you move on.

    Design has got in the way of function and the core essence of the room – a place to rest – is forgotten or overlooked. Such is it with brands.

    Maybe I’m just an awkward customer. Perhaps I just need to get out less.

  • Presidential poison

    14 October 2015

    It sounds like just the sort of thing to get the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) lawyers firing up their laptops and composing a series of increasingly threatening ‘cease and desist’ missives.

    An American whisky, produced in Virginia, but claiming to be a ‘Scottish-style’ single malt? Ok, the barley was malted in Scotland and the casks were re-coopered on Speyside, but half of it was only distilled once, for heaven’s sake.

    As it happens, the SWA isn’t merely sanguine about the creation of the two bottlings made at the George Washington distillery in Mount Vernon – it’s directly complicit in it.

    Joining forces with American spirits industry body DISCUS, the SWA flew three Scotch luminaries – Glenmorangie’s Bill Lumsden, Cardhu’s Andy Cant and Laphroaig’s John Campbell – over to help Mount Vernon’s Dave Pickerell to create the ground-breaking spirit.

    No mod cons, though. The team had to use 18th century techniques at the restored plant. ‘We didn’t measure anything – it was all just done by taste,’ Campbell told Washington’s WTOP website. ‘And, eventually, I think we came to the conclusion that what we were making wasn’t half bad.’

    George Washington malt whisky

    Transatlantic tipple: Scottish malted barley was used to make the whiskies

    The venture, set to benefit charities and educational ventures, is a nod to the influence of Scot James Anderson, an experienced whisky-maker who in 1797 persuaded a reluctant Washington to build a distillery at Mount Vernon as a sideline to his milling operation.

    Two years later, the plant was churning out 11,000 gallons of whiskey, was the biggest in the young nation – and even the family physician was being paid in liquid form. Livestock, including Washington’s prize hogs, were fattened on the left-over cooked mash.

    The ‘new’ George Washington whisky, however, bears little resemblance to the liquid the Founding Father would have known and tasted – Washington’s recipe was 60% rye, 35% corn and 5% malted barley.

    Then again, it was also shipped in cask without having to undergo the inconvenient and time-consuming process of maturation, while the SWA-approved 2015 spirit was at least aged for over three years.

    After all, you have to draw the line somewhere…

  • Let's hear it for the ladies

    09 October 2015

    ‘Do you actually like whisky then?’ ‘This can’t be your real job.’ ‘Let me buy you a vodka and coke instead,’ are just a handful of phrases I, and many other women working in the whisky industry, encounter daily.

    Granted the thoughtless misogynistic comments are spouted by the minority but still, with more women than ever enjoying a wee dram why does gender stereotyping still exist at all?

    According to a 2012 Simons Market Report, 30% of whisky drinkers are female, while some of the most talented master blenders in the Scotch whisky industry are women – Maureen Robinson at Diageo, Rachel Barrie at Morrison Bowmore and Kirsty McCallum at Burn Stewart (who is now in an ambassadorial role) to name a few. Heck, one of the largest Scotch whisky-producing companies is led by a female CEO.

    Indeed, women have been distilling Scotch since the 19th century when it was commonplace for farmhouses to operate a still – illicit or otherwise – for domestic consumption. Some distilleries would not be here today if it weren’t for the pioneering resilience of female distillers like Elizabeth Cumming (Cardow, now Cardhu) and Bessie Williamson (Laphroaig). As Fred Minnick says in his book Whiskey Women: The Untold story of how Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskey: ‘For a business steeped in tradition and history, whiskey has forgotten its better half. Women have always been a part of whiskey history; they’ve just never received credit.’

    Women working in the Chivas Brothers bottling hall in the 19th centuryWomen working in the Chivas Brothers bottling hall in the 19th century

    Even now women are referencing whisky in popular culture more than ever. Christina Hendricks may have kick-started the renaissance through her tough, whisky-swigging character in Mad Men, but you needn’t look much further to find female whisky drinkers in film, music and art: Rihanna, The Staves, Mila Kunis, Lady Gaga, Aisha Tyler... the list goes on.

    Stardom aside, taking in The Whisky Exchange Whisky Show in London this week also dispelled the myth that Scotch is exclusively a man’s drink – ladies poured in to try a dram with as much passion and interest as their male counterparts.

    So next time you see a lady drinking a dram at a bar, working at a whisky exhibition or even making whisky in a distillery, she doesn’t need saving with a vodka and coke. Instead she needs thanking for her contribution to the industry. 

    Women's contribution to the whisky industry is even making national news in America:

  • Welcome to Scotchwhisky.com

    02 October 2015

    Welcome, friends, to what we want to be the first stop for any whisky lover on the internet. That word ‘any’ is important. Geeks can get their fill here, but so can newcomers – and it is this breadth of remit which will make the site prosper.

    Whisky is simple, but it is deep. A website such as this therefore needs to be able to offer information which appeals to and satisfies all readers – those who want to plunge in, as well as those who are happy paddling in the shallows. Hey, I live by the sea, it’s the best metaphor I could come up with.

    If you want in-depth distillery, brand or company information, you will find it here. That in itself is an amazing resource and we believe our Whiskypedia is the most comprehensive database in existence.

    If you want to know what that new whisky is like, we will have the review as soon as it is released. If you want to know the thinking behind the big decisions, we will be asking the awkward questions to the executives who make those decisions.

    We will make you laugh (we hope), we will be authoritative, critical, stroppy, contentious, obsessive, passionate, amusing and celebratory. That’s what whisky is all about, isn’t it?

    Whisky is also about people, and they will be the heartbeat of the site – not only the amazing writers we have from around the world (whisky is, after all, global); but also the people who are often hidden from view, those forgotten heroes from the past and the present, the keepers of the flame.

    It is also our belief that whisky doesn’t just sit apart from daily life. It springs from a culture and a landscape, it reflects the interests of the drinker, so we will write about the things which people who like whisky also like, but which aren’t whisky.

    That means talking to other like-minded craftspeople, artists and artisans to make this a place where whisky becomes part of the world.

    We are excited by the possibilities. We hope you are too.

    Welcome aboard.

  • Laphroaig's spontaneous combustion

    01 October 2015

    There’s beauty in spontaneity. The honesty of an unscripted moment feels endearingly charming and reassuring, and serves as a reminder of our humanity. Which is why Laphroaig’s #OpinionsWelcome campaign, created to celebrate the Islay Scotch whisky distillery’s 200th anniversary, is one of the finest whisky marketing initiatives ever.

    This post may seem belated – the campaign launched in the summer last year – but in light of Johnnie Walker’s new ‘Joy Will Take You Further’ promotion it’s worth revisiting.

    Last month Diageo unveiled the new campaign for its leading blend based on years of research into consumer behaviour. Joy, it seems, is now a bigger measure of success than money or fast cars.

    Both these campaigns, at first glance, purport to be bringing whisky back to a human level, but how many of us can really relate to a stiletto-wearing motorcyclist wearing a jetpack? The image is more terrifying than joyful.

    Which brings me to my point about Laphroaig’s campaign, which features real people giving their honest, unscripted opinions on the whisky. It’s relatable. It isn’t rehearsed or convoluted or showing off. It’s real, and while they may be beatnik poets or Islay locals rather than movie stars or race car drivers, they are convincing and utterly entertaining.

    More than that though, this series of videos and tweets illuminated on the side of the Laphroig distillery is doing something much greater than simply promoting the whisky. It’s reassuring us that there is no right or wrong when it comes to drinking whisky. Think it tastes like burnt knickers? That’s okay, but a bit gross. If this industry is to encourage more consumers to try Scotch, this is precisely the approach that’s needed.

    We may not like to hear it, but Scotch whisky still carries an air of unattainable sophistication that’s off-putting to some people. This association needs to change if the category is going to compete against American and Irish whiskey in the future.

    So Bravo Laphroaig, and thank you for showing us that it’s okay to have an opinion on what’s in the glass, no matter how weird.

  • Innovation and identity

    25 September 2015

    I’m just back from Japan, where the whisky category appears to have been given another boost in sales.

    The highball craze may have slowed slightly, but continues to bring new drinkers into whisky – even if not all of them know that a ‘Highball’ is a whisky drink. Bridging that gap remains an important task.

    The category’s biggest kick has been given by Massan, the daily morning soap opera on the life of Masataka Taketsuru, which ran from September 2014 until March this year.

    Yes, a whisky-related soap. Neighbours with drams. It has, seemingly, so captured the imagination of the public that it has directly boosted sales. Could that happen here? I doubt it.

    Massan could even be a further factor in the ongoing squeeze on stock, one topic which was aired at a panel discussion I chaired with four Japanese chief blenders: Shinji Fukuyo (Suntory), Tadashi Sakuma (Nikka), Ichiro Akuto (Venture Whisky/Chichibu) and Jota Tanaka (Kirin/Gotemba).

    It used to be that the companies were as reluctant to share a stage as they were to share their whiskies. Things have changed. They laughed with each other, nodded in agreement, complimented each other.

    It’s a reflection of the new openness which exists within the Japanese industry. What would once have been considered secrets are now freely shared.

    Maybe it is confidence that their competitors won’t steal techniques, that they now realise that the Suntory way is different to that of Nikka, or Kirin, or Chichibu. 

    One of the questions was whether they thought Japan could be behind the ball when equilibrium between stock and demand returned.

    ‘No,’ was the polite answer, ‘because [and I paraphrase] we continue to innovate, believe that quality is paramount, and want to further define and fine-tune what it is to be a Japanese whisky.’

    More specifics emerged in a further discussion with Fukoyo which looked at Suntory’s new ‘The Chita’ grain.

    ‘We had always made three styles of grain at Chita,’ he explained, ‘but the grain whiskies we use for the blends couldn’t be the same as we needed for a single grain. It was… boring.’

    I’ve tasted the Chita grains and they’re not… but I suppose that also proves a point.

    So, he has used the three styles of grain, but aged in a mix of woods including ex-wine casks, and new (fresh) European oak casks.

    Hakushu distillery

    What is our whisky?: Hakushu’s small grain plant is unafraid of experimentation

    Fukoyo then went on to outline what was happening at the small grain plant at Hakushu where he has overseen runs of malted barley, wheat and rye, and all at different strengths.

    ‘We always distilled to 94%,’ he said. ‘Then we asked why and realised it was because that’s what the Scots did.

    ‘So now we are distilling at different strengths, using those different grains, mashbills and woods to see what Japanese grain whisky could be.’

    This willingness to ask: ‘What is our whisky?’ is also seen in the creation of Irish Distillers’ new experimental distillery at Midleton, which initially will be looking at 19th century recipes.

    The reason? They exist, they have been forgotten, they could shed light on Irish whiskey, they could help widen the category.

    It all seems so... sensible. Now, I know that there are wild things being trialled in Scotland, but so far there is no evidence of any of it appearing. Keeping these developments behind the curtains simply reinforces the (incorrect) belief that Scotch’s template is fixed.

    Neither Suntory nor IDL is exactly small. Both are asking, openly: ‘Where do we go now? What else can we learn?’

    Realising that they couldn’t run experimental batches through their existing plants because the batches would be too large, they simply built smaller sites. 

    Hopefully the Scottish distillers working on similar schemes will show what they have been working on, but – and here my impatient journalist’s brain takes over – how will they commercialise these small batches?

    Split an existing (small) distillery’s production schedule? Build a small site to run them through? Buy a ‘craft’ distiller and use it as their experimental arm – the model taken by the big American brewers?

    As it stands, there are other whisky categories that seem to be more nimble, and are able to see opportunities. They are the ones who come across as wanting to move whisky ever onwards without losing their identity.

    It makes Scotch seem as if it is being left behind. Time, I suspect, to throw open those curtains.

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