Thoughts from a Washington DC museum trip on the collision of money and art, patronage and ...
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
09 December 2015
In the way of these things, a recent discussion with our historian Mr Iain Russell started with Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, moved to a Marxist theory of football and, inevitably, ended in a discussion on how Denis McQuade’s play reflected Hegelian dialectics. It was a slow day at the office.
Now, I know it is unlikely, but it is possible that some of you might have never heard of the finest winger ever to play for Partick Thistle. In fact, some of you might never even have heard of Partick Thistle. It so happens that Mr Russell and I are lifelong Jags fans, which accounts for a lot, so let me bring you up to speed.
The Jags are Glasgow’s alternative football team. That means both an alternative to the Old Firm and, some would say, an alternative to football. I wouldn’t disagree. We are known as the Great Unpredictables. This season we also have the world’s scariest mascot, Kingsley, designed for us by Turner Prize award winner David Shrigley. Of course Shrigley is a fan. What other team would he support?
Definitely not Lisa Simpson: Kingsley the Partick Thistle mascot and stuff of children's nightmares
All Jags followers know that a glorious victory against a top side will inevitably be followed by a shambolic defeat, but we soon learn that an acceptance of this is a great lesson for life. I can only imagine how tedious it is to always expect your side to win and when defeat eventually comes how crushing it is to your soul. At this point I could mention Chelsea’s current form as evidence, but I wouldn’t be so cruel.
Back to the point. Denis McQuade was the most unpredictable of the Unpredictables. He was training to become a priest when he decided to become a footballer, though he also took a joint degree in French and maths at the same time. He was an oddity, a 6-foot winger who shambled up and down the pitch creating havoc among his opponents and to his own teammates in equal measure.
The Madness (as he was nicknamed) would beat an entire team on his own then fall over his own feet in front of an open goal. When he got the ball, the crowd held its breath in anticipation of either an amazing dribble down the wing, or an act of pure farce. While you never quite knew what would happen, you were guaranteed that it would be spectacular.
Speaking in an excellent interview for The Scotsman, he opined: “I operated on the basis that if I didn’t know what I was going to do with the ball, the opposition would have had no bloody idea.” Neither did we on the terraces, which is why we loved him. He was one of us – moments of brilliance shining out among the general shambles of a life. Denis McQuade was the existential footballer (and yes, only a Jags fan would write such a pretentious line).
The McQuade factor can be – indeed should be – applied to most things in life. Approaching life in a satnav fashion is boring. It is only when we turn the TomTom off and get lost that things become interesting. That is when you find new things, new people, new experiences. Getting from A to B is boring unless you go via U and P and J on the way.
It’s how ‘The Madness’ approached his football and is how we all need to approach our whisky. Unpredictability is that single cask, it’s a distillery not doing what you expect it to do; it’s that wild punt that you take. It is the weird, the unlikely.
As soon as whisky becomes predictable then it becomes little more than a safe commodity. You pick up the glass and know what the end result is going to be. That reassurance is fine at some times, but to really appreciate whisky, you need to miss the open goal, laugh, then do the equivalent of bending the ball in from the ‘Firhill for Thrills, Johnstone’s For Rolls’ sign.
Just like The Madness would.
27 November 2015
It’s easy to live in a whisky bubble. Come to think of it, that might be quite pleasant. Anyway, I mean the result of being obsessively enamoured by one particular spirit can mean that the controversies facing other spirits pass you by. In fact, every category has its issues which exercise producers and consumers. In rum, it’s sugar.
Hang on, you might say, isn’t rum made from sugar? Indeed it is, but it’s the addition of sugar before bottling which is currently the rum world’s hottest topic. It’s their equivalent of NAS.
Adding a little sugar to rum has been common practice since the 19th century. Today, however, the level of sugar being added is tipping many brands into pseudo-liqueur territory.
There are some in rum who want sugar addition banned, others who declare ‘sugar-free’ on labels and supporting publicity; some are open about how much is being added, in response to a growing lobby calling for – what’s the word? – transparency. Now, where have I heard that before?
Anyway, the other day I was chatting about this and other rummy things with Bruce Perry, MD of Marussia Beverages UK. ‘The thing is, Dave,’ he said, ‘I am worried about the damage sugar addition will do to rum in the long term.
‘Think of German wine,’ he continued, warming to his theme. ‘What was the most popular style of the 1970s and ‘80s? Liebfraumilch. Then people realised they were just drinking sweetened wine and stopped. When they did that, they didn’t say: “I don’t like Lieb,” they said: “I don’t like German wine.”
‘Look at what that’s done to the German wine category in the UK. You can’t find wines from one of the world’s great wine-producing countries. That’s what worries me. People will click about sugar in rum one day, and all of the category will be tainted.’
Cane mutiny: Do increasing sugar levels pose risks for rum – and whisky?
It’s hard to disagree that sugar addition is a short-term fix. Rum’s current rise is being driven primarily by sweetened-up styles. Sugar blunts alcohol, while also seeming to enhance flavours. It makes a drink ‘acceptable’ and ‘easy’. Conversely, it also masks, deceives and, ultimately, bores.
It’s happening in rum and with flavoured vodkas, while Sherry, like German wine, has been tainted by an association with sweetness – in its case, pale cream and cream. Many of today’s slick, sweet, XO Cognacs bear little resemblance to the same brands’ expressions a decade ago.
Thank the lord that whisky hasn’t gone down that route. Er, think again.
What are the US and Canadian flavoured whiskies but sweetened-up base spirit, while Scotch is being accused of creeping ‘Bourbonisation’, with brands offering up more vanilla and sugars in an attempt to appeal to ‘the new consumer’.
Is there anything new in this? After all, didn’t the shared genius of Tommy Dewar, James Buchanan, Berry Bros & Rudd, Sam Bronfman and others lie in understanding in how people’s palates had changed in Edwardian or post-Prohibition times, then making blends to suit – and, in doing so – helping blended whisky become the pre-eminent aged spirit in the world?
What’s different, then, with changing the taste profile to suit today’s consumer? Because those 20th-century changes were made within a Scotch framework. They showed different facets of a defined Scotch character. Yes, they were new, but they were clearly Scotch, not Irish, Bourbon, Canadian whisky… or rum.
That is in danger of being lost in today’s rush to feed consumers’ desire for sugar and, in doing so, it compromises character and integrity.
By crudely dialling up sweetness, you homogenise the flavours, meaning that there is very little difference between sugared whiskies, no matter where they come from. Delivering a sugar fix isn’t a wise long-term strategy – just look at Liebfraumilch.
23 November 2015
In which we move the ‘transparency’ debate forward.
Before we start, a quick clarification. This issue has never been about castigating the SWA, which does a sterling and complex job. It was abiding by the rules which it drew up, having been instructed to do so by its members, who in turn approved them.
It’s easy to apportion blame in incidents like this. In fact, in this case no-one is to blame. A situation has arisen which was unforeseen a few years back. The question now is: how should it be addressed?
Neither was the writing of an open letter an attempt to cajole firms into taking a position. It was to try to ascertain what the feeling in the whisky distilling community was on the issue. It was asking whether the law as it stands is overly restrictive and, if it is, whether it can be altered to permit a greater degree of openness.
Nor, incidentally, should we be dragged down blind alleys to debate the business practices of various firms involved in the wider discussion. Quite how that has become part of the issue smacks of some of the darker elements of spin doctor’s art, though somewhat crudely applied.
And so to the responses. No-one who replied said transparency was a bad idea, so there’s a positive. Some said openly that the current legislation should be looked at to see if there was the possibility of an option to disclose.
Others replied saying that they were following the SWA’s opinion. That’s ok as well, because the SWA’s ‘line’ on this is (and I paraphrase): ‘As the law stands, this level of disclosure is not allowed, but if our members instruct us to look at whether we can change the law to permit it, then we will.’
I’ll also take this ‘we are happy with the SWA’s opinion’ response in a positive fashion as it opens the door to the possibility of there being a debate.
Perhaps some firms want partial transparency along the lines of: here are the principles behind our NAS whiskies, but we can’t tell you precise details. No problem with that being part of the debate.
Some firms might like to go further, but no-one is suggesting that transparency should be mandatory. That would be impossible as the recipe for most blends, for example, cannot be revealed because a) that recipe is confidential/commercially sensitive; and b) it will change in order to achieve consistency.
As soon as it becomes compulsory to declare openly the percentages of each whisky used, then the recipe is fixed and any deviation from it would mean that blender has effectively broken the law. Quite rightly, no-one would vote for that.
In fact, the question we are still posing is: should there be an option to be able to disclose in some way – perhaps through publicity material rather than on the label – what the constituent parts of a whisky are?
This is a complex issue and, while it would be ideal for the debate to be conducted in a public forum, I can see how the discussions over some of the minutiae would best take place in what used to be smoke-filled rooms.
Should there be a willingness to debate it fully – or partially – in public, we would be happy to moderate or provide a platform for all sides of the argument to be explored.
It is, of course, entirely possible that some discussions on this are already under way. We don’t know. The nature of smoke-filled rooms is that they are opaque. An indication of whether the process is happening might be useful, however.
Not alone: Compass Box is by no means the only distiller to be open about its whiskies
Insights from the manner in which the Scotch Whisky Regulations have been reviewed in the past – and an understanding of how the same process operates in Cognac – lead me to believe that it would be surprising if there weren’t already regular discussions on fine-tuning the laws. In other words, I’d like to think there is a willingness to examine this issue.
What has been lost in all of this is why so many firms (not, remember, just one) were open about the contents of some of their whiskies. Education. Specifically, education about NAS whiskies.
I still maintain that transparency can be an important aid in explaining what the principles are behind NAS whiskies, whose emergence has become an increasingly toxic topic. Saying: ‘Look, folks, this is what we do and this is why we do it’ would surely help to lance that particular boil.
Unless Scotch finds a way of addressing the issues surrounding NAS, it will continue to lose credibility. Is transparency the solution? I don’t know, but maybe we should be talking openly about whether it could be part of one.
It is naive to think that the castigation of NAS will go away. The two issues are linked. Let’s talk.
18 November 2015
I’m not an active feminist. I get more worked up over the correct pronunciation of ‘Bourbon’ (it’s not a bloody biscuit!) than I do women’s rights, not that I’m not in favour of them of course. It’s just that I actively choose to focus my frustrations elsewhere.
However two instances of thoughtless marketing in the past couple of weeks have lit a feminist fire inside of me strong enough to burn a bra or two (okay I probably wouldn’t go that far, they’re way too expensive).
I’d dismiss the first as a throwaway comment if it weren’t for the fact it was widely distributed in a press release to communicate the launch of a new product:
‘Ballantine’s Hard Fired is a modern, masculine expression that responds to current trends in the whisky market…’
What does a ‘masculine expression’ mean exactly? And surely if it’s modern and responding to current trends it shouldn’t be masculine as everyone knows more women than ever are enjoying whisky?
I had the opportunity to ask Peter Moore, global brand director for Ballantine’s, precisely what he meant by the comment.
‘We saw that [Ballantine’s Hard Fired] reached into a male interest in fire and smoke and craft, which made it a little bit more masculine,’ he told me. ‘What man doesn’t love going out there and letting off fireworks and having bonfires and things?’
Personally I love the seduction of a roaring fire, the scent of burning wood and the glowing warmth that threatens to blister your skin. How is that experience masculine? Are fireworks a pastime only men are privy to now? In fact it should be men who are more pissed off at Moore’s dated generalisation of themselves as primordial pyromaniacs.
‘We do not want to suggest in anyway this won’t be enjoyed by women, he added. ‘The French have this wonderful thing of calling things male or female, well this has a much more masculine character than a lot of other Ballantine’s which tend to be unisex.’
Unisex whisky? Never heard of it but there he has hit the nail on the head. Flavour is subjective. There is no such thing as a female palate or a male palate, only an experienced and inexperienced one. Marketing to a certain sex on flavour preference alone is generalist and insulting.
No women allowed: by adhering to outdated stereotypes companies are inadvertently alienating the female sex.
I said there were two instances of thoughtless marketing, and the second bout came in the form this week of a more upsetting, apparently exclusive whisky fan club.
Beam Suntory Germany needed a new name for its Signature Malts fan club to integrate the portfolios of both companies following Suntory’s acquisition of Beam. Unfortunately the group chose to name their club ‘Men of Malts’, an insensitive moniker that seemed to exclude the membership of women.
I say 'apparently exclusive', because Beam Suntory Germany later claimed the term ‘men’ had been used to mean ‘humanity rather than the male sex’. While there was no strict rule listing the ownership of a phallus as a condition of entry, females coming across this group would almost certainly have been discouraged from joining up.
The name is now being changed, thanks to the eagle eye of a female blogger and a few words from Scotchwhisky.com, but whisky companies need to be more careful not to deter women.
If we want to encourage more women to discover whisky we need to move away from dated stereotypes and quit attaching these archaic and sexist sentiments to it.
For a category that’s desperately trying to attract a growing demographic of whisky-drinking women through concocting light and sweet innovations, taking the time to consider whether its marketing initiatives are in fact a deterrent to the very consumer they’re hoping to entice would do no harm.
Otherwise we may as well hang a big sign around bottle necks saying ‘Hands off ladies, this is a real man’s drink’, while offering a slap on the bum and leery smirk free with every purchase.
16 November 2015
I spent last Tuesday evening drinking Cognac, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Hey, don’t look so shocked. We don’t take a vow to remain eternally faithful to Scotch here at Scotchwhisky.com, and I reckon we’re all the better for it.
Particularly when the Cognac in question is Frapin, which is, in many ways, the anti-Cognac: small brand, produces every bottle from its own Grande Champagne vineyards, maker of vintages, and of – for Cognac – innovative products such as single domaine bottlings and (of which more in a moment) the Multimillésime.
Host for the evening was Patrice Piveteau, Frapin veteran and, since the departure of the marvellous Olivier Paultes to Hennessy, its maître de chai.
In the course of several courses and several Cognacs, the kind of food matching exercise you enjoy but secretly know will never be repeated in the real world, Piveteau said a few things that resonated with me, and made me think (reluctantly, while trying to devote all my senses to a 1988 Frapin matched to blue Crozier cheese) of Scotch.
‘To age,’ said Piveteau, ‘I have no rules. The rule is the tasting, and what I want. It’s the reverse of the scientific way.’
Piveteau is a knowledgeable and experienced man, one who has spent decades immersed in the world of eaux-de-vie and who is capable, as I can personally attest, of talking for some time on the subject of the little-known grape variety Folignan. But he’s also humble and sensible enough to recognise that the liquid, not the number, should have the final say.
Then, later, this: ‘I know that everybody wants to know the age of each Cognac [in Frapin’s Château de Fontpinot XO blend], but the age is not important – it’s the Cognac in the glass. So I give the information – it’s about 20 years old – but if, next time, I want to put a bit of 12-year-old in the blend, it’s not a problem. The important thing is the quality in the glass.’
This provides a vital counterpoint to the current debate about transparency in Scotch, in the wake of the Compass Box story we broke on this site last month.
Yes, we should have as much accurate and honest information about Scotch as possible, but the same stringent criteria should also be applied to the interpretation of the data: just because the 17% of Strathclyde and Girvan grain in This Is Not A Luxury Whisky is 40 years old, and the 4% of Caol Ila is 30 years old, does that make it better than the 79% of Glen Ord that is 19 years old? Of course not – or not necessarily, anyway.
The climax of the Frapin evening was the unveiling of Frapin’s sixth Multimillésime, or multi-vintage, Cognac, a mix of 1986, 1988 and 1991 – which is clearly and proudly stated on the label.
Role model?: But the rules governing Cognac and Scotch 'vintages' differ
Frapin Multimillésime No 6 is many things: a merging of the blending and vintage concepts, a neat and snappy piece of innovation in a sector that is mainly devoid of it – and one of the finest liquids I’ve tasted all year.
But if you’re reading this and thinking ‘what a great idea for Scotch’, I’ve got bad news for you: you can’t do it – or rather you can’t tell anyone you’re doing it. According to the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009, you can only mention one vintage or distillation year on a Scotch label, and that vintage has to make up 100% of the liquid in the bottle.
Unlike the rules on minimum age, which are enshrined in EU law and cover all spirits sectors, this particular nugget only applies to Scotch, meaning that Frapin can happily talk about the vintages in its Multimillésime, but – to pluck an example out of the air – Glenrothes cannot.
Then again… Isn’t Frapin still breaking the broader ‘minimum age’ law anyway, by mentioning the older components (1986, 1988) of Multimillésime alongside the youngest (1991)?
Anybody else need a drink?
13 November 2015
What exactly is the most ‘unorthodox and weird’ thing about Diageo’s new Whiskey Union range?
Could it be the seemingly whimsical way these whiskies have been assembled and launched? It took the group just six months to create the concept – an unusually brief period considering most NPDs are on the table for two years before they come to fruition.
Or is it the fact that Diageo has in the past insisted Bourbon is not taking market share from Scotch, but its Smoky Goat is now strategically placed to appeal to Bourbon drinkers with its ‘sweet’ flavour profile and deliberately competitive price point? It’s a strategy that Diageo is not alone in following.
The Mobsprey: the new face of Scotch whisky?
Perhaps it’s Huxley's bizarre description as a ‘rare genus whiskey’, which is not only spelled rather confusingly with an ‘e’ when it contains multiple types of whiskies, it’s also such a bewildering term that even Wikipedia’s definition is dizzying to follow.
Furthermore, instead of taking its branding cues from a particular region’s geography, heritage or weather, Huxley is more aligned with a macabre Victorian fascination in taxidermy, featuring a nightmarish chimera of a moose, bobcat and osprey, named Mobsprey, on its label. Is Diageo developing a morbid side?
Meanwhile, adding hops to a whisky mash is not necessarily a brand new concept – several independent distilleries in Canada and America have been experimenting for at least a decade (see Charbray, Sons of Liberty, Corsair and JP Wiser’s) – but never before has there been a hopped ‘Scotch’ in the form of Boxing Hares (admit it, ‘hopped Scotch’ has a certain ring to it, even if it moves the SWA to pull out its rulebook and wagging finger as it’s technically incorrect).
The entire concept is so far outside Diageo’s comfort zone that it’s unorthodox by its very nature. The world’s biggest drinks group launching a new product, let alone three, before it’s been properly tested and considered? Blow me down.
The drinks industry is well aware that most new product developments (NPDs) are doomed to fail, but for the first time, a large drinks group is openly admitting it expects that. Is this transparency a way for Diageo to appeal to Joe public who has lost faith in sinister large corporations?
Bourbon, beer and hipster: Covering all consumer trends with Whiskey Union.
A more cynical person than myself might suggest Whiskey Union smacks of desperation to claw back declining sales for Diageo’s Scotch category by covering all current trend bases in one swoop. It’s become a case of chasing consumer spend rather than investing in doing Scotch better.
Craft products? Check. Millennials targeted? Check. Transparency? Check. Combatting interest in Bourbon and beer? Check. Enticing new entrants to the category? Oh yes.
But on the other hand, Diageo is addressing a factor that has long been missing from Scotch whisky but is present in every other major brown spirits category – fun. Aside from William Grant’s Monkey Shoulder, which other Scotch brands meet the needs of the younger consumer who’s out to party?
It’s all very well having an aspirational brand such as Johnnie Walker or Buchanan’s as an entry level Scotch, but where is Diageo’s answer to Jack Daniel’s or spiced rum, that party spirit that can be mixed with coke without stigma attached? Diageo may be driving Smoky Goat on the rocks, but its sweet and smoky flavour profile is perfectly suited to cola, while its cheeky, quirky personality positions it nicely as a trendy, fun serve.
Ultimately, the most unusual thing about Whiskey Union is that with it Diageo is finally addressing a gap in the market that its prior preoccupation with tradition and heritage in Scotch whisky blinded it to.
12 November 2015
On a book promo trip to the US recently I, amazingly, had some free time in Washington DC, so my wonderful minder Liz recommended we head to the Freer Museum to see Whistler’s Peacock Room.
Charles Freer, for those of you who don’t already know, was an American who made his fortune building railway cars (or, I suspect, getting other people to do so) and who then invested heavily in Asian art, eventually donating his collection to the nation and building a museum in which it could be housed. A good guy.
The Peacock Room is the museum’s big draw. It was commissioned in 1876 by the Liverpool shipping magnate Frederick Leyland as a dining room in which he could display his collection of blue-and-white Chinese porcelain.
Leyland, who had already commissioned Whistler to paint portraits of his family, hired the artist to decorate the room – and then went away on business. Fatal mistake.
In his patron’s absence, Whistler created an opulent chamber in blue, green and gold. It’s gilded, the ceiling is made of oxidised brass, every surface is patterned, the shutters carry pictures of golden peacocks.
The artist then presented Leyland with a bill for 2,000 guineas (about £50,000 in today’s money). Leyland baulked at the sum, paid £1,000 and bankrupted Whistler.
Before the bankruptcy hearing, Whistler finished the room with a painting of two peacocks: one aggressive, the other wounded. Silver coins litter the ground. He called it Art and Money. The Story of the Room.
In 1904, Freer, another of Whistler’s patrons, bought the room, and installed it in his home in Detroit to display his collection of ceramics, which is what we see in the museum today.
Opulent: Whistler's Peacock Room (Photo: Freer Gallery of Art)
It’s wider-ranging than Leyland’s, more subtle and thoughtfully assembled. It’s a proper collection, juxtaposing large and small, humble and grand – the pieces chosen not just for beauty, but for the tone of their glaze, their flaws.
The room makes more sense with the Freer ceramics. Freer got Whistler, he got Asian art. Leyland, you feel, didn’t. He acquired and displayed.
The room is extraordinary – a remarkable achievement – but eventually becomes claustrophobic, so I headed to an exhibit of artworks by the 17th-century Chinese artist Bada Shanren – prince, Zen monk, artist and, some say, madman. My kind of guy.
The pieces were simple, almost abstract, filled with allusion, their often huge blank spaces as important as what was filled in.
I mused, as one should in a museum, about how little has changed. Rich collectors are still asking the same of artists – except it’s now ‘give me something to go with the sofa’.
Names are more important than quality, the pieces no more than eye candy. Whistler’s analogy of the peacocks still holds true.
The Peacock Room had seemed strangely familiar. Now I knew why – it was like a bar with the ceramics as bottles. Leyland’s collection was the type of bar where all the bottles are behind glass, Freer’s chosen because of the pleasure they gave.
Woe betide us if whisky ever gets into the situation where it is only the rich who can commission bottles and the producers (the artisans) oblige. Could it happen? It already is.
I then thought of how I still preferred the space of the paintings, the room to breathe, contemplate and enjoy, away from the clutter, noise and the sounds of peacocks squabbling.
That holds true for whisky as well.
06 November 2015
‘It was a bad score. He only gave it 6+.’ This was a post by someone on a blog regarding my scores for the recent Balvenie DCS whiskies.
I knew it would happen. It’s the trouble with scores – they trip you up. They are also so all-pervasive that we are beginning to organise our lives around them without perhaps realising what they signify.
Only once that filtering system has taken place do any of us bother to then read the words. I’m as bad as anyone. Get Mojo and Uncut, scan the scores and then read. Who has the disposable income to take a punt on a three-star album?
If, however, we take the time to read first, then a more accurate picture emerges. That restaurant/hotel has lost a couple of stars because there’s someone lurking in the comments section who clearly has a grudge.
‘They didn’t make my child a pizza.’
‘We went to this sushi restaurant, but my partner doesn’t like fish.’
‘The view of Torquay from my hotel bedroom window wasn’t good enough.’
I even read one review of the Lofoten Islands which advised people not to go because the midnight sun didn’t perform a perfect V in the sky. Result? The score went down.
And so back to our own scoring system. It was peer pressure which made us impose one in the first place – everyone else scores so we should as well. We might not like the reductive nature of scores, but it’s now the norm.
We have, however, decided to use a proper 10-point scale: ie one that starts at zero and goes up to 10. The scale is outlined on our Tasting Notes Explained page, to which each note is linked – but does everyone read it? Of course not, because we understand the nature of numbers.
Or so we think.
There are some 10-point scales which start at 6. They then can be broken down into decimal points, making a 40-point scale. There are 100-point scales which only start at 80, which makes them 20-point scales.
Equally, there are no 20-point scales which start at zero – most people who use them start them at 10 and then get around that issue by giving half-points, creating a warped 20-point scale.
Still with me?
Lies, damned lies...: Scoring systems can be fiendishly complicated
So, we said ‘enough of this’, and started at nought and moved up in decimal points to 10, which I suppose makes this both a 10-point and a 100-point scale. Then again, it is possible for a whisky to score zero (and, indeed, 10.0), making it technically a 101-point scale. Never say we don’t give you better value at Scotchwhisky.com.
As I said, we knew the questions would come. Our 6 is another’s 7.9, someone’s 3 stars, another’s 15, someone else’s 80. No wonder people are confused.
Why then, you might ask, are we further muddying the waters? Because if we have to use bloody numbers, then we felt we should use them properly.
If you are judging from 0-10 and a whisky is average in quality, then it should logically be given 5 points. If it’s above average, then it gets 6. Seems sensible? Good. So 6 is not a bad score, it means this is a good dram, one that we’d be happy to buy.
I appreciate that there will be teething problems as people get used to the new scoring system. The solution to this potential confusion is to READ THE WORDS. They give the reasons for the score.
Now… what’s on the tasting table this week?
03 November 2015
The spirit of old East Berlin had clearly possessed me. The audience looked… confused. That isn’t all that unusual. My talks are planned in terms of overall theme, what needs to be said, what drinks will help support this framework (and stop people getting too bored), but quite how I get from A to Z is… well… fluid, which seems appropriate.
This particular one at Berlin Bar Convent was on a history of gin in seven drinks, each one a waypoint in the spirit’s evolution. I was extemporising on genever’s success from the 17th century onwards, and how it had come about directly as a result of pressure on distillers to make a non-wine-based spirit for the local bourgeoisie, whose supplies of wine and brandy had been cut off thanks to the Eighty Years’ War.
‘Actually,’ I continued, ‘gin’s story is one of class warfare.’ This is when the faces began to look puzzled.
I plunged on regardless, outlining a theory (which was forming in my head as I spoke) that, whenever gin was the drink of the proletariat (judging by the faces, a term not heard in East Berlin since 1989), it had a toxic reputation.
Only when it became acceptable to the middle classes, acquired bourgeois acceptability, if you like, would it become popular. The spirit’s history and popularity swings between these two poles.
I stand by this theory, by the way – Gin Craze? Working class. Old Tom? Working class. London Dry? Middle class. Martini and G&T? Middle class.
Gin Lane: the craze immortalised by Hogarth was a working-class phenomenon
There’s even a class element with regard to gin’s collapse in the 1980s, when it was identified as being stuffy, boring, old-fashioned – and irredeemably middle class, the drink of ladies of a certain age, and chaps who wore pink trousers on the weekend. Its current renaissance has been driven by a widening of its appeal to all-new, younger, drinkers.
Could Scotch whisky’s story be told in a similar way? I don’t think so. Yes, Scotch’s initial boost came when toddies, then whisky and soda became acceptably middle-class drinks in London, but the difference between Scotch and gin was that the former always transcended class boundaries.
When growing up, I could go into the Rogano (Glasgow’s great classic bar) and see someone having a dram. I could go across the road to the Horseshoe and see a working class guy having the same.
I would see the G&Ts and Martinis being drunk at the former, but never at the latter. Scotch’s long-term success was based on its ability to appeal to all classes. Its decline in the ‘80s wasn’t driven by class, but by a lack of fashionability.
It has been this appeal to a wider demographic internationally which has been one of Scotch whisky’s greatest assets. It was aspirational at all levels – a standard blend was as much of a treat for the working-class drinker as a deluxe whisky was for the rich.
That is why the current narrowing of focus by many firms is so worrying. Scotch is not just a drink for the elite, for speculators, for ‘celebrities’, it has succeeded because it is the people’s spirit.
Concentrating on one stratum of society is ultimately counter-productive. Just look at gin.
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.
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?
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