From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Festive cheers

    23 December 2015

    Even though this is a season of excess, there are scant few people of my acquaintance who would contemplate drinking whisky all day. In any case, it would hardly be responsible on our part to suggest that anyone embarks on such a potentially reckless course. Why restrict your palate to one drink when there’s Sherry, Port, and Madeira to be had, when a Riesling is required, as are elegant red wines. Whisky, however, will feature at some stage, so here are a few situations into which it might fit.

    What dram would you, uh we mean Santa, like with his mince pie this year?

    Santa’s Dram

    The mince pie and carrot is a no-brainer. What to put in Santa’s glass however needs care and consideration. It’s cold up there, so he needs something warming and substantial, as well as a drink which might help dislodge the soot. The act of leaving gifts for Santa is both a thank you and one of hospitality, therefore that means it’s time to break out the mi casa es tu casa dram.

    At the moment at chez Broom it will either be the thick flowery/fruity depths of Craigellachie 13-year-old, the potent Sherried richness of Tamdhu Batch Strength, or, and this is what my hand is hovering over, Ben Nevis 10-year-old. I rediscovered this mighty, old-fashioned dram when moving office recently. Big, oily, meaty. That’ll sort him out. 

    Gifting and Surprising

    A bottle of homemade sloe gin for your friends is a lovely gift (and much better than some oil flavoured with your manky herbs), but flavoured whisky has an equally long heritage, though it is one which died out at the end of the 19th century. It is high time, I believe, that it is revived.

    I’ve just decanted a Highland Cordial made with Cutty Sark, whitecurrants, lemon, ginger, and sugar which will serve as a potential boost to a Champagne cocktail or sipped on its own. The same goes for a Cherry Whisky: cherries, mace, peppercorns, nutmeg, sugar, macerated in a base of Dewar’s White Label. It’s an awesome drink which can be substituted for the cherry brandy in a Blood & Sand or drunk on its own.

    I know it’s a bit late to do it for this year – that Highland Cordial was steeping for over a year – so consider this as advice for Christmas 2016.

    A punch that's easy to ladle into guests' glasses will keep you at the centre of the party and score all-important hosting points.

    The Party

    The last thing you want to be doing at a party is continually rushing into the kitchen, opening bottles, mixing drinks, as you try to satisfy all of your friends’ little peccadillos. The first rule of a successful gathering is don’t give the buggers a choice. It’s your house. So… make a punch. Everyone will, I promise, be happy.

    Whisky Punch was always served warm in Scotland, a tradition which the Irish have wisely retained. Every pub there will have a kettle to hand to make you a hot whiskey at this time of the year. That is served individually, while this will make a bowl’s worth. 

    Muddle strips of peel from one lemon in 56g of Demerara sugar. Leave to rest for an hour, then muddle once more. Now add 240ml of boiling water to the mix and stir. Add one bottle of a substantial blend like Great King Street Glasgow Blend. Pour on 1.1 litres of boiling water, or to taste. Keep warm. If you wish to, add a clove or two and cinnamon stick.

    For something bolder, make a 19th century classic: Spread Eagle Punch, for which you will need the peel of 2 lemons, 112g Demerara sugar, 2.8 litres of boiling water, I bottle of rye and 1 bottle of Bowmore 12-year-old. Proceed as for the Whisky Punch above though drink with slightly more caution.

    Cheesy whisky

    Drinking whisky through a meal is a tough ask and one which, I must confess, I weary of. I’ve come to the realisation that I just need wine, or beer in the middle and whisky is at its best at the start and the end of the meal – and is the best match of all with cheese.

    For soft cheeses, Glenmorangie 10-year-old’s mix of vanilla and passion fruit notes work a treat. Cheddar though needs a whisky which will balance its acidity. For me, that means Linkwood 12-year-old, whose apple blossom notes make this a remarkable match. Glen Grant 10-year-old would also work well.

    Stilton needs a little more depth, so try Balvenie Portwood (actually any Balvenie will do), Glenrothes Vintage Reserve, or any mature Longmorn; while a strong blue cheese like Roquefort has to be met head on with Lagavulin 16. All of this makes the cheese board both exciting and potentially dangerous.

    The Nightcap

    I know you love your family and friends, but let’s face it, once they have left you need one last drink with which to celebrate a job well done – and the blessed silence. This is the time for something slower and more substantial. At ours the go-to is Highland Park 18 year old, though the heftier end of Glenfarclas’s or Glendronach’s range also work a treat. Might do them all. Depends on the mother-in-law.

    Boxing Day Dram

    Don’t get me wrong. I like Christmas Day, but I much prefer Boxing Day. It’s when everyone seems to finally enjoy each other’s company. Plus it’s a chance to get outdoors and show off some of the new presents. The dram for the Boxing Day walk (or football match), therefore needs to be a portable one, which means hipflask action (you did ask Santa for one… didn’t you?).

    It’s now that peaty whiskies come into their own. There’s just something about smoke and the open air that is just right. Any quality smoky dram will do, but this year I’ll be pouring in nips of one of those high-strength, sweet and smoky Octomores that have astounded me this year.

    Merry Cheer!

  • A Word or Two on Whisky and Port

    18 December 2015

    Does the name Joseph James Forrester ring any bells? No? Unless (like me) you’re bit of a Port geek, there’s no reason why it should. But he popped into my head the other day when I was reading Iain Russell’s fascinating account of the life of Robert Bruce Lockhart.

    Forrester was never involved in plots to assassinate Lenin (he died before the Russian revolutionary leader’s birth, so it would have been tricky), but he led a life almost as full of colour and controversy – and his death was far more dramatic (remind me to tell you about that at the end).

    Born in Hull in 1809, Forrester joined the family Port shipping business, Offley Forrester, at the age of 22 and, once in Portugal, refused to follow the herd.

    At a time when British Port shippers tended to remain within their own little clique in the port of Vila Nova de Gaia (a bit like drinks writers on the Sussex coast), Forrester made a point of exploring the wilder lands upstream, and particularly the Port vineyards of the Douro Valley.

    He learned to speak good Portuguese and published two remarkably detailed maps of the Douro from Spain to the Atlantic – a boon to the traveller at a time when the Douro was a treacherous mountain river, long before modern damming projects transformed it into the broad, serene waters of today.

    Forrester's map of the Douro

    Treacherous river: Forrester’s maps of the Douro remain much admired

    Forrester also concerned himself in some detail with the production of Port – again, something the British shippers eschewed, except during harvest.

    If his pursuits left him outside the inner circle of the British Port establishment – he was never invited to join their ‘club’ in Porto, The Factory House – his estrangement was complete with the publication in 1844 of an impassioned treatise, A Word or Two on Port Wine.

    So extreme were the views stated in the pamphlet that, at first, it was published anonymously. Forrester, you see, questioned the very basis of Port production: the addition of brandy to stop fermentation and create a sweet, strong wine.

    Great Douro wines, he argued, needed no brandy, but could stand proudly on their own: pure, unadulterated; based on grape, soil, aspect and altitude; reflective of the conditions of the year, for good or ill.

    This is where the Lockhart connection comes in. Real Port, to Forrester, was pure and untouched by brandy; real Scotch whisky, for Lockhart, was pure (malt) and untouched by grain.

    Fast-forward to 2015 and both would note current trends with a degree of satisfaction. Scotch malt whisky is flying in markets around the world and – rightly or wrongly – increasingly considered by many consumers as more ‘authentic’ than blended Scotch.

    Meanwhile, the unfortified table wines of the Douro have increased hugely in number, quality and diversity over the past few decades, winning a place in the top echelons of the fine wine hierarchy. You can now pay £60 for a bottle of unfortified Quinta do Vesúvio, a vineyard Forrester knew well (he spent the last night of his life there).

    Joseph James Forrester

    Man of the Douro: even Forrester’s death was inextricably linked to the river

    But there’s a twist. Without the skyrocketing global success of blends in the 20th century, most of the single malt distilleries so beloved of Lockhart would now be in ruins or silent, overrun by retail developments and housing estates.

    Similarly, without the international achievements of the Port trade, the vineyards of the Douro – that inhospitable, rocky place that oscillates between furnace-like summer heat and brutal winter cold – would be neglected, overgrown, their proud terraces crumbling into the waters below.

    Both Lockhart and Forrester recognised an inherent truth in their respective worlds: the underrated quality of two products overshadowed by (to their minds) inferior alternatives.

    But what both failed to see was not simply the finer qualities of the products they dismissed, but also the symbiotic co-existence of those supposedly opposing forces: blends and malts; Port and table wine.

    One could not thrive without the other and, just as Douro table wines and single malts have Port and blends respectively to thank for their current success, they are now in a position to repay the debt by using their new-found fame to convert consumers to the delights of their sister products. A kind of virtuous circle of life, if you will.

    What’s that? What about Forrester’s death, you ask? He set off on 12 May 1861 from Quinta do Vesúvio, high in the Douro, travelling downstream by boat with Dona Antónia Ferreira, the grande dame of the valley, who went on to own no fewer than 24 of its most famous vineyards.

    As the boat negotiated the notorious rapids of Cachão de Valeira, it capsized and – according to legend – the contrasting fates of the pair were decided by the clothes on their backs.

    While the whalebone of her crinoline allowed Dona Antónia to float gently to safety, Forrester’s sovereign-laden money belt dragged him down below the Douro’s fierce waters, never to be seen again.

  • Precision beats power

    16 December 2015

    Thirteen seconds! Anyone watching Conor McGregor’s takedown of Jose Aldo this weekend was either thoroughly disappointed by the brevity of the fight or left gaping at the power and accuracy of the Irishman’s left jab. Or both.

    After just 13 seconds McGregor walked away as the new UFC featherweight champion, chalking up a claim to the fastest UFC championship victory, and an extra US$500,000 in his pocket to boot.

    His calm, confident yet matter-of-fact attitude and loose fighting style makes earning half a million dollars in the same time it takes to read this sentence seem easy [click here for more #thingsthatlastlongerthanAldo].

    McGregor puts his success down to the fact that ‘nobody can take that left hand shot,’ but adds, ‘he’s powerful and he’s fast, but precision beats power and timing beats speed’.

    The same can be said of Kilchoman’s rapid success. In 2005, founder Anthony Wills could have built a behemoth to match Kilchoman’s Islay cousins, but a decision to strictly focus the distillery’s USP as a small-scale farm operation has allowed the company to carve itself a niche. Similarly, an unwavering dedication to select only quality casks for maturation enabled the distillery to release its first whisky at just three years’ old. The first run of 8,000 bottles sold out within two weeks. Even its flagship Machir Bay bottling is a vatting of whisky aged just five to six years.

    Even now, 10 years on from the date Kilchoman’s stills came to life, Wills and his team, including master distiller John MacLellan, are not rushing to compete against the capacity and marketing might of other single malt brands. Yes an expansion of the plant is underway, but Wills is reluctant to add any more stills to retain that farm distillery character Kilchoman is so renowned for.

    At the same time, the distillery’s first mainstream 10-year-old bottling – an exclusive one-off expression was sold at a charity auction just this week – is likely to be a few years in the making yet.

    It’s Wills’ determination to operate Kilchoman at a slow, steady pace and expand in a way that’s right for the brand that has cemented the distillery’s place among Islay’s whisky set.

    Much like McGregor, Wills is taking a measured approach and as we learned from this weekend’s fight, precision beats power; timing beats speed.

  • The Madness approach

    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.

  • Sugar rush

    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.’

    Sugar cane

    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.

  • Through A Glass, Darkly

    23 November 2015

    In which we move the ‘transparency’ debate forward.

    For those coming late to the saga, please read this, this and this first.

    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.

    Compass Box whiskies

    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.

  • Stop discouraging female drinkers

    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.

  • A vintage conundrum

    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.

    Frapin Multimillesime 6

    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?

  • Is Whiskey Union breaking with tradition?

    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.

  • Peacocks

    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.

    Peacock Room, Freer MuseumOpulent: 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.

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