From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Silence can be tarnished

    31 July 2015

    There is nothing sadder in whisky terms than a closed distillery. It is not just that a building has shut its doors, not just that a community has lost a focal point, but that a small and very precise point of difference in this complex world has been lost forever. Every sip which you take of a dram from one of the members of this club drives it closer to extinction.

    Have you ever wondered, however, why they were closed on the first place? The standard response is that they were surplus to requirements in the 1980s when the industry got its calculations regarding supply and demand badly wrong (that would never happen again, would it?).

    It’s the right answer, but it doesn’t actually answer the question – why were these specific distilleries chosen? What was the process which chose that one over its neighbour?

    Size played its part. When the industry had to contract, it made more sense to concentrate production in larger plants than across a multiplicity of smaller ones. Sounds brutal? Believe me, it was – and was not a decision which was taken easily.

    There is another reason, though, one which is rarely articulated. As a blender said to me once, sotto voce: ‘When it came down to it, the whisky wasn’t that great.’

    Now I know this flies in the face of received wisdom that every single closed distillery was actually a precious gem, only culled by flinty-eyed accountants and heartless corporate types to try to maintain their share price, but what if there is something in this idea that the whisky didn’t pass muster?

    Remember that the cull took place before a single malt category had formed. The make of each distillery was being assessed in terms of what was needed for blends. Some of these plants could have blossomed as single malts, were there an outlet, and had they been suitably set up in terms of maturation profile. I’d have loved it if Convalmore could have remained in production, for example.

    Golden?: Brora distillery was closed down in 1983

    Many of the whiskies from the 1980s cull are magnificent (and are among my top whiskies of all time) because they were filled into refill casks. The original intent was that these would be used, in blends, when young and fresh. There never was a plan to release them 30-odd years later.

    What has happened in that period is relaxed maturation, where oxidation has played a more important role than oak – how many times have you had an overcooked example?

    We, however, are guilty of approaching these whiskies with undue reverence. Our eyes go misty when the cork is pulled, our critical faculties disappear. It must be good – it’s from a cult distillery, there’s hardly anything left.

    As well as the great relaxed examples, there are plenty where there has been no influence from the wood at all. There might be smoke, for example, but it barely covers the fact that the whisky is thin and lacking in complexity. Is that interesting aroma of baby sick a fault? It can’t be. In fact… it’s not there at all!

    My advice? Taste with your mind open. Don’t be dragged into this assumption that not only are older whiskies automatically better, but those from closed distilleries are better again.

    Life, and whisky, is far more complicated than that.

  • A naked lunge

    27 July 2015

    It has to be said that William S Burroughs isn’t known as either a whisky lover (he preferred Tequila), or as a marketing guru, but when I came across this quote I couldn’t help but think of both.

                 ‘Junk is the ultimate merchandise,’

    wrote the great sage.

    ‘The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to the product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise, he degrades and simplifies the client.’

    William S Burroughs

    Great sage: William S Burroughs in 1977 (extreme right, with Carl Solomon, Patti Smith and Allen Ginsberg; photo: Marcelo Noah)

    Now I also realise that it isn’t necessarily wise in these somewhat febrile times to appear to draw parallels between ‘junk’ and alcohol, so let it be clear from the outset that I’m not. I mean, it’s fairly obvious that Thomas de Quincey wasn’t talking about opium but whisky when he penned the following:

    ‘Happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat-pocket; portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint-bottle; and peace of mind could be sent down by the mail.’

    It’s what is being outlined in Burroughs’ analysis that piqued my interest. It should be the case that anyone wishing to sell more whisky – and, my goodness, doesn’t everyone want to do that these days? – might simply wish to make their whisky better than the alternatives. In other words, to improve it. Is that happening?

    We hear a lot about whiskies being more consistent these days than in the past, but that in itself only suggests that distillers have managed to successfully iron out issues which previously resulted in quality dropping on occasion. Aiming for consistency in an existing brand, while laudable, is one thing. Wishing to genuinely improve something is different. It should go hand-in-hand with creating consistency.

    Is it being simplified? I wonder if it is. Those of you still reading this are dong so probably because you love whisky’s complexities, and this can be a fiendishly complicated spirit. At the same time, it is the over-emphasis on the arcane world that exists within whisky which puts many people off.

    It’s like Game of Thrones. Only once you are fully committed can you understand what the hell is going on. It is tacitly understood that you need to make that extra effort. You are either in, or out. There is no middle ground.

    That’s fine – it’s the way the modern world of TV operates. I like Boardwalk Empire, you don’t. Does the same apply to whisky, however? Is the lack of simplicity – in language, in education – potentially hampering its growth?

    So, what of Burroughs’ second rule? Are we, as consumers, being degraded and simplified? In the latter case, maybe we are. The mass capture of data, the insidious growth of (anti-)social media and the number-crunching which goes with it have reduced us to ciphers.

    We are ‘red’ or ‘blue’, grouped by likes and dislikes, targeted by algorithms – do you honestly think there is someone at Amazon who knows you well enough to suggest what you’ll like?

    It’s the 21st century equivalent of astrology. It doesn’t allow for that thing called individuality, it denies the existence of free will – and that, my friends, degrades us all.

    This new approach makes it easy – on paper at least – for brand owners to target effectively the right people with specific brands, but by simplifying consumers there is real danger that whisky itself loses its sense of difference.

    It is choice which drives it, it is quirkiness, it is the weird unpredictability of a single cask, the fact that it, at its core, is not smooth and neutral, but a wondrously frustrating and enigmatic bundle of contradictions. It cannot afford to lose that.

    Burroughs was a prophet, but prophecies do not always come true. They don’t… do they?

  • How many awards?

    21 July 2015

    Some people are just plain greedy. News from that understated and sombre get-together of bar folk in New Orleans, Tales of the Cocktail, that the chief engineer of this parish, Mr David Broom, has won not one but two of the coveted Spirited Awards.

    It seems extraordinarily unfair of him to hog the limelight in this way – I mean, did he really need the hassle of transporting not one but two Riedel crystal trophies back to Blighty? And buying them their own Business Class seat seemed mightily excessive…

    So: Best Cocktail & Spirits Writer and Best New Spirits Book (for Whisky: The Manual). Not bad. Not bad at all. Massive congratulations from all of us, Dave.

    Now get back to work.

    Manual labour: the Chief Engineer and his winning smile (photo: Becky Paskin)

  • Getting crafty

    20 July 2015

    Apparently there are now 3,200 craft brewers in the US (probably even more since I started writing that sentence). They define styles, lead – and create – trends.

    They are well-organised, financially viable; they challenge the status quo and have in the past three decades changed the landscape of American beer, its flavour, image and consumption.

    The same is happening in the UK, where there are now in excess of 800 breweries. The drinking of craft beer has moved from being the preserve of bearded men of a certain age to being that of… er… bearded men of a certain (but different) age – and, more hearteningly, women (but without the beards).

    Initially dismissive of the changes in their industry, the major brewers in the US are now applying a new strategy with regard to craft brewers. They’re buying them.

    Anheuser-Busch, for example, has bought four of its rivals since 2011 and has declared its intent to continue its programme.

    The same process will, inevitably, be paralleled in the ‘craft’* whisky distilling movement. William Grant’s tie-up with Tuthilltown Spirits in New York was the first – but won’t be the last.

    We’ve seen it happen for years with vodka, so why should whisky be any different?

    Hudson baby BourbonSign of the times: Tuthilltown’s Hudson Bourbon

    The big guy provides capital, expertise, a distribution network and (if wise) acts in a hands-off fashion. It’s the distilling equivalent of Unilever’s ownership of Ben & Jerry’s.

    There is another option, again taken by American brewers: the creation of a ‘diffusion’ line.

    Think of it this way. The new, small whisky distiller has to be different in order to compete. They must innovate to cut through. The best of that new thinking will pique the interest of the majors.

    It might be the trigger for investment in – or takeover of – the craft distillery, or it might just give them an idea for a diffusion range.

    On the other hand, maybe the big boys don’t need some newcomer to show them how to make new styles of whisky. Have you ever considered that they might know it all already, but are just not telling?

    Little birds land on my shoulder on occasion and tell me of some of the experiments and trials which are taking place in the majors’ distilleries and labs. Some are to assist in production efficiency, but others are genuinely innovative.

    The question is: will they ever be commercialised? Indeed, can they? Is it possible to run a distillery on a stop/start regime with different yeasts, cereals, ferment times etc?

    It has always been said that you can’t, but maybe you can. Perhaps the majors need to start thinking in a crafty way and set up divisions to sell their own ‘experimental’ whiskies.

    Could it happen? I think it should. 

    * I consider all whisky makers to be craftsmen, no matter what their size.

  • Weegie whisky

    17 July 2015

    It's a slight exaggeration to say that Glasgow was built on whisky. It was built on steel and shipbuilding, tobacco and sugar, but whisky played a significant part in its Victorian prosperity. That legacy has been forgotten in recent years. Scotland’s whisky city? Elgin? Dufftown? Not Glasgow, surely.

    Weegie whisky didn’t disappear, it just seemed to go underground. The fact that there has been an operational distillery in the Gorbals since 1927 has been pretty much forgotten. (It’s called Strathclyde, by the way.) The district’s previous plant, Adelphi, closed in 1907 and is now the site of Glasgow’s central mosque.

    Strathclyde was the last. The smell of Sugar Puffs emanating from the Port Dundas grain distillery ceased in 2011 and a site which had once had contained three distilleries, including Dundashill, at one time the largest pot-still distillery in the world, closed forever.

    The centre of the city was quieter too. From the mid-19th century, the brokers and blenders were located here. Firms such as Robertson & Baxter in West Nile Street, Greenlees Bros and Teacher’s in St Enoch Square, Wm Whitely, Ainslie & Heilbron and, largest of them all, the seven-acre Washington Street complex founded by W P Lowrie and subsequently taken over by James Buchanan. At its height it contained a cooperage, bonded warehouse (itself the largest in the world), blending labs, offices and bottling halls.

    Glasgow Distillery Co casks

    Return of the native: malt stocks mature in Glasgow again (Pic: Gavin D Smith)

    I’m old enough to remember the Black & White dray horses which were stabled there and to have  experienced the end of an era when I was drammed and lunched in the blenders’ fine wood-panelled offices, an era when little work tended to be done in the afternoon.

    There are a few scattered remains in the city centre. Whyte & Mackay still clings on, the Laing brothers run their two operations, while Bowmore still has its bond in Springburn (though the days of being generously lunched there have now ended).

    Whisky is still blended and bottled here, though. Dewar’s lies close to Parkhead, while Edrington dismantled and then reassembled the old R&B blending lab in its new blending and bottling hall in Great Western Road. Diageo bottles in Shieldhall, Chivas Bros further out in Kilmalid. For malt distilling, however, Auchentoshan was the closest thing to a Weegie distillery.

    No longer. Now The Glasgow Distillery Co has opened in Hillington, close to the airport. In classic 21st century style, it kicked off by launching a gin, Makar, while stocks of malt are already being laid down and, in another modern practice, casks are being sold through a membership scheme.

    It’s not alone – or won’t be for long. Dewar Rattray has plans for a distillery (somewhat confusingly called Glasgow Distillery) next to the river in Queen’s Dock, and I suspect it won’t be the last. Glaswegian whisky-making is back overground once more.

  • Hegemony

    15 July 2015

    I admit that the Scotch industry and Marxist theory aren’t often seen as natural bedfellows, but musing – which is, after all, what I do here – on quite where Scotch whisky is at the moment, my mind strayed to the writings of Italian communist Antonio Gramsci.

    Bear with me.

    Scotch has been the dominant player in the overall whisky (indeed brown spirit) category for almost a century. The reasons are many: economic, social, brilliant marketing, inherent quality … and more than a touch of good fortune.

    Scotch rules. Therefore, when consumers think of whisky, they think of Scotch, it is their touchstone, their reference point. Other whiskies define themselves as being different to Scotch. That’s just the way the world is, so you best accept it. Scotch has, in other words, a hegemony.

    But what of all these new whiskies which are appearing, the revived Irish and Bourbon industries, Japan and Canada? Surely things are not the same? ‘Exactly!’ say I (and Gramsci’s shade).

    Marxism is based on the concept of a historical dialectic: that change will happen and society will, over time, become equal. For that to change, argued Gramsci, there must be a counter-hegemonic movement. That is what is happening now.

    Counter-hegemonic movement: Antonio Gramsci

    Scotch is facing not only emboldened rivals, but is being explicitly criticised by commentators in an unprecedented fashion: it’s too expensive, quality is dropping, it’s out of touch, it lacks innovation, NAS is ruining everything.

    Whether any of this is true doesn’t concern us here. The fact that it is happening is what is important. No matter that Scotch’s rivals are facing the same pressures in regard to price and stock pressures, and coming up with the same solution; they are new. In the reductive nature of this discussion, they are not only different, but they are better, simply because they are not Scotch.

    In other words, there is a counter-hegemonic coalition building and, according to Gramsci, the more people who flock to the causes and ideas of the opposition (ie buying bottles in preference to Scotch), then the more possible the revolution is. I’m not suggesting that there is a secret cabal of non-Scotch distillers plotting its downfall, but what is becoming clear is that Scotch is no longer calling all the shots.

    We are therefore at the point in Gramscian thought of ‘the war of position’, of a fully-formed, alternative culture being created. People then begin to question the way things are (and have always been) and, providing the alternative is properly thought through, the switch from the old to the new is seamless. When that happens, he would say, the old order falls. If we’re not quite at that point in whisky, it is beginning. There is revolution in the air, comrades.

    Does Scotch realise this? I’m not sure if it does. It has been used to dismissing other whiskies, not because of quality, but because of their size. Individual countries may not have the volumes needed to challenge Scotch, but collectively they do.

    Is there a way out of this for Scotch? Yes, but first the industry needs to realise that the whisky world has changed. It needs to engage with a new consumer, understand their new mindset. It needs to look at narrative, and image. Failing to do so is, I’d argue, dangerous.

    Gramsci told you.

  • The benefits of whisky-scented moustache wax

    08 July 2015

    What better way for a whisky brand to grab the attention of a hipster than to talk about the one thing that matters to them the most?

    The moustache, that universal symbol of hispterdom, now has a new friend in the Johnnie Walker wax collection – a range of three scented moustache waxes each designed to enhance the flavour of the brand’s signature Johnnie and Ginger serve.

    Exclusively available at Huckle the Barber in East London, the pocket-sized collection – available in Piperine Pepper, Citrus Essence or Ginger Root flavours – is designed to increase brand awareness among millennials, or more specifically, hairy male hipsters.

    Wax your 'tache in three delicious flavours.

    This is the third example of Johnnie Walker’s attempt to capture this demographic’s attention through diversifying its range with whisky-related wearables. First came the Heriot Watt-developed Harris tweed infused with the aroma of Johnnie Walker, then the pair of Oliver Sweeney brogues with a secret compartment just the right size for a miniature of Johnnie Walker in the heel.

    At first glance each of these creations may seem like a novelty, but could branching its range out into non-consumables that appeal to a growing millennial audience be a clever approach to stemming declining sales in Western markets?

    Volumes of Johnnie Walker declined by 3% in North America and Western Europe in 2014, a trend that analysts claim ‘highlights the urgent need for a fresh positioning’.

    Quirky innovations like the Johnnie Walker moustache wax may gain column inches in the consumer press – as well as this website – and perhaps result in a handful of sales of the three waxy scents, but a deeper and more substantial appeal to millennials is key if brands like Johnnie Walker are to turn the tide in western markets.

    As Spiros Malandrakis, senior alcoholics drink analyst at Euromonitor, says: ‘Overoptimistically succumbing to the now defunct emerging market mantra, [Johnnie Walker] was being quietly left behind its Irish and American siblings as well as the myriad micro offerings in its core western markets.’

    He adds that expanding the brand’s appeal to encompass several drinking occasions, cocktail serves – that are easy to recreate at home – and even extended product lines will ‘make or break key mainstream brands going forward’. The warning has far more urgency for blended Scotch than other whisky categories, which is suffering from a tired image in the shadow of aspirational single malts and Bourbons.

    However he warns that brand diversification needs to offer more substance than simple novelty if it’s to have any real effect on falling volumes.

    ‘Attempting to re-establish relevance to an alienated younger demographic is and will remain important but appearances can only go that far,’ he says. ‘It’s time for radical changes in substance.’

    Hairy hipsters: the focus of Johnnie Walker innovations

    If it’s really the millennial audience JW is reaching for, surely with increasing numbers of female whisky drinkers, who incidentally are driving cocktail sales in western markets, expanding the brand focus from purely hairy hipsters to include a younger female audience is one path declining whisky brands could benefit from?

    Although it’s unlikely whisky-infused jewellery will drastically alter the brand’s sales for the better, it sure would be nice for female whisky drinkers to be recognised as a key demographic alongside hairy hipsters. After all, we may be more difficult to spot without the obvious facial cues, but there are no doubt just as many of us.

  • Mill's Bomb

    08 July 2015

    You might have read about the bottle of blended whisky found in a suitcase and which turned out to have been placed there by its original owner after the First World War. According to the official line, the whisky – The Croft Blend – was in the possession of one Corporal William Mill of the 3rd Volunteer Battalion of the King's Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB), who took it to the trenches in 1914 and brought it back unopened. He then stashed it in the case under his bed. The bottle passed through the family until one of them decided to sell it at auction. According to Peter Burns at Scotch Whisky Auctions: ‘It [was] truly a mystery.’ Damn right it was.

    I’m not doubting provenance – there is no great fake scandal in the offing here – but some aspects of this are just plain bizarre.

    For starters, so far there is no evidence of there ever being a whisky called The Croft Blend, but our people (actually our brand bloodhound) are continuing to dig. What is even more odd is that here you have a man, a soldier, who takes a bottle of whisky with him to France, serves throughout the conflict, never opens it, then brings it back and hides it. Does that sound like rational behaviour? 

    Maybe he was teetotal and whoever gave Cpl Mill the bottle didn’t realise this. Meanwhile he, not wishing to give offence, just took it with him. But why keep it? Maybe he became teetotal and didn’t want to drink, but again why then have a bottle of whisky there tempting you?

    Maybe he was uncommonly mean, or ridiculously brave. I tell you this, if I were on the front line for the duration of the war as Cpl Mill is claimed to have been, I wouldn’t hang onto a bottle in case I needed a drink. It would have been drained after the first bombardment. If, for some inexplicable reason, I mislaid the bottle and only discovered it when I was heading home, I’d have cracked it in celebration.

    Alternatively, maybe it was extremely rare – after all, no-one can find the brand – and he held onto it as an investment. If he did, he’d be about 100 years ahead of the game. In Mill’s day, whisky was for drinking – unless you were Mill of course.

    Perhaps the Corporal felt that he didn’t need a drink and was happy with the daily rum ration – a quarter gill tot – or the large amounts of alcohol that were available behind the lines.

    Actually, it’s slightly unclear whether Cpl Mill was ever under fire. The letter of provenance for the whisky says that in 1906, after six years with the 3rd Battalion KOSB, he joined the 3rd Squadron of the [Lanarkshire] Yeomanry, which was at that time a Territorial division. When the war started eight years later, the Yeomanry divided into two divisions, with one joining the regular Army in Gallipoli and Egypt, and by the end of the war on the Western Front. The other served on the home front.

    In 1916, the horses were put back into their stables and the latter division became the 15th Cyclist Brigade and patrolled Dunbar on their bikes. Who knows what path Cpl Mill and his whisky took? If he stayed in the UK – he was already fairly old for active service – maybe this could explain why the whisky wasn’t drunk.

    Does any of this matter? In a creative sense, yes, because this blurred label and equally hazy story opens up possible narratives. Why wasn’t there a Croft Blend? Maybe because this was a one-off, with a hand-drawn label made at ‘the croft’ and given to Mill. He never opened it because the bottle itself was too precious. It was a token which reminded someone of home at a time when home was so precious that broaching the bottle meant draining some of that memory away. Keep it close, keep it closed and you will return… even if it is only from Dunbar on your bicycle. There are many more such alternate fictional realities.

    It matters from a whisky point of view as well. If a bottle is coming up at auction, its back story needs to be rigorously checked. There’s no room for romance, half-truths, or fiction here. Equally, a brand cannot drift into the realms of fantasy because it makes its story sexier, or more palatable.

    Thank you Corporal Mill for reminding us of that.

  • Lingo bingo

    07 July 2015

    Ever played press release bingo? As you can imagine, we get a lot of electronic missives here at scotchwhisky.com from companies eager to secure their moment in the limelight. And some are, er, more imaginative than others.

    Certain phrases and words have a tendency to crop up with alarming frequency. A recent press release on The Macallan Residence at Two Temple Place in London provides the perfect example: I ticked off ‘luxury’, ‘prestigious’ and consumers being ‘taken on a journey’ of ‘carefully curated’ experiences (whatever they may be). All in the first few lines.

    Photo credit: Jonathan Daniel Pryce

    The event provided ‘strong consumer engagement’, various things were ‘bespoke’, the whisky was ‘award-winning’ (with the number of gongs handed out these days, aren’t they all?), and the whole shebang showed The Macallan’s ‘unwavering dedication to quality and craft’. A surprising omission for that mot du jour, ‘artisanal’, but otherwise a full house.

    Yes, it’s easy to scoff – and Scotch has moved on hugely from the days of heather and weather, when you couldn’t swing a caber (don’t you mean ‘toss’? – Ed) without hitting a grizzled, tartan-clad Caledonian in front of a brooding mountain-and-loch scene.

    But, by fully embracing the ‘luxury lifestyle’ zeitgeist, Scotch is simply swapping one dead language for another. When the same adjectives, nouns and verbs are being shared by distillers, fashion houses, watchmakers and jewellers, Scotch’s individuality is subsumed in a monochrome porridge of communication targeting ‘aspirational’ consumers.

    Oh hang on, aspirational. Bingo!

  • Silo thinking

    04 July 2015

    I was watching Jacques Tati’s masterpiece Playtime the other night. If you haven’t seen it, please do so, and then watch it again. It is a droll meditation on modern alienation played out in a unrecognisable Paris (actually a city set built by Tati), in which people are cut off from each other. It’s not maybe the first thing which comes to mind when writing about whisky, but now that I have to write every week on the topic I’m finding connections everywhere.

    Anyhoo… One of the film’s long set pieces features Tati’s M Hulot trying, and failing, to get to a appointment in a vast, anonymous building. Searching for the man he’s due to meet, he looks down (through glass, inevitably) into a room which is divided into small cubicles. Inside each is a member of staff. No-one talks to each other. They work in isolation, never interact. It’s a pretty neat manifestation of silo thinking.

    Maybe I should explain. Silo thinking is when the individual departments in a firm don’t share – or want to share – information. While it’s a mentality which is beginning to be challenged – it has been blamed for helping to cause the financial crash – there are still plenty of firms that function in this way. In a drinks firm, for example, you could see the silos being different categories, or sales channels: one for on-trade, one for off-, one for travel retail, one for specialists. Now replicate that in every one of the firm’s offices and there’s a hell of a lot of people not talking to each other.

    Because there is inevitably inter-departmental conflict, this is not so much the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, but the right hand wanting to cut the left hand off.

    The upside of this, it can be argued, is that it allows a certain degree of autonomy for individual brands or categories – for example, allowing single malt to exist on its own, rather than just being bundled into ‘whisky’ – but if the people selling it aren’t talking to each other then any advantage this may give, I’d argue, is lost.

    Dividing a business into silos also means there is the risk of a lack of coherence within brands. When every market and sales channel is autonomous, each one of them wants its own expression. The brand ends up being warped into unfamiliar shapes, and any consistency of message and flavour is lost. Is this happening in Scotch whisky? In the case of some brands, yes.

    I first came across the silo concept via the writings of Gillian Tett who, as the FT’s US managing editor, is considerably more intelligent and perceptive than I, as you can see in this extract from her contribution to the Banque de France’s Financial Stability Review in 2010.

    ‘…as innovation speeds up in the 21st century, specialists are engaged in highly complex activities in numerous silos, that almost nobody outside that particular silo understands, or even knows about – even though the activity in that silos often has the ability to affect society as a whole.

    ‘There is thus a bizarre paradox in the 21st century world: namely while the global system is becoming more interconnected in some senses, the level of mental and structural fragmentation remains very intense.’

    The bigger the firm is, the more likely this is to happen, and the implications are serious. As Annelise Riles writes on Cornell University’s Collateral Knowledge blog: ‘The silo mentality is not just about a lack of knowledge. It is also about a lack of confidence in one’s ability to communicate with people outside the silo.’

    Is that happening in Scotch? You bet it is.

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