Are distilleries sacrificing quality and taste in favour of blander – but more profitable – barley?
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
15 March 2017
‘Judas!’ The cry came out during Bob Dylan’s 1966 concert at Manchester from an irate member of the audience resenting the fact that Dylan had moved away from his folky voice-of-a-generation shtick, and was now plugged in with The Hawks chanting new, cryptic, Beat poetry at volume. It was the end, as some like the heckler saw it, of a tradition.
A similar division is happening in Scotch, where the new defenders of the old ways are fighting the good fight against those who they see as betrayers of heritage – a dispute which is under way in many areas.
Take barley. On one hand, we have ongoing research into new varieties which will be disease-resistant, easily-malted and bred to maximise yield (litres of alcohol per ton of barley used). The underlying drive is for efficiency. Yield, we are told, dominates the initial part of the whisky-making process. Character takes over from fermentation onwards.
A new era: Times are changing for barley, but debate continues over flavour and efficiency
A few stick to the notion that barley might also deliver flavour – there’s an ongoing debate about Golden Promise, for example. As a result, the ‘old was better’ camp believes all new varieties are bad (efficiency being the enemy of quality) and that the old ones were automatically better. The reality is more nuanced.
This was brought into focus when I was devouring Dan Barber’s book The Third Plate (which is compulsory reading for anyone interested in sustainability, food and agriculture). In it, an artisan baker says:
‘While people understand the change in seasons when it comes to the availability of fruits and vegetables… they see bread more as a staple. People view bread as stability itself.’
The consumer demands consistency, the millers provide the flour which will deliver it, and in turn demand that farmers grow the type of wheat they need to maintain that consistency. This continues even if each part of the chain knows intuitively that the wheat being grown maximises yield at the expense of flavour.
‘… we don’t dictate the rules,’ the baker continues, ‘we obey them.’
He then compares this to the standard consumer approach to wine.
‘If grapes are soaked with rain one year, the wine tastes different, but people don’t reject it for being different… we don’t give that kind of slack to bread.’
Wine is not only allowed to be inconsistent, it revels in it.
Where is whisky in this paradigm? Maybe we could draw a parallel between standard blends and standard loaves, while single cask malts could be more wine-like.
The actual question is: does the future of whisky lie in bread or wine, or can it play in both? Should distillers be looking at flavour-driven barley varieties as well as efficient ones?
This is something which is already happening in beer. Until recently, the brewing industry operated a very similar model to that seen in bread. Consumer demand drove brewers to ask maltsters (and, by extension, farmers) to grow consistent, flavour-light barley.
Now, however, there is demand on the consumers’ part for new flavours. This could mean the brewer asking the maltster for new varieties, who will pass on the question to farmers, who in turn will ask plant breeders for barleys which will deliver a wider spectrum of flavours. This in turn may lead to new, smaller-scale, localised, specialist maltings.
Obey the rules: Bread is seen as ‘stability’, but should whisky be the same?
Nothing will shift, however, unless consumers, writers, bartenders and retailers show that demand exists. Nothing will go into the ground unless all parts of the chain can benefit from it.
The old ways camp’s eyes light up. Might this mean old varieties being revived? Will we see ‘heirloom’ whisky? Perhaps, but again there is a middle way. Research is needed.
Will the flavour delivered in beer distil over? Rather than just replanting old varieties, might there not be more sense in cross-breeding old and new varieties for flavour and conceivably higher yield without compromising quality?
Flavour-led barley will also necessitate a shift in mindset on the part of distillers who see yield as being paramount. Smaller-scale distillers may find this as a way to differentiate themselves, while one batch of low-yielding flavoured barley a year in a large distillery may be all that is needed to give scale and greater momentum. In other words, the two sides of the debate have a part to play if this is to succeed.
This isn’t just theoretical. In Scotland, we have seen (and will see) different roasts of barley being used. The global rise of single malt has also resulted in distillers looking into their own local varieties – witness what’s happening in Japan.
Barber’s chapter on seed includes a long section on Steve Jones and his work in breeding new cereal varieties (including barley) at his Bread Lab research station in Skagit Valley, Washington State.
A new chapter for barley is starting. To grow whisky, you have to start in the soil.
01 March 2017
I’m reading a remarkable book about trees. It’s called The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and is one of those volumes that makes you view what you think is a familiar and known world in a completely new manner. You realise, in fact, that everything you thought about the natural world was too simplistic – or just plain wrong.
A new path: It’s time for Scotchwhisky.com to explore other styles of whisky
Wohlleben’s opening premise is that ‘a tree isn’t a forest’, which seems pretty self-evident. We all know that lots of trees are a forest. He develops his argument – backed-up by rigorous science – to show that a forest is a not a collection of individual trees, but a complex interdependent system in which the trees help each other, communicate together, and even nurse sickly members of the community. They work together in ways which are quite extraordinary.
As he writes:
‘If every tree were looking out only for itself then quite a few would never reach old age... Every tree therefore is valuable to the whole community.’
That got me thinking about whisky. In our increasingly compartmentalised world, we tend to see Scotch as one thing, Irish as another, etc. From a whisky production point of view this is a good thing.
Each needs to be as distinct as a beech is from a birch, or an oak is from a pine – but that doesn’t mean each ‘species’ of whisky stands alone and apart from the others of its genus.
Like the trees, they refer to each other and are part of one greater organism. Separating them and thinking one is better (rather than just different) from another eliminates any chance to compare and contrast, and have perspective.
Which in turn brings us to Scotchwhisky.com. Not to write about other whiskies, producers, styles and approaches would be a dereliction of duty. Most of you will have some Japanese or Bourbon or Irish sitting at home. Should we write about them? Yes. And we will.
Yes, we are still called Scotchwhisky.com and Scotch will remain the primary focus for the site, but it is time to widen the remit and write about everything that is happening out there in the world of whisky.
It’s time for us to walk in the forest and see what we find.
15 February 2017
It was only after a few minutes that I realised that my hand had stuck to my glass. ‘Can you feel your beard?’ Westland’s Matt Hofmann asked. ‘Mine’s beginning to freeze.’ He was right. A distinct crisping of the facial hair was taking place.
A source of inspiration: The World Whisky Forum took place at Box distillery in Sweden
Up the snowy slope, the steam from Box distillery mingled with the fog emanating from our mouths, as we huddled around the fires on the frozen lake, the whisky helping to heat the core. ‘It’s only -14˚C,’ said Box distiller Roger Melander. ‘It’s often -26˚C.’
This was the start of the first World Whisky Forum, the brainchild of Box’s Jan Groth. A chance for distillers from around the world, irrespective of size, to come and talk and share. And, apparently, freeze.
‘Just as well we’re not in Finland,’ said Martin Tønder Smith from the Norwegian alcohol monopoly, ‘otherwise they’d also be getting us to jump in the lake.’ He didn’t look too worried about the possibility. Made of hard stuff, these Nordic folk.
The temperature may have been cold, but the welcome and the talks over the next two days were anything but. Don’t get me wrong – debate was rarely heated, rather a warm glow of consensus and friendship began to suffuse the room.
Non-attendees could glance at who was speaking and conclude that this was simply a chance for small(er) players to get together to moan about big firms, and about Scotch. It wasn’t.
In fact, Scotch was praised, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) was praised, big companies were not seen as the enemy, but as another (important) facet of an increasingly complex whisky world. If you are true to your vision, the message seemed to be, then size does not matter. The issue was: how do we keep whisky moving onwards?
A Swedish sunrise: Debates at the World Whisky Forum were rarely heated, much like the surroundings
Two topics kept re-appearing. There had been a passionate debate at the end of the first day’s sessions about the need for legislation, but also about how frustrating it could be to work within its idiosyncrasies and interpretations, and try to reconcile different interpretations of ‘tradition’.
Lone Wolf’s Steven Kersley’s opening gambit of ‘challenge everything’ may have sounded like being radical for the sake of it, but his stance was more nuanced: accept the realities of Scotch and the need for big distilleries to make a consistent product, and learn from the experiments which have been created to achieve that consistency. At the same time, he saw a real need for Scotch to keep pace with developments elsewhere.
‘Why do we malt this way?’ he asked. ‘Why do we only use these grains, or those yeasts? What can we learn from brewing? Could we freeze-distil? If you don’t know the answers, then find out.’ That shouldn’t be seen as radical. It should be seen as normal.
A different side of this notion of challenging norms came from Ichiro Akuto’s back-to-basics approach at Chichibu, where his staff have learned how to plant barley, cut peat, do floor malting and coopering; an involvement in the process leading to a more profound understanding – the same deep thinking which pervaded Hofmann’s inspiring talk about the importance and relevance of examining what ‘local’ means, and how it could be used in creating a new quality style of whisky.
Yesterday’s innovation is today’s tradition. The reason Scotch whisky is where it is today is because distillers over hundreds of years have adapted and evolved that tradition. When something is fixed, it atrophies.
‘Challenge everything’: Attendees were encouraged to embrace new ways of whisky-making to ensure its future
The key is evolution, as long as that allows you to study older, perhaps forgotten, techniques and reinterpret them within today’s frame. The rules appear to permit flexibility, though their interpretation – wedded to an obdurate reading of ‘tradition’ – can appear to negate that.
It’s why Ludo Ducrocq’s (William Grant & Sons) piece was so vital. If you are new, he said, learn from your mistakes (and don’t bottle them); leave written, tangible, evidence of having been there. Understand and protect your legacy, because your legacy is being created today. And, as he alluded subtly, pick your battles with legislators.
I left inspired by the passion and dedication shown by all the attendees. Something happened in the frozen north, a coming together and the emergence of a common belief. Not necessarily a ‘movement’, but a new willingness to share and help, to find common purpose.
Scotch needs to be part of those future discussions, it too needs to move on, writing its own future. At times, we all need to be thinking outside the box.
02 February 2017
I was sitting in frost-covered Forres thinking about symbols. Again. After all, whisky is rich in them and they continue to frame much of the debate over its future direction. More shortbread or less? Fewer kilts or more – or 21st-century ones? Is haggis outmoded? You get the drift.
Symbols are shorthand, signifiers for deeper and more complex feelings, and beliefs. They are, as I’ve discovered recently, remarkably potent as well. We might dismiss the deployment of many of them as being lazy, but if they are misused then the reaction is rapid and surprisingly protective.
‘It might be a crap symbol, but it’s ours,’ we growl. I know, because it’s happened to me twice since last week.
Symbol of friendship: The Quaich signifies a bond between giver and receiver
The first was the report that locals in a village in Devon had complained that the design of a proposed whisky distillery in their burgh was inappropriate and, in the words of one resident: ‘More in keeping to a traditional Scottish distillery… Princetown is not Scotland and the looks are not in keeping to the local area.’
The apparently anti-Scottish sentiment was engendered by the addition of a pagoda (or cupola, to be precise) on the top of the building.
It was one of those stories – ‘clickbait’, I think the young people call them – guaranteed to raise the ire and make you wish to read more. I mean, I thought: ‘How dare they? Don’t they understand? The bloody arrogance of them, etc, etc.’ So, I clicked and read and, you know what? I’m on the objectors’ side.
Who is being arrogant here? Why should a whisky distillery have to be in a ‘Scottish’ design? Why, if it’s not malting, does it have to have cupolas which were originally created for functional, not aesthetic, reasons?
If England is becoming a whisky-making nation, then shouldn’t it perhaps develop its own whisky distillery vernacular? I’m with the locals. The design is lazy. Make something different. Make it Devonian. Maybe the architect could come to Scotland and have a look at Dalmunach or Macallan’s Hobbiton and see how it can be done.
I was taken to task by a reader recently for mixing whisky and politics which, according to them, should be kept apart. Well, turn away my friend, we’re going in again.
It would be lovely, I agree, if politics could be kept away from whisky, but it can’t because there are things like, oh I dunno… taxes and trade deals and, oh yes, business involved in the selling of the stuff.
Politics influences price and availability – you just have to go to a Liquor Control Board shop in Canada to see what politics can do to a whisky selection.
But that’s by the by. Politics and whisky intertwined themselves again last week when UK Prime Minister Theresa May went to Washington. On these occasions, it’s only polite to take a gift to your host. You can imagine the discussions in No 10 when the form of said gift was being debated.
And so on, until some lonely Scottish voice says: ‘What about a quaich?’
‘A quiche? That’s a bit… French, isn’t it?’
So then they go on to describe Scotland’s friendship cup. It makes sense. Trump is – I hang my head in shame – half-Scottish after all, even if the only love he has shown for the place is to ravage the shifting dunes of Foveran and harass the local residents. The sublime Karine Polwart put it better than I could at Celtic Connections last week.
Yes, talks had to take place at some stage. It’s politics. There’s a pragmatic element to that game, which can involve a fair amount of holding your nose while talking to someone. It doesn’t mean leaving your morals at the door.
Symbol of Scotch: Broom says it’s ‘arrogant’ to assume English distilleries should adopt a traditional Scottish shape
Symbols are shorthand. For May, quaich = friendship = business. (You can imagine her frantic, imploring look as their eyes met over its brim…)
But symbols are deep. The quaich is more than a friendship cup. The moment of its sharing creates a bond. Its use comes from a time when a community would gather together, sit in a circle and pass the cup around.
It says: ‘We are equal.’
It says: ‘We can talk freely.’
It says: ‘Brotherhood.’
It speaks of cohesiveness and an open-hearted view of the world, of community, understanding, sharing and peace. No wonder it and whisky go together. The quaich is a powerful symbol of humanity. It is everything that Trump’s regime rejects.
May’s quaich says: ‘We can ignore the racism, bigotry and misogyny, the anti-environmentalism and willingness to gag the press. Not because we are compassionate and tolerant, but because we want to do business with you. The drinks are on us.’
Mrs May would have done better to place a bulk order of quaichs to give to our former partners in Europe, because those are the friendship bonds we need to re-establish.
News of the US immigration ban has made headlines and sparked protests around the country. The cup of friendship has been filled quickly enough with poison. Perhaps, if sharing was the underlying message, a long spoon might have been more appropriate.
30 January 2017
January and the first trip of the year: taking the Arctic route (in a plane, I hasten to add) to Vancouver Island for the truly wonderful Victoria Whisky Festival – which, as Davin de Kergommeaux wrote about last year, is not only run for charity, but they’ll even drive you home afterwards. Don’t you just love Canada?
It also happened to coincide with the inauguration in the US, so there were lots of Americans shuffling around saying variations on the theme of: ‘It wasn’t me,’ and pausing a little too long when passing the windows of realtors.
For me, it also meant a chance to catch up with my old friend and mentor ‘Sir’ Mike Nicolson, Scotch industry legend, third-generation distiller and who has settled here in retirement, or rather as retiring as a chap like Nicolson can be, given that he has a blues band and is consulting with a raft of new whisky distilleries across British Columbia, thanks to a (belated) relaxation in legislation allowing small-scale distilling.
Victoria Caledonian distillery: A memorable whisky for Broom from the Victoria Whisky Festival
(I’m not using the c-word. Mark Gillespie of Whiskycast told me that my last rant about it had irritated some people. I don’t see why. ‘Craft’ is an attitude and approach; a philosophy influenced itself by a tradition passed down through generations. It is not determined by size, beard length, or complexity of tattoos. Not that I have anything against any of those things.)
Of the small selection I tried – Shelter Point, Victoria Caledonian, deVine/Glen Saanich (watch out for that ‘Glen’, guys, the Scotch Whisky Association will be dumping bricks on your lawn) – the quality is clearly already there.
The issue now, for them and their colleagues in the US, is defining what North American single malt whisky is. Does it need a definition? What grains can be used? Must it be aged, and only aged in oak, and should there be a minimum maturation time?
As an increasing number of single malts appear, so the need for some sort of cohesive concept of what the term actually means becomes that little bit more pressing. It should be an interesting debate.
Some might say no regulations are required. I say look at Japan, where distillers are now becoming, how shall I put this… somewhat exercised at trying to write a proper definition because, as it stands, the whole industry is open to abuse.
The other highlight (other than finding an obscure Bunny Wailer Jamaican pressing) was being asked to give some thoughts on a new prestige range of Canadian whiskies from Corby, which is, just to remind you, the largest whisky distillery in North America. Hold that thought.
The current master blender there is Dr Don Livermore (an appropriate name for a whisky maker, I always think) who is wholly geek, boffin, communicator and proselytiser for Canadian whisky.
A quick recap: Canadian whiskies are, predominantly, single distillery blends. Different grains – corn, wheat, rye, triticale, sometimes barley – distilled separately in different still configurations and types, aged separately in a variety of different cask types and then blended. You look at that and say: ‘There’s the building blocks for making complex whiskies.’ (This is also why a definition for single malt is needed.)
Corby collection: The packs are not yet finished, but the whisky excites Broom
And yet Canada has been noticeable by its absence from whisky’s recent growth as a premium spirit. For Dr Don and (Scottish) brand director Ross Hendry, enough was enough. It was time for Canadian whisky to stand up and say: ‘You know what, guys, we can do it too.’ The inspiration, Hendry freely admits, came from Classic/Rare Malts, Special Releases and Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection.
Four of the existing range – Lot 40, Gooderham & Worts, Pike Creek 10-year-old and Wiser’s 18-year-old – have been given top-end extensions: Lot 40 100% rye into a robust, rosewater and clove cask strength; Gooderham & Worts as a gentle, complex, elegant 17-year-old, which is a masterclass in blending three different distillates (rye, corn and wheat); Pike Creek Speyside Finish 21-year-old, a fine-boned, refined corn & rye blend; and, finally, the mighty Wiser’s 37-year-old, a corn-based whisky with some old rye blended in that’s lusciously magnificent and complex, and already one of my whiskies of the year. Is Dr Don a craftsman? What do you think?
If these don’t make people sit up and take notice, I don’t know what will. The only things I disagree with are the prices, which at around C$100 are too low. They say: ‘We are here, we need to be taken seriously, we are different and these whiskies are valid.’ Their emergence won’t just benefit Corby, but the category.
‘What’s this got to do with Scotch, Dave?’ Quite a lot, I’d say. Canada has always had quality – look at the ages of some of these – it just hasn’t had self-belief. Just as importantly, it also has volume (remember, Corby... biggest distillery etc, etc).
It’s not the size of this new range that matters – there are only 350 cases of each – it is what it says and what it makes the educated drinker think. There is now another high-quality alternative. And there’s plenty more to come.
Things in the world of whisky have just become that little bit more interesting.
12 January 2017
January. It’s a strange kind of month. You’d somehow expect people to return after the festive break going: ‘OK, last year was shit (and, my God, wasn’t it?), but let’s forget about the past and get stuck in.’ It should be a roll-up-the-sleeves sort of month, the time of year when everyone is energised.
Instead, it seems to drag itself into life like a teenager on their way to school. ‘Must we? Again? I’ve done it already. What’s the point anyway?’ What you might expect to be a time of new ideas and fresh starts is instead a sulk of a month. There are no new whiskies, precious little news. A month, you’d think, perfect for turning to drink, were it not for the peer pressure-induced ban on such frivolity.
Maybe January is psychologically the time we put aside for contemplation, a time to make plans, rather than put them into action. It’s normally a time for predictions, but this year there’s Brexit, the arrival of Trump’s cabinet of family members and kleptocrats, and the possibility of trade wars. All that I can predict with a degree of confidence is that we might need a drink or five.
Still, at least with former Scotch Whisky Association chief executive David Frost now holding Boris’ hand, maybe the whisky industry might have a hotline to knowing what the thinking is in Westminster.
Whisky wishes 2017: It’s time to take Scotch a bit less seriously, says Broom
Ah… sorry… I just read that again. No-one knows what might happen as the Government blunders and improvises its way towards the hard, soft, or flaccid uncoupling, and whether it will be premature or delayed. Hello again, Boris.
So, as predictions are dangerous, here are some wishes for Scotch in 2017.
Keep the faith. It might seem strange, but there needs to be confidence in what is being sold. It needs to be less – for me at least – about image and more about inherent product quality. Drinkers need to know what it is, why it is different, what the flavours are, and how does it stack up against all the challengers. Scotch should be proud of what it makes.
Size doesn’t matter. If Scotch is to make a strong return to growth, then there needs to be an appreciation that there are different approaches. There always have been. Carping about the size of large companies is a distraction.
Smaller-sized distillers need to cut through, but though Scotch is a noisy and cluttered category, there is room if they concentrate on making the best quality they can manage. The allegedly faceless big companies have whisky-makers every bit as dedicated as they are. Insulting them insults the whole category.
Oh and by the way, they are as ‘craft’ as anyone in their dedication to their work, so let’s drop that term as shorthand for small-scale. Enough. Please.
And, since we’re there…
Call time on gibberish. It’s not just fake news which is troubling, but fake English. A new, utterly meaningless lexicon has sprung up around whisky in recent years. No press release, back label, menu or website is complete unless it is garnished with terms such as ‘traditional oak’, ‘masters’, ‘hand-crafted’, ‘extreme’, ‘grain to glass’, ‘cool’, ‘unique maturation methods’, ‘experts’, ‘bespoke’ and variations on ‘Rolls-Royce’. Enough! [Hang on… You’ve missed ‘artisanal’, ‘iconic’ and ‘boutique’ – Ed].
Their tenuous grasp of language is matched by their lack of basic geography. In the last couple of weeks I got a press release claiming that an Orcadian distillery was ‘within reach of the Arctic Circle’ [as is everywhere else on the planet if you get on a fucking plane – Ed], and was told about how a Speyside brand was aligned to the region’s specialities like Isle of Mull scallops. I won’t get started on Bad History. Yet…
Be open-minded. People are passionate about Scotch whisky. Because they are passionate, they will disagree. It’s the same with food, or music, or movies, or fashion… You get the idea. Unfortunately, in whisky, what should be a fun and energetic debate has become increasingly soured.
Malts are best, blends are bad (unless it’s White Horse from the ’60s). Old is better than young. Old-style whiskies are better than new. Coal fires are better than steam. Neat is always better than mixed. Whisky can only either be serious, or a drink.
In fact, it can be both. That’s why it’s a success. That’s what we should celebrate in 2017.
04 January 2017
Porridge wars have broken out in the house. The in-laws are in between moving houses and have moved in for a few months. At least, they say it’s only a few months. While all is peaceful (bar my Highland Park collection taking a battering from the f-in-l), tensions are rising at breakfast time. They like their morning porridge. So do I. The only problem is that we like it in different ways.
I use coarse or pinhead oatmeal, cooked gently on the stove top with a mix of milk and water, stirred with a spurtle [Apparently, a stick elevated to the status of cooking implement in Scotland – Ed]. They use rolled oats nuked with water in the microwave. I add naught but a pinch of salt. They add all manner of things, including tinned prunes.
My mother-in-law says mine is no more than gruel. I feel that what she assembles – it can hardly be called cooking – is little more than grey papier mâché. You can see why there might be a slight difference in opinion.
I have no problem in admitting that I am a porridge traditionalist. My late mother – and her mother before her – would steep the meal (always pinhead) in water overnight. A spurtle would be used, salt would be the only thing allowed. That’s just the way it was.
Some feel this approach reflects classic Scottish parsimony. Others point out that this most traditional of fare was peasant food, and that sugar wasn’t widely available. Nor, I would add, were tinned feckin’ prunes.
Porridge wars: If you can drink whisky however you like, you can make porridge (almost) however you like, says Dave Broom
You could add milk and stir it in, though my aunt who lived on a croft in Lumsden had a different approach to serving. She’d place a bowl of fresh cream on the side, into which she would dip her spoonful of porridge. Extravagant, perhaps, and therefore uncharacteristic for Aberdeenshire, but it couldn’t be denied that it was good.
Sugar, it was felt, was an English thing and one that should be spurned, or perhaps unspurtled. On reflection, this is perhaps strange as sugar could be added without restraint to Corn Flakes or Rice Krispies. Porridge, its making, its consumption, was somehow sacrosanct.
Feeling that I was in need of winning my now daily argument, I sought out a potential ally in the shape of the Golden Spurtle awards. This annual competition for the best porridge, surely, would be where the rules of classicism would be respected. They are – up to a point… Every contestant has to make a traditional porridge, made with pinhead, coarse, medium or fine oatmeal, water and salt (hardcore! they’d sneer at my use of milk).
But then they also make a ‘speciality porridge’. All manner of adulteration is permitted: blueberries and almond mascarpone; spinach and mussels; whisky, cinnamon and apple; and others which make you wonder if magic mushrooms had been ingested... or, perhaps, used.
Chastened, I sat and mused on this. Hang on, isn’t your fundamentalism with porridge-making just the same as those who apply the same narrow and restrictive rules to whisky enjoyment? The ‘drink it neat’ brigade. The ones who dismiss dilution and sneer at Lagavulin and Coke. How can I, Mr ‘Enjoy your whisky however you want’, lay down conditions for porridge-making?
So I’ve relented. If whisky can be mixed, then what’s wrong about porridge mixed with sugar, or honey, or rooibos tea and banana brûlée if the result is one that gives you pleasure? After all, by eating oats you are doing yourself good. They’re low in calories and they lower cholesterol, though my traditionalist side points out that adding loads of sugar to them will slightly reduce those efficacious qualities. So, though, does salt. Tricky stuff, this.
Does fighting over the type of oatmeal matter? Surely that’s no different to entering into an absurd debate over which style of whisky is better – one with structure or one that is soft? So, while I’ll contest that coarse and pinhead give better flavour and bite, I won’t moan if other types are used. Magnanimous, eh?
The microwave is one step too far, though. There are still some standards which need to be observed and maintained.
22 December 2016
The recent news that Rare Whisky 101 had fearlessly uncovered a fake Laphroaig certainly generated a lot of publicity. It deserved to. We need to know these things.
It is also a sign of the health of the rare and collectable market. As soon as forgers sniff a quick profit, they will act. So I’m pleased that they have brought this to people’s attention. I am surprised, however, that they appear to suggest that this problem is new and that they were the first to properly investigate it.
Fake whiskies started to appear in volume at auctions in the 1990s but, apart from a flurry of media attention in 2004, the issue has been quietly forgotten as the whisky world moved on to far more pressing topics, such as NAS and sulphur.
Only by understanding how long fakes have been commonplace (and, though it seems strange, tolerated) do we get a proper perspective as to the scale of the problem.
Initially it seemed as if the arrival of large volumes of rare whiskies in the ’90s were simply a consequence of whisky auctions gathering pace and prices rising accordingly. What was bewildering was the number of pristine bottles appearing, purporting to come from the 19th or early 20th centuries. Neither was it the odd bottle, but multiples of the same whisky, with labels in the same, excellent, condition.
Some hailed from established distilleries – Macallan, Bowmore, Laphroaig, etc – but many were from distilleries whose wares had never been seen. Most appeared to have originated in Italy. As one source said to me in 2001: ‘It was almost too good to be true. I had one person saying: “I can get anything you want.”’
Not quite right: The bottle at the centre of the latest fake whisky scandal
As well as seeding their wares into the auction market, the fakers also began approaching distillers directly. Those firms with archivists (Diageo, Chivas, Allied (since bought by Chivas)) rejected what was being offered. (This, incidentally, shows that firms who do take the time and effort to preserve, respect and cherish their past are less likely to be caught out.)
Others were more gung-ho. You can, perhaps, understand why. The market for old whisky is rising. You are building a reputation at this high end and now there is a seemingly endless stream of old whiskies which will only add to the glory of your back-story – or at least that’s what the nice Italian gentleman is telling you when you meet him in a hotel in Elgin.
It’s entirely possible, because no-one seemed interested in old whisky until recently, that an old lady in Bologna would simply keep hold of her huge stash of 19th-century booze.
Macallan, while far from being the only distiller to be duped, drank the most deeply from this pool, even ‘replicating’ some of their purchases. It was only when liquid from an alleged 19th-century bottle was ceremoniously syringed out to try at the first replica product launch that people’s fears were confirmed. It was obvious to most of us in the room that this was not an old whisky.
The experts, however, were often ignored – even vilified. Some collectors bought bottles, knowing they were fakes. ‘After all,’ I was told at the time, ‘even a fake van Gogh is worth a lot of money!’ As a result, more fakes appeared.
In 2003, Macallan bowed to pressure and had a selection of its purchases carbon-dated at the same Oxford laboratory used by Rare Whisky 101. All of the bottles were shown to be fakes.
While they had been duped, at least there was now a clear methodology to test for potential fakes: check the label for inaccuracies, examine the glass, use archives, test the liquid – either at Tatlock & Thomson, or send it to Oxford.
Trail-blazers?: Andy Simpson and David Robertson, directors of Rare Whisky 101
My question is: if this system has been in place for 13 years, why is Rare Whisky 101 making out as if it is the first firm to expose this? It wasn’t. Maybe David Robertson – who was at Macallan at the time when the fakes were being purchased – has had a bad attack of amnesia?
Surely a firm which sets itself up as the expert on rare and ‘investment-grade’ whisky ought to have placed fakes front and centre of its advice to potential clients – especially given the personal experience of one of its directors?
I hope, now that the extent of the problem has, again, been flagged up, that collectors, investment firms, and auction houses – who have regularly employed a Pontius Pilate-esque defence when they have been found to have sold a fake – pay attention to the scale of the problem.
If the rare market continues to be run on nothing more than blind trust, naivety and avarice, you can guarantee that another wave of fakes will appear. Chancers beget chancers.
If the provenance of the bottle cannot be proved, if there are no historical records, then avoid. In 2004, Iain Russell, now archivist at Glenmorangie and who has been assiduous in his monitoring of the fakes market, said: ‘My advice is “caveat emptor”.’ How depressing that, 14 years later, the same phrase is being used once again.
16 December 2016
I first met Wallace Milroy in 1988. At United Distillers’ (UD) old headquarters in Landmark House, Hammersmith, to be precise. A perfectly logical place to meet a whisky giant, you may think, but we were actually both there to taste a range of new Greek wines. I had only recently started at a drinks trade weekly and was trying to get to grips with the complexities of the UK drinks trade, so was being sent everywhere.
As far as I recall, the tasting went well and, as was the custom in those days, was followed by lunch. Wallace caught my eye. ‘I think it might be time for a dram,’ he said, striding purposefully across to a display cabinet on which were sitting the then brand new Classic Malts. He paused for a nanosecond, eyeing up the range.
‘Let’s have a look at Glenkinchie,’ he said, uncorking the bottle and pouring two of the biggest measures I’d ever seen. I looked around, expecting some UD executive to take issue with someone helping themselves, but reprimand came there none.
We steadily worked our way through some of the selection before lunch intervened, accompanied by wine, then more whisky. I stayed close to Wallace, listening.
Post-meal, and now somewhat emboldened, I decided to head back to the office. As I lurched out of the lift door and stumbled towards my desk a cry of: ‘Dave, can you come in for a second please?’ came from the editor’s office. I did, propping myself up against his wall.
1931-2016: Wallace Milroy was a fountain of knowledge and kindness to Dave Broom when he first started in the drinks industry
‘This is entirely my fault,’ he apologised, ‘I meant to tell you that we have an office rule. If one goes out for lunch, one does not return to work afterwards. You can go home.’
I had learned so much in the space of a day. Most significant, though, was meeting Wallace.
His Malt Whisky Almanac was the book we’d referred to when I worked at Oddbins as we were trying to work out what these single malts were all about. It was on my desk at the office. I hadn’t just met him, I’d had a drink with him and he’d answered my questions without laughing at me.
Over the years, he became a touchstone; a source of scurrilous gossip and sound leads; a confirmer of facts; a bearer of drinks; and a companion at meals where any thought of returning to work was banished.
I now realise that I was witnessing the passing of the old whisky world. The era when business would be conducted mostly over lunches – at Matthew Gloag’s Bordeaux House in Perth, Teachers’ fine offices in St Enoch Square in Glasgow, or Morrison Bowmore’s in Springburn.
UD preferred the Buttery in Glasgow, while lunch with Lang’s and R&B usually took place in one of Glasgow’s discreet, high-end Italian establishments. This is where relationships were established, friendships made, projects planned and my education slowly progressed.
There is a Chinese belief that you only do business with someone after you have seen them drunk, because when in that state any front dissolves and the real person emerges. I’m not sure that was the intention in whisky – I have a feeling it was simply generosity, the way things were done.
This was, (and indeed is) a convivial spirit. This was the world which Wallace, and later Michael Jackson, introduced me to. A place where you could ask questions, meet the people who knew, tap into generations of experience and encounter people who were as generous with their time as they were with their measures.
That world has gone. A few years ago, around this time of year, I was speaking to Charlie MacLean and asked him how Edinburgh was. ‘Terrible,’ he retorted. ‘Every restaurant is full of people who don’t know how to do lunch.’
The spirit world appears to have joined that band. Events are at night, in noisy bars. There is little time to sit down and yarn, to have the quiet, off-the-record chat. I’m sure relationships and friendships are formed, but as everyone is apparently so busy and important, the events have to be highly managed.
In the old days, if there was a PR involved, they tended to be old hacks who loved a drink as much as everyone, so if there was a key message to take home they’d probably forgotten it as well. Have a good time, relax, talk and a richer story will emerge, was the attitude. It seemed to work.
Do I miss it? In many ways no – there was often too much booze involved. I do, however, miss the fact that this way of working allowed me time to talk to people like Wallace and ask my naive questions, and they would gladly open their repository of knowledge, verbal and liquid. I’ll certainly never forget the kindness and patience he showed this kid from Glasgow, lost in this new world.
May he rest in peace and his spirit never be forgotten.
07 December 2016
I was watching an old BBC documentary about the Clyde shipyards the other night, which took me back to my childhood; memories of standing on the doorstep at midnight on Hogmanay, listening to the horns of the ships on the river.
I’m old enough to remember the docks still in operation, the Black & White horses in their stable at Washington Street and, further along the Clyde, those shipyards. On occasion, we’d go down to watch launches, as enormous hulls rattled splintered logs, dragging chains sliding into the green-and-brown murk of the river.
I’m also of the age to recall the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work-in, that inspired piece of industrial action. Faced with a disputed bankruptcy the workers, instead of striking, locked the management out and kept on building ships.
Shipyard on the Clyde: Distillers must learn from the lack of forward planning that destroyed shipyards
It’s perhaps easy to be nostalgic. No-one misses the lack of safety and the tough working conditions, but the ultimate failure of shipbuilding on the Clyde was the start of Scotland’s great industrial decline, the ramifications of which are still being felt. The closures also destroyed communities and a sense of worth – something that was commented on in the film by the great trade unionist leader, the late Jimmy Reid.
He recalled once walking into a Clydeside pub and noticing that a lot of the old guys were crying. He figured that someone had died on the yard – an occupational hazard – but discovered that their grief was because the Queen Elizabeth, built at the John Brown’s yard on Clydeside, had caught fire and sunk in Hong Kong.
No matter that none of them would ever have been able to afford to sail on her; she remained their ship, forged out of steel and sweat on the clarty banks of the river. She was part of them.
His reminiscences had an echo of talks I’ve had over the years with distillery workers – especially those of an older generation. ‘I was on holiday,’ the story would begin, ‘and there was a bottle of [he’d name his whisky] behind the bar. It gave me real pride. Imagine that, my whisky going all that way around the world.’ Sometimes they’d mention it to the bartender, but more often they’d just sit and smile inwardly.
It was the same when overseas visitors started to arrive at distilleries, the same sense of amazement and pride that this tiny speck of a place could so affect people’s lives that they would spend time and money to make a pilgrimage there.
That warm and fuzzy side of whisky is not how it is often viewed by those in charge. To them it, like shipbuilding, is a business – and businesses are there to make profit. Seeing Jimmy Reid again took me to his extraordinary inauguration speech as rector of Glasgow University in 1972, which The New York Times compared to the Gettysburg Address.
‘Profit is the sole criterion used by the establishment to evaluate economic activity,’ he said. ‘From the Olympian heights of an executive suite, in an atmosphere where your success is judged by the extent to which you can maximise profits, the overwhelming tendency must be to see people as units of production, as indices in your accountants' books.
‘To appreciate fully the inhumanity of this situation, you have to see the hurt and despair in the eyes of a man suddenly told he is redundant… Someone, somewhere has decided he is unwanted, unneeded, and is to be thrown on the industrial scrapheap.
‘From the very depth of my being, I challenge the right of any man or any group of men, in business or in government, to tell a fellow human being that he or she is expendable.’
Pride and joy: Distillery workers will often feel immensely proud to spot their whiskies on back bars around the world
Firms have a duty of care to the people who work for them. All of the major distillers are currently, quietly, embarking on sly and brutal cuts to their workforces. People who have dedicated their lives to a company – and to whisky – are being let go in the name of supposed ‘efficiencies’. Rather, they are the collateral damage from poor business decisions made by others whose jobs are safe.
This might seem strange when all the indications are that this is a time for opportunity for Scotch – and therefore a time when investment, rather than cutbacks, is needed – but at the corporate level there is a sense of unease.
The people who pay are usually those who care the most. They don’t just work in distilleries; they are the unseen ones, who assiduously work behind the scenes. They may not all distil whisky, but they help make it what it is.
They are the ones with tears in their eyes when something they have made disappears, the ones with that quiet smile of pride when they see their bottle in some far-flung bar, or a stranger nods at them in acknowledgement of the pleasure that their work has brought.
The shipyards went as a result of bad forward planning, poor industrial relations and lack of investment in equipment, but also a lack of faith in people. There’s a lesson to be learned.
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