Can Norlan’s combination of functionality and aesthetics help revolutionise the enjoyment of whisky?
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
21 March 2017
We were tempted to hold on to last week’s report about the world’s ‘oldest’ Scotch whisky being inserted into an expensive watch for a couple more weeks. After all, it would seem to sit nicely alongside the stories of spaghetti plantations and sightings of the Loch Ness Monster traditionally reserved for that annual celebration of human gullibility, April Fools’ Day.
It’s just bizarre, isn’t it? Take what is reputed to be the world’s oldest Scotch whisky, Old Vatted Glenlivet 1862, and put a drop inside a perfectly good Swiss watch, then charge nearly £40,000 for it (there’s a sub-£15k version if you’re on a budget). I mean… why?
I can only assume either that the idea was borne out of an extremely long lunch, or that it was the result of an Alan Partridge-esque brainstorming session where the ideas became increasingly desperate. For ‘monkey tennis’ and ‘youth hostelling with Chris Eubank’, substitute ‘find the world’s oldest whisky and stick it in a watch’.
There are other objections too. This is the third similar venture from partners Louis Moinet and Wealth Solutions (the latter sounding uncannily like an Orwellian parody of itself), and each time the spirit in question has been chosen in the same way.
Cognac: Gautier 1762; rum: Harewood 1780. Now Glenlivet 1862 – in each case, the oldest example that could be found. But, unless you subscribe to a wholly Darwinian theory that only the best examples of a particular craft survive through the ages, this is a purely quantitative judgement.
Quantity over quality: This may be the world’s oldest Scotch, but is it any good?
Gautier 1762 may be the oldest Cognac anyone knows about, but the liquid itself might be awful. Ditto for Harewood, ditto for Glenlivet. It’s no different to an unquestioning belief that the oldest (in terms of maturation period) spirits are the best. Well, I’ve tasted 50-year-old rum, and it was bloody awful.
There’s almost an air of obscenity about the indulgence of the ‘whisky watch’; the kind of extravagant stunt they might have pulled during the most louche days of the Roman Empire, while tucking into some stuffed dormice and electing their horses to high public office.
But, underneath the hype and jaw-meets-floor pricing, the crazy whisky watch says something about the way the world now regards this product of malted and milled cereal grains, mixed with water, fermented, distilled and matured in oak.
It’s up there with Lafite and Pétrus, Louis XIII and Richard Hennessy; with Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Rolex (no disrespect to Louis Moinet).
At this level, whisky’s chosen apparel is Lalique crystal and ebony, not thin glass and a cardboard carton. And it deserves to move in those circles, because of the potentially transcendent sensory experience it can impart to the drinker, and the value people are willing to place upon that experience.
But that status comes with a price, and it’s a price that’s likely to extend into five figures, and into sometimes questionable areas of aesthetics. It’s what begins to happen when the world doesn’t undervalue you any more.
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.
08 March 2017
Encounter number one: September 2010. A couple of glorious Indian summer days, when the Corryvreckan whirlpool off Jura was reduced to a millpond and we all blinked into the sunlit dazzle of the waves as Mickey communicated his whisky passion as only Mickey can.
Encounter number two: the Islay half marathon in August 2013, which a bunch of drinks journalists ran in memory of our late colleague Alan Lodge, whose favourite spot (and dram) happened to be Ardbeg.
Post-run, post-lunch, whisky in hand, sunbathing on the shore in front of the distillery. It might not be the approved Mo Farah post-race warmdown, but it worked for us, and Mickey was there to pour the drams.
And encounter number three: Ardbeg Day during last year’s Fèis Ìle, when a semi-tropical slice of summer invaded the changeable Islay spring. Mickey was busy – as are all the distillery staff during Ardbeg Day – and a brief sighting suggested that he may also have been slowly melting, dressed in what appeared to heavy priest’s robes as part of the Ardbeg Night smuggling theme.
This trinity of visits suggests two things to me: one, that the sun always shines at Ardbeg; two, that in Mickey Heads, this world-famous but historically fragile distillery has a manager that it richly merits.
Whisky passion: Over the past decade, Mickey Heads has become inextricably linked to Ardbeg
There’s a pleasing numerical symmetry to Mickey’s tenure at Ardbeg: the 20th manager of the distillery, marking 10 years in 2017, having joined almost exactly 10 years after Glenmorangie bought the distillery.
That acquisition ended an uncertain period during which Ardbeg could have become another Port Ellen after a stop-start period of production (it was silent from 1981-9 and 1996-7, and scarcely running at full speed at other times).
Apt, then, that its management should pass to a true Ileach, one born just a few miles from Ardbeg and whose father (a stillman) and grandfather (head maltman at Port Ellen) were also closely involved in the industry. Arguably all the more important to reinforce those local links when the distillery’s current owner (luxury goods corporation LVMH) has its offices in faraway Paris.
That said, Mickey’s career path – or ‘meander’ as he has modestly described it – appeared at first to be taking him further away from Ardbeg, rather than closer to it. From cutting peat for Laphroaig to becoming the distillery’s brewer (during which time he also helped out at Ardbeg, then owned by the same company), then hopping across to run Jura between 1999 and 2007.
But then came the call back to Islay, and Ardbeg. And now, 10 years on, Ardbeggians all over the world are being encouraged to raise a glass, and three cheers, to Mickey.
In a whisky world where hype and marketing cliché all too often overwhelm the truth of an essentially local product, it’s not hard to celebrate someone so down-to-earth, hard-working and humble, and someone whose connection to what he makes is so powerful.
Corryvreckan in my glass, to recall that first Indian summer visit. Sláinte, Mickey.
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.
20 February 2017
Hands up who went to visit Diageo’s mysterious snake in a bottle the other week? It’s a rarity for the Johnnie Walker owner to open its Menstrie archive to the public (in celebration of International Scotch Day on 10 February), but exceptional to see a 19th-century bottle of whisky containing a pickled snake.
Yet Diageo’s archive is full of curiosities – 500,000 of them – from historic bottlings (complete with resident spirits, sans snake) to ledgers, paintings, photographs, vintage adverts, life-size horse sculptures and even a replica hot air balloon. Some day David Beckham’s distant ancestors may visit Menstrie for an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? to dig out the memorabilia associated with his launch of Haig Club.
It’s one of the most comprehensive catalogues of a whisky company’s history in existence, and takes a team of six archivists to maintain and grow. Sadly such a thorough and tenderly curated archive is extremely rare in Scotch, which is shocking when you consider the wealth of heritage in the category dating back hundreds of years.
Whisky log: Chivas Brothers’ archive at Strathisla contains details of the company’s past bottlings and whisky recipes
Scotland’s largest whisky companies all began collating serious archives during the 1980s and ’90s. Chivas Brothers’ archive at Strathisla is in the hands of senior archivist Chris Brousseau, Dewar’s is curated by Jacqui Seargeant in Glasgow, The Glenmorangie Company’s history lies under the care of Iain Russell in Livingston, while Glasgow University Archives houses records from Laphroaig, deposited when Whitbread’s spirits division was sold to Allied Lyons in 1989.
Despite the applaudable efforts of some parties, frustratingly too many whisky producers keep no record of their brands’ histories at all. Not even for those produced as recently as the 1970s or 1980s. No details of when they were first produced, no visual reminders of packaging designs, and no log of blending recipes. Their bottlings are produced, sent out the door and promptly forgotten.
Would you raise a family without logging your children’s first words, their first steps, or without taking photographs of ridiculous hairstyles for their future offspring to ridicule? We compile photographs of family celebrations, diaries and birth and death certificates to remind us of our own faded memories, but also to show our future generations who we were. What we did.
The credit for the Diageo archive’s meticulousness goes firstly to the group’s predecessors at the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL), who had the foresight to hold onto material relating to many of today’s oldest brands, such as Johnnie Walker, Buchanan’s and White Horse. It helped that the brands were the creations of some of the most prolific and successful marketers in the industry, people like James Buchanan and Peter Mackie, who nurtured their whiskies like children of their own.
Following the takeover of DCL by Guinness in 1986, the resulting company, United Distillers, enlisted the assistance of archivist and historian Dr Nick Morgan to establish an archive for the company’s history. Afraid of losing some of its history as a result of the merger, Morgan was entrusted to compile as many artefacts relating to the companies’ history as he could find. In two years he filled three floors of an old warehouse with memorabilia.
Alexander Walker’s blending book: records of past blends can help inspire the whiskies of the futureEagle-eyed readers may have noticed our Whiskypedia section expanding lately. Very soon this section will include details of almost every Scotch whisky distillery, brand and company over the last 200 years or so. It will become the largest information resource for Scotch whisky online. It’s not an easy job compiling thousands of pages of company and brand histories, but it’s made that much harder, often venturing into the realms of the impossible, when producers keep no records of their own.
Keeping an archive not only helps journalists like us build something as in-depth and historically accurate as Whiskypedia, but it also enables companies to draw on their rich past, resurrect brands or production techniques, or bring vintage marketing material or labels back to life. It helps create lineage for brands, and a sense of heritage which, apparently, is what millennials seek in their purchases these days.
My globetrotting colleague Dave Broom returned from the inaugural World Whisky Forum in Sweden last week with reports of the whisky fraternity – large and small producers alike – sharing experiences and advice.
I was thrilled to hear that among the discussions of innovation and traditional production techniques, Ludo Ducrocq, head of ambassador advocacy at Glenfiddich owner William Grant & Sons, had stressed the importance of new distillers establishing their own archive from the off. ‘It will save money in the long term,’ he said. ‘An archive protects your legacy, it tells the story, it adds value and allows you to learn from mistakes.’
Not all brands have been lucky enough to have meticulous owners like the DCL or United Distillers. Many were passed from owner to owner with any collection of past marketing material or notes lost along the way, if they ever existed at all. One company may have started an archive, only for it to be considered superfluous by its next owner.
Archives should be considered as important as the distilleries brands are produced in, and in this digital age there is really no excuse. My hope is that all whisky producers, not just this new wave of distillers, start documenting material right now. Understanding our past is what helps us to move forward.
After all, curating an archive is like setting a footprint in stone. Without it, the past is simply washed away with the sands of time.
Archives to visit:
While the Chivas Brothers archive is not open to visitors, and Diageo’s Menstrie archive allows public pilgrimages just one day a year, there are several attractions across Scotland that welcome history buffs to immerse themselves in whisky heritage.
The largest public collection of whisky, with bottles dating back to 1897, is at the Scotch Whisky Experience on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. It’s a fascinating, somewhat magical experience to be surrounded by so much whisky history, with tours preceded by an equally fun barrel ride.
Meanwhile, some distillery visitor centres do do their brands justice, such as the Dewar’s experience at Aberfeldy in Perthshire, The Famous Grouse Experience at Glenturret distillery in Crieff and The Glenlivet distillery in Moray, each of which have interactive tours designed to bring the brand’s storied past to life.
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.
23 January 2017
On his first visit to Islay, Professor Steven Mithen was a penniless young archaeologist who had to sleep in his car because even the local B&Bs were beyond his meagre budget.
It wasn’t whisky that drew him to the island, but its vast array of historical sites, from evidence of the first Ice Age explorers 12,000 years ago to the deserted townships of the 19th century.
As Prof Mithen continued his investigations, he needed funding – but who better to ask for a few hundred quid than the distillers who had brought Islay its modern-day fame?
He wrote to them all. None replied. This was the 1980s, and a less than buoyant Scotch whisky industry had bigger things to worry about than helping an academic to dig holes in the ground.
Much has changed since then. Prof Mithen is now an acclaimed authority on the origins of the first hunter-gatherers and farmers (among many other subjects), and is Professor of Archaeology and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Reading.
His work has taken him, notably, to southern Jordan – but he has also returned regularly to Islay, where he now has a home. And, three decades on, he has finally secured some cash from a distiller: £310,000, to be precise, out of the proceeds of Lagavulin’s 1991 Single Cask release, the last of the expressions released to mark the distillery’s bicentenary last year.
The money is going to Islay Heritage, the organisation of which Prof Mithen is a trustee, and into which he has channeled his personal research. The grant will be spent on the creation of an Islay Heritage Trail – Islay’s historic sites can be hard to access and there’s little to tell you what you’re looking at when you do find them – as well as the first detailed investigation of Dunyvaig Castle in Lagavulin Bay.
Remarkable ruins: Dunyvaig Castle watches over the entry to Lagavulin Bay
Most of what Prof Mithen and his colleagues are investigating predates Scotch whisky, but don’t for a moment imagine there’s no connection here – or, for that matter, with his researches in the Middle East.
What were our ancestors doing in Jordan 12,000 years ago? Among other things, domesticating barley. Then look at a site such as the Giant’s Grave Neolithic burial cairn on the Rinns of Islay – what did those early settlers bring with them? Barley again.
Then there’s the peat. The primal substance that gives Lagavulin and other Islay single malts their distinctive character also preserves many of the finds unearthed by archaeologists. From pre-history to today’s golden age of Islay whisky, the links run deep.
This almost symbiotic relationship is implicitly recognised in the way that Islay Heritage is going about its work. This will be no tourist trail imposed on the local community, but a co-operative effort to identify and recognise the ‘Islay 100’ – the 100 most significant archaeological sites and monuments on the island.
That number – 100 – is a sign both of the ambition of the initiative and the sheer depth of Islay’s history and heritage. And that heritage, says Prof Mithen, resounds far beyond the island’s shores, with a significance for the whole of north-western Europe.
Whisky lovers don’t need to be told that Islay is a special place. Those lucky enough to have visited the island will know that that status extends beyond whisky to its culture, landscape and people. Now it seems that we’ve just barely touched the surface of what this small Hebridean paradise has to offer.
Anyone interested in buying one of 520 bottles of Lagavulin 1991 available for purchase, priced at £1,494 each, can enter a special ballot on The Whisky Exchange website. This closes on 12 February and bottles will be allocated at random. By late last week, more than 6,000 people had registered their interest.
Of the remaining two bottles, one will go to the Diageo Archive, and the other will be auctioned at Whisky.Auction from 26 February for 10 days, with the money raised also going to Islay Heritage.
19 January 2017
When Boris Johnson, the supremely gaffe-prone Brexit campaigner, was appointed Foreign Secretary by new UK Prime Minister Theresa May, eyebrows arched heavenward. After all, wasn’t giving ‘bumbling’ Boris the job a bit like entrusting the country’s foreign relations to a combination of a golden retriever puppy and the Duke of Edinburgh?
This week, Johnson has been in India talking up business as the UK contemplates a raft of international trade deals in the brave new post-EU world. In a speech to local business leaders, he decided that there was really only one subject with which to open.
Not a bad idea, given the enormous tariffs on imported whisky which make it so hard for most Indians to be able to afford the likes of Johnnie Walker or Ballantine’s. Time, said the Foreign Secretary, to ‘tear these barriers down’.
Puppy meets Prince Philip: Boris Johnson may need to spend more time on Whiskypedia than Wikipedia
Hard to argue with the thrust of Johnson’s message, but let’s take a look at the detail of his speech and… erm… Well, you be the judge.
‘I have come on several official trips [to India] now, as well as various family weddings, and we always try to remember to bring something for our Sikh relatives who live in both Delhi and Mumbai.
‘Can you guess what it is? That’s right – we tend to bring a bottle of whisky, Black Label whisky, to add to the astonishing 1.5bn litres of whisky that are consumed every year in this country.
‘And why do we bring a bottle of Scotch to our relatives in Mumbai and Delhi (normally Black Label, though I have just bought something called Green Label; I hope it isn’t crème de menthe)?
‘The reason, my friends, is that this wonderful country still sets a tariff of 150% on whisky imports, and I believe this matters.’
‘It is an extraordinary fact that no-one can deny, that even though Scotland is incontestably the home and progenitor of Scotch, the only place in the world where the water trickles through the peaty glen in exactly the right way to turn into liquid fire, even though whisky is itself a Gaelic word, uisge beatha. Does anyone know what it means? H2O – water of life.’
I know, I know. But there’s more. The above is the official Foreign & Commonwealth Office transcript of the speech but, according to STV, the Foreign Secretary – as is his wont – departed slightly from the published text.
‘Uisge’ came out, rather unfortunately, as the Irish variant ‘uisce’, while ‘uisge beatha’ was mangled into ‘uisceaugh’, which more closely resembles a sneeze than the water of life.
Worse still, where did he gain this somewhat flawed knowledge, by his own admission? Wikipedia.
Yes, Wikipedia. The UK’s Foreign Secretary is relying on Wikipedia to provide the technical background to a keynote speech to a vital trading partner.
If only, at times like this, he had someone in his entourage with a detailed knowledge of the subject on whom he could rely. A trusted special advisor. Someone like – oh, I don’t know – former Scotch Whisky Association chief executive David Frost?
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