The ‘craft and provenance credentials’ of single malts are boosting Scotch’s global reputation.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
03 March 2016
These are tricky times for the international trade in Scotch whisky. A number of factors – falling oil prices, currency headwinds in developing markets, the implosion of the Russian economy – have conspired to bring three consecutive years of export declines, according to HMRC figures for shipments from bond.
This is unprecedented in the industry’s recent history. Look back over the past 50 years and – prior to this poor run – you could count the years of export value decline on the fingers of one hand: 1969, 1983, 1998, 2002 and 2004.
Booming sales of American whiskey, which is tipped to overtake those of single malt Scotch within five years, prove a competitive threat to the category.
Beyond the obvious macroeconomic causes for the recent decline, we might hypothesise a number of other reasons, including the competitive threat from other spirits categories and the restrictive impact of constrained supplies of single malt (the value of malt exports fell in 2015, but market share increased because blends fell faster).
Over the past half-century, Scotch whisky has been transformed into a global powerhouse of an industry, and one that is increasingly reliant for growth on the performance of developing markets in Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.
Scotch’s aspirational status makes the rewards here potentially huge, but the flipside is market volatility. Brazilian consumers might lust after Johnnie Walker, but if the weakening real sends Red Label prices up 30-40% in a year, they’re likely to go back to drinking locally produced cachaça instead.
The greater truth behind the numbers is the relative maturity of Scotch whisky around the world. According to WhiskyInvestDirect analysis of the HMRC figures, 27 countries imported more than 500,000 cases of Scotch in 2015; in 1985, the figure was just 14.
Scotch is an industry that is increasingly mature in its global footprint, and that is both a boon and a potential burden: it constitutes a spread of risk (if one market falls, chances are that another will pick up the slack); but it also reduces the headroom for future growth.
Don’t get me wrong: there are still vast opportunities for Scotch around the world, but the number of untapped markets with true and large-scale growth potential is unquestionably smaller than it was a generation or two ago.
To that extent, Scotch whisky has become a victim of its own international success.
29 February 2016
A very excited friend posted me this the other day:
‘Yeast!’ she cried, electronically. ‘Geek out!’
It did look interesting. Exciting even, though as someone who wasn’t allowed to even take science at school, I found much of it impenetrable. My esteemed colleague Mr Woodard ventured that Oxaloacetate was in Mexico. Come to think of it, I’m sure I have a mezcal from there.
Anyway, she sent it because she’s been on a distilling course – obviously quite an advanced one because, any time you go around a Scottish distillery and it gets to the yeast bit, the talk goes something like this: ‘Then we add yeast.’
Actually, there’s often less said about fermentation than there is about distillation, but that’s yet another thing to leave hanging up there on the rafters to pluck down at a future date.
It’s always intrigued me why this is the case because, when talking to winemakers or brewers, you almost have to shut them up about yeast because you want to get on with the tour. For them, yeast is an active participant in specific flavour creation, one way to help differentiate your wine/beer from your competitors’.
The same conversation is to be had at many rum distilleries, when you talk about Tequila, cachaça and mezcal (which tends to be wild ferment). In other words, it matters.
Not so in Scotch. ‘We don’t believe the yeast itself contributes to the final distillery character’ is the line, which means that, since all distilleries use the same yeast strain, the flavour differences which do exist are not generated by the yeast, but by other factors (peating, mashing, fermentation times, still utilisation, cut points).
Actually, looking at that you begin to wonder whether they have a point. If there are so many other flavour-creating opportunities, what’s the point of adding another on top?
But what about American whiskey? What about, for example, Four Roses using five different strains on two mashbills to create 10 different new makes – floral, fruity, spicy, vegetal?
Ah, but, surely after maturation the differences are evened out? No. They remain distinct, even after spending time in new wood. Four Roses might take it to the extreme, but all the other distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee have their own strain(s).
In Japan, Nikka coyly says it uses ‘around five strains’; Suntory, too, has a selection of different yeasts for its makes.
It used to be the same in Scotland when distillers used a mix of distiller’s and brewer’s yeasts. This stopped when local breweries closed, lager rather than ale yeasts were used and the Scotch industry was looking at ever greater efficiencies.
Will things change? It is interesting to observe how many of the new whiskey distillers in the States are coming from a craft beer background where different roasts of barley and yeast strains are the norm. These learnings are now being applied to their whiskies. David Fitt at English Whisky Co – an ex brewer – is doing the same, as is Darren Rook at the London Distillery.
There might be an ‘if it ain’t broke’ attitude in Scotland, it could be that a switch to multiple yeast strains is difficult to retrofit, or their introduction might cause cross-contamination.
Maybe it’s a bit like the law: easy to change, but difficult to undo once the change has taken place. I do know one of the bigger distillers is looking into yeast, but they are an exception. If I was a new distiller it is one area I’d be looking at.
But I'm not a distiller, or a scientist. Maybe that’s why I remain somewhat baffled.
19 February 2016
The ‘Third Option’ proposed by Compass Box is calm, serious, and thought through. Rather than a knee-jerk, ‘right, you bastards, we’ll see you in court!’, it sets out pretty much what we’ve been saying here from the outset: firms should have the option of declaring the make-up of vattings, this is an industry-wide issue, and it needs to be addressed – ideally openly.
There has been extensive support from the online whisky community but, without wishing to diminish the importance of their influence, the issue will only gain proper traction with the support of distillers and bottlers.
Familiar words? But scroll down to see who wrote them. You may be surprised…
Bruichladdich was quick to declare that it will deliberately break the law and reveal the make-up of its vattings. It will be interesting to see what support the Third Option gets from the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) members who came out in support of transparency, because the process of trying to change the law or create a new clause cannot take place unless the SWA’s members ask the SWA to do so.
Part of me wonders what would happen if Compass Box (and Bruichladdich) joined the SWA at this point, and whether their lobbying would be more effective once they were inside the tent.
As there seems little chance of that happening – hell having not suffered from the impact of a polar vortex – for there to be a swing in momentum behind the Third Option would require one of the big beasts, Diageo, Chivas Bros, Edrington or Wm Grant, to declare support. Dewar’s owner Bacardi, which has a stake in Compass Box, has yet to declare its hand.
Furious blogging and messages of support are one thing. The world of realpolitik works slightly differently, and the majors will only act if they feel it is in their best interests to do so, or if they see their reputation is being damaged by their (apparent) silence on the matter.
The debate is in the public domain and, given the nature of today’s world of rapid response and 140-character judgements (or assassinations), there is a real risk that it will become fatally polarised and silence will be taken as tacit approval for the current law. Before this happens, it is time, as we said back in November, to talk.
Those who support the Third Option will be accused of naivety, the debate will be framed, by both sides, as being a maverick against the system. Neither are true. This is a serious issue which needs to be addressed in a serious manner.
Now is the time to do it because, the more we look at the issue, the more absurd the law becomes.
There appears to be a more liberal application of the same EU law in Cognac, for example, but it was a press release for Diageo’s new Gifted Horse Bourbon which illustrated the ludicrousness of the situation.
‘The Gifted Horse… is comprised of 38.5% 17-year-old Kentucky straight Bourbon, distilled at the Bernheim Distillery…[it] also contains 51% four-year-old Bourbon and 10.5% four-year-old corn whiskey, both produced at a high-quality distillery in Indiana.’
This is perfectly legal in the US, but if Diageo tried to say that about, say, Oban Little Bay, it would be breaking the law. The Bourbon drinker can have all the information he or she desires, but the Scotch drinker cannot. Go figure.
It’s not even a new debate. My esteemed colleague Mr Woodard was idly leafing through Aeneas MacDonald’s 1930 book, Whisky, (the finest book on the subject) and found the following in a section calling for ‘the urgent need [for] some form of trade legislation (carried out of course by a trade association)’, in which the author had this to say about the need for clarity in bottling:
‘There are other matters which might be recommended… Thus each label on a whisky bottle ought to bear the names of the malt whiskies (grouped as Highland, Islay, Campbeltown, and Lowland) in the blend, and the exact percentage of grain spirit contained in it.
‘In addition, it should state the number of years and months that the blend and each of its constituents has matured in cask. This will seem a somewhat dramatic proposal, but the sound whiskies would only gain by it.’
In this, as in so many other things, Aeneas was right.
Can we expect what wasn’t enacted in the 1930s to finally take place in the 21st century? We can only wait and see.
15 February 2016
How important are our senses – specifically those concerning aroma and taste (flavour) – in giving us a map to understand the world? We are assailed constantly by scent molecules, all of which influence us in some way, but it is their presence and clustering in specific places which gives us that mysterious, somewhat opaque French term: terroir.
It’s this resonance of place – the spirit of the spirit if you like – which interests me most about whisky these days and, once you get into that mental space, you’ll find connections everywhere.
An examination of how sound and place are linked was behind a superb recent piece by Jez riley French on the Caught by the River blog. Jez was writing about yoik, the Sami people’s traditional form of singing and the oldest vocal tradition in Europe.
Yoik, as he outlined, is about singing in open air and using the landscape, the echo, the curves of rock, the wind and cries of nature, to mould the song. The piece is alive and fluid, allowing the song to exist in, and be crafted by, space and time.
The yoiks are about landscape, myth and animals and, as singer Ánde Somby outlined, when singing the latter in open air, a transformation takes place between man and animal, loosening the boundaries between one and the other.
It made me think of the last time I walked between Sligachan and Coruisk on Skye, heading into the belly of the Cuillin, red deer voices belling in the glen, the rattle of stone underfoot, susurration of cloth on heather, clink of scree and slip of boot, pipe of buzzard, wind in the grass. Total engagement.
It’s a topic that has long engaged poet/musician Richard Skelton, whose work is an all-enveloping examination of landscape, mostly through music, whose physicality mirrors the complex, layered nature of specific landscapes.
In his most recent works he’s turned his attention to peat lands – to the exhumation of bog bodies which have been pressed, preserved, tanned and decalcified by the weight of time.
Lost vegetation: peat is much more than just a flavouring agent for whisky
Peat. Yes, that stuff which scents whisky and to which we give little thought. Peat is an active ingredient in whisky, but has deeper links to place and culture. It warms, dries, perfumes and preserves.
Why were these bodies buried in bogs and not interred on high mountains? To bind us to the earth? An exchange? Replacing the cut turf with flesh?
When we light peat, we ignite memory: of phantom woods and lost vegetation, of millennia of cultivation, of feather and bone, insect and plant. As Seamus Heaney wrote in Bogland:
‘Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.’
A reductive view of whisky says peat is used as fuel to dry barley and add phenols to the grain, which help form the spirit’s final character. True, but there’s more.
Peat offers linkage to the earth and the past. The peat bog is a map whose markers are myrtle and cotton, sphagnum sponge, sundew stick and midge itch.
It holds entombed bodies and half-bottles rammed into the bank, shattering on the spade; it echoes to laughter and song and the planning of that night’s DJ set in the village hall.
Its sounds are rain and wind, the improvisations of skylark and oboe burble of whaup, the grey drift of hen harrier and gaze of owl. When we sip a smoky dram, this becomes part of us, but do we realise it?
We walk through landscape, our eyes open to ‘beauty’, our ears and noses stoppered. We sip a dram, our minds focused on process, unable to move through the border which separates A Drink from location, yet that is what malt whisky (peated or not) is about: a distillate of place.
Drinking it is our version of yoik.
09 February 2016
‘You do know, don’t you, Dave…?’ When anyone starts a sentence like that, you can expect them to quickly follow up with evidence that you don’t know at all and that they are, in this case, your intellectual superior. Think of it as passive aggressive jousting. ‘You’ll never guess what I’ve found out’ is so much friendlier.
There is little you can do in this situation as they are going to tell you anyway. If you are aware of their (not very) remarkable revelation, you have two option: disagree with them, or provide extra information which trumps their rather basic understanding of the topic, a course which is fraught with danger as their passive aggression is immediately forgotten and you end up looking like a smug, know-it-all bastard, which obviously you don’t want.
In this case, I accepted that my ignorance was once again being exposed by their intellect. ‘You do know,’ they continued, ‘that after an hour’s lecture people only will remember four or five facts?’
Now, I didn’t. So interested was I in this remarkable fact, that I (almost) forgave him his approach to the subject. He continued, at some length, as to why. The fact that I can’t remember anything more than this opening gambit proves it must be correct. Our brains are sieves.
Four or five things? Can this be true? Well, as they say, 75% of statistics are made up, so it might not be. Let’s, however, assume that it is. This is a statistic which, if true, should cause any whisky speaker/educator/ambassador or ‘master’ to wake up at 3am in a cold sweat.
‘What did he just say?’ … ‘Absolutely no idea.’
Most masterclasses last for an hour – sometimes 90 minutes. They have been carefully crafted to include half a dozen drams, detailed information, pictures, all sewn together by the passion of the presenter.
Imagine, all of that effort… wasted. You might as well sit the victims down with four drams, say five things and pack them off. Or think about what might work better.
For example, an excessive reliance on numbers doesn’t work. All that the listener will remember is that a number was used, and pluck one at random from their fuzzy memory. This is particularly important to people who, like me, have dyscalculia and failed their Maths ‘O’ Level twice.
Talk of flavour, rather than in scientific formulae. You might be interested in the precise angle of a lyne arm, but I can bet that 98% of most people won’t be. The 2% who are will ask you, fear not. Most people are interested in who makes it, where it is made, what it tastes like and where those flavours come from.
The professionals know this already, but it also applies to any bartender selling a dram, or when you explain whisky to your newbie friend.
Our passion for the cratur can easily lead to us turning people off whisky because of the complex information we dump on them. Whisky is there to be enjoyed in a relaxed way, so relax when you tell your friends about it. As Louis Armstrong sang: ‘We have all the time in the world.’
Oh, and please don’t start a sentence with: ‘You do know, don’t you…’
01 February 2016
I loved The West Wing mainly, I think, because it should have been boring. Lots of badly-dressed people walking the corridors of a mocked-up White House talking at breakneck speed about politics? Hardly the sexiest proposal ever to cross a commissioning editor’s desk.
What made it was the vision of creator Aaron Sorkin that the machinations and dilemmas of White House senior staff could make gripping television. Hell, it was so good that I even forgave its annoying habit of descending periodically into misty-eyed, flag-hugging patriotism. Americans, huh?
Scotch has a minor moment in The West Wing. In a flashback sequence, chief of staff and recovering alcoholic Leo McGarry recalls a moment on the campaign trail when he fell spectacularly off the wagon – thanks to the lure of Johnnie Walker Blue Label.
What follows is a lyrical description of the pleasures of drinking, undercut by the character’s addiction and its potentially disastrous impact on his career.
The words aren’t the script’s finest, but I’ll repeat a few of them here:
‘Good Scotch sits in a charcoal (sic) barrel for 12 years; very good Scotch gets smoked for 29 years; Johnnie Walker Blue is 60-year-old Scotch.’
Except that, of course, it isn’t. According to James Espey, who developed Blue Label precursor Johnnie Walker Oldest in the 1980s, the concept was born when a small amount of 60-year-old Scotch was blended with a much larger volume of 15-year-old. The label proudly proclaimed that the liquid was ‘aged 15 to 60 years’, and you can still occasionally find these old bottles for sale today.
Several years after Oldest’s launch, the law was changed so that producers could only mention the youngest part of any blend. The Blue Label, er, label was amended and the product has remained without an age statement ever since.
But. But, if you Google Johnnie Walker Blue Label and 60 years old, you’ll find plenty of people perpetuating that sexagenarian myth. There are even EU-based online retailers still advertising the product explicitly as a 60-year-old whisky.
Lesson? Never underestimate the power and longevity of a marketing message, nor its ability, with repetition, to turn incorrect information into ‘fact’.
In this context, it’s easy to see why a change in the law was needed to protect the consumer. But, ironically, that very change makes it now impossible to put the record straight and tell that same consumer the full story of Blue Label’s blend.
Legislators did not foresee a world of single malt shortage where age statements would be largely cast aside, leaving the consumer without even the vague reassurance of a number to help navigate the category.
Nor did they envisage the possibility that a brand owner might want to react to that situation by giving their consumer the complete truth about a whisky – the age and origin of its components, plus their proportions in the blend – to satisfy their thirst for knowledge about what is in their glass.
The example of Johnnie Walker Blue, and Leo’s passionate, if erroneous, description of it, tells us a lot about how we got to where we are in terms of whisky law, age statements and transparency.
Now the question is: where do we want to go next? Ultimately, that’s up to the industry to decide.
27 January 2016
Scotch whisky regions have become increasingly insignificant as indicators of flavour.
This is not a new trend. As a general global interest in whisky has spread, and Scottish producers have found themselves competing against their American, Irish and Japanese brothers, a desperate need to innovate and diversify has sprouted.
This has led to unpeated Islay whiskies, heavily Sherried and robust Speysides and light, fruity Highlanders, not to mention the tidal wave of experimental cask finishes that have altered traditional regional flavour profiles beyond all recognition.
The Scotch whisky regional map is often used by educators such as The Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh to communicate flavour to new drinkers. Photo: Tripadvisor.
For the seasoned whisky enthusiast this is no big deal – they moved beyond judging a whisky’s style by its regional provenance long ago. Factors such as age, wood type, distillery reputation and even filtration are much more accurate representations of flavour than provenance. It’s led many to believe categorising Scotch styles into geographical regions is an outdated method of communicating flavour, and they’re correct to an extent, but it also provides an expedient map for the Scotch newbie.
Whisky educators consistently use the regional map as a tool to break down the admittedly overwhelming spectrum of Scotch whisky styles for new drinkers. It’s clear, easy to navigate and stands true for the vast majority of entry-level malts on the market.
Grouping Scotland’s 115-odd distilleries into five geographical areas makes the category so much easier to digest. You like a light and fruity dram? Great, explore Speyside. Is your preference for something smokier? Islay is for you.
Some 34 whiskies were blind tasted at the 2016 Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival Whisky Awards.
Last week I had the pleasure of judging the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival Whisky Awards, a mouthful of a competition that’s open exclusively to distilleries from the region. A newcomer to the category might expect glass upon glass of fruity and floral liquid, but that was far from being the case.
If the whiskies entered give a snapshot of their region, one could only conclude that Speyside is home to the most diverse range in Scotland. Sherry monsters, wine cask finishes and even peated whiskies made an appearance, all of which combined to challenge the concept that regional variation still exists, for Speyside at least.
It’s all well and good to give whisky drinkers some choice and variety – innovation is the key to driving the category forward. However experimenting with flavour beyond any recognition of a region’s historical style will make Scotch whisky as a whole more intimidating and tough to navigate for newcomers. It’s all about balance.
If you want to realise Speyside’s diversity for yourself, get along to the Spirit of Speyside festival on 28 April – 2 May (tickets on sale on 2 February). There you will also have the oppotunity to pick the winner of the whisky awards.
14 January 2016
Ahhh… the start of a new year. Exciting, huh? Time to enter into the ritual of promising to yourself (and anyone within hearing distance) that this year will be different and better and brighter than the last. You will, finally, act on these life-changing decisions you have been talking about (to anyone within hearing distance) for the past decade. Or is that just me?
To be honest, my New Year resolution was the same as usual this year, namely not to make a resolution. It doesn’t, however, stop me from having hopes for 2016. The personal ones will stay personal, but those for whisky? Well I’m happy to share them with you. Big of me, huh?
Let’s have new images: The remarkable, unsolicited Johnnie Walker ad made by a pair of German students for £90k said more in 90 seconds than the homoerotic smugness of the 11-minute Jude Law shoot for Blue Label. It will be reshot. If it isn’t, someone should be. Shot, that is.
I want shivers in my whisky ads. I want them to hit me in the gut and make me cry, or laugh. The Laphroaig Opinions Welcome ads do the latter brilliantly.
This campaign shows a profound understanding of Scotch and what it can mean. It has been thought through and, as a result, it makes the viewer respond. In other words, it has substance rather than just surface. Let 2016 bring more of this, please, from everyone.
Always chasing the wrong car: Whisky isn’t for everyone. It is strong, difficult, bold; it has a flavour or flavours (and more of them in a minute) that some people don’t like. Good. It is not vodka. It isn’t Bourbon either, despite the best attempts of various firms to convince us otherwise.
Yes, it can be mixed; yes, it can be lengthened; but ultimately Scotch is its own beast. That means that some consumers therefore will always be outwith its orbit. It cannot be all things to all people.
Fearing a prolonged downturn, however, has seen firms changing the product radically to try and lasso this new audience. This over-stretches Scotch’s credibility, and dilutes its message. A short-term approach to a long-term industry will never work.
This doesn’t mean firms should hunker down in the Scotch bunker and hope for the storm to pass. Instead, 2016 should be the year where Scotch rediscovers the reasons why people buy it. A year of returning to basic principles.
'My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go,' wrote Robert Burns. Scotch whisky should also always be distinctly Scottish, no matter where it finds itself.
The return of flavour: Consumers buy that second bottle of a whisky because they like the taste. While advertising might make them think about Scotch, it is taste of the liquid which makes them Scotch lovers.
That means talking about flavour should be front and centre of any communication and education. Here’s hoping 2016 sees a return to that understanding.
The return of blends: ‘Hello! Anybody out there? Remember me? Remember the 90% of Scotch that’s sold around the world? Hello? The category that keeps distilleries open? Don’t wish to upset your love of malt, but it’s cold out here and I need some love as well.’
Blends have become the workers upon whose backs the glorious single malts are carried. Well, enough.
Let 2016 be the year where blends fight back. They are fascinating, and flexible; they are the product of amazing creativity, they have history, yet they are never talked about with any of the same reverence or detail that is applied to malts.
It’s not one or the other, it’s both, and the stories and the ways of telling are different. This is an opportunity.
Creative NAS thinking: NAS isn’t going away, so consumers have to live with that fact. Distillers should see this as an opportunity for creativity, a chance to educate about casks and blending, an opportunity to make phenomenal whiskies which are better than those they are replacing, or supporting.
If you cannot convince people of the positives of NAS through quality, then the issues facing Scotch become infinitely harder to overcome. Selling them solely on image will not work. Here’s hoping 2016 sees distillers not just making better NAS, but explaining what they are doing, and why.
Transparency: People want to know the details of their food, or wine, or whisky not because they are suspicious, but because they are interested. If they don’t get that information, however, then the suspicions take over.
It’s an issue which needs to be dealt with sensibly, but it needs to be addressed. Maybe 2016 will see it happening.
12 January 2016
It was one of my Perth cousins who played it to me first. Can’t remember how old I was. Young, but old enough, just finding my own way in music the way you do – recommendations, sitting at people’s feet, listening, plucking up the courage to say: ‘I don’t like it.’
Not that I disliked Abbey Road. I loved it. It intrigued; you didn’t know what was coming next, how long the song would be. Some went on forever, it seemed, put you in a trance; others flashed by like thoughts.
I got a copy, my own copy, an entry point. Played it obsessively, as you do when you only have four LPs and a clutch of singles. One day I’ll tell you what the rest were – I’m not embarrassed.
Abbey Road: the now iconic album cover has been replicated by thousands of fans visiting the namesake London studios.
To be honest, I’ve never been a Beatles obsessive. I left them behind soon after that purchase. I grind my teeth when they appear on the covers of Mojo and Uncut yet again.
‘I can take them or leave them,’ I say if the subject ever comes up. ‘Yes, I see their genius, I know how they were groundbreakers, but they didn’t have the swagger of the Stones, the wild vision of Dylan or Brian Wilson. Yes, there were great moments, but weren’t The Beatles just an Irish showband wanting to please, rather than taking risks?’
Neither do I buy into the reverence afforded to Sergeant Pepper; it’s always been Abbey Road for me. It’s their most fully realised album, the most richly layered, the one where they worked out how to use the studio as an instrument.
It’s as near to perfection as they got. If I didn’t like it, then why would I go to London for an evening, and sit around drinking whisky, listening to it? I could do that at home.
I was in London because I was listening to Abbey Road… in Abbey Road.
I say that to people, I say it to my 19-year-old niece and she goes: ‘I hate you.’
Abbey Road. In Abbey Road.
The idea is, let’s face it, stone cold genius. People. A room with a great hi-fi, a classic album (on vinyl), and you have a few drams.
I realise that I know all the words, the breaks, the arrangements. We mouth words and bass lines to each other, play along with Ringo. It takes me back to those nights in attic rooms and bedsits when you are finding your path in music, when you were discussing, passing on, learning. It takes me back to Perth and the memory of that beloved cousin, now gone.
Except now I’m not just in a room, I’m in the room where it was made. Those pianos were on it, that’s the mike that Lennon sang into, there’s the old mixing desk. I become the fanboy, grin as I shiver.
To some musicians this studio might just be a place of work, but I doubt it. This is a space that brings joy, a space that creates. There’s something about this room that goes beyond acoustics, that draws from the patina of sound that’s been laid down on the walls.
Some rooms just have it, in the same way as distilleries have it. There’s a whisky link, but this isn’t a night for connections being forced upon you. They come, they rise, you muse on them for a second, and move on. Sitting. Listening. Sipping.
Whisky and vinyl: is there a greater pairing?
That lack of agenda was what made it work. At no point were there ever attempts to draw parallels: ‘The choral section in Because is like the soaring stills in the Glenrothes stillhouse; the rich bass line on Come Together is like the depth given by Sherry casks; making an NAS whisky is like George Martin mixing, or the flow of Side 2’s medley; the energy of young whisky used here reflects the playfulness of Octopus’ Garden.’
Many brands would have. The ‘Rothes guys didn’t. In this world of complicated, overthought marketing projects, that is bold.
No, this was a simple idea, perfectly executed. This album is a classic; we think these drams are a match in quality. Sit back, relax and enjoy Abbey Road.
In Abbey Road.
Sometimes in this life you are just blessed.
04 January 2016
When walking through Washington DC recently, I passed a tobacconist, door open, enticing scents drifting into the street. I don’t smoke, bar the odd cigar, though even that has slowed considerably. My buddy Nick, who works for part of the year in Cuba, says cigars only really satisfy in tropical or sub-tropical climes. I know what he means. There is something about smoking a cigar in Cuba which cannot be recreated when you take the same stogie and flare it up in cooler Britain.
It’s one reason why I rarely ventured into Burkitt’s, the old-style tobacconist at the top of my road which sells loose tobacco, cigars, snuff, and accoutrements. I may not have been a regular, but I always admired it for being resolutely old-style, for standing up for the societally reviled, for proudly stating, ‘Dammit, this stuff is good. It speaks of quality and aroma and flavour, it has heritage and resonance. You might not smoke, Mr Passerby, but there are people who appreciate all of this. I am a tobacconist and proud of it. I’m not selling 20 Woodbine, I am part of an ancient mongering tradition.’
Quite how it kept going I know not. Given the walking sticks for sale in the window, I suspect its clientele was ageing. Every time I passed it I felt both pride and a slight shame for not buying something I wouldn’t use just to keep the Burkitts' of the world trading.
And now it’s changed. Not, amazingly, into a coffee shop of which there are 16 within a 1.5-mile radius. There’s probably more, coffee shops are springing up like distilleries. Quite how people have the time to drink all of that coffee I know not, but that’s a different rant.
Anyway, driving past Burkitt’s one day, I could have sworn there were bottles of whisky in the window. You develop that skill of bottle spotting after years in this game. I recall with a strange sense of pride, curdled with disappointment that the bottle of Rare Malt briefly glimpsed in Tom Ford’s A Single Man couldn’t have existed in the 1960s setting. I felt like writing to Mr Ford. He should know. He should, I bristled, have known.
Anyway, like a tracker finding a chameleon by torchlight from the front of a speeding jeep I’m tuned into whisky bottle shape. I knew that, even at 20mph [this is Brighton after all] in the dark and the rain that what I’d spotted out of the corner of my eye was a bottle of Douglas Laing's Rock Oyster. The passing of a proud old tobacconist would be sad, but having a whisky shop at the top of the road would assuage the pain.
A couple of days later, the wife reported that my father-in-law needed some shaving soap for Christmas. Trumper’s of course. Even though I bear beard these days, I revere the shaving products of that fine establishment. I made a note to pop in on my next journey to London. ‘No need,’ she replies, ‘we can get it at the top of the road.’
Logically enough, I presumed this to mean that yet another barber’s has opened – they are as plentiful as… well… coffee shops. She stops the rant mid-flow. ‘It’s not a barber’s. Burkitt’s sell it.’
Brighton & Hove's humble Burkitt's has transformed into Havana House, stocking everything today's modern gentleman needs.
What was a tobacconist has mutated into what can only be described as a gentleman’s emporium, part of a five-strong chain of such establishments called Havana House. There’s still cigars, there’s tobacco, there’s Cuban coffee (of course there is), there’s whisky, there’s a smoking room – though of course you can’t drink there because that would then make them a bar meaning you couldn’t smoke. I’m already planning an afternoon retreat. It’s all very St.James’s. It’s very… whisky.
I know what you are about to say. ‘Hang on Dave, haven’t you always ranted about getting rid of the rules that have consigned whisky to a world of gentlemen’s clubs, after-dinner drams, and cigar smoke? Of how we need to make whisky modern and relevant?’ Well, yes, and I still do.
This topic came up, in a reverse kind of way, when I was having an email conversation with a rum blogger recently. ‘Should rum stop playing up the fun angle,’ he wrote, ‘and start becoming serious?’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘As soon as Scotch stopped being fun it went into a precipitous decline in mature markets. Ironically, at the same time, it started to grow in Spain because there it was promoted as being fun.
‘Fun is good, fun is what you want. What rum needs to do is retain the fun but also show that it can play at the connoisseur level.’
Whisky needs to find the fun once more. It needs to find new drinkers, new ways of talking, it needs to stop being wholly masculine and the preserve of gentlemen’s clubs, but at the same time there is nothing wrong with retaining what seems to be timeless. What I want is a widening of whisky’s world. Burkitt’s is one way among what should be many. It should be welcomed.
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