From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Innovation and identity

    25 September 2015

    I’m just back from Japan, where the whisky category appears to have been given another boost in sales.

    The highball craze may have slowed slightly, but continues to bring new drinkers into whisky – even if not all of them know that a ‘Highball’ is a whisky drink. Bridging that gap remains an important task.

    The category’s biggest kick has been given by Massan, the daily morning soap opera on the life of Masataka Taketsuru, which ran from September 2014 until March this year.

    Yes, a whisky-related soap. Neighbours with drams. It has, seemingly, so captured the imagination of the public that it has directly boosted sales. Could that happen here? I doubt it.

    Massan could even be a further factor in the ongoing squeeze on stock, one topic which was aired at a panel discussion I chaired with four Japanese chief blenders: Shinji Fukuyo (Suntory), Tadashi Sakuma (Nikka), Ichiro Akuto (Venture Whisky/Chichibu) and Jota Tanaka (Kirin/Gotemba).

    It used to be that the companies were as reluctant to share a stage as they were to share their whiskies. Things have changed. They laughed with each other, nodded in agreement, complimented each other.

    It’s a reflection of the new openness which exists within the Japanese industry. What would once have been considered secrets are now freely shared.

    Maybe it is confidence that their competitors won’t steal techniques, that they now realise that the Suntory way is different to that of Nikka, or Kirin, or Chichibu. 

    One of the questions was whether they thought Japan could be behind the ball when equilibrium between stock and demand returned.

    ‘No,’ was the polite answer, ‘because [and I paraphrase] we continue to innovate, believe that quality is paramount, and want to further define and fine-tune what it is to be a Japanese whisky.’

    More specifics emerged in a further discussion with Fukoyo which looked at Suntory’s new ‘The Chita’ grain.

    ‘We had always made three styles of grain at Chita,’ he explained, ‘but the grain whiskies we use for the blends couldn’t be the same as we needed for a single grain. It was… boring.’

    I’ve tasted the Chita grains and they’re not… but I suppose that also proves a point.

    So, he has used the three styles of grain, but aged in a mix of woods including ex-wine casks, and new (fresh) European oak casks.

    Hakushu distillery

    What is our whisky?: Hakushu’s small grain plant is unafraid of experimentation

    Fukoyo then went on to outline what was happening at the small grain plant at Hakushu where he has overseen runs of malted barley, wheat and rye, and all at different strengths.

    ‘We always distilled to 94%,’ he said. ‘Then we asked why and realised it was because that’s what the Scots did.

    ‘So now we are distilling at different strengths, using those different grains, mashbills and woods to see what Japanese grain whisky could be.’

    This willingness to ask: ‘What is our whisky?’ is also seen in the creation of Irish Distillers’ new experimental distillery at Midleton, which initially will be looking at 19th century recipes.

    The reason? They exist, they have been forgotten, they could shed light on Irish whiskey, they could help widen the category.

    It all seems so... sensible. Now, I know that there are wild things being trialled in Scotland, but so far there is no evidence of any of it appearing. Keeping these developments behind the curtains simply reinforces the (incorrect) belief that Scotch’s template is fixed.

    Neither Suntory nor IDL is exactly small. Both are asking, openly: ‘Where do we go now? What else can we learn?’

    Realising that they couldn’t run experimental batches through their existing plants because the batches would be too large, they simply built smaller sites. 

    Hopefully the Scottish distillers working on similar schemes will show what they have been working on, but – and here my impatient journalist’s brain takes over – how will they commercialise these small batches?

    Split an existing (small) distillery’s production schedule? Build a small site to run them through? Buy a ‘craft’ distiller and use it as their experimental arm – the model taken by the big American brewers?

    As it stands, there are other whisky categories that seem to be more nimble, and are able to see opportunities. They are the ones who come across as wanting to move whisky ever onwards without losing their identity.

    It makes Scotch seem as if it is being left behind. Time, I suspect, to throw open those curtains.

  • Outraged by Outlander

    18 September 2015

    One of the best recent developments on long-haul flights has been the addition of box sets to your in-flight entertainment. No longer do you have to eke out the (few) movies you actually want to watch into outward and return viewing.

    This time, however, I was stumped as to what to watch. True Detective? I love it, but the mumbling dialogue can’t be heard above engine noise. Breaking Bad series three? Haven’t yet completed series two.

    Anyway, to cut a long story short, I chose Outlander. I vaguely recalled it had received good reviews, and it had a Scottish theme.

    I knew it was escapist fantasy, but unless you are trying to unsettle the person in the next seat by watching Australian horror movies, that’s not a bad way of passing a few hours.

    I also figured it would have fewer moments which would induce involuntary sobbing – I’m a blubbering mess at 37,000 feet.

    So, I began at the beginning, fully aware that it would require a certain willing suspension of disbelief. I couldn’t, however, have anticipated how appalling it was.

    Outlander, for those of you who haven’t experienced it, mashes together The Wicker Man, Highlander, Quantum Leap, The Perils of Pauline, Macbeth, Braveheart and Balamory (but with more sex and less Archie the Inventor).

    Witches, standing stones, time jumps, perfidious English, hunky men running around in kilts, woad, mud, plucky feisty heroine… and an execrable script.

    OutlanderLike Balamory, but with more sex: Outlander

    I gave up in a rage. That’s the other thing about emotions at 37,000 feet. You either weep uncontrollably (never watch Toy Story 3 on a plane) or become immensely irritated.

    So infuriated was I that, on arrival in the US, I searched for Outlander reviews and was amazed by how it was being taken as a mildly exaggerated manifestation of the truth.

    Outlander, it transpires, fits in with people’s notions of what it is to be ‘Celtic’ (or, as many of them prefer to spell it, ‘Keltic’).

    Things came into focus on the return journey when I was reading a piece in BA’s High Life  magazine on modern Scotland by the ever-astute A L Kennedy. She opened with this gambit:

    ‘Scotland is a land rich in interesting history and, should you meet an American or Canadian tourist while you’re [there] you will hear a great deal about it…’

    Too true. Many is the time I have been asked which clan I belong to by some Tam o’Shanter-ed Yank. To be honest, I reply politely, I’m more busy getting on with being an ex-pat 21st century Scot.

    There’s the irony, I thought. Scotch whisky is regularly accused of playing up to these stereotypes, even though the reality is that, while the tartan-and-heather approach worked in Edwardian times, it hasn’t been part of the arsenal for many years.

    ‘Tartan-and-heather’ instead has become shorthand for ‘out of touch’ and, while I may fulminate on occasion for the need for whisky firms to understand contemporary Scotland, I do think that in this case it’s consumers who are out of date.

    I’d argue that Scotch needs to be more Scottish – just not clichéd, but maybe drinkers want there to be misty glens and hunky men running around in kilts.

    Then I got back home, sat at my desk, started to write this and looked around me. Books of Scottish folk tales, Gaelic poetry, stacks of traditional music, stones chosen not just for shape and colour, but for their connection to a place.

    The myths I was dismissive of are alive. I like the fact that on Islay a remedy for toothache is to hammer a nail into a stone in a field above Port Charlotte.

    When I’m teaching Scotch, after the talk of reflux and esters has abated, I remind those still awake: ‘Don’t forget the magic. This spirit is about more than just science.’

    So, now I’ve got a more nuanced view of what Outlander represents. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still shite, but my objection is its (lack of) quality, its easy embracing of cliché.

    The true weirdness that roots Scotland still exists. Scotch treads a fine line between cliché and magic.

    Who would be a marketeer?

  • Sandton reverie

    14 September 2015

    ‘Is this your first time to South Africa?’ asked the taxi driver.

    ‘No. I’ve been coming here since the mid-‘90s. I started coming to Jo’burg about 12 years ago.’

    I sat back for a few seconds – he was a fabulously chatty guy – and watched as Sandton’s increasingly weirdly-shaped buildings came ever closer.

    I thought of other trips like this, sweeping down from Rosebank into a purple bowl of jacaranda blossom, of hidden radio stations, endless malls, no-go areas downtown where we had to go because that’s where the second-hand vinyl was.

    ‘What’s your business?’

    I explain.

    ‘So why are you here this time?’

    ‘I’m one of the judges in a cocktail competition.’

    ‘You can make cocktails from whisky? Really?’

    ‘Indeed. They’re becoming more popular. Do you drink whisky?’

    ‘I love whisky. Not the blended stuff of course. The malt.’

    We chatted on. He was from Zimbabwe. ‘Now I have arrived. I am here. I can’t afford anything, but I have arrived!’

    It seemed to sum up where Africa – and whisky in Africa – is at the moment.

    The next day a group of us headed into Soweto. It, too, has changed since my last time there, which involved wandering around a beach party wearing a kilt and being mistaken for Captain Morgan in drag.

    Yes, you can still eat from vats of tripe (a good thing in my mind), but the roads are paved, there are bars – and the welcome is as genuine as before.

    ‘Tell people to come,’ we were told. ‘This is a safe place. By coming here you show people it’s nothing to be feared. Welcome To Soweto!’

    That night we went for a cocktail or five in Braamfontein, close to the shady parts of town where the record store was. The no-go area.

    Now we were drinking on the outside terrace of the Anti Est bar watching the happy chaos outside. This is a new South Africa.

    Welcome to SowetoWelcome: Soweto epitomises the new South Africa (Photo: Harvey Barrison)

    Africa has been the big gap in Scotch’s masterplan. No longer. Whisky cannot ignore the potential in South Africa, Nigeria, Angola (Luanda is the most expensive city in the world), as well as rising stars like Ghana, Ethiopia and Kenya.

    In terms of players, Africa could yet be Diageo’s get-out-of-jail card. No surprise that the firm has invested $1bn since 2010.

    It has a head start on its rivals, but Pernod Ricard is there as well, William Grant has built steadily, while Burn Stewart and BenRiach are both South African-owned (partly in the latter case).

    Why now? All the triggers for a Scotch explosion are there. A rapidly expanding middle class, growing economies (remember them?), greater political stability.

    Africa has the youngest population in the world – there’s going to be 85m people of drinking age in the next decade – and, bar South Africa, it is new to spirits.

    It is hardly perfect – there remains ghastly poverty, corruption and war – but Africa is changing.

    It isn’t as straightforward for Scotch as it was. Irish (Jameson basically) is on the march, while Jim and Jack are swinging in.

    That night in Braamfontein we were drinking vodka (hey, deal with it), while there are gin bars in Cape Town. What was almost exclusively a brown spirits market is broadening in scope.

    Scotch, however, still has an allure which gives it a slight advantage in this increasingly cosmopolitan continent. While some dismiss the new consumers in Angola as people who just drink everything with Coke, it doesn’t take long to change those habits.

    A decade ago, I was explaining to new consumers what whisky was made from. Today, thanks to the work of guys on the ground, Jo’burg has its own whisky specialist (the excellent Whisky Brother), one of the largest whisky bars in the southern hemisphere, Wild About Whisky, is in Dullstroom, and taxi drivers who know the difference between malts and blends.

    I’ll wager he’ll soon be drinking whisky cocktails. Education is the key. Africa awaits.

  • The striding man stumbles

    04 September 2015

    Brands give reassurance. It’s why we return to them on a regular basis, it is the foundation of loyalty. We know what we are getting, and what the brand stands for.

    In time, a brand’s range may be extended, but only to demonstrate variations on a central theme. Retaining the brand’s identity, its DNA, remains paramount. When a brand deviates too wildly from its core values it is an indication that the brand owner is panicking.

    Take Ritz. Cheese crackers, right? In fact, the definitive cheese cracker? Think again. Ritz now makes crisps as well. There might have been Ritz crisps for a while, but I’m not fully up to speed with the snacks market.

    What I do know is that salt and vinegar flavour on a cracker which is still trying to to be a Ritz does not work. The flavour is wrong, the texture is wrong. There are just some things which you leave alone because they work.

    Have you ever heard of avocado-flavoured cat food? Of course not. As my daughter said when I mooted it: ‘It would never happen. Cats are carnivores.’

    In other words, cat food manufacturers are sensible. They know that their consumers would turn their little furry noses up at such a ludicrous offering. They stick to what they know.

    Which brings me (seamlessly?) to Johnnie Walker Rye Cask. Why was something as absurd as this given the green light? The whisky itself is a well-made blend, but it is not Johnnie Walker.

    It tastes like a Canadian rye whisky – not quite Crown Royal (also part of Walker owner Diageo’s portfolio) but more in line with a rye-accented whisky from Hiram Walker.

    Why?: Johnnie Walker Select Casks Rye Cask Finish

    This raises the question of why, if you have a Canadian whisky already, do you try to make Scotch taste like it? Does it not make more sense to try to sell more Crown Royal?

    I don’t see Canadian distillers trying to be Scottish, nor is there any evidence of Bourbon producers trying to produce Scotch copies – in fact it’s widely agreed that when they did so in the 1960s it almost killed the category.

    But then who in marketing departments ever studies history?

    Instead, what you see in whiskies around the world is distillers doing the exact opposite. They define themselves as being not-Scotch. This, as I’ve argued before, is a wise strategy which also benefits Scotch because it allows the latter to define itself.

    Walker Rye Casks ignores all of this. Trying to make a Scotch taste like a North American whisky shows an unnecessarily defensive approach to the category – and the brand.

    Johnnie Walker isn’t just a Scotch, it is the best-selling Scotch whisky in the world. It therefore defines Scotch for more people than any other brand. It’s a benchmark, a reference point. Where, therefore, is the logic in making it taste like a Canadian whisky?

    I hope it’s a temporary moment of madness because this says: ‘We have lost faith in our brand and in Scotch as a category.’ It is a white flag being run up in the face of a perceived threat.

    Making Walker more Scotch – more Walker – makes sense. That would involve Diageo working out what Walker stands for in terms of image and flavour. Knowing what it can do – and, just as importantly – what it can’t. That’s not difficult.

    Is it?

  • Mortlach: what's in a name?

    04 September 2015

    Fans of nominative determinism would have you believe that nomen est omen, to give the Latin term or – in Greek – όνομα ορίζοντας. The idea is that, sub-consciously, you gravitate to pursuits that fit your name.

    Clearly, this theory has its limitations – as far as I know, the Chief Engineer of this parish has no burning desire to become a roadsweeper – but it also has its charms.

    Are distilleries sometimes governed by this phenomenon? I think so. For me, the very sound of Mortlach’s name conjures up shadows of primeval threat and a sulphurous subterranean stench. Think of H G Wells’ morlocks in The Time Machine and you’ll get the idea.

    As you will when you taste the whisky. The ‘beast of Dufftown’ is a famously powerful dram of enormous intensity and old-fashioned heaviness – like being trapped in a Bovril jar and striking a match to find your way out.

    That very robustness makes Mortlach, when paired with the right cask, a malt of huge potential longevity, as evidenced by the release of Mortlach 75 Years Old by Gordon & MacPhail, the latest in the company’s Generations series and The Oldest Whisky in the World.

    Gordon & MacPhail cask records from 1939Humble beginnings: Cask 2475 was filled in 1939, 75 years before bottling

    The liquid is remarkable – after an initial sawmill buzz on the nose, it shifts and changes with all manner of elusive perfumes – and I found myself identifying a feral edge to the manifold flavours as classic Mortlach.

    But what is classic Mortlach? Perhaps more importantly, in the case of the G&M whisky, what was it? Read the accompanying book by Charlie Maclean and Alexander McCall Smith and a complex, semi-paradoxical blend of continuity and change emerges.

    Mortlach’s official history begins in 1823, but illicit distillation predated this legitimacy; its kit was removed by John and James Grant little more than 20 years later, to fit out Glen Grant at Rothes. Was there an identifiable Mortlach character even then? Was it lost? Recovered or rediscovered?

    Or did it come when the distillery sprang to fame in the later 19th century under John Gordon and then George Cowie? More likely it emerged from the revamp and expansion of the distillery under George’s son, Alexander.

    This introduced the complex, Heath Robinson distillation regime that persists to this day: six stills, including the tiny ‘wee Witchie’, a spirit that’s distilled, er, 2.81 times, cold worm tubs. Sulphurous, meaty, classic Mortlach has remained unchanged for over a century. Except it hasn’t.

    Go back to the 75-year-old. That whisper of smoke – does it owe its existence to the fact that, in 1939, Mortlach’s barley was malted on site and dried over a mix of peat and coke? A practice which stopped in 1968?

    What about that luscious, concentrated apricot character (you can almost feel the juice trickling down your chin)? Does the historic use of brewers’ (rather than distillers’) yeast play any part here?

    Or is it down to the fact that, until 1946, distillers were prohibited from fermenting and distilling at the same time, resulting in typically longer fermentation times and the consequent promotion of fruitier flavours?

    We could go further: what impact did resting the copper have on pre-1946 Mortlach spirit (if the stills were only running, as seems likely, three days a week)? Not to mention the fact that the distillery was rebuilt in the 1960s, with the stills converted to mechanical stoking and then steam.

    That these questions remain all but unanswerable only adds to their fascination. What we’re left with – that last drop of precious, 75-year-old liquid sitting at the bottom of the glass – is a whisky that performs an elusive and paradoxical role.

    It simultaneously fits our mental template of classic Mortlach – and makes us question exactly what that character is, and how it developed.

    The link with nominative determinism – even the connection to The Time Machine – seems apt.

  • Looking east

    27 August 2015

    In writing the update to the World Atlas of Whisky (that’s enough plugging – Ed), I was aware that, when I asked about their inspirations, how many of the new wave of the world’s whisky distillers said they were looking to Japan rather than Scotland (or, maybe I should say, as well as Scotland).

    It is an approach which can encompass production techniques, or just philosophy. Whatever way it is being applied, the fact is that Scotland is no longer the only template.

    This made me wonder whether there is anything which the Scotch industry could learn from its counterpart in Japan, which in turn made me think of my first distillery visit there.

    It was to  Yamazaki, with my mentor and buddy Michael Jackson. I was already excited just approaching the mashtun. ‘Wait until you see the stillhouse,’ he whispered to me. ‘Your jaw will drop.’

    MJ wasn’t a man given to hyperbole, but even knowing that, I thought that this time he might be overstating the case. I mean, how amazing could a stillhouse be? Then I walked in and, yes, my mouth gaped. He laughed. ‘Told you.’

    There sat stills of different shapes and sizes, lyne arms going up, down and probably sideways, heated by steam or fire, vapours being condensed in shell-and-tube condensers, or worm tubs.

    A distillery set up this way because of the need for blending complexity, producing a multiplicity of variations on the Yamazaki theme. These were then to be aged in different cask and oak types, adding further new spins.

    You can understand why this technique is required for blending, but in Japan, this same approach extends to single malts, which are also blends of these distillates, but not to one recipe. Yamazaki 12 and 18 are from the a single distillery, but they are made up of different component whiskies.

    Dr Egon SpenglerMultiple streams: should Scotch heed Ghostbusters’ Dr Egon Spengler?

    So, the question I was asking myself was, could this approach to single malt be tried in Scotland? The multiple stream thing is hardly unknown there – think of Springbank, Bruichladdich or Roseisle, while various other distilleries make peated and unpeated.

    When it comes to combining the different streams, the Scotch industry has obviously taken the words of Dr Egon Spengler in Ghostbusters to heart. After all, doing so might result in life stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.

    As a result, the distillates are always kept separate. Here’s our unpeated, our medium-peated and our heavily-peated. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great, but surely there is a further option to add another selection?

    I mean, look what happened when the Ghostbusters disobeyed Dr Spengler’s directions.

  • Scottish Genever

    20 August 2015

    I have just finished a book on gin. It’s out in the autumn in case you are interested – you never know. After all, in my experience whisky distillers (and a growing number of whisky lovers) are also particularly partial to a little gin, but the links between gin and whisky run deeper than that.

    There are whisky distillers making gin: Botanist, Hendrick’s, Caorunn and Boe, for example, while Cameronbridge is home to Gordon’s and Tanqueray.

    Adding a gin makes sense. It can be made quickly and launched onto the market without any of that maturation stuff needing to take place – and you can sell it for pretty much the same price as a single malt.

    There’s more though. When the gin industry was trying to recalibrate itself after the disasters of the Gin Craze which ran from the 1720s to the 1750s, the new gin rectifiers needed juice to redistil into gin.

    Up until this point, gin-making had been pretty much a London-only operation, but now the London distillers were seeing rivals opening up in Bristol, Liverpool, Warrington… and Scotland.

    The powerful Haig/Stein clan saw a commercial opportunity to ship base spirit from their Lowland distilleries to England, much to the dismay of the London distillers who viewed it as a further challenge to their monopoly on the production of base spirit.

    In those days, Scottish distillers needed export licences to ship their spirit to England. So lucrative did the Haigs believe the gin trade to be that they offered – what shall we call them? – financial incentives to their Scottish rivals not to queer their trade.

    The base spirit shipped south wasn’t gin, it was whisky. It was also the start of the Scotch export trade.

    Some Scottish gin did make its way down to England as well, based on the Dutch genever style that was, rightly, regarded as the gold standard. Members of the Haig family had visited genever’s spiritual home, Schiedam, in the 16th century to learn the techniques.

    What they made (popularly known as ‘Hollands’) was very different to the dry ‘London’ styles we know today. In those pre-Coffey days, gin was a pot still grain spirit redistilled a third time with botanicals. You could argue it was flavoured whisky, coming from the same roots as usquebaugh.

    Millstone whiskyGinspiration: Zuidam’s Millstone whisky

    In 1786, James Stein installed a gin plant at his Kilbagie distillery in Fife capable of producing 5,000 gallons of ‘Hollands’ daily. The Haigs were attempting to sell their Scottish-made ‘Hollands’ in London in 1807 while, in 1828, distiller Robert More, Schiedam-trained, was selling ‘Geneva’ made at the Underwood distillery in Falkirk.

    Could Scottish Hollands return? I was in Baarle-Nassau not long ago visiting Patrick v Zuidam of Millstone whisky fame, whose father started the family distillery 30 years ago to reclaim genever as a premium spirit.

    Patrick came to whisky through realising that effectively he was making a whisky in the first place. His genevers, aged in quality casks, are a missing link between the two spirits and are a must-try for whisky drinkers.

    It is also, I’d like to think, an approach which enterprising Scottish distillers could try out. Stranger things have happened. 

  • A jolly good(wood) drive

    20 August 2015

    I could probably spend hours concocting a tedious link to explain why spending a full day driving Morgans around Goodwood race track has anything to do with whisky, but let’s be honest – it was what we journos like to call a jolly.

    In my defence I was invited along with some of the UK’s most renowned bartenders and bar owners by Balvenie, who have developed a strong partnership with the Morgan Motor Company over the last few years. According to the Speyside single malt brand the two companies share the same values of craftsmanship, heritage and family-ownership, and have cemented their relationship through the commission of four Balvenie Morgan 4-seater Roadsters, which can be spotted roaming around the US and UK.

    The UK's only Balvenie Morgan.

    Unfortunately only a handful of William Grant & Sons staff are insured to drive the cars, but that didn’t stop us road-testing a sample of Morgan’s core fleet at Goodwood in West Sussex.

    The Malvern-based car manufacturer, through its dealer Bell and Colvill, kindly – and very trustingly – lent several of its vehicles to us liquor lovers with which to tear up Goodwood’s famous corners, though of course, very sensibly, the whisky was absent.

    For those who are unfamiliar with Morgan's cars, here are a few facts:

    • The Morgan Motor Company was established in 1909.
    • Every car is handmade from an aluminium chassis with a wooden (ash) body.
    • The top speed of the Plus 8 model is 155mph.
    • Each car is open-topped.
    • Don't even think about crashing one.

    Four cars were made available for us to drive ourselves – with an instructor present – around the track: a 4/4, V6 Roadster, 3-wheeler and a Plus 8. Now I’m an ace behind the wheel when safely playing Need for Speed at home, but in reality I’m a coward when it comes to wooden cars, speed and corners. Thankfully I had the highly experienced racing pro – and former Coronation Street and Hollyoaks actor, Tony Hirst, to show me around the track, albeit in his own ARV6 Roadster which has a top speed of 150mph.

    Another thing to note about a Morgan – the seats are low, which means if you’re a short-arse like me you won’t see far over the dashboard, particularly if you’re cowering at the speed at which Hirst nonchalantly takes his corners. But of course this calm and experienced attitude is why he won the Morgan Challenge Race at Silverstone the previous weekend.

    Speed demon: Tony Hirst and I get a dressing down for making too much noise.

    Thankfully by the time it came to my turn round the track the heavens had opened, which meant I ended up in the slowest and safest car in the fleet – the 4/4, and had some useful advice from Hirst to consider:

    • Look ahead through the corners and not at the front of the car.
    • Don’t trust your instincts – your brain will tell you to steer one way but you must resist.
    • Brake gently.
    • Accelerate gently.
    • Only accelerate and brake on the straights, and never on a corner.
    • Have fun.

    Accelerating gently? I’m not ashamed to admit I only hit a top speed of 65mph – some way off Hirst’s best I’m sure, but at least the car was delivered safely back in one piece despite the downpour. That’s a win in my book.

    Admittedly, reaching for a dram once arriving home just to settle my frazzled nerves is really the only part whisky plays in this little excursion, but experiencing the thrill of driving a handmade car does lend a healthy insight into the high level of craftsmanship and attention to detail that’s needed to keep its driver and passengers comfortable and safe. It’s understandable that Balvenie sympathises with these values, it being one of the few remaining Scottish distilleries with its own floor maltings and cooperage. But all that’s better explained by them in this video, which was produced by the group earlier this year, although the extent to which Balvenie is really the ‘last handcrafted whisky in the world’ is debateable. 

    Now, don’t suppose any other whisky brand fancies partnering with a luxury Bahamas tour operator?

    All in a day's work: Tony Hirst makes driving a Morgan at up to 150mph seem easy.

  • NAS whisky

    14 August 2015

    (Takes deep breath…)

    This was going to rear its ugly little head at some stage, so might as well get it out there in the open now. I dare say it’s a topic which will re-emerge fairly regularly, like a zombie, or a half-starved dog who has decided you are its new master, or a vindictive partner post-divorce…

    (Takes another deep breath…)

    There is nothing inherently wrong, evil or nasty about No Age Statement (NAS) whiskies. The reason that there is an increasing number of them is driven primarily by the fact that there currently isn’t sufficient stock to match global demand. This situation will ease, but at the moment producers are faced with this dilemma. 

    Single malt distilleries are, by their nature, limited in their production. If distillers then say a whisky must be, say, 12 years old before it is released, then that availability is restricted further. Yet demand is rising, and 12 years ago your production levels were low. Do the maths.

    The good side of NAS?: Talisker 57˚N

    At the centre of the reaction against NAS is the fact that the Scotch industry has spent years persuading people that the older a whisky is, the better it is. That isn’t true. Age is not the sole determinant of quality. There is also a great deal of difference between age (a number) and maturity (character). Age statements blur that reality. 

    There’s a further underlying issue. In the ‘old’ days, it was generally reckoned that a single malt would hit maturity at around 10 or 12 years of age. The reason for this was that the casks used to mature the whisky were refill, often multiple refill. Today, wood management has not only been improved, but more first-fill casks are being used for single malts, meaning that the whisky can start its mature period at a younger age.

    However, since the industry has been wedded to numbers, you can’t just launch an 8-year-old age statement as replacement for a 12-year-old, even if it is better. NAS – the blending of mature young whisky with extra-mature old – is a way around this.

    There’s nothing wrong with this as long as the end result is complex and balanced. It is what blenders have been doing successfully since the 19th century, but since the most vociferous opponents of NAS malts are proponents of the paradigm that malts = good, blends = bad, it’s not going to gain any traction.

    No Age, therefore, is a way to ease stock pressure and, in theory, make whiskies not by number, but by flavour. It should produce whiskies which are as good, if not in some cases better (Talisker 57˚N is a classic case of the latter). 

    I get all of that. I defend all of that.

    The problem is that not all distillers have played fair. Rather than maintaining (or improving) quality, there have been some (and I would argue it is just some) examples which are less good than the whiskies they are replacing – and they cost more.

    My argument would be that if you are making an NAS whisky to replace one with an age statement, then you must ensure that it is better. For me, the issue isn’t NAS, but quality.

    I would like to see greater transparency – similar to what Glenrothes has recently done – with distillers declaring what the constituent parts are. They also need to explain why NAS is necessary and what its principles are. So far, they have failed to do so. 

    Until that happens, the Scotch industry will inevitably face (often unfair) accusations that it is dumbing down quality.

    Education is needed. On both sides.

    (…and exhale.)

  • Whisky Galore!

    10 August 2015

    Up stupidly early one Saturday morning, I did something most uncharacteristic and flicked through the TV channels. There it was, the familiar black-and-white montage of Hebridean life, that well-known voiceover:

    North-west of Scotland, on the broad expanse of the Atlantic, lie the lovely islands of the Outer Hebrides, small scattered patches of sand and rock rising out of the ocean…The inhabitants scrape a frugal living from the sea, and the sand and the low-lying hills of coarse grass and peat bog.
    A happy people, with few and simple pleasures [who] have all that they need. But, in 1943, disaster overwhelmed this little island. Not famine nor pestilence, nor Hitler’s bombs, or the hordes of an invading army.
    But something far, far, worse. There is no whisky!… From that day every man went into mourning.’

    Whisky Galore is a fantastic film which, like the best of the Ealing comedies (and indeed all the work of Alexander Mackendrick) I could watch on a continuous loop. It was one of my dad’s favourites as well. The opening scene when, after the whisky had run out, the old man simply, silently went to bed and died had him in tears of laughter every time he saw it.

    The dram of everyman: a scene from Whisky Galore!

    It was that and that line ‘every man’ which resonated with me. My father was a whisky drinker. Not a heavy whisky drinker, but that is what he had every night when he got home off the bus.

    My uncle in Glasgow was a whisky drinker too – he had to be as he worked for Black & White. That ensured a decent supply in our house. My uncles in Perth were whisky drinkers as well, but they drank Famous Grouse. My uncle in the Army drank whisky as well.

    When they all got together, the glasses would be filled, the music would be played, there would be singing, laughing, war stories and we as kids would watch it all, trying to discern who was speaking through the fug of cigarette smoke.

    It would be the same in pubs. Not just the smoke, but also the men, at the bar, the ‘hauf and a hauf’, the bottles of lemonade on the bar top, the water jugs or spigots. Drinking whisky was to be a member of a club. One which I would, in time, be allowed into. To be admitted was to be given a tacit nod that you had come of age.

    It was a male-only club as well. My Army auntie had whisky and soda, but that was considered a little ‘fast’ by the other women in the family. There again, she was from Aberdeen.

    Mourning would indeed have happened had that whisky supply been turned off. That is what they drank. There was no thought of alternatives, no discussion of cocktails, no wine, just the occasional beer – cracked with a tin opener. Whisky was it. For every man.

    There was also a difference between having a dram and being bought one. You sipped whisky purloined in some way as a teenager, but only when someone purchased one for you could you be called a whisky drinker, or indeed a man.

    For me, that first time was after my dad had died. I was still below legal drinking age but, hell, this was Glasgow. My Black & White uncle bought me a dram in a bar next to Queen Street Station. He didn’t ask me if I wanted one, there was just this silent slide of a small glass towards me, this tacit invitation to join. I accepted it, of course, not knowing where this first proper dram would eventually lead.

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