Raucous pub quizzes, toasting Talisker marshmallows on a bonfire and Tormore’s model.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
09 May 2018
What I’ve noticed over the years is the way in which the Spirit of Speyside festival has matured, undoubtedly slightly better than I have. Every iteration has seen a tweak or two and, in more recent times, there’s been a greater willingness to take chances and anticipate what people might want, rather than sticking to the same formula (or formulae).
It struck me that this year was the most radical yet, something which struck home at the opening dinner. This event is hosted by a different distiller each year – this time it was Benromach’s turn. Every year, each distillery manages to somehow put on a grand event in a space not intended for grand events, such as a warehouse. This year, the Benromach team decided to put up a massive marquee instead.
It’s always hard to put your finger on exactly why an event like this works. The food, the company, the speeches, the pace, all affect the mood of the space. This year I reckon it was all of those, plus the lighting. Bear with me.The event started in daylight, and finished at 11pm, but the lighting level stayed the same allowing everyone to see each other. So what? Well, I’ve noticed that in dimly-lit occasions, tables end up becoming islands of people talking to each other. Keep the lights up (but not blazing) and a collective experience is created.
Come together: The festival’s closing nights at Craigellachie Hotel's Dogfest reflected the collective experience of Benromach’s opening (Photo: Till Britze)
This feeling was replicated throughout the festival’s duration. The advantage of holding the festival over a bank holiday weekend is that it allows locals to attend events. This year their numbers seemed to be higher, giving more of a community feel and balancing the huge number of incomers from around the world. Perhaps that helped give events a different, lighter and more relaxed feel. Perhaps whisky has embraced the fact that there is more to a festival than just a tasting or a masterclass. These days they are just part of an ever more complex mix.
Once again Scotchwhisky.com teamed up with the Craigellachie Hotel, which meant that I hardly made it through its portals for the duration – twice across the road to the Highlander Inn, and once to the beach. Right enough, most of the festival seemed to come to the Craig at some point for the fun and games.
Whisky? Fun? Yes, it does seem to be happening, though there are some who still moan about there being too much of it and not enough ‘serious whisky talk’. You can’t win ‘em all. The fact is that this year the hotel hosted the second Battle of the Villages blind tasting which featured amazing drams and record levels of insults being flung by both teams, a film and whisky quiz, and a night of cocktails with Pulp Fiction on a giant screen. It was during the last of these that I got into one of those detailed (and serious) chats about whisky which always occurs at some stage during a festival. I enjoy geeking out, even if having Uma Thurman being given an adrenaline shot over my shoulder was not necessarily the usual setting for such a discourse.
‘I’m not sure about all of this mixing,’ my questioner said at one point, looking around the room. A minute later he was sipping happily on a $5 Shake. That’s how it happens. Whisky breaks free and reaches new drinkers, or converts older ones. We should all now be confident enough to discard the rules – our whisky dinner this year featured mock turtle soup which had to be eaten with a knife and fork and a trifle that had to be tackled with a steak knife. Norms are challenged, as they should be. Whisky needs to extend its remit and reach as many people in as many ways as possible to show it is for all occasions.
Sharing spirit: Georgie Bell, global malts ambassador for Dewar’s, shares several bottles of whisky with the crowds at Craigellachie Beach
At my trip to the beach this idea took a surprising turn. The bottle of Craigellachie 51-year-old (inevitably) lasted about five minutes. No surprise there. Everyone there realised that it would be the only chance to try a dram which none of us would ever be able to afford – it would probably retail for the same price as a Merc.
It turns out however that Dewar’s has decided not to bottle the 50 bottles worth that was left in the cask, but use the liquid (which is utterly delicious by the way) in tastings instead. It’s a bold move to share the rare, which should be applauded – and copied.
After that interlude it was back for Dogfest, then a blur of more tastings, and blending sessions. It worked. My personal thanks to the quite incredible team at the hotel, led by the amazing Lyndsey Gray, all of whom who were working 13+ hour shifts without complaint.
They all deserve huge credit for turning what was once a sad, staid, old hotel around and making its elegant rooms a perfectly natural fit for Tarantino films, cocktail bars, a music festival and disco without damaging its image as a home of whisky. That, my friends, is what 21st century Scotch is about.
02 May 2018
The manatee conversation had taken place at New York’s Japan Society, a remarkable institution, founded in 1907, which promotes and explains Japanese culture – if you are in the city, do go and see what’s happening.
As well as running a season of films shot by Kazuo Miyagawa, one of Japan’s greatest cinematographers (he shot The Spider Tattoo, Ballad of Orin, Yojimbo and Rashomon, for goodness’ sake – all of which you should watch), there was an exhibition of rare works by the artist Hasegawa Tōhaku (1539-1610).
There were some which were lustrous, gilded landscapes of waterfalls and trees obscured by golden clouds, each with moments of abstraction and distorted reality, but the works which made the greatest impact on me were the large ink screens (byōbu), including the masterpiece Pine Trees (Shōrin-zu-byōbu), painted at the end of the 16th century, which has been designated national treasure status in Japan.
Space to think: A visitor meditates in front of a reproduction of Pine Trees in New York (Photo: Japan Society Gallery)
The greatest ink paintings have what in the West seems like a recklessly daring use of blank space, but is in fact an exquisite balance between space and forms which can be delineated by a single brushstroke, and where entire screens can be left almost blank: in one of Pine Trees’ screens there’s the mere suggestion of a mountain peak in the top corner. The trees hang in mist.
Yes, the more you look, the more you seem to discern other shapes: ghostly trees, a shrouded, retreating forest, maybe the same trees in the future. The imagination begins to fill in the space, which is the point. These are works of meditation.
They also seemed to chime with what came from that manatee talk, that first revelation of whisky – the flash of inspiration seen through the mist.
The blank space is called ‘Ma’ in Japanese. It is as much part of the landscape as what is painted, it’s more what isn’t there, or rather it is there and you are aware of it existing, even if it is not portrayed. Your gaze fills in the gaps. The effect is of a landscape in movement: the mist moves, the trees reveal themselves and then hide.
Less is more: Ghostly forms and blank space on the left-hand screen of Tōhaku’s Pine Trees
What it boils down to is a willingness to show restraint, a quality which is shared with Japanese whisky, where the notion of humbleness, modesty and lack of showiness (shibui) is a guiding principle. Less is more.
You could argue that, at times, Scotch seems too eager to please. Rather than letting things rest and be as they are, every crevice is filled, even overstuffed (here's another layer of flavour from a different wood, a different finish).
Equally, there are those whiskies which, on first acquaintance, seem to mimic the pale washes of ink perfectly. Light in colour, wispy in flavour, they might carry just a suggestion of fruit, or play up the peat. They aren’t, however, the same. In them the blank spaces aren’t part of the whole, they are simply blank.
The apparently empty spaces in these ink paintings are part of the whole, they give balance to what is painted, and balance is one leg of the three-legged stool which underpins any whisky’s quality – the other two, in case you’re interested, are complexity and character. A whisky can be bold (those golden clouds), or it can whisper like the pines, but it must always have balance.
Perfectly poised: Fine whiskies, like the right-hand screen of Tōhaku’s work, have balance
The space in the painting opens your mind to possibilities, encourages you to sit and think, and imagination is a field in which to play. It is the same, surely, with whisky. The taster, like the viewer, must have a space to meditate in, there has to be an openness so that you can fill in the gaps with your own memories and interpretations.
Not doing so is like looking at Pine Trees with a critic’s analysis being bellowed at you, telling you what it ‘means’. So with whisky. Comment is good, but it can only guide. You must trust yourself and allow your senses to get lost in the work, fill in the spaces, be they in ink, or drink.
A Giant Leap: The Transformation of Hasegawa Tōhaku is at the Japan Society Gallery in New York until Sunday, 6 May.
25 April 2018
The manatee wasn’t expected. In fact, this was the first time, for me at least, that the two words ‘manatee’ and ‘whisky’ had appeared in the same sentence. But there it was – and it sure wasn’t going to leave without explanation.
We all have our first moment of whisky revelation tucked away somewhere. It’s the moment when whisky first leaps into your consciousness as being more than just a thing to be consumed, and becomes a compelling experience requiring close and dedicated attention – the ‘first kiss’ moment if you like.
My epiphany, which I’ve mentioned before, came with Talisker while driving (or rather, in a car with someone else driving) in the far north-west of Scotland en route to a ceilidh in Ullapool. The manatee was Pablo’s.
Manatee magic: Whisky epiphanies can come from the most unlikely of places (Photo: Keith Ramos)
‘I was working in an aquatic research centre in Mexico,’ he started. ‘One day we got a call from an aquarium in Japan. They told us that their manatee had died and wondered whether it would be possible for us to send them one.’
I reckon that this counts as a pretty unusual occurrence. I mean, to the best of my knowledge, there’s not a whole load of manatees out there just waiting for a new home.
‘Anyway,’ he continued, ‘we found them one [quite how he didn’t say, but I’m sure it was above board] and worked out how to send it to Japan.’ I pictured in my mind a manatee sitting in JAL Business Class contentedly munching on seaweed and sipping Champagne (I’m not sure if manatees like Champagne, so apologies to any marine biologists out there).
Pablo was still speaking. ‘I had to go out separately to ensure that everything was ok. When I arrived, the head of the project gave me a bottle of Japanese whisky by way of thanks. I hadn’t really tried whisky. It changed me.’
‘But the manatee?’ I asked. He looked surprised, expecting me to me more interested in the whisky side of the tale. ‘I think it was ok,’ he said. Stupid me. I don’t suppose they have much time to send postcards, what with the endless Champagne and seaweed parties.
The evening had been filled with similar whisky epiphany chats: the thank-you gift, the dram bought by a parent or friend. The scales had fallen from our eyes in different ways, but the result was that we were all now in a similar place. The fact that you are (maybe) reading this, is evidence that this has happened to you at some stage.
It would be fascinating to discover what process causes these moments of revelation – what has to be in alignment for whisky to suddenly speak to you. Perhaps it’s the occasion, season, company, some mysterious manner in which the aromas and flavours resonate with your memories.
Revelatory dram: What creates those moments when whisky suddenly speaks to us?
It could be the moment when prejudice falls away, or that the vestigial hangover left from teenage over-indulgence finally lifts, or the culmination of a long period of laudable perseverance to try to find the right whisky for your palate.
Who knows? Maybe the god of whisky (or one of those lushes of angels who float around above distilleries) simply looks down and says: ‘Right. Now.’ (Out of interest, I wonder if anyone has any thoughts as to what ratio of angels there are to volume of whisky maturing on one site? Messages to my secretary, A Manatee, Okinawa, but don’t expect a quick reply.)
That thrill is what we need to retain and work on as our explorations of whisky continue and we are sucked down various rabbit holes concerning the intricacies of production or history.
That moment of clarity can be seen as an atavistic response to a situation – an unprompted, direct, intense reaction between you and the liquid. An emotional response such as this is not something which can be learned from books; there is no analysis of phenols at work here, no concerns over what the mashing temperature is, whether the wort is clear or cloudy, how long the ferment may be, and the flow rate of distillation. It is simply about what is in the glass at this moment and how it is speaking to us emotionally.
The geeky stuff may deepen our fascination with whisky, but it should never obscure the fact that this is a drink which we have now fallen in love with. If we are lucky, we then emerge from that rabbit hole of geekdom and obsession into a world remarkably similar to the one revealed to us at that first moment of clarity.
Us, liquid, glass. Don’t let your manatee swim away.
18 April 2018
The familiar flight can fill you with excitement, or a feeling of ‘oh no, not again’. Thankfully, the latter never occurs whenever I head to Aberdeen, though this time the sense of anticipation was different. It could have been partly because, in its infinite wisdom, easyjet has decided that there should only now be two flights a day from Gatwick, morning and evening. With the former leaving at 06.20, it means a 03.15 wakeup.
I reckon that’s what put my brain in a funny place. Maybe still half asleep (or awake, it was hard to tell) I went into a fugue-like state where I seemed to be simultaneously experiencing all the previous versions of the same flight, each of the hopes and thoughts, the smells and feelings of all of the trips for this particular venture – a training course which I’ve taught on for the past 15 (I think) years.
I’ve seen the road to Ballater in all seasons: the slow creep of blue-skied springs leading to the greens of spring; long, low-lit umber and golden autumns, the white and grey of snowed-in winter; of the wind-twisted coils of ancient pines, and darting red squirrels, pathways of crow feathers, a river at peace or in spate; and at road-end a cupboard filled with rarities and good company.
Whisky landscape: Ballater in the springtime from the River Dee (Photo: Nigel Corby)
Returning is always good. Every time we try a whisky it is for the first time. It is reassuring and simultaneously challenging, there is comfort in the familiar and a chance to reassess the beliefs of the past and bring new thoughts forward for discussion. The aims of the course – a deep-dive into malt’s intricacies in order to enthuse people and give them new ways to talk about it – remain the same, but the delivery alters.
Now there’s less talk about the (once) bright new world of the whisky dinner, and more about occasion and how to drink. It’s not odd today to discuss cocktails, while everyone has heard about umami. In general, the folk on the course seem more comfortable with the idea of whisky. Engaged is one way of putting it. The same; but different. A return, but also a progression.
Those changes also come through in where we drink. The old watering holes (hole being the operative word) of Speyside’s The Pole, the Allargue Arms on the Lecht, both gone, Blairgowrie’s Stormont Arms no longer en route. As whisky changes, so Scotland does, albeit slowly. New layers are being laid down.
That said, there are still too many hotels and bars who believe that ‘Highland hospitality’ means the smell of damp tweed and even wetter dogs, where the dust of ages settles on top of the breaded haddock and age-toughened venison, and where ‘an extensive selection of whiskies’ means five lonely bottles on the back bar and a clueless bartender who hasn’t been trained to realise that many of the tourists who are arriving in increasing numbers are there to, er, taste whisky.
Inverness was like that until relatively recently. No longer, thanks to The Malt Room. A nook which at first glance looks Japanese in its stripped-back decor, and groaning shelves. Japanese restraint in terms of service is not evident however, which is A Good Thing. That wouldn’t be an ideal fit for Inversneckie. This is a bar where whisky is enthused over, a place for opinions and bottles (or drams) on the table being talked over. If you’re heading north I urge you to go, or to Drumnadrochit’s Fiddlers, or Rothes’ Station Hotel, or the embarrassment of riches in Craigellachie, or Elgin’s Drouthy Cobbler. The fact that as I write I’m thinking, ‘and Skye’s Eilean Iarmain, or Sligachan, or Portree’s Merchant…’ shows how things have shifted.
The way whisky has been served and talked about has shifted almost imperceptibly in recent years. One day it was bartenders saying, ‘Whisky? Haven’t a clue, pal, I drink vodka’, to, ‘have you tried this? It’s amazing.’
This in some ways is also a return. In the best whisky pubs across the Highlands and Islands you see glimpses of how it all started, of people, and communities coming together over the local drink, laughing and discussing, singing and enjoying. Layers upon layers.
11 April 2018
I like to think that I’m an optimistic sort of fellow [Hang on, who is this? – Ed], but this, I knew, was pushing it. I’d been writing about the revamp of the Jura single malt range, cheerfully plundering the books on my shelf (thank you, Messrs Broom, Jackson and Townsend) for a little historical context.
Then a thought occurred to me – I wonder what Alfred Barnard had to say about Jura? After all, his formidable tome, The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, had given me some useful insight into late Victorian Campbeltown for a piece I’d written a year ago.
True enough, he’d had more interesting things to say about the town and the latter days of the herring boom than he had about the whisky itself, but hey; as I say, I was feeling optimistic.
Not for long. Barnard’s entry for Jura begins – as it so often does – with an account of his journey to the distillery, in this case via ‘Mr MacBrayne’s steamer Fingal’ from Tarbert.
That’s fine. Nothing wrong with a bit of colour and scene-setting. Not really relevant to my researches, but never mind. And then we arrive at the distillery itself.
‘The works cover nearly three acres of ground, and are situated close to the pier, and a beautifully wooded glen. The Distilling and Mashing House consist of a lofty and solid stone block of buildings, which are visible for many miles round, and attached thereto are the old Maltings and Warehouses, which are built round a courtyard.’
Swathes of dross: Was Alfred Barnard more like an estate agent than a journalist?
Theroux it ain’t, and don’t get me started on the illiberal use of Capital Letters, but it’s ok in its own way – although it’s not exactly news that distilleries tend to be quite big buildings. Anyway, Barnard only really gets into his stride half a page later.
‘We were next taken to the Mill, which contains a pair of Malt Crushers, and from thence to the Grist Loft, in which there are two large Grist Hoppers, which feed the Mash-tun. Still descending, we then passed on to the Brewing House, a neat building 35 feet long by 25 feet broad, which contains a metal Mash-tun 20 feet in diameter by 5 feet deep, with stirring gear driven by the water-wheel; here also we observed two Heating Tanks, holding together 3,000 gallons, which supply hot water to a Mashing-machine, which mixes the grist before it reaches the Mash-tun.’
Anybody still awake out there? I could go on [Please don’t – Ed] – Barnard certainly does and, apart from a single sentence on the old smuggler’s hole next to the distillery, it’s deadly dull.
Now let’s be fair: there’s the odd useful sentence in Barnard if you look hard enough. The line in Lagavulin’s entry about tasting some ‘exceptionally fine’ eight-year-old whisky prompted a 200th anniversary release in 2016 that is now part of the Islay distillery’s core range; a similarly glowing verdict (in a sister work about breweries) on the James Eadie blend helped inspire its revival by Rupert Patrick, Eadie’s great-great-grandson.
Commemorative bottling: Barnard was the inspiration for this Lagavulin release
The trouble is that you have to wade through vaste swathes of dross to locate these gems; Barnard seems to have approached each distillery visit not so much as a writer or journalist, but rather as if he were casing the joint, or performing an estate agent’s valuation.
Now I know he had no particular whisky expertise, that he was catering for a trade audience and that what he accomplished in visiting well over 150 distilleries with all the limitations of Victorian travel was remarkable.
But it seems to me that the value of Barnard lies not in his writing per se, nor even in his selection of what (and what not) to write about. Instead, it lies in the timing of his tour, at the near-peak of the late Victorian whisky boom, and the fact that he’s describing an industry that would be on its knees within a decade or two, with a number of the distilleries visited closed, never to reopen.
Maybe Barnard just needed a good editor, or some constructive feedback early on in his endeavours to point him in the right direction. Instead, what we’re left with is a comprehensive, but frustratingly flawed chronicle of the whisky world in the 1880s.
Barnard, let’s remember, was no trained journalist, but a former ad man and toilet soap exporter – and that fact is painfully obvious when you read his accounts.
Then again, perhaps he was a man ahead of his time. In his obsession with extraneous, irrelevant details, his love of sequential first-person narrative (‘We did this… then we did this’) and his inability to self-edit, could it be that Alfred Barnard was the world’s first whisky blogger?
04 April 2018
It all started with cucumbers, or to be precise when I was doing a class with Bernard Lahousse from foodpairing.com on shared aromas between whisky and foods.
Bernard is a scientist, and he and his colleagues on the site are continually researching how these shared aromatic molecules can widen the potential for different and fascinating combinations – who would have thought oysters and chocolate would go together, for example? The potential uses for chefs and bartenders are vast.
Anyhoo, during the talk, he pointed out that cucumber only smells of ‘cucumber’ when it is cut. In other words, a cucumber is a cucumber, but not a ‘cucumber’ until there is an intervention. It exists in two worlds simultaneously.
‘So, it’s Schrödinger’s vegetable if you like?’ I asked. He looked at me in the way that scientists often do when I blunder into their world. ‘Well, not exactly...’ he started.
‘I know, because Schrödinger’s conundrum was to do with waves and quantum physics, but you know it boils down to the fact that there’s this cat in a steel box with a Geiger counter, a vial of poison, a hammer and a radioactive substance, all of which will at some point kill the cat, but as you won’t know if the cat’s dead or not until you open the box, it’s both alive and dead at the same time. Like, er, the cucumber,’ I finished. He gave me a look.
I thought that the only possible whisky connection with the cat was through this tenuous link until, suspiciously close to April Fool’s Day, I was alerted to a potential fake by a concerned reader.
Real thing?: The bottle may not be entirely genuine, but what’s inside it?
I checked the label and compared it to the others which the house had sold, and it was certainly suspicious. The colour of the label was wrong, the printing was crude, it had a spelling mistake and there were no cut-outs on the back label allowing you to see the liquid.
So I got in touch with Tam Gardiner at Scotch Whisky Auctions and they withdrew it immediately pending investigation. All good and in line with what all auction houses should do.
Then Tam called. ‘I’ve been in touch with the vendor,’ he told me. ‘It turns out that this was bought at Royal Mile Whiskies’ auction, and he’s just put it up for sale with us.’
Off I went again and, sure enough, in RMW’s archive there was the offending bottle, which had a hammer price of £735. This time, however, there was an explanation as to why the label was incorrect. Apparently, the bottle had been used for photographic purposes, and they couldn’t guarantee what was inside.
I spoke to RMW’s auctioneer Dr Chris White, who explained that ‘a prototype label was created, which was designed to be as similar as possible to the final label; however, time pressures meant the label was printed on regular gloss paper, and applied to the bottle in order to get the photos done ASAP.
‘The photographer says he wasn’t told at the time if the liquid inside the bottle is indeed the 1977 HP liquid or not. As such, we added a disclaimer to the product description before the bottle went live in our auction.’
Poorly printed: At first glance, this 1977 Highland Park bottle looks like a clumsy fake
So no-one has done anything wrong. In fact, you could say that RMW’s openness is laudable. Sadly, Highland Park can’t confirm what is in the bottle either.
‘We do occasionally mock up bottles for photography, but they are labelled “sample” on the base or the rear, and this obviously has not,’ said brand director Jason Craig.
‘This liquid might be the legit liquid bottled early, with a mock-up label for photography – but, regardless, it is not a real bottle. The liquid of course could be Famous Grouse with spirit caramel to darken it down to match the real liquid tint, and not formally labelled. It’s hard to provide a definitive answer.’
While I really don’t think anyone from the original vendor onwards was trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes here, it does show the absurdity of the auction market that someone is willing to take a £735 punt on a bottle which they know might not be what the label says it is. What’s even more absurd is that they then flip it, assuming that they’ll make a profit!
So we have a Schrödinger’s bottle which is and isn’t Highland Park, which is and isn’t a fake. Come to think of it, even if it is the real Highland Park, it’s still a fake. Wonder what Schrödinger would have made of that?
Like his cat – or the smell of cucumbers – the truth can only be proved one way or another by intervention. Which maybe is the message to take from all of this. Whisky only gets its true value when it is destroyed – and you drink it.
28 March 2018
I must confess that I pay very little attention to Twitter, much to the despair of the editor, who is a whizz at such methods of (apparent) interaction.
When I do scan through the folks I follow, the words or retweets of Randall Grahm always give me pause for thought. Grahm is owner/winemaker at California’s Bonny Doon – an erudite, witty, enraged, questing intelligence.
I’ve loved his wines for years, while his writings (assembled in the must-have Been Doon So Long) are a must-buy for those who are interested in deep musings on terroir, parodies and the surreal.
Last week this tweet caught my eye: ‘Many of us live in two wine worlds,’ he wrote. ‘The world of attributed meaning (point scores) and the world of real meaning (actually distinctive, original and delicious wine with vinous life-force). We conflate these two worlds at our peril.’
He was writing in response to a cheeky tweet from wine writer Jamie Goode congratulating him on ‘a Suckling 91’ (a score of 91/100 from wine critic James Suckling) for one of his wines. ‘I can’t keep track of all these scores,’ Goode added. ‘Is he using the 120-point scale yet?’
It led to a philosophical diversion – this is Grahm, after all – on whether this duality applies to the wine world, or life in general. ‘Absolutely [the latter],’ said Grahm. ‘Virtually all of us (at least those who are conscious) have some version of these two worlds.’
Intrigued, I dropped him a line. Do we need to exist in both of these worlds, I asked him? Is the world of attributed meaning necessary, or is our conception of quality being skewed because of its dominance?
Numbers game: But is real meaning to be found in the score given to a particular whisky?
He wrote back: ‘I think this duality exists in virtually every aspect of life. It often comes down to whether you work to please yourself or to please others. Truly great wine is certainly not appreciated by the general public; ‘successful’ wine has (too) obvious charms.’ Ahh, duality. Trips us up every time.
The world of wine (especially in the US) has been in thrall to attributed meaning for many years, to the extent that it could be argued that winemakers are creating ‘successful’ (ie high-scoring – and profitable) wines, rather than relying on their own innate talent, or understanding what their location can give them.
Whisky is not at this stage – yet – but the tension between the two worlds does exist within its confines. While I don’t want to be dragged into a discussion about the efficacy of numbers again (at least for the time being), Grahm’s comments made me wonder how we use them as a navigation aid.
I grew up in a flat nav world: one of maps, AA guidebooks and doodles on bits of papers with wiggly streets and an occasional landmark (usually a pub) scratched onto it.
Sat nav allows you to get to your destination by the quickest, most direct means. As someone who hates being late, I can see the advantage of this, but what happens outside the blue line? Sat nav obliterates the side streets, the country lanes, actively discourages you to get lost or rely on chance or intuition and make real discoveries. We march onwards, rather than stumble over things.
Numbers are the sat nav of appreciation. The world of real meaning is to be found though being gently diverted from the blue line through the numbers. Instead of heading straight for number 90 Whisky Street, take a wander through the weeds on either side.
Wine wisdom: Randall Grahm believes that most of us live in two worlds of attributed and real meaning
In Doon so Long, Grahm writes: ‘Wine criticism, despite its best intention, often seems to verge on trivialising the splendor of its subject matter.’ Does it? If it does, it is not deliberate.
Most writers will always emphasise the importance of the words over the score. Language is slippery, words are a diversion compared to the blunt instrument of the score.
Language’s vagueness and inability to wholly articulate meaning means it can be seen as a barrier, diverting the reader away from the task at hand; yet, for those of us who want to celebrate the world of real meaning, it is this diversion which is important because it opens up new connections, finds new ways to connect on a personal level.
That whisky has a lower score? Sure, but the way in which it has been described intrigues me, I think it appeals to my palate, or mood.
We don’t have time for all of this, we tell ourselves, although we often spend so much time trying to find the quick way that we could have taken the more rewarding, scenic route.
Tangled by apps, we rely ever more heavily on the world of attributed meaning, to our detriment. Whoever controls the data controls the world – and how have we seen that play itself out in the past few weeks.
I’m not saying that marking wine or whisky is as serious as undermining democracy, but the same underlying principle is there. In a data-based world we become slaves to the number, but whisky, wine, pleasure itself cannot be measured by ones and zeroes.
It isn’t digital but analogue, existing in the real world with all of its messiness and perversity. It comes down to trusting our own palate, working out our own routes through the maze, speaking with guides and passers-by as we wander.
Welcome to the world of real meaning.
21 March 2018
If you’ve got a hundred quid or so to spend on a bottle of wine (hey, you never know), I can recommend the recently released Sassicaia 2015, which to these taste buds at least is the best vintage for some years.
Sassicaia is a ‘Super Tuscan’, as you may know, if you’re (a) a fan of Italian wine; (b) Dr Bill Lumsden; or (c) remember Glenmorangie’s Artein Private Edition bottling from 2012, which was finished by (b) in ex-Sassicaia casks.
There’s no formal definition of Super Tuscan, but the tag generally applies to a small number of Italian wines, created from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, that thumbed their noses at the winemaking rules of the day, blending international grape varieties (with or without the native Sangiovese) and rejecting conformity in the name of quality.
In so doing, they elevated Tuscan winemaking by several degrees, led to rule changes and swapped often insipid wines for something altogether bolder and finer.
Even though Sassicaia celebrates its 50th birthday this year, the wine was being made privately a generation before. In the 1930s, when Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta bought the Tenuta San Guido estate, nestling in the hills near the Tuscan coast, there were no vines there at all.
Room for error: Midleton’s micro-distillery gives the freedom to innovate without fear
More fond of Claret than Chianti, the Marchese looked at the stony soil, noted the similarity to Bordeaux and decided to plant some Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc just to see what might happen.
The resultant wine, which he enjoyed drinking and found to age well, remained a strictly private affair until it was commercialised in 1968. Since then, stellar vintages like 1985 (and, perhaps, 2015) have secured its apotheosis into the fine wine pantheon.
Sassicaia also effectively created a new winemaking region in what was once mosquito-ridden marshland: Bolgheri. Others followed its lead, and the likes of Ornellaia, Ca’Marcanda and Guado al Tasso have shown that Sassicaia’s success was no fluke.
Nobody goes to the trouble of planting a vineyard entirely on a whim, but the Marchese had no way of knowing that his slightly crazy idea of transplanting Bordeaux to coastal Tuscany would work. It could – should, according to conventional wisdom at the time – have been an utter failure.
The Marchese probably didn’t care too much, because this was a personal project and he had little to lose. He was, in other words, in the privileged position of having the licence to get it wrong.
The great innovators of whisky have long understood this way of thinking, especially in the area of cask maturation. ‘We tried other spirits like brandy, and they didn’t work for us… We tried a number of wines – maybe not always the right wines. They didn’t really work for us.’ That was David Stewart MBE, speaking last year.
Super Tuscan: But Sassicaia spent decades as an unheralded private venture
‘I was sampling [the whisky] every month after about eight months – once, way back, I mucked up a product by leaving it in the wine casks for too long.’ That’s Lumsden, discussing the making of last year’s Private Edition, Glenmorangie Bacalta, and comparing it to an earlier, ill-fated project.
Both Stewart and Lumsden are relaxed enough – and secure enough in their status as great whisky creators – to admit that things go wrong, not least because they understand that innovation is inextricably linked to trial and error.
Two other aspects are important here: having an understanding boss who won’t go nuclear every time something doesn’t work out; and having the wisdom to know when to bottle, and when to blend away.
Both elements will be vital to today’s new generation of whisky makers, who are more eager than ever to push the creative envelope and embrace a brave new world of flavour innovation.
When they get it wrong, they’ll need to find the courage to admit it, learn from it, and move on. Sometimes deciding what not to bottle is the trickiest part of all.
Midleton master distiller Brian Nation summed up this philosophy when discussing the Jameson plant’s new micro-distillery last October. He said: ‘We’ve had some stuff that doesn’t work, or stuff that we thought would work quicker, and it hasn’t, and we’re just giving it a little bit more time – but that’s all part of the whole innovation and experimentation.
‘In the micro-distillery… we will be able to make more mistakes, on a more regular basis, in order to find the right way.’
Long may that philosophy continue.
14 March 2018
As I’m sure you’re all aware, one of the heights of Scottish cuisine is macaroni cheese. What CalMac ferry trip isn’t complete without a serving of it? How can anyone pass up on the chance to bite into a macaroni pie?
The mac ‘n’ cheese waffle has taken this into a different dimension. The process is relatively straightforward. First, take some macaroni cheese. Put it in a waffle iron. Close said waffle iron.
While waiting for it to become just sufficiently crunchy, if you are lucky, you might be allowed to climb on a ladder to fossick about for unusual drams among the mass of bottles on the upper shelves.
I managed to find an old Signatory Clynelish, for example. Apologies for not recalling which specific vintage it was. It was already late, and there were other things on my mind. The mac ‘n’ cheese waffle, for one.
Welcome to the world of Hats & Tatts in South Melbourne, where you can drink beer, listen to dodgy anthems and shoot pool – but also sip on great cocktails and chose from said wide and wild whisky selection. A dive bar, but done in an Aussie way.
The day had been spent talking, tasting and listening to Australians talking about their maturing new whisky industry: its highs, its challenges and its opportunities.
While there were plenty of opinions (as there should be), there was consensus that if Australia is to build on its early successes, it is time for producers to start producing in volume. An industry which has been built on the template of small still, small cask, single barrel releases needs to take that next step.
Local colour: Cardrona in New Zealand is already developing its signature style of whisky
Volume would give greater reach, consistency and cash flow. It would also, hopefully, bring costs and prices down. Making more affordable, characterful whisky is not a bad plan.
It would also, conceivably, help to increase diversity within the styles being made, offering an alternative to the rich, wood-driven whiskies of the present by creating a consistent, distillate-driven spirit aged in larger casks – but one which is still identifiably Australian.
Melbourne’s Starward knows this; one reason why it, for me, is leading the way. The same city’s Bakery Hill has it in terms of consistency, Sydney’s Archie Rose is showing huge potential, as are Black Gate in New South Wales and Adelaide’s Tin Shed, while the rye from Tassie’s Belgrove is something to behold.
It’s not a simple task to find your identity. Even in Melbourne’s singular climatic conditions, it will still take four or five years before a balanced maturity emerges.
Whisky cannot and should not be rushed. It is ready when it is ready. The key is finding that sweet spot where spirit and oak cease to be two sides of the coin and become one.
That, inevitably, means gaining a deeper understanding of your conditions. It is different making whisky in South Australia compared to Tasmania, different again in Victoria or Western Australia, or New South Wales.
Climate, maturing temperature, cereals, yeast strains: all the diverse elements which impact on a whisky’s final character have to be appreciated, captured and then delivered in a consistent and characterful and compelling way. It’s the same for any whisky-making country – including Scotland.
Charlie MacLean, Alex Bruce and I had arrived in Melbourne after a week in New Zealand, a trip which had culminated in a few days near Wanaka at the Cardrona distillery.
Melbourne’s pride: For Dave Broom, Starward is leading the charge for Australian whisky
The conditions here are different again. The low rainfall, for example, and huge variations between summer and winter temperatures play a significant role in the creation of their emerging style but, though it only started production in 2015, that signature is emerging.
It is different to the powerful estery fruit and spice of Starward, more restrained, cooler even, with a honeyed, sweet almond, fruit element in all of the casks we tried, be they (Spanish) Sherry butt, American barrel or, for me the most exciting, local Pinot Noir casks.
The fact that both Starward and Cardrona are (or will be) examining refill as a way of giving a greater range of flavour options, as well as amplifying distillery character, shows a deeper thinking in terms of flavour development.
Again, it’s about understanding your environment and working with it. Cardrona’s head distiller Sarah Elsom comes from a wine background – she knows yeasts, ferments and lactobacillus, and the way in which a spirit should do the same as a great wine and exhibit a sense of place.
Her approach is different to that of David Vitale at Starward with his brewing background, but Cardrona isn’t in Port Melbourne, while Central Otago Pinot is very different to Australian red wine, or Apera (aka ‘Australian Sherry’) casks.
Both distilleries make spirit (and whisky) appropriate for their location, in no small way thanks to the laser-guided vision of their founders: Vitale in Melbourne, Desiree Whitaker in Cardrona.
They are doing the same things as other great distillers all around the world, but doing it differently, though never just for the sake of it. Diversity is key. Taking that recipe and making it appropriate to your context.
Just like the macaroni pie and the mac ‘n’ cheese waffle.
07 March 2018
Top Shelf was the theme for the class, a title which was wholly justified as the drams were indeed rare and justifiably expensive. Banff and Caperdonich from Cadenhead’s 175th anniversary collection, two Port Ellens, an old Clynelish and Glenfarclas Fino Casks. You know, what most of us drink each weekend… There was even a wee freebie thrown in at the start in the shape of an old bottle of Bulloch Lade’s ‘Old Rarity’ which certainly lived up to its name.
Neither Charlie MacLean (my compadre at the tasting) or I have come across such a rare aroma. ‘Tinned tomato juice that’s gone off’ was the Walrus of Whisky’s analysis. ‘Rotting vegetables in the bins behind a supermarket,’ I retorted. Like any whisky, it told a story. Filthy though it undoubtedly was, it also said do not expect every old bottle to be magnificent. When you buy at auction be prepared for the worst.
It might have been an extreme example, but that Old Rarity also demonstrated how wrong it is to fall into the trap (as many have) of believing in some ‘Golden Age’ of whisky when everything was perfect. There were some amazing whiskies from the ‘60s and ‘70s for sure, but equally there was a lot of crap as well.
Rose-tinted specs: Was whisky really better in the old days, or is it all just hopeless romanticism?
We can point to the use of different strains of barley giving their own character to these old whiskies, the wider use of brewers’ yeasts, direct fire, or worm tubs. All would have had an influence of the character made. Equally, much of that new make would have been put into knackered wood, or in ‘Sherry’ casks which had been dosed with paxarette. Some would end up being remarkable whiskies, others – to be frank – wouldn’t.
There was no prelapsarian Golden Age. The issue is more subtle than that. After all, this is whisky we are talking about and as we should know by now there is no one simple, single answer. Rarity isn’t simply scarcity. It can also mean that the flavours and aromas are rare, unusual, fascinating. Rarity means that these are the exceptions, not the rule.
Maybe I listen to too much Miles Davis and buy into the way in which he approached his music, constantly moving it forwards, never resting on one style, no matter how popular it was. Perhaps I have bought into the kaizen approach of Japanese craft, that belief in continual, incremental improvement. I believe in a constant, always changing momentum and know that no matter how much we fetishise the past, we cannot return. Life is impermanent.
It is human to resist this. It is easier – and perhaps natural – that as we get older so we become increasingly nostalgic – music was better, so were movies, or cars; the summers were hotter and winters were always snowy. Just as our noses remind us of the scents of our childhood, so our view of the world is seen through a child’s eye.
It is wrong to fetishise the past. Whisky has never been set in amber. The distillers of the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s were moving the art forward as well. They too probably thought that whisky was better in the old days, while at the same time improving on what their fathers and grandfathers had done.
Evolving distillery: Bowmore’s looking to the past to influence its future releases, without stepping back in time
This doesn’t mean rejecting the past. Rather, you understand it and see how it could influence the future. So the examination of yeast, or barley, or worms, or direct fire is correct. The debate over whether to take the hit on efficiency to achieve a different flavour is a valid and vital one. Only by doing this will whisky continue to evolve in an increasingly complex and demanding market.
The questions have to be asked and the answers will be appropriate for tomorrow’s whiskies, just as the changes in production in the ‘60s were correct for the changing nature of the industry and the palates of the time. Tomorrow’s drinker is fascinated by provenance and richer flavours, and so the industry will (or should) respond to this change in ways which might see the past being mined. Just look at the way in which Suntory is using contemporary learnings to align tomorrow’s Bowmore with the flavours it produced in the 1960s and ‘70s.
It isn’t however going back to the past or believing that whisky was better in those days. Whisky was different, just as it was different in the ‘50s, and the ‘40s, and all the way back to the 15th century.
It is hopelessly naive to believe that there was a single point when every whisky produced was magnificent. It rained in summer, and snow didn’t always fall at Christmas. Move on.
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