Britain’s first female Prime Minister, ‘The Iron Lady’, believed in whisky to give you energy.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
26 December 2017
‘Can you tell where I can get a good one of these?’ ‘I’ve never heard of that drink, it’s amazing.’ ‘How exactly do you make this?’ These phrases and questions seemed to follow me around the world this year. The mysterious drink in question is the Highball.
Those of us who love whisky tend to forget that we live in a bubble and make the assumption that everyone knows as much as we think we do – or are as interested as we are. In reality, the majority of people just want a decent drink – which is what the Highball is.
The fact that whisky and soda is still an outrageous concept says to me how much work still needs to be done. I mean, how hard is it to take a glass, pour in a slug of whisky of your choice, throw in some ice, and top it up to the strength you wish with your chosen mixer. One gentle stir and there it is.
Simple serve: A Whisky Highball contains a dram and a mixer of your choice over ice
Technically, that’s a simple drink to make. Psychologically, it is a huge leap of faith. After all, haven’t we been told that whisky should never be adulterated in any way – other than with a garnish of opinion and pontification that is.
Things are changing. Brands are beginning to embrace the Highball – who could have imagined Smoky Cokeys being served at Lagavulin during Feis Ile? – but that doesn’t mean that the job is over. In fact, I suspect it has barely begun. The new Highball drinker is as likely to be one of us, someone who already drinks whisky. Converting existing whisky drinkers is vital – we are after all keen proselytisers for the drink and can therefore spread the word – but the aim must always to be to get new drinkers who may never have tried whisky before.
From a brand perspective that requires taking a long-term view and being consistent in your message – look at Jameson for evidence of how that can work. It also means not just working with top end whisky bars, but high volume outlets. The battle will have been won when we see Scotch Highballs being drunk as a matter of course in Wetherspoons. Can it be done? I suggest the Scotch industry takes a look at Japan…
The key to the Highball’s success is its simplicity. This is ‘teach a man to fish’ territory: glass, whisky, soda, ice, now go and make your own and tell your friends. Simplicity is also key to Scotch’s future success because it also means being clear-sighted in terms of vision, and uncluttered by contrived marketing.
Simple is often the hardest thing to do. It lies at the heart of the idea that whisky – and single malt especially – is inextricably linked to place. It is fascinating to see how many of the new distilleries are all engaging with the land on which they stand, and their communities.
‘A local distillery for local people’ can have an ominous League of Gentlemen ring to it – a xenophobic mistrust of outsiders. Instead, local means being engaged with the wider world.
‘An understanding of terroir lies in accepting our resources and constraints,’ Fred Revol of Domaine des Hautes-Glaces, said to me earlier this year. ‘The only way we can be happy in a globalised world is to have a sense of place, because it is diversity which makes the world richer.’ The clarity of that statement should lie at the heart of 21st century whisky.
Simplicity is also at the heart of the innovations which are now beginning to emerge within Scotch, such as the extraordinary return of rye. What they say to me is that distillers are looking at the most basic element within whisky – flavour. That is what brings new drinkers into Scotch and keeps them there and while the processes involved may seem complex, the underlying intent is straightforward and clear – create new and compelling flavours for people to enjoy.
Rejoice in diversity and grab that soda.
20 December 2017
Spoiler alert: the three editors responsible for this website get to choose their three whiskies of the year next week, and guess what? Three out of the nine drams in question aren’t Scotch.
That’s not deliberate. There’s no masterplan at work here, no purposeful attempt to put Scotch in its place and suggest that better and more imaginative whisky-making is being practised elsewhere.
We’re not using the increasingly diverse and dynamic world of ‘world whisky’ as a stick with which to beat Scotch (© Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible), but maybe the choices do say something about the changing face of whisky at the end of 2017.
It’s a big world and, practically speaking, there’s no logical reason why you can’t make whisky of a similar standard to Scotch in any country on Earth. Hey, we’ve known that for decades. There are simply more people succeeding in doing it now, putting their own, local twist on the whisky template, and rightly gaining more attention for doing so.
This changing world casts Scotch in the role of complacent incumbent; the flabby Roman Emperor doomed beneath the siege of the raw, but vital, Goths, Visigoths and Vandals. Has there been complacency? Yes. Is that the dominant mood today? No.
Apart from anything else, the same, iconoclastic tide of new wave distillers (let’s avoid the c-word) is as present in Scotland as in other whisky-making countries and, as this movement gains traction, laziness is not a safe option.
Global threat: Scotch whisky is responding to challenges from around the world
Single estate whisky; rye and other cereal grains; barley variety and provenance; yeast types; experimental fermentation and distillation regimes. And so on, and on, into as yet uncharted waters.
When a big-time distiller gets grumpy with a newcomer for bringing an innovative style of Scotch to the marketplace ahead of them (ask me afterwards), you know that there’s more to this than mere tinkering and half-hearted experimentation. This is real.
Look back at the rye question. Yes, InchDairnie’s doing it. Bruichladdich’s doing it. Lone Wolf is doing it. Arbikie, it turns out, was doing it two years ago (without telling anyone). But Diageo’s doing it too, and not just playing around with it at Leven, the company’s pilot plant, but at two of its established distilleries.
The liquid results of Diageo’s experimentation will end up, if the rumours are true, in a bottle labelled ‘Johnnie Walker’ – the Bobby Charlton/David Beckham/Leo Messi (delete as age-appropriate) of Scotch whisky, and surely the last haven for complacency, if complacency were the default option.
One of the problems is that established companies – Diageo, Chivas Brothers, William Grant, Edrington – have a position in the market that makes them wary of being seen to make mistakes. That means that such experiments tend to stay under wraps until they succeed.
Rye revival: But some experiments are kept under wraps until the time is right
That only matters in terms of perception. The reality is that we’re a few years into a period of unparalleled innovation and dynamism in whisky as a whole, and in Scotch in particular. Where will it lead us?
The new generation of start-up distillers (no, I still won’t use the c-word) tends to generate more heat than light, exciting a narrow audience of über-geeks and leaving the wider, more casual audience of whisky cold. A bit like the impact of the more outré creations of Paris Fashion Week – more academic than practical.
But, when the bigger companies begin to follow the example of the newcomers – even to lead the charge – everything changes. There’s some fantastic Scotch whisky on the market right now, and not all of it is sold for an astronomical price, but how about what is to come?
By all means wax nostalgic about the whiskies of half a century ago, and bemoan their passing, but I’d rather look forward, to the great whiskies being created today, and in the years ahead. I’ll say it: we’re entering a golden age for whisky, and Scotch is ready to play a full part in that.
A positive note on which to end 2017, and begin 2018. Happy Christmas, one and all.
13 December 2017
I live a spoiled life, I know that. Every time I complain about some aspect of my work, one of my friends will stop me and say: ‘But you have the best job in the world.’ It’s pretty much true. As I say, probably too frequently, who in their right mind would pay a Glaswegian to drink and then write about his experiences?
One of the perks is getting tasting samples. Not full-size bottles, in case you were planning a raid on Broom Towers, but miniatures. That’s fine; in fact, it’s better.
There are some tasting sessions which are less exciting than others, but even those which are less stimulating will be instructive. Every bottle, every glass will open up some new possibilities, questions, revelations and ways of thinking about this thing called whisky.
Where did the flavours come from, what do they tell me about how it was made and matured, how has time impacted on it and what does it tell me about itself – and about me?
All of this means that I also, occasionally, get access to whiskies I would not otherwise be able to taste or afford. As I said, a spoiled and privileged life, but it bugs me. It bugs me especially when there’s a whisky which is so extraordinary that deserves to be tried by as many people as possible, but which will never be because it is priced at a level beyond the reach of everyone, bar a very few.
Hen’s teeth: Only 74 bottles of Bowmore 1966 50 Year Old are available
I know the arguments: rarity, preciousness, packaging (see Richard Woodard’s piece last week for more on that) and the idea that most consumer goods will have a top end, be that cars, watches, shoes, etc, etc.
I accept that logic and, reluctantly, move on. Most of the time. Sometimes it just nags away at me, not out of some sense of moral outrage, but a thought that sometimes there might just be another way.
It’s been triggered once more by the Bowmore 1966 50 Year Old. Everything about it is amazing: the liquid, the bottle, the box… and the price: £20,000. The price of a car.
Imagine the reaction when you get home from a trip ostensibly to the car showroom and explain to your partner why, instead of dangling a set of keys in front of them, you are clutching a box with a bottle of whisky in it. There again, I suppose the target consumer for this is rarely faced with that either/or dilemma.
One of the reasons for the price is that there are only 74 bottles available, and it was that which got me thinking. If the liquid is so precious, so rare, so fantastic, can you really justify bottling it in the first place? Is there an alternative?
It took me back to Cognac, specifically to the Paradis at Frapin and the large glass bonbonnes of precious liquids, some dating from pre-phylloxera times, which were held there to be used for blending (yes, guys, for blending). They have been retained because they are the treasure of that house, its symbolic core, there to be referred to and used, judiciously, over time. This is common practice in both Cognac and Armagnac.
Paradis found: In Cognac and Armagnac, old, rare spirits are preserved in glass
Why can’t whisky operate in a similar way? This isn’t an argument about whether rare whisky should be blended. Let’s leave that to one side for the time being. This is asking if there is another way to view and utilise precious stocks.
Instead of putting rare whiskies (it could be the 1966, or any other extremely limited, aged whisky) in bottles, why not put it in one glass demijohn and keep it at the distillery?
As a distiller or bottler you can then use it in a myriad of ways, while those visitors who are interested, who are willing to, yes, pay for the privilege can try a sip (and that’s all you need). In that way, more people try it, the pleasure is spread.
It could be used at events globally to show what is possible, to give people the taste of something which seems to defy logic. They gain vital knowledge, you make new converts and generate a hell of a lot more positive PR from the whole exercise. Everyone’s happy.
06 December 2017
I should be watching Andrew Watt’s skilful manipulation of the Arbortech grinder as he transforms a plain oak cabinet into a 3D representation of the dark waves of Loch Lomond, but something’s distracted me: the portable workbench he’s using has a woman’s name scribbled on it in marker pen.
‘Why Nora Batty?’ Andrew looks up, slightly embarrassed (and also way too young to remember the formidable female character from TV comedy Last of the Summer Wine). ‘Um… I guess I just like to give names to things.’
He does. A nearby station, also related to Andrew’s work on the impending Loch Lomond 50 Year Old single malt release, is entitled ‘Madame Lomonde’s Cabinet of Carvering Curiosity!’. The creative process can lead you down some strange paths.
Random pattern: Individual expression is an important facet of Method’s approach
We’re at Beecraigs Sawmill, nestled in the hills above Linlithgow in West Lothian, the home of Method Studio, the company commissioned to design and make the oak cabinets, known as ‘Tempest Chests’, for what is comfortably the oldest and most expensive whisky yet released by the Loch Lomond distillery.
I guess you’d describe the people at Method as furniture and cabinet makers, although their preferred epithet, ‘architects of objects’, hints at the deeper philosophy that underpins what they do for an impressive roster of high-end clients: Burberry, Vacheron Constantin, Jaguar Land Rover, Fortnum and Mason.
Back to that Arbortech. Andrew’s using it to delicately shave and shape the surface of the plain oak, creating a pattern of waves that isn’t a pattern at all, but deliberately and counter-intuitively random. Just like the surface of a loch, in other words.
We move across the workshop, where several sculpted cabinets sit waiting to be painted in a shade of indigo so dark that it’s almost black. Method’s founders, Marisa Giannasi and Callum Robinson, are explaining their approach, which has a strong focus on the expression of individual identity.
Carvering curiosity: Method Studio is making 60 chests for Loch Lomond’s 50yo release
There are three craftsmen making the 60 Loch Lomond cabinets – Andrew, Edward and Tommy – and, while they’re all working to the same brief, each has his own style and approach, and is actively encouraged to explore and express that in the finished article.
Tommy’s the youngest and has a tendency to ‘go at it more quickly and maybe more violently’, while Edward exudes an almost Buddha-like calm, making the ‘waters’ on his cabinet more serene. The differences are subtle but, as we look over the carved cabinets, Andrew can pick out his own – and the others’ – work.
It’s a deliberate effort to focus on and reflect the individual skill of the craftsman, and to create something unique for the final purchaser. What might be perceived as imperfections and inconsistencies elsewhere are encouraged and celebrated here.
There’s a lot of debate these days about the prices charged for these ultra-rare, ultra-old whiskies, and about just how much of that sum is accounted for by the packaging.
Final article: The ‘Tempest Chests’ are designed to echo the waters of Loch Lomond
In the case of Loch Lomond 50 Year Old (£12,000, by the way), it isn’t just about the cabinet – there’s the brass key, the Canada tan leather inlay, the hand-blown Glencairn crystal decanter and the turned brass, glass-lined vial (reminiscent of Loch Lomond’s straight-necked stills) containing a tasting sample of the whisky.
But, if whisky is going to inhabit this demi-monde of high net worth individuals and luxury launches – and it obviously is – then it’s good to see it treading its own path in doing so. No imitation perfume bottles aping the most decadent habits of the Cognaçais, and no falsely modest plain glass or puritanical cardboard cartons.
Instead, a truly bespoke (for once, that horrendously overused word is justified) package that both speaks of where the product comes from and is also, ultimately, an expression of individual character and identity. Which, after all, is what single malt whisky is all about in the first place.
29 November 2017
It can’t be easy to launch a brand, especially into as established a category as Scotch. Full credit to the brave souls who try. They are braver than I.
For it to succeed, or even just be noticed, it has to have a point of difference and, because the market is cluttered, as a brand owner you might just have to shout that little bit harder to get yourself noticed.
Or you make something with high quality that offers a new spin on flavour. The latter is time-consuming as it involves more explanation and hand-selling. The former is, maybe, easier.
Behave like a paparazzi photographer trying to get a shot of a celeb. Shout out something rude, get them to turn their head, get the money shot. Success.
In whisky, that option involves slagging off the industry, calling it ‘clichéd’ and ‘traditional’. You might want to bandy around words around like ‘haggis’ and ‘heather’ and ‘old-fashioned’, and set yourself up as the alternative.
You are Prince (less than) Charming with your flaming sword of truth (© J Aitken), cutting through the thicket of thorns to rescue the Sleeping Beauty of Scotch. Hurrah!
I’ve been doing this gig for three decades now (and on days like this I sometimes wonder why I still bother), and I know that every year there will be some ‘innovative’ and ‘unique’ Prince Charming brand launched, and each year the story of its point of difference gets that little bit more desperate.
This week we got another. I won’t mention the brand, that would be… rude. It, apparently, takes Scotch back to its ‘rebellious history’, so cue mentions of ‘renegades’, ‘rebels’, and ‘outlaws’.
Crowded market: Newcomers to Scotch sometimes have to shout to make themselves heard
The underlying idea is that, if you drink this, you too are part of this wilder, more dangerous world, which is where Scotch has to be. It’s a brand which has to be (cue today’s marketing agency buzzword) ‘disruptive’.
It’s a brand which pays homage to illicit distillers of the past, or rather the ‘independent and unorthodox distillers of the 18th century’. It cocks a snook at the stuffy industry which, according to the brand owner, has closed off the category to new drinkers, making Scotch a spirit only enjoyed by those with ‘an encyclopaedic knowledge and level of superiority’.
It goes on: ‘But rewind time, and whisky wasn’t at all like that. It was enjoyed by all, from all walks of life. In fact, it was quite rebellious.’
There’s some truth in that. Whisky has suffered from being seen as a club for men of a certain age, drinking drams of a certain type, in a specific setting, in a certain way.
The key word is ‘has’. In the past decade, whisky has consciously moved itself away from that isolationist position and become inclusive: look at the bars, the cocktails; look at the new generation of drinkers of all sexes; look at the new distilleries.
Yes, Scotch has to guard against being elitist, but this brand’s view of the category isn’t one I encounter when I go around the world. So either they have new information, or it’s simply marketing bullshit.
But hey… what of the whisky? Well, the premise behind the brand is that whisky was so much better in the 18th century, when moonshiners hid in the hills beside clear Highland burns and crafted their often smoky, high-quality spirit. Funny how brands which purport to be against marketing clichés employ them so heavily.
The reality was that the bulk of those distillers were being harried by gaugers and at the mercy of often violent smuggling gangs. They were more like the coca farmers in Colombia, in thrall to drugs cartels.
The illicit era wasn’t a time of relaxed, quality-oriented distillation. Moonshining was forced upon people because of economic and cultural oppression.
Tough times: Scotch’s illicit past was nowhere near as romantic as some would have you believe
Ok, maybe I just take a different interpretation of history, so what of this liquid which pays homage to the renegade spirit? Is it, too, made in a heather hut in the hills? Does it carry with it the contraband goût?
No. It’s a blended malt. Made at modern distilleries and therefore sourced from the allegedly unfeeling, monolithic firms which brands like this oppose.
It, apparently, is the colour of antique brass, smells of peat, honeysuckle, boiled sweets, apricots and leather books. It’s clearly been aged for a decent period in good-quality casks, just like illicit 18th-century whisky. Aye, right pal.
In saying that illicit whisky was better than what is made today, the brand owner is insulting the men and women of today’s industry and, weirdly, the very firms with which he needs to work to get the juice to continue his ‘renegade’ quest.
He’s thumbing his nose at the people who he should be asking for help. He is – and this is quite some feat – shitting on his own doorstep, standing in it and then shooting himself in the foot.
Yes, we should always challenge orthodoxy, and always look for valid ways to broaden whisky’s remit and the discussion around it. We should never be complacent, but we should also always have our bullshit detectors switched on.
This isn’t a different path for whisky. It’s not innovative or dangerous. It’s a blended malt with a marketing spin attached.
If its owner genuinely wishes to challenge the thinking surrounding Scotch, then there are options open, but that necessitates deep thinking about distillation, liquid, a knowledge of history and an understanding of the way the market could develop.
Back to the drawing board.
22 November 2017
So there I was, sitting at a table outside a bar in Xiamen thinking how strangely like Miami it was, when Ariel Miao said: ‘We have a saying in China that when something grows really fast it has been injected with chicken blood.’ I must have looked surprised as she quickly added: ‘I don’t mean we really inject chicken blood into our veins’, which was a relief. While I didn’t really think that it was an actual practice, it is always good to have these things confirmed.
We had stopped for a breather before the night’s dinner at the Meridien which would see top-end malts, amazing food and continual toasting, similar to what had happened the night before, and the night before that, and which would continue in the same manner deep into the following week. If you cut me it wouldn’t be chicken blood which flowed out, but whisky.
Her analogy was spot on. Two days before, at Diageo’s now annual Whisky Summit in Guangzhou, Jim Beveridge had leaned across to me. ‘Do you get the impression that this is about to explode?’ he’d asked. I’d nodded in agreement. There was a feeling in the room that went beyond the usual bullish predictions for the year ahead and rallying calls to the troops. A sense that Scotch was indeed on the verge of doing something remarkable in mainland China, and that the predictions weren’t a self-deluding fantasy but a realistic (indeed sober) reflection of a new reality.
Scotch bubble: China’s thirst for single malt is only just starting to grow
China has long been seen as the great prize for Scotch, yet it’s a market which has remained tantalisingly hard to crack. It’s almost been as if the scale of the task has made firms freeze in the headlights. How could they penetrate such a huge market without just throwing money into a huge hole and discounting heavily simply to get a foothold?
To give you an idea of the potential rewards, Diageo’s aim to grow whisky to more than 50% of the imported spirit market would deliver RNB5bn (£500m) to Scotch. If that sounds ambitious then chew on this next figure for a second. The total spirits market in China is worth RNB510bn, with baijiu accounting for 98% of the sales. Seen in that light, a 50% share of the 2% international spirits sector seems almost modest.
It’s been tried before and stymied by distribution issues, anti-corruption purges, and a clampdown on entertaining, but whisky firms’ strategies are changing and the battle for palates and minds has taken a different turn. While there’s been regular talk of the scale of the consumption of high-end (and high-aged) whiskies, there is increasing evidence that this isn’t being driven by a desire to show off but because people genuinely like the taste.
The Scotch being bought at auction, and the single casks being snapped up, aren’t being stashed away or flipped, but are being consumed and enjoyed at home and also in whisky bars, 300 of which opened in the last year alone. There is, in other words, a rapidly growing connoisseurship.
The new Chinese market isn’t being built on the back of blends as was predicted, but on single malts, and the demographics are in its favour. The country’s young, growing and increasingly affluent middle classes are finding that malts reflect their aspirational lifestyles. To grow, Scotch has to educate rather than sell cheap.
Whisky experience: Xiamen's new Whisky Boutique teaches consumers about both blends and malts
I’d spent the afternoon talking to whisky bloggers at Xiamen’s new Whisky Boutique, an elegant Diageo-backed store which manages to balance retail space – and a wide selection of whiskies from all companies – with areas where customers can learn about blending, aroma, malts, and have sit-down tastings. The emphasis isn’t on the hard sell of expensive whiskies, but on education, teaching, and flavour. Two other boutiques have opened in Guangzhou and Shantou with more rolling out nationally in the coming year.
Malts suit the Chinese dim sum mentality, of picking and choosing from a wide range of flavours, and switching between them, rather than sticking with one brand, and with more offerings and China-only releases, it would seem that the menu is getting ever longer.
In fact, the only issue is whether there will be sufficient juice to satisfy the demand as it will be impossible to sustain the growth at the top end. If growth is to be maintained, there has to be a gentle weaning off the lust for extra-aged whiskies and a recalibration of the market by finding new ways of talking about blends. It has to start soon, as the chicken blood is pulsing strongly in the nation’s veins.
22 November 2017
Sometimes I think it’s a debate as old as time itself. The idea that Scotch whisky’s strict regulations are somehow hindering innovation, tying distillers up in so many regulatory knots that they cannot give full rein to their creativity.
And then, the consequent argument that Scotch as a whole is missing out, overtaken by rival spirits categories that are free to explore every avenue of flavour creation to make a range of products that appeals to a broader demographic.
Many of the threads are familiar, but what piqued my interest this time was Miller’s use of the example of gin to support his pro-change argument.
He said: ‘Think of what’s happened with gin, where not everyone likes the classic, juniper-heavy style. A lot of new drinkers think they like gin, but what they really enjoy are flavoured gins.’
Legally speaking, this is murky territory. Here’s what the relevant EU regulation (110/2008) has to say:
(a) Gin is a juniper-flavoured spirit drink produced by flavouring organoleptically suitable ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin with juniper berries (Juniperus communis L.).
(b) The minimum alcoholic strength by volume of gin shall be 37.5%.
(c) Only natural and/or nature-identical flavouring substances as defined in Article 1(2)(b)(i) and (ii) of Directive 88/388/EEC and/or flavouring preparations as defined in Article 1(2)(c) of that Directive shall be used for the production of gin so that the taste is predominantly that of juniper.
Leading role: Juniper should be the predominant flavour of gin, according to EU law (Photo: Kyoto distillery)
Consider those last few words: ‘…so that the taste is predominantly that of juniper’. As legal phrases go, this is pretty woolly, since it rests on the ‘taste’ of a product, which has to be to some extent subjective. You might try a gin and detect the clear influence of juniper; I might not.
With this in mind, it’s hard to see how ‘flavoured’ gin (unless the flavour in question is juniper) can stand. Doesn’t it risk becoming just another offshoot of flavoured vodka?
The legal intricacies are only part of the point. However vague the rules, the ‘juniper clause’ is there for a reason: juniper defines gin, and its absence in flavour terms makes what’s in your G&T or Martini something else instead.
By this argument, Miller’s ‘new drinkers’ aren’t falling in love with (or even drinking) gin in the first place. Does this matter, as long as they’re buying a bottle with the word ‘gin’ on it? Yes, because sooner or later they’ll realise that they don’t really like gin at all, and will move onto the next fad. How can you be loyal to a spirit when you haven’t even been drinking it in the first place?
Just suppose for a moment that everyone abided by the strictest interpretation of the EU regulation and the juniper clause. Would this stifle creativity and innovation within gin, in the same way that critics say is happening with Scotch? Of course not.
Real thing: Ki Noh Bi gin shows that originality needn’t mean ripping up the rulebook
Here’s an example: Ki Noh Bi is a cask-matured spin-off from Japan’s Ki No Bi gin, distilled in Kyoto by the team, including Marcin Miller and David Croll, that has done so much to elevate Japanese whisky over the past decade or so.
On the surface, Ki Noh Bi checks just about every bandwagon-jumping box going: new wave botanicals (yuzu, green tea, bamboo leaves, etc) – tick; provenance (most botanicals locally sourced, spirit rice-based) – tick; cult Japanese whisky reference (it’s matured in ex-Karuizawa casks) – tick.
But never mind the zeitgeist, taste the gin. Distinctive but balanced, with a spiced smoothness undercut by fragrant yuzu, but still with juniper to the fore. It is different, but it’s still the same in all the important ways. It is, demonstrably, gin (and, as an aside, it’s one of the most delicious things I’ve tasted all year).
I have a few nagging doubts about the longevity of the current gin boom, simply because there are too few producers doing what Kyoto distillery has done with Ki Noh Bi, and too many throwing gin’s USP out with the juniper, consciously or not. The fact that the regulations are so sloppy only makes this easier.
The lessons for Scotch should be obvious. Far from being restrictive, well-written rules provide a mould for what defines their subject, but a mould that can be pulled, twisted and shaped in any number of ways.
In the case of Scotch, that means every stage in the process, from the selection of raw materials, through malting, milling, mashing, fermentation, distillation and maturation.
Far from complaining, true innovators should welcome the presence of a rulebook to lend their creativity structure and focus. And everyone should be careful of what they wish for.
15 November 2017
It could be the season, the shortening days, or the year’s fast-approaching end which has made the sense of time passing uppermost in my mind. It’s been pushed further forward by the tasting of a number of venerable drams: the G&M Glenlivet which spent a mere 70 years in cask, Loch Lomond’s 50 Year Old, and a Glen Grant distilled in 1949, the latter tasted on my recent trip to Belgium where it sat alongside other aged malts with equally rich stories to tell.
They are exotic, they are often waxy, they speak of rancio. You can, to some extent, analyse the aromas by process: the length of the ferment, the clarity of the wort, the gentleness of distillation, the relaxed nature of their maturation in specific types of cask, but that doesn’t give all of the answers. Chance has played as much of a role in this strange continuum.
Unique journey: Each cask will mature whisky in its own, unpredictable, way
I know that we are meant to think that distillers are canny enough to deliberately lay down casks which will only be broached in half a century’s time. In reality, there is rarely any such intent. More often than not, these are casks which have been forgotten (or half-forgotten) in the back of a warehouse. It was good fortune that they were left alone.
Chance also plays its part in the creation of flavours. The moment when you put a new spirit in a cask is when the second part of its story begins, and it is one which you have less control over. Yes, you can say that this type of wood, combined with this character of spirit left for this length of time should give us something within a flavour spectrum, but the key word for me is ‘should’.
You cannot guarantee what will happen inside the cask. You seal it you put it away and you pray. But without chance there is no creativity. Chance and time gives you the curve ball, the oddities, the element of unpredictability, the ‘flaws’ – but it’s the flaws which make whisky interesting. This is not a spirit which aims for purity, but one which wears time grubbily and proudly on its sleeve. It is scuffed by its passing, as well as being smoothed and refined. It speaks of how air and wood and atmosphere have worked together to impart specific flavours on this one cask. Its neighbour will be different. Chance.
Venerable drams: The line-up tasted by Dave Broom during a recent sojourn at Belgium’s Spirit in the Sky festival
When it works – and there’s no guarantee that it will – the whisky is shifted into a different realm. Any whisky tells a story. The tales these whiskies relate are more akin to legends. I try not to approach them with any more reverence than any other whisky. In fact, I try hard to be impressed. But then you get a dram which has something in its depths which puts you in a different space, one which is almost mythical. The aromas are blurred by age, glossy with the patina of time’s passing. They emerge as if from a different dimension, wreathed in smoke and swathed in velvet, rich with fruits and wax and polish and a mysterious otherness which remains, tantalisingly, beyond our grasp. Sipping them is to enter a hallucinatory realm as the time spent in cask suddenly reveals itself. It speaks of the seasons long gone, the coldness of winter, the funk of autumn soil, warm summers and the freshness, just there. There can be a sense of melancholy, even regret, or defiance against the dying of the light.
They force you to think what has happened in the time spent in the cask, of the lives which have started and those which have ended, of fears and loves, joy and sorrows. You weave your own memories in with them as you enter this dream state watching the endless cycle of life spinning past as the whisky has sat. Maybe some of the shards of the world’s story have been embedded within it. It’s hard to tell. They are less spirits, more temporal missiles. It’s a privilege to try them. We should all try, because it is part of what makes this spirit so special.
07 November 2017
A friend of mine loves hot sauce so much he’ll drink it out of the bottle. Seriously. His worrying love for spice moved him to establish a hot sauce subscription service, delivering carefully selected products to other insane heat-seekers. Inevitably, I now have a collection of scary-sounding, unopened bottles at the back of my kitchen cupboards named ‘Ass Reaper’, ‘Rectum Ripper’ and ‘Annihilation’. All selected for their complex flavour rather than their crude names, of course.
Of the hottest varieties a handful proudly state the sauce’s spiciness in Scoville heat units (SHU), a measurement of capsaicin concentration. The higher the number, the spicier the sauce. The SHU varies due to the types of chilli used, how said chillis have been prepared, how much is contained in each bottle and the amount of dilution.
In many ways, peat is the chilli of whisky. It’s polarising, some can only handle it in small quantities, and brands often brag about being ‘the peatiest’, with bold names to match. It’s become a contest of sorts: the higher the ppm, the more street cred earned among peatheads. But there is one striking difference between whisky and hot sauce: the latter gives its capsicum measurement as a reading of the liquid itself, not of the base ingredient.
Scoville scares: Chilli extracts will communicate the capsaicin content of the liquid, rather than the pepper (Photo: Grim Reaper Foods)
Imagine if hot sauce manufacturers adopted whisky’s approach, and only stated the SHU of the original chilli pepper used to make the sauce. Very little of that pepper may actually be in the bottle, resulting in a mild-tasting product that hardly reflects the impressive SHU on the label. Said product would be misleading to consumers, no? So why do we continue to perpetuate the practice in Scotch?
As we’ve covered many times before on Scotchwhisky.com, a whisky’s ppm figure relates to the degree to which the barley is peated. Phenols that attach themselves to the barley grain during malting are lost throughout the rest of the whisky production process – in the mash tun, the washback, the still and during maturation. Barley that’s peated to, say, 40ppm will simply not appear in your glass at home at that level.
Up until this week, anCnoc was one of only a couple of Scotch brands stating its ppm as a reading of the phenols in the bottled whisky itself, rather than the barley. News this week, then, that the brand had abandoned its laudable stance was nothing short of disappointing, particularly as the change was made to ‘fall in line with industry standards’.
A spokesperson told us: ‘We were one of the only brands to communicate the ppm of the whisky as opposed to the barley, yet the consumer understands the industry standard better, which is the ppm of the barley.’ The situation reminds me of that classic parental one-liner, put best by Mike’s dad in the first episode of Stranger Things 2: ‘If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?’
AnCnoc Peatheart: The single malt brand has changed its ppm stance to ‘fall in line’ with industry standards
In ‘falling in line’, anCnoc has missed a massive opportunity to educate consumers about how peated whisky gains its smoky flavour; an extremely important aspect to communicate when peated single malts are growing in popularity among whisky fans, and bartenders are increasingly requesting peated malts behind the bar.
At the same time, the response from our readers to peat-related articles on Scotchwhisky.com lately has demonstrated an alarming lack of knowledge of phenols and smoke, and precisely what that ppm figure refers to. Continuing down a path of miseducation will only be more difficult to claw back from, as transparency becomes a major concern among consumers. There is a massive opportunity here for a brand to step up and become the real champion of peat education. To lead the way.
How best to explain to the uninitiated what it all means? Our Whisky Professor has suggested brands lose the ppm figure altogether, describing whiskies instead as light-, medium- or heavily-peated – just like the three chilli peppers used to denote spice. Another option would be to print both the reading of the barley and the liquid on the label (in the spirit of transparency, right?). Of course our perception of ‘smokiness’ is subjective, but some form of signpost – whether a figure or relative marker – will only aid whisky drinkers in their navigation of peated Scotch.
Whatever the approach, the Scotch industry could learn a thing or two from the hot sauce guys. But please, just leave the ‘ass ripping’ references to them.
01 November 2017
‘It's a bit like a washing machine,’ says Lasse Vesterby, opening the lid of the long tank. Right enough, inside there’s a slowly rotating drum with holes in it surrounded by a frothy scum. ‘Actually, we got the idea because in the summer me and my brothers used to hunt mink and…’ he gestures ripping the skin off an animal, ‘… this works a bit like a mink-skinning machine as well.’ None of this could be described as the standard opening of a distillery tour. Well, not for me anyway.
The mink-skinning/washing machine hybrid at Stauning on Denmark’s west coast was the solution to the first problem any distiller faces when trying to work with rye, namely its ability to gelatinise into something akin to wallpaper paste in the mashtun. This was a rather elegant way around that problem and given the quality of the whisky which has resulted, a successful one as well.
Engineering change: Distilleries like Denmark’s Stauning are altering our perception of what’s ‘normal’
I should have been used to the improvisatory aspect of Nordic distilling by then. The day before, Lars Williams had wandered into a clutter of tanks vats, pipes and probes and returned, holding the lid of a pressure cooker with various wires dangling from it. ‘I rigged this up and made it into a vacuum still,’ he says, with a surprising insouciance. ‘You did retreat when you used it for the first time?’ said Nick Strangeway, who was with me on the visit. ‘No, if it went wrong it would’ve imploded,’ Lars pointed out. ‘Actually, I suppose I did step back a little.’ Welcome to the world of empirical distilling, or rather Copenhagen’s Empirical Spirits, of which Lars is the co-founder.
Refshaleøen, on the edgelands of Copenhagen’s docks where Empirical is located, looks like the setting of some Nordic Noir series. It is in fact relatively close to the original Noma restaurant where among many other things, Lars ran the test kitchen.
He jumped ship this year to take his fascination for fermentation to the next step – making spirits – or to be more precise asking, ‘what is distillation?’ and ‘what is a spirit?’. He and the team aren’t making shochu, whisky, gin, or fruit spirits, but liquids which occupy a liminal space between all of those.
Outside the box: Lars Williams demonstrates how Empirical’s pressure cooker operates. Right: the site’s koji sauna
The base is made from pearl barley that’s inoculated with koji. Needing more volume Lars has modified a giant butter churn to rotate and steep the barley. ‘We’re just hoping it doesn’t roll off when we get it going,’ he says. I notice that his desk is clear of the potential disaster, sitting on top of the wood-lined former shipping container which is used as the koji ‘sauna’.
If it sounds ramshackle, it’s not. There’s hardcore science behind all of this questioning and adaptation (and creation) of distillation equipment. They’re asking why a spirit has to be strong, why a base spirit has to be neutral, whether you can focus on precise flavours by taking micro cuts from a spirit run and retain the portions you want; whether a distilled kombucha spirit can be used to give an acidic intensity to a fruit spirit. It’s more lab than distillery and as the answers come it’s one which will grow in importance.
The origin story of Stauning is more… earthy. A group of nine friends deciding to make whisky because, well, they liked whisky. Lasse and his brothers came from a family of butchers and so set up Stauning Mark 1 in the old abattoir. As you do. The cold store was used for floor malting, the barley was peated on a barbecue grill in the smokehouse, the grist was minced in a meat grinder, fermentation was in an old pickling vat, distilling took place in two small Portuguese pots fired with wood. And you know what? It worked. They’re engineers, you see. When a challenge arose they found a way around it.
In November 2007 they expanded to an old farm. Therein the barley is malted in two long lanes turned by gently rotating flails which they designed, mashed in the mink-skinning/washing machine combo, fermented in open-top washbacks and distilled in pots of the same shape as the originals, just larger – and still direct fired.
There’s unpeated and peated expressions (using local peat), a remarkable heather-smoked one, and another that’s been aged on an ocean-going schooner. American oak is the normal cask type, but there’s a nod to the local with the use of cherry wine casks for finishing.
Express lane: Stauning’s barley is malted in two long lanes
Now with a thanks to seed money from Diageo's Distil Ventures a new distillery is taking shape, but the approach and equipment will remain the same, just at a larger scale – 900,000lpa larger in fact, coming from 24 pots of the same shape, and still direct fired.
It’s all been a product of improvisation and empirical testing, where flavour was more important than efficiency.
Distillation has always been like this: a constant process of trial and error, and finding solutions. Don’t think for a moment that whisky’s story is a line of gentle improvement. It’s filled with blind alleys and failures, a story of bodging and inspiration, and happy accidents. It’s a fusion of the minds of alchemists, the women who ran the stills in grand houses and farmers making do with what they had. Style emerges from this glorious mess.
What is happening at Stauning and Empirical and numerous other new distilleries is a continuation of this ‘what if?’ impulse which results in new flavours and a progression of spirits’ saga. There is no guidebook, no path that has to be slavishly followed. The element of chance, and inspired improvisation is a thread which has always linked all great spirits.
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