Can Norlan’s combination of functionality and aesthetics help revolutionise the enjoyment of whisky?
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
30 May 2017
The sleeper seemed to be a good idea. Overnight to Glasgow, first bus to Kennacraig and the ferry over to Islay in time for Lagavulin’s celebrations. What could go wrong? I turned down the idea of the lounge car (‘Get you!’ – Ed) in preference of turning down the sheets and getting some rest. I was asleep before we even left Euston, only briefly surfacing as we rolled and rocked gently through sleeping England on the way north.
Combined effort: It took a train, bus, ferry and 23 hours, but Broom finally made it to the Islay Festival
The sleep was deep. In fact, as I woke up at 5am it felt like the most restful night I’d had in ages. Then I realised we had stopped. There was the blurred, echoing sound of a station announcement. ‘Must be Glasgow Central,’ I thought, ‘we’re early.’ I went back to sleep, waking 90 minutes later to the sound of a tearful guard and a somewhat irate fellow passenger outside. ‘We’re in Preston?!’ he was saying.
‘I’m sorry,’ she was replying, ‘but the power lines are down. Nothing’s moving north or south.’ Two-and-a-half hours later we are boarding an emergency coach to take us the three-and-a-half hours north to Glasgow. I’ve missed the connections, but there are other buses, other ferries. I’m in a better position than the lady next to me who is heading to Iona via Glasgow, Oban and Tobermory. She’s giving a presentation at a conference. First thing the next day. We start to talk, as you do when adversity throws you together.
It’s funny how we unburden ourselves when the situation is right. You can sit next to the same person on a long-haul flight or train journey and not exchange a word. When an incident happens, however, all of that reserve goes out of the window and you form a group mentality which holds as long as the situation exists.
So, as well as the intricacies of the Scottish transport system, we talk of things we’d normally never reveal to strangers – family, exams, children, where we stay, our lives, dreams. She works for Kairos, a Christian organisation that lobbies actively for peace and reconciliation between Palestine and Israel.
We chat about building communities and understanding, and how Iona was founded on such principles – communal living, discussing, meditating, eating and working together to gain a greater understanding and opening up possibilities. It’s why there are so many places with the Kil- prefix in the west: cells of communities of monks finding their desert, places to contemplate and plan new possibilties.
England flattens out and leads into Scotland’s southern uplands, its hills festooned with wind farms. Maybe, I muse to my new friend, Nicola Sturgeon’s secret plan is to build so many of them that one day we undo the zip that binds us to England and we propel ourselves north-east to dock once more with Norway.
Caledonian Sleeper: The sleeper train seemed like a good idea… until the power lines came down
We part in Glasgow, steaming hot, people in flip-flops looking dazedly at the unfamiliar bright disc in the sky, and I wait for the bus to Kennacraig, a further three hours west – the land of dreamers.
There’s the usual stop at Inveraray for a ‘comfort break’ as my American friends coyly put it. For me, that means the comfort of Loch Fyne Whiskies, a quick purchase of the Living Cask Batch 4, a tasting of a truly excellent cask strength Laphroaig, and then it’s on the bus and onwards.
At Ardrishaig a quartet of ladies gets on, one talking loudly about dating and how hard it is these days. ‘Men just don’t chat you up any more,’ she complains. ‘It’s harder than ever to make friends.’ I’m not eavesdropping. I can hear this through the music on my headphones. There’s a sense of people falling apart.
On the ferry, it binds once more. The Whisky Exchange crew are there with an (over)-laden van, the ferry a buzz of excitement from visitors and returning Ileachs, the familiar, reassuring CalMac smell of macaroni cheese and chips mingles with the Caol Ila Highball next to me.
Tiredness is forgotten. It’s taken 23 hours to get here and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I’m home. On Islay. This festival is about whisky, for sure, but it is also about community – of the people making it and living here, and those who come to join them for this remarkable week.
24 May 2017
It’s not every day that you wake up, look out of your hotel window and see a rollercoaster opposite, and to the left a baseball stadium. There again, having a theme park, spa, stadium and hotel all together in the city centre seems a perfectly normal and rational thing for Tokyo. Things are done differently here.
The stadium’s conference centre was the venue for this year’s Tokyo International Bar Show (TIBS), which itself morphed out of Whisky Live six years ago to embrace a new, wider-ranging Japanese bar culture. The geek fest of the whisky years has receded significantly, replaced by a more egalitarian (and noisy) approach.
Nothing shows how far and how fast the Japanese bar scene is moving than the gin wars that broke out at the event. The Kyoto Distillery launched a limited edition Navy Strength KiNoBi and a new variant KiNoTea (with added – and crazily expensive – tea from Uji), while Nikka weighed in with its new Coffey Gin and Vodka, made at Miyagikyo. Not to be outdone, Suntory chose the event to launch its new gin, Roku.
KiNoBi gin: Kyoto Distillery launched a limited edition Navy Strength KiNoBi gin at the show
All are based on a mix of traditional botanicals with added Japanese elements: sansho pepper, red shiso, bamboo, hinoki, yuzu, kinome and gyokuro tea for KiNoBi. Coffey Gin combines a traditional botanical mix with distillates of sansho and a Japanese citrus mix of yuzu, kabishu, amanatsu (and apple); while Suntory adds sansho, yuzu, gyokuro, matcha, sakura leaf and blossom to its traditional base. When Hombo’s earthier WaBi (shell ginger, yuzu, gyukuro) is stirred in, you can see how Japanese gin has gone from nothing to a category – almost overnight.
The key to all of these is the use of those local botanicals – and with such a diverse range of citrus alone, not to mention herbs and tea, this is a gin-maker’s paradise. They are there to give the gins identity and set them apart from the standard London Dry base.
Japan is not alone. Northumberland’s Hepple uses botanicals grown on its estate – including juniper and Douglas fir, while the biosphere gin of Dyfi explores Welsh botanicals in a similar way to Norway’s Vidda, or the approach taken by California’s St George’s Terroir.
There was an echo of this thinking in the chat I moderated between three of Japan’s newer whisky distilleries: Chichibu, Mars Shinshu and White Oak. All of the distillers agreed that they were still looking for their character, itself an understanding of the long-term nature of whisky. While gins can be brought to market (relatively) quickly, whisky makers have to sit and wait to see how the work done at new make stage then matures.
Mars is looking at yeasts and roasts of barley; White Oak has completely re-evaluated its whisky making to try to make a lighter, and more gentle, style; while even Chichibu is still experimenting and focusing ever more heavily on the local: peat, barley – even wood – but, as brand ambassador Yumi Yoshikawa pointed out: ‘Only if it gives us quality. Local doesn’t automatically mean better.’
New spirits: Nikka’s new Coffey Gin and Vodka are made at Miyagikyo
This approach is echoed at newer builds such as Akkeshi on Hokkaido’s east coast, which aims to produce a 100% Akkeshi single malt whisky using local barley, peat and mizunara wood from local forests. Japanese barley is the ultimate aim for Shizuoka along with double, and partial triple, distillation. The climate is the main difference for Hombo’s new Tsunuki distillery in the southern city of Kagoshima, where the ambient temperature will have a significant impact on maturation. The local suddenly increases in its importance, but why is that unusual?
While using local botanicals may seem logical for gin, in reality this is a spirit which sprang from the spice trade and has always been internationalist in approach. Whisky, however, started as a localised spirit whose ties have been slowly loosened – or, perhaps, overlooked. Even those apparently rootless creations, blends, were originally crafted to suit the tastes of their respective markets – the Glasgow palate being very different (and, inevitably, superior) to those of Edinburgh or London.
Now those links with the immediate environment are being re-established. We are seeing it around the world and, while the ‘grain to glass’ tagline is often overused, there are indications that the shift is under way in Scotland as well. All single malt distilleries reflect their place – part of their individuality comes from how the template was devised hundreds of years ago, expertise, the availability of ingredients and their flavours, all the way down to the lactobacillus unique to that place. The local subtly guides character in the right direction.
Finding character is as much about listening to those whisperings as it is about imposing a formula. The local is not about copying, or trying to force the issue (such as using tiny casks again). It is about taking your time, looking, tasting, reading and listening. Without having this understanding, you will struggle in tomorrow’s whisky world.
17 May 2017
For whisky enthusiasts, the distillery visit is a staple, the trail woven between mash tun, washback, still and warehouse a well-trodden one. The mental image is of gleaming copper and clear liquid rushing into spirit safe, in the comforting fug of the stillhouse.
Grain plants aren’t quite like that, which – along with their paucity in number and lack of tour guides and distillery shops – might explain why they are not more frequented. But their blunt sense of the industrial doesn’t render them any less fascinating.
At first glance, North British grain distillery in Edinburgh, a Stuart Hogg boot from the Murrayfield rugby stadium and jammed right up against the Tynecastle home of Heart of Midlothian, is from another whisky age. The boardroom walls glower with the stern monochrome portraits of dozens of directors past and present. See if you can spot the lone woman.
Engine room: Grain plants like North British perform a vital role in Scotch
But grain plants like North British are the engine room of the Scotch whisky industry. They may lack a touch of romance, but they make up for that with some pretty impressive numbers.
The plant’s four gigantic Coffey stills, run at full power, can produce the equivalent of 500 bottles of 40% abv whisky a minute. I’ll pause and let that sink in for a moment.
There’s more. In a day of running at peak production, the used cereal could cover 10 football pitches to a depth of 1cm (although the Hearts groundsman would prefer that theory to remain untested), and the electricity consumed could power 750 homes for 24 hours.
The yeast is enough to bake more than 350,000 loaves of bread; the animal feed byproduct sufficient to sate the appetites of 7,000 cows for a day. And the carbon dioxide produced in a 24-period could put the fizz into 18m cans of Coke. Or Tennent’s lager, if you prefer.
Some of this is more than purely theoretical. The dark grains produced by North British make a nutritious animal feed with 25% protein levels. A nice little earner on the side? Not really. This arm of the business normally runs at a slight loss, but is still cheaper than the alternative of paying costly effluent charges.
Meanwhile, the carbon dioxide is compressed, processed and liquefied, then sold to bring some sparkle to the likes of Highland Spring, beer and soft drinks.
Even the baskets of ‘sacrificial’ copper pipe, used within the stills to strip out unwanted sulphur compounds, are impressively hefty.
The plant uses 30 tonnes of cooked grain (maize, with more than 10% of green malt) every 90 minutes, does 12-15 mashes a day (18’s the record), and the three older stills can get through 38,000 litres of wash an hour (48,000 litres for the newer still).
In a warehouse sit three neatly stencilled casks: one commemorating the Victorian plant reaching 1.5bn litres of spirit produced, in February 1998; next to it another, marking 2bn litres, achieved in 2008; then the third: 2.5bn litres, in December 2015.
By now you’re probably thinking that everything here is inescapably industrial, the focus exclusively on maximising yield, efficiency of process, producing as much as you can for as little cash as possible.
But then your tour might take you into the labs to meet the team who spend their time ensuring that North British keeps producing a spirit that is… North British. Oily, a bit solventy, with a sweet-and-sour edge that whispers of the sulphurous.
Here, for all the gadgetry and computer screens, the ledger recording spirit quality remains hand-written (although the calligraphy was admittedly a bit neater back in the day). What is more, the pride in the liquid is as unmistakable, unfakable and as passionate as that of any master distiller on Islay or Speyside.
So if you’re offered the chance to visit, don’t be put off by any preconceptions of it being boring or lacking in romance. Glamorous it ain’t, but it’s honest, and it’s real. Take the tour, and take it all in. It’s another world of Scotch whisky, but a vital one in every sense of the word.
09 May 2017
Silas slaps the sawn-off section of an oak trunk for emphasis. ‘Look closer,’ he says, and we do. ‘There are two types of year rings. The lighter is the spring growth. It’s the same every year, but it contains lots of little straws bringing water and nutrients up through the tree. That makes it brittle.
‘The summer and autumn growth gives a darker and denser ring. So you need a wood with a higher proportion of summer/autumn growth to build a strong boat.’
Silas is one of a team at Roskilde in Denmark using traditional tools to construct modern facsimiles of Viking ships and other boats from the pages of Nordic history – clinker-built craft, ships from the Faroes constructed without the aid of any written plans.
Look closer: There are parallels and contrasts between shipbuilding and cask construction
How did the Vikings do it? Take a good, straight oak log, split it into halves, then quarters, eighths, sixteenths. Then use an axe (broad, rather than bearded, since you ask) to plane the wood. An axe? It does the job – and it saves having to make another tool.
Silas’ sermon on boat-building is part of the launch of Highland Park Valkyrie and the single malt’s new ‘Viking Soul’ brand ethos. The idea is to draw parallels between boat and cask construction (Martin Markvardsen and Keith Moar from Highland Park are here too) – but, in the end, the differences are as fascinating as the similarities.
While the oak used for whisky casks is allowed to season for a year or two, the Vikings wanted their wood green for its flexibility. Heating it to 60C in the fire liquefies the lignin (the glue holding the grains together), allowing the wood to be twisted, grain-against-grain, moulded to the shape required, clamped and allowed to cool and set.
Green wood was also vital for the tannins that helped seal the vessel – the same tannins that whisky-makers are generally keen to prevent from finding their way into your glass.
The level of knowledge about these ancient techniques is astonishing. The museum at Roskilde holds the remains of five Viking ships, scuttled in the main channel approaching the town as a blockade to ward off invaders well over 800 years ago.
Clinker-built: The workshop at Roskilde aims to revive ancient techniques
By examining the fibres of the wood and checking the growth rings against an extensive database, historians can tell that the two smaller ships were made from oaks growing near Roskilde in about 1030. The biggest ship – a King’s Ship, 30m long, built for speed and to carry up to 75 warriors – has a keel constructed from a tree felled near Dublin in 1042. Dublin? Those Vikings got around.
Why scuttle such an impressive vessel? Because it was dying. After 30-40 years of service, the iron nails fixing the planks had been rusted by the salt waters, expanding and cracking the hull.
So how about trying to construct a Viking ship in the 21st century, using old methods and tools (but copper nails for greater longevity)? Sure. But it took Silas and the team at Roskilde four years and 50,000 man hours.
Compare this to the Viking Sagas, which talk casually of building a ship in a northern winter – six to eight months – and, even allowing for modern employment law and health and safety rules, something doesn’t quite add up.
It’s the same with the sails. The Vikings’ adoption of the sail – some time between 750 and 850 – revolutionised their ships, allowing them to cross the North Sea, discover Greenland, Newfoundland. No sails, no Vikings.
But these sails were big – 112sq m big – and each of their many strips was hand-woven on a loom. At Roskilde, the museum’s skilled weaver can complete one strip of 15cm in a day (5-6 hours’ work). How the hell did the Vikings do it? Again, it doesn’t add up.
Plane truth: The Viking axe was a multi-purpose tool, not the bloodthirsty weapon of myth
The answer is simple, says Silas. There are some skills that have just been lost – honed and passed down by word of mouth and practice of hand through the generations, then forgotten in the bustle and din of industrialisation. In the rush to move on, something vital has been mislaid.
Despite a weakness for nostalgia, our Darwinian view of evolution tends to assume that human beings are constantly finding better, faster, more efficient ways of doing things. From Olympic sprinters to computer chips, it’s all about progress.
Roskilde calls that view into question and, given the parallels being drawn with whisky, makes you ponder whether a multi-billion pound industry’s drive for increased efficiency, economies of scale and profitability has unwittingly led to something being lost along the way.
Barley, yeast, fermentation and distillation techniques, cask maturation. What can whisky’s written record teach us? Are some of the secrets of the past lost to us now – as with the Vikings – or can they be resurrected and revived, moulded into something fresh for the 21st century?
Might, progress, after all, turn out to be a two-way street?
03 May 2017
‘Try this.’ It’s upstairs in the Smuggler’s Cove. I’ve just finished rambling about rum and only broke into song once. Martin Cate clearly thinks I need a drink. I probably do. The liquid he gives me is funky, oily, weirdly resinous, pungent with the effects of age and dunder. It reeks of a wildness that you know spells danger and drags you ever further down a shady alley of depravity. We’ve all been there. It was bottled by Ellis & Co of London in 1936 and hails from Jamaica.
To explain, Smuggler’s Cove is the greatest rum bar I’ve been to. To enter it is to be absorbed into a darkened, jetsam-festooned cave (with added flotsam for balance). There’s an anchor above your head, a waterfall running down into the basement lagoon and shrines to masters of tiki past. Oh, there’s also close to 600 rums.
As I sit and chat with my new rum buddies, the bar is filling up. It’s 5pm. Clearly they like to start their drinking early in San Francisco. There’s vintage aloha shirts and work clothes. People sipping neat rum, punches and tiki drinks being mixed, a soundtrack of exotica.
Smuggler’s Cove: The bar stocks more than 600 different rums (photo: Kelly Puleio)
My friends are members of the Cove’s Rumbustion Society, all of whom have drunk a minimum of 100 rums (including some of Cate’s ‘Immortal’ bottlings). Some have topped the 400-rum mark. There are some who have gone 200 beyond that. Dedication. But not beyond the call of duty.
‘There’s something wrong with your hands.’ Cate’s back. ‘They seem to be empty. Name your poison.’ I drift across the Caribbean and go for agricole. ‘Vieux, or très vieux?’ I go for the former. No need to be greedy.
He reappears with two glasses. ‘You have two hands.’ If I keep up this pace, I’ll soon have four. One glass is a Dillon from the ’70s, the other a Neisson of similar vintage. If that’s vieux, who knows what très vieux means...?
The Dillon has a cool restraint to it, a tailored gent carrying a sword stick. The Neisson, on the other hand, starts off like a pungent denizen of the opium den he is walking past. It smells of earth and horse sweat, savoury and deep. In time, this flies off, like Sherlock Holmes throwing aside a grimy disguise. Rum does that to you. Below us the tiki drinks are still being rocked out. Someone is ordering his 608th rum.
Would I have got this from a whisky bar, I wonder. I mean, this is… fun. Here – and at all the great rum bars I’ve frequented – a balance has been struck between the geeks who sip on their rums and the outrageous concoctions being mixed. It allows everyone to feel welcome.
Whisky doesn’t do tiki. It would be absurd to reverse-engineer it into that space, but there is a lesson to be learned from places like this. One where passion and fun can combine contentedly. Where people learn as much as they want in a relaxed way.
The folks worshipping at the altar of tiki aren’t considered unsophisticated. They are part of the crew. They are here because they love rum – it’s just tonight that love is manifested in a different way to those who are taking their medicine neat. When was the last time you saw that in a whisky bar?
Whisky is getting better at talking about the primacy of flavour, but what of the fun? Any of us who have bellied up to the bar with a bottle or two know that it can be the spark which can ignite an evening, as well as the sinuous thread that pulls people together. There is fun within the bottle, but the spirit is released only when we forget what we have been told whisky should be. It’s like having a drink with a vicar, then discovering he’s a wizard with a pool cue.
The new whisky bars – think Black Rock or Swift – know the importance of fun as well as flavour, but to many the whisky bar is not a destination for enjoyment. Rather, it is a place for worship: bar as a church, not a club. If I was in a bar drinking a whisky from the ’30s or the ’70s I can pretty much guarantee that my neighbour wouldn’t be sipping on a Bobbie Burns or whisky punch. Y’see?
Rum is learning from whisky – single malt especially – but whisky can also learn from rum, and there’s no more important lesson than this.
25 April 2017
‘Whisky is for everyone’ is an easy line to throw into a conversation. It sits there alongside ‘it’s all about flavour’, ‘drink your whisky whatever way you want’, or ‘blends are as good as malts’ phrases, which drift ever downwards through repetition into cliché, paying lip disservice to their truths.
None of these phrases are wrong; they should act as the foundation of the way in which we all talk of, understand, and educate about whisky. They have to be more than words, though. They have to be backed up by deeds and belief.
The failure to act on them is why I wasn’t too surprised to read the account of a recent whisky show for ‘high rollers’. After all, the industry has been slowly, insidiously gravitating towards this grouping for a number of years. Perhaps the rest of us have tried to ignore it, or wished it might go away – or at least be balanced by a more open and welcoming attitude. That clearly hasn’t worked.
You cannot say: ‘Whisky is for everyone,’ if you corral it into an area which is only accessible for one grouping, and then praise them for being ‘an elite’.
Global spirit: Scotch whisky’s success is not down to an elite few
They already feel that they are the only ones worthy of this whisky because they have the money, the power and (it would seem) the right sort of genitals. You have just fed their already bloated sense of entitlement. They’re not interested, or passionate, or intrigued about whisky. It exists simply to further boost their egos. It is ‘theirs’ – ie it is not ours. That’s how elites operate.
‘Don’t get worked up Dave, it’s just a few rich guys.’ No. It’s more than that. If the universality of whisky is not key to education, then we have all failed. If its qualities aren’t actively demonstrated through talk, and action, laughter and fun, then this ‘elite’ will own the narrative, one which declares that ‘old is good’, ‘single malt is the best’, ‘price is a determinant of quality’, and ‘it is for us and not you’.
In their dreams they look down from their gated apartments at us and wave their tumblers. ‘You can aspire to this,’ they sneer, ‘but you can never afford it, or become one of us.’ It’s the Kardashianising of whisky. Scotch ceases to be a drink for everyone; it is an object for a specific group and it is tainted by association.
All of this runs counter to everything that Scotch should stand for. Whisky is democratic. It is a drink made from humble ingredients, which are elevated by way of skill, art, experience and intuition into a liquid that encapsulates place, mood, emotion and time. At its best, it speaks to your heart.
Throughout its history, Scotch has always managed to balance the seemingly contradictory notion that it is a drink of the farmer and the working class, and the drink of the gentleman in his club. It has done this because its message has never been: ‘I am a whisky drinker, therefore I am better than you.’ It is why it became a global spirit.
Reject elitism: Whisky is not a commodity reserved for rich men
There is an important difference to be drawn between Scotch as a signifier of success and becoming a drink for an ‘elite’. Everyone measures their personal success in different ways. Buying a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label, or Ballantine’s Finest is as much a reward for someone with little money as a rich person buying a bottle of King George V or Ballantine’s 30-year-old. Scotch succeeded because it never defined itself as a drink for a specific class, creed, or colour (sadly, it’s struggled to say it’s also for women, but that’s changing).
Now, however, we see brands, blenders, distillers forgetting that important point and positioning whisky as some form of lifestyle choice for this self-perpetuating, self-aggrandising clique.
Can you stop them drinking it? Of course not. That’s as absurd as their inferred argument that the rest of us are not worthy. What the whisky industry can do, however, is stop pandering to them, stop saying something to one group of people and something else to the rest of us.
‘How do you know when a politician is lying?’ goes the old joke. ‘When his lips move.’ If we cannot believe in what we are being told, if we suspect that brands themselves are looking down on the majority of existing and potential drinkers, then what hope is there? Whisky’s message must be consistent and egalitarian because it belongs to all of us.
Every year after this particular show, friends come up to me and say: ‘It’s hideous, but I hold my nose and attend… because… you know…’ Well, enough.
Have the courage to stand up for what you believe in.
19 April 2017
What drew me to Çannakale, an apparently unremarkable small city in the north-west of Turkey, was a fascination with conflicts ancient and modern: the nearby ruins of Troy, home to Hector and Paris, besieged by Achilles and Agamemnon; and the early 20th-century tragedy of Gallipoli, a byword for strategic military blundering and human slaughter.
On that solo overnight bus trip from Istanbul more than a quarter of a century ago, I got into a conversation with a local man from the European side of the Bosporus. It was he that raised the issue of politics, and relations with Greece – I would never have dared, having seen first-hand the blistering hatred with which each nationality viewed the other, fuelled by the conflict on Cyprus.
He – and others I met during my brief stay in the area – described a different world in terms of Greek-Turkish relations. Here, where the countries’ only land border runs, there was more than grudging respect; there was trade, there were familial connections, friendships, love.
United front: Germans stood atop the Berlin Wall days before it was torn down (photo: Lear 21 at English Wikipedia)
Çannakale came to mind earlier this week as I listened to a radio report from Presidio, a city in western Texas, located in what is known as Big Bend – a huge loop of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo river that divides the US from Mexico.
Presidio overlooks the river, and therefore the border, and the links between the area and its Mexican neighbours run deep – as in Çannakale – into family, business and culture. I guess it’s always harder to hate your neighbour when you can see into their eyes.
It might play well in other parts of the US, but President Trump’s election pledge to build a wall between the US and Mexico is greeted with a mix of horror, disbelief and derision here, as much for its geographical impracticality as for its sheer inhumanity. Technically difficult, if not impossible, an unnecessary division of people who don’t wish to be divided – and almost certainly doomed to fail in its central aim.
Where do the walls exist in Scotch whisky? In a multi-billion pound industry, where power has increasingly come to rest in the hands of supposedly soulless multi-national enterprises, you would think that the barriers would divide those involved in producing the stuff.
Counter-intuitively, that isn’t necessarily the case. Check out Angus MacRaild’s report of last week’s An Evening with the Blenders event at the Scotch Whisky Experience, which united luminaries from Diageo, Suntory, Irish Distillers, Edrington, William Grant, Glenmorangie, Nikka, Whyte and Mackay, and Triple Eight Distillery.
According to Richard Paterson, the good humour and open-hearted candour that characterised the event are a million miles away from the prevalent spirit when he took his first baby steps in the whisky industry half a century ago.
Sure, the respective sales forces of Diageo and Pernod Ricard might enjoy some ‘healthy competition’ when plying their wares in bars from Shanghai to San Francisco – but among the blenders the accent was on generosity, mutual respect and camaraderie.
Perversely, as relations have become warmer on the production side of whisky, they appear to have moved in the opposite direction among a noisy minority of the people who claim to love it. People who, as Dave Broom has previously noted, appear happier when trashing the modern whisky world than when celebrating it.
Two months after that 1989 trip to Turkey, I was at home watching in tears – like millions of others – as triumphant Germans ripped apart the Berlin Wall and joyfully reunited their divided city.
Back in 2017, would it be too much to ask for a little of that spirit to find its way into the online whisky discussions and social media streams – if not in the corridors of power in Washington and beyond?
12 April 2017
My window is open – and not just because the cat wants to go out. The sun isn’t just shining, but there’s some heat to it. It’s one of those spring days where things begin to pop.
It was even the same in Edinburgh last week. I shouldn’t really say ‘even Edinburgh’ as if the weather there is always rainy and dreich, but you never quite know what’s going to be flung at you there – warm sunshine or a switchblade of an east wind cleaving you in two.
Spring has sprung: Whisky can be adapted to all seasons, hot and cold
The change in weather usually acts as a cue for friends on Instagram to post images of lambs, daffodils and ice creams, and all that clichéd spring stuff. This year, though, I’ve noticed more glasses of pink wine being snapped, accompanied by the tag ‘first rosé of the year!’, as if you have to put pink wine away as soon as the leaves turn and the clocks go back. Quite why you can’t (or shouldn’t) drink rosé wine in winter I know not, but I can appreciate that sunshine seems to trigger a shift in people’s consciousness.
This would have made more sense in past times when our diet was fixed by the seasons. Spring represented a move away from the preserves, dried foods and roots of the winter and a new season of fresher, more vibrant flavours. Maybe that vestigial memory has been retained within us all.
I’m all for seasonal drinking – hey, I wrote four pieces about seasonal whisky last year – but there was something about these cries of ‘first rosé of the year!’ which nagged away at me and, no, it wasn’t the fact that people were enjoying themselves or that they were drinking pink wine – I love pink wine.
Rather, it was this underlying notion that, in this country at least, drinks are still rigidly compartmentalised. Each one has its correct place and time – and you can apply that to the class system if you wish. Accordingly, Champagne is for celebration, gin is for pre-dinner drinks, pink wine is to be consumed when the sun is out, but only between the spring and autumn equinoxes.
Where is Scotch whisky in this? The ‘Drambusters’ class at Tales on Tour raised this idea that whisky is fixed in terms of occasion, use, demographic and flavour (it’s only useful for adding smokiness to mixed drinks).
The time to crack open the Scotch, it would seem, runs in the opposite way to the time to open the first rosé. Whisky, still, is seen as a drink best-suited to the period between Samhain and Beltane, if you want to be all Celtic about it.
Whisky Highball: A simple, refreshing classic cocktail
‘Whisky: the drink of the dark,’ says many things; it speaks of indoors, of darkened rooms and firelight – it says neat. In fact, it says every image used in whisky advertising for many years. Yes, whisky plays in that field – and does it better than most drinks – but it can also play in the rest of the year.
The fact that this notion of Scotch as a year-round drink is still a tough sell to new consumers (in mature markets) shows how far we still have to go in terms of letting the light into those rooms, dragging people into the sunshine and pouring them a dram – but one with a different set of flavours, maybe at a different temperature, in a different glass, mixed with different ingredients. The conventions that seal Scotch up as the rosé is opened don’t need to be challenged, they need to be overturned.
Before consumers can be convinced, distillers have to be – and bartenders as well. It is time to make a concerted effort that says: ‘Lighten up guys.’ Look at occasion, flavour and serve; explore delicacy rather than heft, experiment with Highballs and, as the days lengthen, bring whisky with you out of the dark and into the light.
05 April 2017
Bemusement? Disbelief? After all, even the most optimistic prognosis from auction house Sotheby’s had suggested it might make roughly half that figure. How about annoyance? Anger? Envy?
To some whisky fans, Macallan is a sell-out. A once credible single malt ruined by some kind of Faustian pact to chase the big money, ‘iconic’ status and the kind of consumer that – to jaundiced eyes – knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
For these self-appointed cognoscenti, each Lalique-clad luxury launch is another harbinger of the passing of Scotch whisky’s golden age, to be greeted with a tut, a sigh and a dismissive shake of the head. How much? Seriously? For that?
In short, Macallan encapsulates all that’s wrong with the 21st-century Scotch whisky industry. Style over substance. This Tellytubby-esque swanky new distillery. That cynical, colour-oriented move into NAS to eke out stocks and keep the Asian markets happy.
In short, Macallan is the anti-Glenfarclas.
Like most views based on prejudice as much as reason, I find that this school of thought has some serious flaws, even though I may bemoan the use of the dead language of luxury to communicate the brand.
But, however great the disapproval of the whisky geek, that hasn’t stopped rival distillers from casting green-eyed glances in Macallan’s direction, or indeed from directly attempting to follow its example.
Just a few days before that Macallan auction in Hong Kong, a press release landed in my inbox trumpeting the luxury credentials of another Speyside malt, which shall remain nameless (this isn’t a witch hunt, and I could cite numerous other examples).
’Ow much?!: This Macallan single malt collection fetched nearly US$1m at auction
Distillery X offers, we’re told, ‘an exquisite range of handcrafted single malt whiskies, capturing the elegance of the 19th century’. Which is nice.
Just in case we didn’t get that, here’s the follow-up: ‘X is a boutique range of single malt whiskies, born in a time of true elegance, capturing a historic moment in time and the essence of the Victorian reign.’ Lovely.
And there’s more: ‘From its birth, X was the pinnacle of exquisite taste and the answer to Scotch enthusiasts that have a hunger for unbridled luxury.’ (True enough: I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve felt a hunger for unbridled luxury.)
I could go on. In fact, I will: the range of ‘precious’ whiskies was ‘realised in the dream of pioneer, <name of distillery founder>, who dedicated his life to creating single malt whisky that would be appreciated for generations and achieve cult status for their unparalleled finesse’.
Well, sort of. He built the distillery to supply the blenders, then had to sell it a few years later when the late Victorian whisky crash happened. Distillery X wasn’t bottled as an OB single malt until roughly a century after it was established, and long after its founder’s death.
The abundant use of cliché and taking of liberties with historical fact make this press release an easy target, a ready source of the kind of journalistic sneering that regularly attracts the #prfail hashtag on social media.
(By the way, I might suggest that some of my colleagues take a serious look at their own profession before aiming pot shots at PR people, but we can have that discussion on another occasion.)
We all have bad days at the office (only yesterday I missed a reference to one ‘Jonny Walker’ in one of our features, but thankfully an eagle-eyed colleague spotted and amended it). What concerns me here is not so much the writing as the thinking behind it.
I can’t become Lionel Messi by lacing up a pair of boots and putting on a replica Barcelona shirt; distillery X can’t just automatically become the new Macallan by simply adopting the brand’s cliché-ridden vocabulary and rewriting its own history in that image. Particularly when it isn’t even among the world’s top 50 best-selling single malts.
Love it or loathe it, but Macallan has earned its right to – borrowing another hideous piece of marketing jargon – ‘inhabit the luxury space’ by first building an unequalled reputation as the single malt for collectors and (yes, that word) investors.
As one seasoned observer of the whisky scene puts it: ‘Macallan will always fall back on the glorious bottlings of old. You need credibility in your sector, I think, before you play the luxury game. Otherwise you are Dalmore.’ Ouch.
Instead, be distinctive, be individual. Don’t tell me that you’re great – tell me why you’re great. Better to explore quirkiness, like Ardbeg, no-nonsense credibility, like Glenfarclas, or gentle self-deprecation, like Laphroaig.
Above all, be yourself – not an unmerited facsimile of who you want to be.
29 March 2017
That old gag about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery popped into my head the other day when I spotted the latest new Cognac release from Martell. Let’s just say the concept and packaging are eerily familiar to anyone well-versed in the world of single malt Scotch whisky.
Martell VS Single Distillery is an assemblage of eaux-de-vie all made in the same distillery, a departure for a product that is more typically the ultimate blend, using spirit from a multiplicity of sources – vineyards, distilleries, warehouses.
Why do this? Well, while Cognac is a big seller in the US – it’s the largest market in the world in volume terms, although China is more lucrative – single malt Scotch is on fire right now Stateside.
Incidentally, if Martell has been taking marketing lessons on provenance from stablemate The Glenlivet (both are owned by Pernod Ricard), the brand has also been indulging in a little Macallan-esque press release bingo in the missive that accompanies the launch.
Three uses of the word ‘iconic’, two mentions of ‘disrupting’ the category, namechecks for ‘craft’, ‘luxury’ and ‘innovative’ – plus the delightfully ugly phrase ‘pushing the boundaries of the competitive landscape’. Lovely stuff. Utterly meaningless, but lovely stuff.
Eerily familiar: Martell VS Single Distillery aims to exploit the single malt zeitgeist
Smartly packaged and aping the consumer-friendly cues of single malt, it’s a little surprising to see Martell VS Single Distillery priced at US$34.99 a bottle – less than the core Martell VS bottling and closer in price to standard blended Scotch than the single malts to which it pays homage.
But then, for all its size, the Cognac market in the US remains heavily skewed to the cheapest VS price tier – even VSOP struggles to gain much traction here – leaving Martell VS Single Distillery as an opportunistic attempt to tap into a hot trend, rather than an attempt to drive the Cognac category upmarket.
It’s also part of a broader movement that extends across the whisky category. As single malt continues to expand, its growth is modifying the language used to talk about blended (and blended malt) Scotch products.
Last year’s launch of Chivas Regal Ultis – the brand’s first venture into blended malt – was rich with descriptions of the roles played by the five single malts that are its constituents. As was the fanfare surrounding the debut of Royal Salute Union of the Crowns a few weeks earlier.
Meanwhile, the publicity accompanying the recent relaunch of Johnnie Walker Platinum Label as Johnnie Walker Aged 18 Years ticked off four malts (and alluded to more) in master blender Jim Beveridge’s description of its creation – even though the liquid remains unaltered.
Yes, blends continue to dominate Scotch whisky, accounting for more than 90% of export volumes last year; but single malts brought in more than 25% of export revenues, breaking through the £1bn mark for the first time.
And, in the ways that we talk about and communicate Scotch whisky, their contribution is becoming stronger still, with an impact and influence that is felt in blends and beyond – even, now, into the world of Cognac too.
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