Nov 262015
 

Very few in the published whisky world speak with such a balance of knowledge and conviction as Dominic_RoskrowDominic Roskrow.  It most often tends to be an either/or scenario of very informed individuals who elect not to question the status quo, or those that speak out with vitriol but lack the logic and reasoning to table bulletproof arguments.  And unfortunately when one does find someone that manages to straddle both tendencies they almost always have their initial say, then refrain from subsequent commentary.  In short; making a case and refusing to support the argument.  We’ve seen this time and again in this age of internet access.

I think maybe that’s why I find Dominic so refreshing.  He wears his heart on his sleeve, has years and years of experience from which he’s drawn his own conclusions and he isn’t afraid to ‘go to the mattresses’ when the situation dictates.  He’s built a bedrock of knowledge throughout the years and uses his spheres of influence to wield words that actually have staying power and heft.  His will be a voice that leaves a mark on the scene for years to come.

A journalist by trade, Dom’s always shown a flinty edge.  His candor shone through in our email exchanges even before he had the following questions in hand, by way of his response when I suggested there would be heavy-hitting questions thrown his way.  His reply?  “I like tough questions and won’t duck.  I’m a journalist after all, and hope to answer as people would answer me.”  Love it.  This is exactly what the big whisky machine needs more of.  As he’s said before, his definition of journalism is “someone writing something that someone somewhere doesn’t want written or someone else to read”.  I think you’ll find below he definitely lives this credo.

Chances are if you’re a whisky lover your bookshelves already boast titles with Dom’s name on the spine, and if they don’t let me suggest that “The World’s Best Whiskies” is a ‘must own’.

Dom BookWith no further preamble, let’s pour a dram and settle in for a bit of discussion…

 

All Things Whisky:  You’re a bit of a maverick – recognized for wearing your heart on your sleeve – so we’re going to pull no punches and tackle a lot of tough industry questions.  Hope you’re ok with rolling up the sleeves and wading in…

Whisky is hot right now.  It has been for years and hasn’t really shown a decline in demand yet.  In spite of global economics suggesting that this should be a time of belt-cinching, whisky seems to be just as feverishly sought out as at any time over the last couple of years.  Distilleries have increased production, altered maturation times and most importantly changed their marketing trajectory away from ‘older is better’ and more toward ‘let your palate decide and forget the numbers’.  In short, it seems a move towards younger whisky, while the brands push to fill warehouses with maturing stocks.  Do you think there’s a possibility we’re building up to another bust as we speak?

Dominic Roskrow:  The short answer to that is yes, I think it’s possible. I was talking to someone the other day who was ominously talking about a glut of unwanted 10 year old Scottish single malt a decade or so from now.

Firstly I would take issue with your statement that whisky ‘hasn’t really shown a decline in demand yet.’ Some of the figures for Scotch whisky haven’t been too clever recently, and some of the territories that were meant to have the greatest potential for whisky have stalled. But the picture is a confusing one. The bigger producers are introducing new markets to quality blended whisky rather than single malts and there are still big opportunities for them in South America, parts of Asia, and Eastern Europe. And who knows about Africa? There is a rapidly emerging middle class across the continent, and oil, so the potential is huge.

My view is there will be no general bust, but there will be a big squeeze, and the victims of it will be those who are compromising on quality and are no longer offering a value for money product. The likes of Diageo and Pernod Ricard will be fine, because in my view they haven’t dumbed down when it comes to quality. And at the other end of the scale we have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to small ‘New World’ producers, and many of them will thrive at a more modest level. but there will inevitably be a fall out. Companies putting out Scottish single malts that are just not good enough will struggle, because whisky drinkers are noticing that some of the whisky they’re drinking isn’t fit for purpose – unless that purpose is to provide an over-packaged under-firing malt as a gift in travel retail. I was doing some research in to a distillery the other day and one book was saying that the output was well below capacity because the distillery insisted on a  lengthy fermentation time. But this year’s Malt Yearbook reports that the same distillery is now producing at capacity. There is only one way that could have been achieved – and it’s not good news. There will also be scores of victims among the so-called craft distillers, too, especially in America, because many of them are producing appalling spirit. This isn’t subjective – it’s not a case of some like roast chicken, some like deep fried chicken. It’s about serving up raw chicken and it’s just wrong.

 

ATW:  There is no greater hot button topic for the current ‘whisky generation’ than the discussions surrounding No Age-Statement whiskies.  This is firmly tied to the perceived ‘value for outlay’ debate and how our quest for information helps determine our buying habits.  Quite telling is the fact that there seems to be no middle ground on this one.  How do you feel about the concept of NAS whisky as it now stands and what is your prediction on the path forward for the industry?

DR:  I have absolutely no problems with Non Age Statement whisky per se. In fact, as someone who specialises in what I call ‘New World Whisky’ I find that Non Age Statement whisky depends to be the norm. I’ll come back to this in a bit. What you’re really asking about is the move in Scotland towards NAS. It’s not that new and some of my favourites whiskies don’t have age statements – various Ardbegs, Ardmores, Glen Gariochs and Highland Parks, Talisker 58 North, Glenmorangie Signet, Dewar’s Signature… I could go on. I think what is upsetting people  is the way some Scotch producers are clearly putting under-cooked and reedy spirit aged considerably less than the 10 or 12 years old and asking drinkers to pay more for it. And they don’t like being asked to swallow a lot of PR crap about improved casks and whisky makers having the freedom of no age constraint to make special malts for Travel Retail exclusives and the like. Go and listen to the absolute drivel the people in airports are telling overseas tourists about some over-packaged 40% seven year old malt priced £70 or £80.

The problem here is that there is no consistent message or story. You can’t tell people that it takes 12 years to make a quality Scottish single malt one minute, and then tell them that age doesn’t matter the next. My view is that very few whiskies can live with Scottish single malts above 10 years of age, but all bets are off at younger ages. The Swedes, Australians, Taiwanese, Indians and English to name but a few can trounce young Scotch whisky, and are doing so in awards across the world. This isn’t a conspiracy and it’s no good Scotland’s whisky industry burying its collective head and trying to shoot the messengers who raise such issues. Other countries are rightly drawing attention to different maturation times in their territories, and the role of climate, temperature extremes, type of oak and even wood used for maturation, the size of cask,  and so on. There are fabulous NAS statements being launched from Hobart to Helsinki, and I don’t think young Scottish whiskies can match them.

 

ATW:  That question sort of leads into asking if there is there still value (for money) to be found in whisky.  Which brands or expressions do you have no qualms about standing behind unequivocally, if there is such a thing?

DR:  There are scores of world whiskies that I would stand by. The whiskies of Zuidam, Distillerie Warenghem, St Georges, Penderyn, Mackmyra, Amrut, Kavalan. A lot of standard bourbons. I’d like to be unequivocal about a lot of Irish whiskey but it has become very expensive, and so has Australian whisky, due to demand and distance.

But I guess you’re really talking about Scotch. I think Diageo do a  good job with NAS whiskies – Talisker Storm and Cardhu Amber Rock are good. Ardmore Port Wood Finish. I don’t mind Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve either.

 

ATW:  In tying this back to a piece here on this site (“Sins of Omission”) wherein I changed tacks on approaching the fight against NAS, do you think it’s more effective for individuals who are in opposition to outright boycott or blacklist them, or is it more effective to speak out about them and use all social media platforms as means to express discontent?

DR:  As I said, I’m not at war with NAS whiskies, and think each should be judged individually and on its merit, or lack of it. What I believe we should be fighting is the utter nonsense about young whisky being best suited as an entry level malt for an untrained palate so the view of experienced malt drinkers is irrelevant. Raw chicken is raw chicken, and over-priced raw chicken is even more indefensible – end of story. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I think we should also challenge those who claim to be offering an objective defence of bad whiskies but are merely acting as an extended arm of the company’s marketing department and are regurgitating PR waffle either because they don’t know what they’re talking about or because they want to continue to get free supplies of whisky. Actually, the irony is that I’m not sure many people are listening anyway. I’d love to know how many bottles of whisky are sold on the back of a glowing review by someone no-one’s ever heard of.

 

ATW:  Whisky writer Ian Buxton alluded to a problem that is tacitly tied to the NAS trend when he spoke of the rising costs of Scotch whisky.  In his words:   “The dirty little secret of the Scotch industry is they’ve become addicted to high prices, but they’ve run out of old whisky”.  Do you see a time when older whiskies will once again be more widely available and affordable?  From what you’ve seen is the industry taking the right steps to avoid putting themselves in this compromised position again?

DR:  Ian’s right, though, he’s being a little bit melodramatic.  I’m not so sure it’s a secret or an addiction.

What it is is the economics of capitalism in action. Demand is outstripping supply and it would be a poor and unsustainable business model not to adjust price accordingly. As a Socialist, I am always amused by people who are surprised and angered when capitalists take advantage of economics to make profit. Greed is good, and all that. Let’s go back to the NAS argument. when Bowmore released its Mizunara cask malt at £650 there were those who argued that this was ‘the NAS rip off in full flow.’ But that was an amazing whisky and it barely touched the shelf such was the demand for it. If anything it was under-priced. So normal folk like us can’t afford it. I can’t afford a Ferrari either. Get over it.

To your question. Available, yes, affordable no. It’s highly unlikely that prices will fall for super premium whisky. And at the other extreme, you could argue that the rise in standard Scottish malts is long overdue and they’re actually where they should be. Single malts take years to make and shouldn’t be trying to compete with standard vodka. It is ridiculous economics to discount single malt whisky aat this time of the year, when the demand is at its highest, and it’s quite wrong that a quality blend such as Famous Grouse is on sale for £15 – the same price as Smirnoff.

As for the last bit of your question, is the industry really compromised? it’s selling lots of whisky at higher prices, and has put up the price of its rarest stock by eye-watering amounts. I imagine a lot of producers are quite happy right now. The real question is whether they will get too greedy and lose the many drinkers who currently treat a bottle of single malt as an affordable luxury.

Business Dom

ATW:  The shelves at our favorite spirit sellers have groaned under the weight of seemingly endless malts branded with clever ideas and graphics, Gaelic names and questionable historical ties.  There is a growing cynicism in the more outspoken contingent of the ‘whisky geek’ community to this approach.  In your opinion how does the industry make it original again?  How do they win back the disillusioned who may have jumped ship to other brands and styles?

DR:  Firstly the ‘whisky geek’ community is vociferous but tiny. As with so much of social media, the noisiest and nastiest like to think they’re leading from the front and bravely reflecting the views of the everyday drinker, but they’re not. I have no time for people who set themselves up as in some way superior to the rest of us. You can’t argue that demand is outstripping supply, prices are rising exponentially and old whisky is hard to find and then talk of any mass movement to jump ship to other brands and styles. Also I’m not sure where they would jump to. Let’s put this in perspective – most Scottish single malt whisky aged to a sufficient age is excellent, is superior to most other spirits categories, has a unique provenance and heritage that few other alcoholic drinks can match, and comes from a country that exudes friendliness, hospitality and beauty – and therefore continues to push the right consumer buttons.

 

ATW:  I’ve had some interesting conversations of late with very knowledgeable individuals who question the modern relevance of an organization like the Malt Maniacs.  The discussions ranged from whether or not ‘industry’ people should be allowed to partake as members, Ralfy’s short tenure and the long term viability of the organization that now seems devoid of all the enlightening e-pistles and such of the early days.  In your opinion do the Maniacs still hold sway?  Is there value in such a conclave of individuals, whether it’s them or others?

DR:  Haha, I was trying to avoid naming names! The Malt Maniacs have never embraced or courted me, or shown me any respect and I in turn have ignored them. I never read what they write and know virtually nothing about them. I heard something about a split because they accepted an invite to go to one of Diageo’s properties to enjoy the company’s hospitality. I didn’t even know you could join them, I thought you had to be appointed. I have no issue with them, but if they ever thought they were important or ‘held sway’ then they were deluded. I suspect they have got themselves in to the same naval-gazing mess that the Campaign for Real Ale did, getting involved with ultimately pointless arguments about what they stand for and what their values are.

As for whether there is any value in a group like that, no of course not. Why would we want a group of individuals acting like Roman gods, sitting up on high and passing down nuggets of wisdom to us grateful mortals, and advice on which elixir of the gods it’s okay to like? For me whisky is a leveller, it’s not about elitism. It is the people’s drink, to be shared, discussed and enjoyed.  I often say that people in a position like me are no more gifted than anyone else, we just get to practice more. Put me in a shed with a guitar for 10 years and I’d be a very good guitarist, but I wouldn’t be Jimi Hendrix. I don’t think the Malt Maniacs are Jimi Hendrix, it’s just that they may think they are.

 

ATW:  You’ve come out in defense of bloggers before, in one of the most spirited pieces I’ve ever read (here).  Not only in defence of bloggers, I might add, but directly critical of some of the ‘professional’ whisky writers.  Do you still feel the same way you did when that post was written?  How have bloggers’ roles, responsibilities and behaviours evolved over the years?

DR:  To a large extent, I do, yes. I think most whisky writers have no right to call rank over bloggers, and I think the pros and cons for both sets of commentators are the same.  As I’ve already said, I don’t think any of us have the general right to claim superiority over anyone else. That said, I believe that there should be transparency about the relationship between any commentator and the whisky companies. I have often said that as soon as we accept free whisky, free dinners, free accommodation and then write nice things about the whisky we drunk, we have lost all right to call ourselves journalists and are effectively an extension of the marketing division of the whisky company in question. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as everyone knows and accepts that relationship. But there has been some blurring of the divisions. you can’t work for a whisky company and then claim to blog independently. I think bloggers and writers should be honest about how they’re making their money. I once asked a blogger to write up 20 whiskies for a book project I was doing. He did eight of them. When I asked him for the rest, he said he couldn’t because he was employed by a whisky company who prevented him from writing about rivals. It turns out the eight whimsies he wrote about belonged to his new employer.  That’s just plain wrong.

 

ATW:  A lot of criticism has been leveled at ‘industry periphery’ folks (i.e. bloggers, tweeters, etc) with questionable motives.  Labels like ‘apologists’, ‘sycophants’ and ‘shills’ have been bandied about with frequency.  This argument has almost always rested on the assumption that these individuals were in it for some sort of tangible personal gain, such as free whisky or event invites.  Do you see this as the problem it was once made out to be?  Has irreparable damage been done, wherein the industry would take less stock of the words of the ‘little people’?

DR:  I think I’ve answered this. I think it’s worse now. Yes irreparable damage has been done but it’s been done by both bloggers and established whisky writers. The worst example of it is on line tasting events. I was taught to sip and savour malt whisky, slowly and considerately. Online tastings are the whisky equivalent to speed dating, populated by people sycophantically repeating the press release which arrived with the free samples. That and the tendency to write utter nonsense (‘like drinking a florists’, ‘with the taste of the worn carpet at my granny’s old people’s home – good golly).

 

ATW:  With Mark Reynier’s Waterford Distillery about to make waves in Ireland, much as he was able to do with Bruichladdich in Scotland, do you foresee a future where Ireland gains a little more of a competitive edge against Scotland’s whisky dominance?

DR:  Oh it’s not just Mark Reynier. There are new distilleries springing up all over Ireland, Alex Chasko at Teeling and The Irishman’s Bernard Walsh are making some fabulous whiskeys, Irish Distillers has given a new lease of life to Irish pot still whiskey, which at its very best is up there with even the finest Scotch. Ireland is well and truly back in the game, is exuding confidence, and will deliver scores of wonderful whiskeys within a decade.

 

ATW:  Which other distilleries, brands or styles are you excited about going forward?

DR:  I love what is coming out of Sweden – Spirit of Hven, Box and the moments series from Mackmyra and Australia – Lark, Overeem and the wonderfully wacky independent bottlings from Heartwood. All the New World ones mentioned earlier, too. The new Naarangi release from Amrut is a beauty and in contention to be World Single Malt of the Year in my Wizards of Whisky Awards, which we’re currently in the process of judging. Watch the Alpine region, too. These guys have a long history of distilling but have only just successfully adjusted to the demands of malt production. I’m tasting some great whisky often aged just four or five years. I still love my Islay whiskies, and think Bowmore has released some stunning whiskies in  the last couple of years. I’m a big fan of Balvenie at the moment, too. But it changes a lot.

 

ATW:  A recent run-in between Compass Box and the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) regarding acceptable and ‘legal’ degrees of transparency rankled a lot of whisky lovers around the world.  Assuming you’ve been abreast of the discussions, do you think enough is being done at the level of the SWA and higher (British government??) to adapt to current public opinion?  Or are the loudest dissenters still a small enough faction to warrant an approach such as ‘ignore them, they’ll go away’?

DR:  To be honest I know nothing about this. Nothing at all. That’s bad, isn’t it? But in my defence I have my hands full with a book project and my work elsewhere away from Scotch. And ever since my illness I’ve made a point of turning off and tuning out after a day’s work and am off the pace with a lot of what is going on in Scotland  or with Scotch whisky. What i would say in general about the Scotch Whisky Association is that it was built as a fortress to defend Scotch whisky and it performs its role very well. The rules it has work for Scotch, and I believe it shouldn’t fix what’s not broken. I’m all for progress and innovation, but I don’t believe that the SWA should compromise on its standards or adapt to anyone.

 

ATW:  Another great and recent controversy has arisen with Jim Murray’s award to Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye of ‘World Whisky Of The Year’.  I believe you and Jim have a rather friendly relationship, so we’ll tread lightly here, but how do you weigh in on this?  Is it fair to question his integrity in awarding a whisky such as this with top honours?  And personally – whether you’ve tasted it or not – do you think the selection merits questioning?

DR:  We have a cordial relationship, and I am quoted on his Bible as saying that he is the best whisky writer in the world, and I think he is. Professionally I respect his honesty and frankness and I have stayed at his home for a few days and watched him work. He is extremely thorough and gifted. In my mind, he is a whisky Jimi Hendrix.

But Jim is highly opinionated, seemingly arrogant, blunt to the point of being rude, and he can be incredibly undiplomatic and insensitive, so he has made enemies.

Funnily enough, he contacted me over the integrity issue, and comments which appeared in the national press last week. I have a very clear view on this: to question a writer’s integrity and suggest that award selections were made for anything but altruistic reasons is bordering on libellous and is utterly and totally indefensible. Such comments were designed to damage Jim’s reputation. I think there are many who resent and envy Jim’s revered status among many whisky drinkers.

Okay, so once again Jim has produced a top five list with no Scotch on it. What exactly is the criticism of this list? Which one of the whiskies he has chosen isn’t excellent, including the Crown Royal one? And please name the Scotch whisky that should have made that top five but didn’t.

Of course the Scotch whisky industry is going to be affronted, particularly after all the criticism made against it this year as outlined throughout this interview. But Jim is entitled to his view, he knows more about the subject than virtually anyone I know, and he has a reputation to maintain. He’s hardly going to sacrifice it by compromising his integrity, is he? I think the people suggesting otherwise are gutless and contemptible.

 

ATW:  As a follow-up, is this a matter of ‘the ends justifying the means’ if Jim’s goal is to elevate Canadian whisky to the level of the public’s eye?  If so, is this an approach that you can support?

DR:  Jim has championed whisky from every part of the world for years. I rarely go to a distillery anywhere in the world that he hasn’t visited first. t have every copy of his Whisky Bible and he was scoring Canadian whisky in the mid 90s from the start. More than that, Canada has one of the most insular whisky industries on the planet and shows very little interest in growing its reputation worldwide. I think Jim tasted a great whisky, scored it highest, and made it his whisky of the year. That’s it. I doubt it even crossed his mind that it was Canadian and that the award would help boost Canadian whisky in general. Canada can make great whisky is hardly a news story is it?

 

ATW:  I recall hearing/reading not too long ago that you had a couple of ventures on the horizon, be they books or whatnot.  Can you share what comes next for Dom Roskrow?

DR:  I am three quarters the way through writing a book for publication in America and Asia next September, and the publishers hope to get a European and Australasian distributor in early 2016. I also heard last night that contracts are being drawn up for another book project with Gavin Smith for January, but that’s not confirmed. And there is another big project in the pipeline that will mean major changes for me. It’s very much under wraps right now but it’s big and if it goes ahead it will mean me returning to full time employment. Sorry to be so vague but it’s out of my control.

 

ATW:  And finally…given an open platform (right here and now), what message would you most like to see taken to heart by 1) whisky lovers and 2) the industry as a whole?

DR:  All I’d like to say is that all of us are part of a very big family and we have lots of different interests. there are millions of whisky drinkers who drink standard blends and adore them. And at the other end we are seeing regionalised whiskies adapted for the palates of the drinkers in the country that produces them. Whisky is a wonderful and varied spirit which most of the time hits the mark. We should be careful not to over-focus on the bits of it which are not as good as we might like. There may be issues within the world of whisky, but we are still enjoying the most exciting, dynamic and diverse spirit on the planet. Not only that, wherever I go I meet great people. Perhaps we pay too much attention to the internet and online commentary, and not enough time to the people who make it and the folk we meet when we share it. There’s a lot of wonderful whisky out there. Let’s celebrate that.

Golly that sounds glib. You can tell that the All Blacks are world champions and Leicester City are top of the league, can’t you?

Thanks, Dom.  Appreciate your taking the time out to answer these.

 

 – ATW

 Posted by at 1:42 pm
Jun 302015
 

From bastardized binary to howling at the moon…from storming the Canadian border to life inside the biosphere, I can hardly think of a musician, aside from Clutch’s Neil Fallon, who can suck me in with just a few words and have me hanging on every syllable.

For those maybe not so ‘in-the-know’ Neil is something of a furious tentshow revivalist preacher meets blues-shouting prophet and wordslinger.  Much like Tom Waits, the only vaguely comparable performer I can think of, Neil casts a rather lengthy shadow across the face of modern music.  His is a voice to last the ages.

As I write this, I’ve been a Clutch fan for going on two decades (yeah, friends…we’re getting up there, aren’t we?), and thankfully the music just keeps getting better and better.  Each new album release date is a day I mark on the calendar and await with glee.

And how could I not love a man who has mentioned the names of one of my daughters and my wife in the lyrics of his songs (Weezy and Isabella)?

This interview came about by chance.  A wee while back I saw a link Neil posted on Twitter to a short clip with Scottish actor, Brian Cox, pronouncing Lagavulin.  I replied asking Neil if he was a Scotch drinker, and a fan of Lagavulin in particular.  “To a fault, sir,” was his reply.  We shared a few messages afterwards in which he graciously agreed to share a little time discussing whisky, music and…well…wherever else the conversation leads.

So…let’s see where it goes then…

neil-fallon

Photo by David Rippeto, www.davidrippeto.com

 

All Things Whisky:  First things first.  Exceptional taste aside, why Lagavulin?

Neil Fallon:  I have a hazy recollection of first being introduced to Islay malt at a bar in Scotland some years ago.  When I got back to the U.S., Lagavulin was the most readily available and I’ve been a fan ever since.

 

ATW:  For a lot of people a drink as bold as Lagavulin is something of an acquired taste.  Is this what  you cut your teeth on or was there a bit of a ‘ramping up’ to get to where you were appreciating the hefty smoke and earthy notes of Islay whisky?

NF:  Prior to going to Scotland with the band, my knowledge of Scotch was little more than Dewar’s straight up, Dewar’s on the rocks, or Dewar’s and soda.  That’s what my grandpa drank and I think I associate it with some fond memories.  I wish I could remember the name of the bar that opened up the single malt rabbit hole.  There was a maelstrom of single malts flying around for the better part of an evening.  I hope you’ll understand my inability to recall the details of that particular night.  I do remember that it was an epiphany, though.  The range of tastes were remarkable and of all of those, it was the Islay that really got me.  It was a cold night and it tasted like a seaside bonfire.

 

ATW:  Can you share a couple other favorite distilleries or particular whiskies (Scotch, bourbon, rye, what-have-you)?

NF:  A friend of mine Chis Hadnagy (author of  “Social Engineering – That Art of Human Hacking” and someone you should interview) introduced me to an amazing 25 y.o. Speyside, Glen Deveron.  I’m not a big fan of bourbon or rye.

 

ATW:  Can you recall what got you into whisky, or which dram was your first?  Was it a positive experience at the time?

NF:  It was probably at a Christmas party in the 1970’s when I accidentally helped myself to some of my grandfather’s Dewar’s.  Heavily diluted, of course.

 

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ATW:  Does a good whisky ever really fit into life on the road, or is it more of a downtime sort of drink when at home and in between road jaunts?

NF:  I suppose it’s for the best that most single malts are expensive.  The cost prohibitiveness discourages it from becoming a regular on the band’s rider.  For the better part of the 90’s I drank myself silly with Jack Daniels.  I can’t stand the stuff now.  Gives me hives.  No joke.  A single  proper malt demands to be sipped and not lipped in some absurd back stage circus.  I can’t do that anymore.  The body doesn’t process overindulgence like it used to.

 

ATW:  Speaking of home… you’re a family man now, I believe.  How does this affect your writing cycles?  I have two daughters at home, and know firsthand how hard it is sometimes to pick up a guitar.  Do you have to block off time for writing and playing or does your creativity still have a sort of natural flow to it?

NF:  Prior to parenthood, I thought that having a kid would be the death knell of the creative life.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  The process of raising a child and having to answer countless questions about the world we live in has been a real boon.  Yes, it is harder to find time to dedicate to writing.  I have to do that between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. when my son is at school.  But the structure is for the best.  An open ended deadline is a lazy man’s best friend. I used to write into the wee hours of the night, but that just doesn’t work any more.  There’s no negotiating with a 5 year old.

 

ATW:  I saw an interview on youtube not long ago, posted by kidsinterviewbands.com.  In true Southern gentleman style, you volleyed questions and answers with the young lady interviewer with class and tact.  As a fan, it was a pleasure to see such a refreshingly down-to-earth approach and lack of pretention.  Is something like this a bit of a welcome respite from what I imagine is the tedium of a rather formulaic interview process?

NF:  I’ve done countless interviews with black clad metal journalists that pride themselves on being “extreme.”  But I’ll tell ya, that interview had me squirming.  I think I said “Ummmmmm…” more times in that interview than all others combined.
Kids aren’t impressed or trying to be anything that they’re not and I think that was what was so refreshing about that  particular interview.

 

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ATW:  From the first Clutch concert I attended in 1995 (opening for Marilyn Manson at the New York Theater in Vancouver) to the most recent (headlining here in Calgary at Flames Central) for Earth Rocker, it is interesting to note that the energy has remained consistently high throughout the years, but that the vibe has shifted from one of a more intense and brooding nature to one of a more crowd-bouncing shout-along.  Is this simply natural progression or conscious evolution?

NF:  It’s a natural progression.  We’ve never premeditated our music.  It’s a simple process of trying to write music that we enjoy playing.  Having said that, a good deal of our early stuff isn’t exactly us anymore.  There’s a lot of anger in the early work and frankly, I’m not an angry person. I’d rather risk disillusioning some folks while being honest than keep them satisfied by jumping through the same hoops.  There’s some bands out there that have been “angry” for 25 plus years.  That just has to be a drag.

 

ATW:  It’s arguable that no one in contemporary music is writing lyrics with as much wordplay, far-reaching and pertinent references and relevant cultural observation (albeit often quite cryptically) than yourself.  I won’t ask the ‘inspiration’ question, but I will ask if there are a couple of songs you can reflect back on now (in all modesty) and say ‘fuck, that was brilliant bit of writing’?

NF:  Ha.. that’s hard for me to answer without sounding like a jerk.  There’s always something I wish I had done better or had not done at all.  But I can think of two songs that are dear to me in that I think they represent important shifts in the band’s sound.  “Big News” was a bit of a watershed moment.  After that song, I felt it was much easier to write songs that had a lot more fun and humor in them.  The other song would be “The Regulator.”  That song opened up the door to a lot of more blues elements for us.   It was also one of those fortunate moments where the lyrics seemed to match the mood of the music quite well.

 

ATW:  Over the last couple of years (at least in the circles I travel) Clutch has become much more of a household name, with many immediately referencing a pivotal scene from the AMC’s The Walking Dead.  This particular scene could not have been more perfectly set, with possibly the band’s most atmospheric tune thus far, The Regulator, perfectly capturing the emotion.  How did your involvement with The Walking Dead come about?  Did you, as a band have direct say in green-lighting the use of the song?  Are you a fan of the series?  The genre?

NF:  I was a fan of the show before I got the call that they wanted to use “The Regulator.”  I was stoked, to say the least.  It came about by our publicist shopping the song around.  These days TV shows and video games are just as important as terrestrial radio, if not more so.

 

ATW:  Alright.  Time for some cold, hard honesty.  I gotta ask a question (mostly because a bunch of my mates begged me to) even though I’m sure it’s been beaten to death already.  All the guys wanna know…how does the beard go down with the ladies?  Or at the very least…with the one lady that matters most to you?

NF:  Heh.  I’ve never asked.  But I will say this…  I’d love to lop the damn thing off, but I’m afraid of what I might find underneath.

 

ATW:  Let’s go back to one or two about the malts to close out, if you don’t mind…Imagine, if you will, you’re sitting down one eve to relax over a good book and an even better whisky.  What are they?

NF:  I like Glenkinchie 12.  I think poetry is easier to handle if booze is involved.  With that in mind, I would go for Dylan Thomas or W.H. Auden.

 

ATW:  Finally…how about a good whisky and album pairing?

NF:  I’ve never been too much of  a Bruce Springsteen fan, but I’ve recently discovered the melancholy brilliance of “Nebraska.”  So if we’re in the mood to brood… let’s go Islay.  I tried Bowmore’s White Sands recently.  That would go well with an album as dark as “Nebraska.”

 

ATW:  Sincere thanks, Neil, for taking the time.  Perhaps next time through town you’ll have a chance to come out for a few drams of something brilliant, old and rare.   I’m sure we can find a couple on the shelves that will suit a Southern gent.  Slainte.

NF:  Again, apologies for taking so long to get this to you.  Slainte.

Neil

Image by Dirk Behlau, www.thepixeleye.com

Clutch releases ‘Psychic Warfare’ this September.  Mark the calendar.  And if you don’t already own it…buy ‘Blast Tyrant’ while you’re there.  You’ll thank me.

 

– Words:  Curt and Neil

– Photos:  Curt (except as noted)

 Posted by at 8:18 am
Mar 312015
 

Grab a spoon.  Let’s start stirring it up again.

There has been a marked increase in dissent against the ever-growing trend towards Non Age Stated whiskies.  We’ve been diligently speaking out against it here on ATW (here, here, here and here ad nauseum), but so have several others in their own capacity.  Dom Roskrow has recently written two pieces on this (here and here).  Serge, on Whiskyfun, has been taking shot after shot at NAS malts and blends in many of his recent reviews, and others such as The Malt Desk have spoken out in recent days as well.  Let’s not forget the plethora of brilliant commentary by readers here on the site and beneath many of the other articles posted about this subject on various other forms of social media.

I think things really came to a head last week when The Whisky Exchange blog posted an interview with Diageo’s Nick Morgan.  I’m not sure I’ve ever read such a condescending load of tripe from someone within the industry (Morgan, that is, not TWEB).  Morgan managed to offend nearly everyone out there that writes about and buys his spirits.  Perhaps we should thank him, come to think of it.  He probably singlehandedly turned more people to militant opposition by his offensive candor than others have been able to do with rational argument and pleas.  I was going to post a couple of his full quotes regarding our ‘hot-headed ignorance’ and ‘ill-informed’ stances, but I honestly think it needs to be read in its entirety.  Just follow the link above.

With the rising tide of discord I felt it was time to have a chat with one of the gents out there who has always seemed to fight the good fight for the best interests of Scotch Whisky.  Ralfy Mitchell – he of the down-home, candid video entries on Youtube he refers to as Vlogs – has been a supporter of much I’ve done over the years and immediately agreed to take part in a discussion on NAS whiskies.  I sent him a bunch of questions a few weeks back and his replies came back yesterday.

Without further ado, let’s turn the spotlight on Ralfy…

Ralfy

Ralfy Mitchell:  Hello Curt, and hello to all you ‘merry malt-momenters’ wherever you may be.  I hope you’re keeping it quality and not quantity with your malt-missions and remember to trust and enjoy your own whisky experiences without other people telling you what to like and not like.  Taste is a personal thing and should remain so.

So now to question time!

 

All Things Whisky:  In late December you posted a Vlog in which you addressed the issue of No Age Statement (NAS) whisky and the inherent issues that come with the industry having embraced this concept to the extent it has.  Can you discuss the trend as you see it, and share what you think are the central issues with NAS whiskies to which we should be taking exception?

Ralfy Mitchell:  It was my end-of-the-year Vlog, where I sit by the fire and just say what’s on my mind about the year that’s just past and, despite buying and enjoying a number of NAS malts over that year, I could see less-appealing, and importantly, costly under-matured malts appearing which a quick bit of detective work online allowed me to identify and avoid.  One of my strengths as an online reviewer is the fact that I buy my bottles from retail using the adsense google-ads revenue to fund the purchases.  It is therefore in my interests not to buy disappointing (and often expensive) malts.  Recently NAS malts have generally (there are some good exceptions) grown increasingly avoidable as ‘young’ superficial wood-influence flavour-blankets of clean anaemic barley spirit lacking character and quite simply a proper matured full flavour ‘event’. . . especially for the price charged.

NAS malts are happening because:

A – less maturation reduces production costs and improves profits.
B – the less time some distinctly mediocre casks spend ‘maturing’ malts the better in all honesty!
C – when demand grows, supply shrinks and NAS is a way of un-shrinking!
D – during the last whisky downturn in the 1980’s, costs were cut to maintain profit margins, especially production costs so now all these years later there’s simply not enough volume of  good wood in warehouses making the magic happen in line with current demand projections.
E – People buy them, these are very customer-tolerant times we are in with marketing over-influencing what sells.

As is always the case, if you want to know what’s going to happen next, follow the money!

 

ATW:  Was there a catalyst that made you finally say ‘enough is enough…we have to do something’?  A decline in quality or rising prices, as examples?

RM:  The catalyst was simply that the increasing chances of aged malts being of better calibre than NAS malts (and often cheaper too) is now increasingly self evident as we browse the online retailer options, and options have never been greater.  Availability (depending where you live), especially of Independent aged bottlings, is at an all-time high.  The internet is increasingly useful for whisky buyers who buy intelligently rather than slavishly!  Online auctions can be a real boost for yesterday’s quality at today’s prices and I include blended whiskies in that bracket!

 

ATW:  The boycott is your way of taking up arms against this issue, but do you believe the industry can be beaten on this one?

RM:  I really don’t care.  I choose to boycott NAS malts this year as I have plenty of better options, not that I am being a malt-militant, and I share this situation in my Vlogs to help whisky fans feel more confident about being in control of their spending money.  The Industry will be beaten by effective global competition providing better options, combined with the Industry’s own inertia and increasingly detached leadership.

 

ATW:  If change does come about in relation to NAS whiskies, do you believe it will be one or two of the brands making the decision to take a stance for age statements again or will it be something more resounding, such as an amendment to the SWR (Scotch Whisky Regulations) of 2009 or a mandate by the SWA (Scotch Whisky Association)?  Are the latter simply pipe dreams?

RM:  It will be all about the money!  As the trend grows from passive consumer to proactive customer, where and on what the customer’s cash is spent will determine the future direction of Scotch (and everything else).  The biggest card in this game of poker is the customer’s decision to buy.  That’s why marketing budgets can often appear to be so extravagant!  Sponsoring polo teams and football personalities does not come cheap!  In my opinion the Scotch Whisky Association is not responsible for Scotch whisky, it is responsible to those who control the Industry.  Effective regulation on intrinsic quality long-term would need to come from National Government.

 

ATW:  In 2010 Chivas launched its ‘Age Matters’ campaign, in which they provided stats speaking to consumers interests and how they were branding their products in response.  One number they mentioned was that 89% of consumers who were polled look for an age statement when making purchases.  They’ve been decidedly silent about this concept in recent days.  One of the associated brands is, of course, Glenlivet.  The new Glenlivet Nadurra NAS and Founders Reserve speak volumes about the company’s current stance in respect to age statements.  This is just one example.  How are we, as educated consumers, to engage with these brands going forward?  It seems like a case of ‘either you lied to us before or you’re lying now, so which is it?’

RM:  We, as educated consumers, will continue to share and educate new and less-experienced drinkers as to what’s what with quality.  The quality of what we consume directly influences the quality of our lives and as and when quality goes down hill, we take responsibility in closing our purses and refusing to participate.  We then share this with others who care to show an interest online.    . . . So the whole wide world of tomorrow’s literate malt-fans can learn from our experiences.  Bless them, big Corporate Institutions can often lack the decisive, foresightful leadership and vision of a genuine entrepreneur, (think Steve Jobs and Apple) and thus decisions get blown around in the winds of fleeting expediency.

 

ATW:  There are some folks out there who are getting very passionate – even heated – about this issue, seeing it as the industry ‘duping’ the consumer in some respects.  Is that a fair assessment, or are the consumers at fault for ever thinking that Big Business had the same interests as they do?

RM:  Love&peace, malt-mates, love&peace!  No need for heated rants when a well focused non-sale is intimated!  ‘Boycott’ is always a frightening sound to businesses, especially when visible online.

 

ATW:  A lot of voices speaking on behalf of industry interests are saying that buyers should ‘let their taste buds be the judge, and not ignore good NAS releases’, but that negates the fact that NAS isn’t a type of whisky; it is a type of marketing.  While some releases like Uigeadail, a’bunadh, Valinch, etc are indeed great and may bolster their argument a bit in regards to there being good NAS releases out there, it does little to assuage our doubts about the pricing schemes.  How do you feel about a) their arguments in general and b) the current ideas as to fair market pricing which the brands are levying on this recent spate of NAS releases?

RM:  I agree with the Industry voices, let the customer decide, and if the cupboard is stocked with good or bad whisky, it’s all down to the customer’s motivation.  Simple market forces prevail.

 

ATW:  Who do you feel are the brands leading the charge in the right direction?  And at the risk of making enemies…who are the worst offenders?

RM:  Independents tend to get malts right, corporations tend to get blends right.  If integrity is transparent in the bottle, that will do for me!  The worst offenders are gullible and lazy consumers.

 

ATW:  The industry has been decidedly evasive or silent when it comes to one particular question levied at them: ‘why is it that age doesn’t matter when it has to do with young whiskies or NAS vattings, but it becomes relevant again when they want to sell a 25, 30 or 40 year old’.  Thoughts?

RM:  I think that’s a great question, and the answer is ‘money today before profits tomorrow’!

 

ATW:  Where does the NAS issue stack up in respect to the arguments against caramel coloring or chill filtration?  In your opinion is one or the other more detrimental to whisky in both its current incarnation and in regards to what the future will bring?

RM:  These things all contribute collectively to a trend growing internationally relating to ‘consumer awareness sophistication’ and having (creating) the choice to buy intelligently.  The future will bring great challenges to Scotch whisky as the overall integrity of the commodity is successively reviewed by customers over time.

 

ATW:  This is an issue that has gained a lot of traction in the less professional media (i.e. blogs, vlogs and forums). But we’re still seeing a lack of overt discussion by professional writers and publications.  Do you think today’s professional whisky writers are balanced in talking about the industry?

RM:  The professionals do a professional job and I commend them for dealing with the challenges they face.  The ‘hobby’ media have added some real colour to the whole scene, something the industry will continue to tolerate!  And so the drama continues.  That’s alcohol.  Always has been, always will be, a vehicle of human drama, comedy and tragedy; a comedie del arte!

 

ATW:  Your own boycott is focused primarily on Scottish Single Malts.  Do you think Irish, American, Canadian and world whiskies should be held to the same standards, even without falling under the jurisdiction of the SWR and SWA?  If not, why?

RM:  No.  Scotch enjoys a top-ranking reputation, so standards should be maintained as top-ranking.  Other Countries have different spirits and different circumstances, so I stick to boycotting any reviews of NAS Single Malt Scotch Whiskies during 2015!  …Just to keep things simple and transparent!

. . .thanks everyone and may your malt-moments be malty and many!

 

Sincere thanks to Ralfy for the time and efforts.  And thanks to any out there challenging the status quo and letting the brands know we’re not behind this endeavour.  It’s about doing the right thing.  It’s about trying to protect the integrity of the drink we love, and if the industry would open their eyes, they’d see it is about protecting the very lifeblood that forms the foundations of their own lives and livelihoods.   

 

Until next…

 

– CurtVendetta

 

 

 Posted by at 8:50 am
Jul 152012
 

Calgary’s Andrew Ferguson is an interesting guy.  Truly.

This year marks his tenth anniversary as the ‘Scotch Guy’ at Kensington Wine Market.  In that time he has managed to expand the whisky selection from an initial tableau of 60 expressions to upwards of 300 bottles.  And while quantity tells part of the tale, quality tells the rest, as KWM’s selection is really second to none in the city.  New malts are always en route, often exclusive to the shop, and often sell out rather quickly.

Andrew has made a point of keeping his friends close (and in the case of the Maltmonster…his enemies closer) and it is this engagement with us schmoes that has made him not only the premier whisky retailer in Canada, but also a great guy to call a friend.  Case in point is his dilligence in involving customers in tastings of cask samples to aid in cask selection.  KWM regularly purchases and bottles exclusive casks from some of the world’s greatest distillers.

In February of 2007 Andrew launched the Calgary Chapter of the Companions of the Quaich with an inaugural dinner at Buchanan’s Chop House.  This little enterprise now boasts a membership of some of Calgary’s most entertaining and interesting individuals, and events never fail to be anything less than memorable (and chock full of perfect blackmail moments).

The following year, 2008, Andrew started Ferguson’s Whisky Tours.  A couple times a year he leads a handful of enthusiasts across the pond to tour some of Scotland’s best distilleries.  These tours are not your ordinary whisky jaunts.  Andrew’s industry connections and personal passion have led to some once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for those who sign up.

Of course, someone with their finger held so tightly to the pulse of the blood of Scotland is bound to be recognized by the industry at some point.  Indeed, April 2011, the Keepers of the Quaich opened their arms to Andrew and toasted him with a dram of anCnoc 16 for his inauguration.

Here’s an opportunity to listen to a guy that has managed to turn his passions into a career.  Not many of us can say that.

 

 

ATW:  First things first…everyone starts somewhere.  What was the catalyst that got you interested in whisky, and at what point did it become more than just an interest? 

AF:  A friend in University got me hooked with a bottle of Lagavulin 16 Year. I didn’t know at the time what I liked about it, I just liked it. So I started buying the odd bottle in University when I had the sheckles, and I recall Bowmore, Bunnahabhain and Lagavulin being my favourites. I started at Kensington Wine Market in 2001, with the intention of just sticking around for a few months until I could get back on my feet and then get a real job. I’d been away travelling and had shut down a painting business I was not enjoying. As it turned out, I was able to create my own career here with the support of an understanding boss. As clichéd as it may sound, it was a very natural and organic process and I never really saw it coming. It just happened!

 

ATW:  You’ve managed to turn a passion into a career.  Something not a lot of people can say.  How did this development come about?

AF:  It really happened of its own volition. I had never started out with a plan to be a Scotch expert, and even in the early years while I was getting my feet and growing my reputation I never really intended to stay the course. I planned to go back to school, get a business degree and land a real job. I envisioned working at a desk somewhere that would allow me to moonlight and sell whisky. But I love the job I have, and it continued to grow in terms of expectations, opportunities and responsibilities; it’s been impossible to let go of it. By far the most rewarding thing about the job is the relationships and friendships which have grown out of it. This is a big part of what has kept me so attached to this place.

 

ATW:  Tell me a little history about Ferguson’s Whisky Tours.  What led to you setting up this enterprise? 

AF:  It started out as a way to cover the cost of my trip to Scotland and also a way to share my experiences with others. I first made a pilgrimage to Scotland in 2006 and fell in love with the country, and even more so with Scotch whisky. I spent the better part of three weeks visiting as many distilleries as I could, wrote a travel blog and immersed myself in the experience. It was a wonderful trip, but lonely as well. I had people from distilleries to welcome and host me, and take me for dinner, but it was a relatively solitary experience. When I started talking with my employer about going back in 2008, she suggested I take a group with me of some of my customers. Around the same time a few of these people had expressed interest in and were encouraging me to put together a tour. I took my first group in 2008, and it was an incredible experience and a huge hit. Some of my fondest memories are from that trip. The next year in 2009 I split it off as a side business and started organizing and guiding trips. It has really taken a life of its own from there and I am currently in the process of building a new website. Both my trips in May are full and I have a lot of people inquiring about trips this fall.

 

ATW:  Can you share a few of the bigger successes, personal highlights and maybe humorous mishaps in launching Ferguson’s Whisky Tours?

AF:  There have been so many highlights that it would seem hard to select a few, let alone one. Tasting the White Bowmore in the Number 1 Vaults at Bowmore certainly would be near the top. We were the first people outside the company to taste the follow up to the Black Bowmore. Jackie Thompson at Ardbeg opening the mill and getting covered with flour is another memorable moment. She was guiding another group and I in May 2011, and was telling a story of the time a group asked her to open the mill and how her black outfit had been covered in flour! I had to remind her that it was my fault… There have been some other funny moments like stone I drove over on Arran which cracked our vans oil pan, the time I awoke sleep walking in the hallway of my Edinburgh hotel and the time one of my guest ran along the side of the slow moving van in the rain to enjoy a cigarette (he tripped over a road construction sign). But the funniest moment had to be the German singing an a capella song in English that he had written about his trip to Bowmore. It wasn’t so much that his song was funny, but he was one of 40 of the most motley crew of Germans imaginable (he was by far the most straight laced), and the buildup to this song was something out of a British sitcom. It was one of those you had to be there moments, I was trying so hard not to laugh that I started crying and had to step outside and just let it out. The next day as we were walking up the malting floor stairs at the distiller we saw the Canadian flag being raised while the German flag was lying in a crumpled heap on the ground. It all came flooding back! They turned out to be good guys, but the scenario was so bizarre,.

Did the Malt Monster ask this question? Ask him why he turned down a glass of the 10th Release Port Ellen in Craigellachie? That’s a good story too!

 

ATW:  Though I imagine each time out is a unique endeavor, what can a guest on one of your tours reasonably expect to experience?

AF:  Each tour is unique, and obviously the whiskies change with time. Basically they can expect to get the best tour and tasting the distilleries, or independent bottlers are willing to offer, excellent food, interesting company and generally a great time. I pride myself on putting on the kind of tour I’d want to be a part of. Small, focused on whisky, but ready to have a good time. I look after all the details from the time the guest is picked up in Edinburgh or Glasgow on the Sunday morning until the tour concludes on Saturday night with a dinner at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh. Along the way they will see the best whiskies and distilleries the region has to offer (I currently do three tours: Islay, Speyside and one which covers the Orkneys and Nothern Highlands) as well as the most important points of interest. I also where possible try to leave enough time for at least one round of golf, weather permitting. In 2013 I am hoping to offer my first Japanese whisky tour.

 

ATW:  It is unarguable that the mass appeal of whisky has broadened over the past few years.  The reputation Scotch has had as an ‘old boys’ drink has been somewhat eradicated by a slew of interest from the younger spheres, a greater balance in the sexes and aggressive marketing to a younger demographic.  This is all bound to affect the output from the distilleries, in terms of flavor profile, volume, cost and overall quality. Do you see this working for or against the intrinsic quality of good whisky?

AF:  Interesting question. The biggest driver right now is the growth in the BRIC countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China. Distilleries, especially the bigger ones are falling all over themselves to increase production to take advantage of the rapidly expanding markets, especially in the East. While some of the smaller placers are catering whiskies to appeal to certain demographics the bigger players are only concerned with one thing, getting as big a piece of the new markets as they can. And the consequences are already been seen, stock shortages in existing markets and price increases. This leaves me with several concerns: firstly, that quality will suffer, especially from the bigger producers as their production increases; secondly, that rapid and large price increases, especially among the older and rarer expressions, will shift consumer interest to other products; thirdly, that the industry is expanding so rapidly that it is creating yet another bubble (like those of the late 1890’s and late 1970’s) which will eventually pop. The last of these concerns me the most. 

 

ATW:  When you encounter someone in the shop (link to KWM) who is new to whisky how do you generally determine where to lead them and help them make their purchase?

AF:  I have a couple of go to whiskies for the neophyte, like the Arran 10 or the Glenmorangie Original. The key is to start them off with something soft but flavorful. First impressions are very important, you don’t want to ruin whisky for them so in my mind the key is to start with something easy to appreciate. Generally we’ll offer them a sample to see if they like it, and based on their response I’ll generally know which direction to take them. What’s really interesting is giving a tasting with a group of beginners, people who’ve never tried or enjoyed whisky. Taking them through a flight of six whiskies I find that if you start with the lighter softer ones and build into progressively stronger tasting whiskies almost everyone will be able to enjoy peated and cask strength whiskies. What I take away from this is that the manner in which you present them to people, and the order, is just as important as the strength and flavour.

 

ATW:  One of Kensington Wine Market’s (link to KWM) greatest features, I hear repeatedly, is that there is always the opportunity to ‘try before you buy’.  The open bottles in the shop are of all ages and price points.  How do you make it financially viable to open so many whiskies, and do you see the return in what the average shopper takes home?

AF:  This is one of our competitive advantages, and I certainly don’t want to give away all of our secrets. We do pride ourselves on having open bottles of most of our whiskies available for customers to sample. This started out organically and has really taken on a life of its own. I conduct most of my own tastings, rather than relying on agents, suppliers and brand ambassadors to do them for me. I don’t think there are many stores where this is the case. This means the heels, the partially full leftover whiskies stay in the shop, making them available for customers to sample them. Eight years ago when we first started offering samples I might have had a dozen whiskies available for sampling at any given time. It really caught on with our customers and word spread. As business grew we were able to offer more tastings which meant more heels.

The bottles we have  open are a reflection of the tastings we offer, which range from $35 introductory tastings to my Ancient Malts Tastings which cost $200-300/person and many others in between. The Ancient Malts are to the best of my knowledge unrivaled in Canada, featuring whiskies like: The Macallan 50 Year Lallique, Black Bowmore 1964, Gold Bowmore 1964, Auchentoshan 1957 50 Year (both casks) and the Gordon & MacPhail Generations Glenlivet 1940 70 Year (tied for the world’s oldest whisky) to name just a few. In late March of this year we offered an Ancient Malts Tasting featuring seven 40 year old whiskies. I don’t know any other business which is doing this.

Being able to sample a whisky, at $50, $100, $200, $500 or $22,000/bottle, before you buy it gives the customer the confidence that they are making the right decision. Especially if it is my recommendation.

 

ATW:  Something you’ve driven hard through KWM (link) is the importance of having exclusivity of product and purchasing your own casks.  This is obviously a brilliant tool in helping overcome competitors and chains that may be able to undercut a smaller store by way of volume purchasing.  Can you share a bit about what determines your cask selections and what goes into obtaining a portfolio of exclusive bottlings?

AF:  The Alberta liquor industry is a relatively even playing field, at least in theory, all stores have to be given the same price on every product regardless of volume. We believe our  prices are fair, and in line with our major competitors. Exclusives and single cask purchases build interest and mark us out as whisky specialists. We are especially careful about how we choose our casks, because we want our customers to be confident that we will always sell them whiskies of superior quality and interest. Ultimately I will make the final decision when selecting a cask, but I try to involve others in the process whom I recognize as having good palates. At the end of  the day we select our own private bottlings, and this above all else guarantees quality.

In addition to our private bottlings we do aggressively go after obtaining exclusive distribution of certain whiskies. Our customers like variety, and this is one way we are able to provide it to them. The exclusive opportunities come from hard work and relationship building. Whether it is with our customers, suppliers or the producers, relationship is everything. 

 

ATW:  What is the most personally rewarding aspect of being in the position you are in, as regards the running of the club, the tours, the shop, etc?

AF:  Without a doubt the friendships which have grown out of the business: customers, agents and brand ambassadors. I count many of these people among my closest and most trusted friends. There is a thriving whisky subculture, and I love being one of the cogs around which it turns in Calgary and Canada.

 

ATW:  Being on the frontlines, and watching the evolution of the whisky Industry, what trends do you see consumers moving towards?  Away from?

AF:  More and more women are getting interested in whisky, though I think there is still a lot of room to educate, grow and serve this demographic. As far as customers shifts I see two divergent trends: firstly, a growth in collecting and secondly, a shift away from brand loyalty. The first, collecting is still on the up, with the major brands leading the way. Some of them I fear are pushing the collectability too far, with the risk they will slay the Golden Goose. But it is the second trend which interests me more. Customers at this end of the spectrum are increasingly less brand loyal and more focused on quality than age or price. Cask strength, unchillfiltered, single cask and naturally coloured whiskies are the future. Whiskies bottled at 40 and 43% with added caramel colouring are the past and rapidly losing market share to the others. Some companies site tradition, fear of alienating customers and cost as reasons to continue these practices, but I don’t buy them. I think they are assuming the consumers aren’t educated in these regards, and that may be the case now but it’s changing. They should be looking to the next generation of whisky drinkers, not just the current ones. Customers are becoming better and better educated, and those distilleries that recognize this trend and respond to it will do better than the others in the long run.

 

ATW:  Which distilleries do you see making the greatest inroads with the consumer right now, and in what ways?

AF:  Small and independent distilleries are the hottest products right now. Firstly, because they have largely bought into the single cask, non chillfiltered, no added  colouring and cask strength trends while the larger companies have not. And secondly, because they are more creative and willing to experiment. There are some bigger players which have started to move in these directions, but they are the exception. Most large players are focused on gaining market share in new markets rather than growing and developing their existing markets. This may pay off for them globally, but it will cost them market share in their existing markets; and already is. Of the smaller players I think Glendronach and BenRiach are the two most dynamic right now. Some of their single cask offerings are spectacular, but also limited. Springbank has long been ahead of the curve on all four fronts, and is still doing well, though it concerns me that they seem to be a distillery with a lack of ambition. They seem to be comfortable with who they are and what they’re doing but have little desire to build on that. I love how the distillery is small, traditional and family owned, and that it is such a big part of the local community. It also makes great whisky, I’d just like to see them take that concept are grow it. They used to be a real leader, and I’d like to see them return to that perch. They have so much potential…

 

ATW:  With so much of your livelihood tied up in whisky, is it still possible to simply sit down and enjoy a dram?  What are a couple favorite ‘downtime’ drams for you?

AF:  Working in an industry where I am exposed to alcohol on a daily basis, it would surprise people to learn how seldom I drink at home. I love micro brewed beer, and good wine, but my drink of choice is still single malt Scotch whisky. When I do have a dram or two, my favourites are generally Bowmore, Ardbeg and Port Ellen. In the last year though I’ve really developed a taste for sherryed Speyside whiskies like Glenfarclas and Glendronach. My preference is generally for cask strength, sherry cask and peated whiskies.

 

ATW:  What is your favorite whisky experience to date?  What is on the bucket list to top it?

AF:  Opening the Macallan Lallique 50 Year live on CBC radio and tasting it blind for the first time was a big moment. It was by a factor of 10 the most expensive bottle I had ever opened and the genesis of much of what has followed over the last 5 years. My second was the sampling of the White Bowmore 1964 in the No.1 Vaults Warehouse at Bowmore on Islay during my first group whisky tour in 2008. We were the first people outside the company to have the opportunity to sample the whisky, and to do so in the holy of holies. It was an experience I will never forget.

As for my bucket list, I would like to eventually visit every distillery in Scotland, of which there are a little over 100.To date I’ve been to 70 or so. I am also looking forward to touring the whisky distilleries of Japan.

 

ATW:  Final question…is there any sort of protocol you have in place for dealing with problem customers?  Like say, some dirty Irish folk from Edmonchuk?

AF:  Patience, lots and lots of patience.

 

– ATW

 Posted by at 3:59 pm
Apr 022012
 

A hunt through the whisky blogosphere is likely to yield unlimited results when you’re on the hunt for reviews.  Indeed whisky writers/reviewers are a dime a dozen.  Good ones, however, are a rare commodity, and to be cherished.  I use the word ‘good’ here not simply to refer to one’s verbosity or word palette, but more to what one has to offer.

Unquestionably the best out there is Serge Valentin.  His Whiskyfun has become my staple breakfast, after work snack and before bed nightcap.  The site is simply awesome and an absolute Mecca for whisky lovers.  At the time of this writing, Whiskyfun holds just shy of 8,000 tasting notes.  I need to say that again…8,000 tasting notes.

Imagine for a moment that you had access to 8,000 drams.  Would you have the motivation and passion to share your aquired knowledge and experiences by way of individual reviews?  Would you be able to dust them with humor and humility in order to make them accessible to all?  Would you do it all with a frank openness and endearing lack of pretention?  Hmmm…I wonder.

Serge was immediately receptive to the idea of a chat with ATW.  For this, but more importantly, for all that the man has contributed to drammers around the world…we raise a glass in salute.

 

Slainte!

 

 

First things first…how would you describe Serge Valentin?

An Alsatian guy (i.e. French but slightly German and Swiss as well) who’s got many passions and foolishly decided to launch an amateur online whisky tasting diary ten years ago and then write in printed magazines, while he may have had better things to do.

 

Second…how would you describe Whiskyfun?  (C’mon…you’re an advertising guy…I’m interested in the slant you’d put on it)

I’d say it’s become mainly a large (some say the largest) database of independent and truly non-commercial whisky tasting notes by one single guy – but in fact, it’s always been a lame excuse for posting about another passion of mine: jazz and music in general. I know mixing topics is very bad on the Web but that never stopped me 😉

 

I say this in all sincerity (and with no disrespect intended to others), Whiskyfun is the best whisky-related site on the net.  Being in somewhat of a leading position as you are, do you still look to other whisky websites?  If so, which do feel offer the most and why?

Well, that’s all very kind but probably untrue – aren’t you being a tad too polite? But indeed I read other whisky websites. The Malt Maniacs’ of course, as well as our members’ private efforts (dramming, whiskycast, whisky emporium, Canadian whisky, Ralfy, malt madness or whisky intelligence to name but a few, they’re all so different, which is great) or other blogs that offer true content, either educational (about the distilleries, whisky history, technical aspects and such) or blogs that deliver interesting opinions and points of view, even, or maybe because I sometimes don’t agree with them.

 

You’re a passionate guy when it comes to your drams.  This shows in the frequency of updates to Whiskyfun, but even moreso in the quality of those posts.  Is it easy for you to maintain that degree of commitment and enthusiasm or do you go through cycles of waning interest (however short)?

Oh yes, I’m not always high ;-). But I use a trick: I taste and write whenever I’m in the mood for that, and don’t when I’m not. I ‘work’ with a lot of what we used to call ‘marble’ when I was a publisher, in another life. At least two weeks’ worth! I’ve got quite a few pre-edited tasting notes that have been written months ago, and some may never see the light.

 

Your dedication to the subject, enormous archive of tasting notes and seemingly unlimited reach when it comes to sourcing out incredible samples have put you in a very unique position as a point of reference.  Have you considering publishing anything as an alternative to the Whisky Bible?

No thanks! I’ve written books but not about whisky and indeed, I’ve got quite a few propositions, but I always felt that the genuine whisky writers out there such as Dave Broom, Charlie Maclean or Martine Nouet – not to mention Michael Jackson – and a few others such as Davin de Kergommeaux and his terrific new book about Canadian whisky were so good that publishing any scribblings by yours truly would be a very stupid thing to do (excuse me). It would also be a way of selling what I do, which is a no-no at Whiskyfun Towers. Having said that, were I to do that one day – and that won’t happen before I retire – that would be in French, because I’m aware of the fact that my English is much too far from ‘print’ quality.

 

There is a certain amount of influence that comes from being a public voice, especially one with knowledge and coming from a place of judgment (let’s face it…that’s what reviews are).  This influence can be a very good thing or a very bad thing.  In your opinion, are distillers afraid of a bad Jim Murray rating, and if so how do you think he has changed the industry?

Ah, Parkerisation in whisky… No ideas… Some may like to think so but I doubt it. Whisky isn’t wine and worldwide sales of books, even the leaders, or circulations of magazines are really tiny. The Whisky Bible, according to their own Facebook page, has sold ‘a quarter of a million copies in the seven years since it’s first incarnation’. Let’s assume this wasn’t made up (why would it?), that makes for 250K/7=36,000 copies per year on average, while Parker sells millions every year. Or think Hugh Johnson, he’s sold more than 10 million copies of his Pocket Wine Book alone. What’s more, you can change the style of one wine almost overnight to please one expert (such as Robert Parker Jr.), you can’t do that with whisky unless you’re into quick finishings, or by doing wee tweakings such as drop caramel colouring or chill filtration. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered one whisky that was made to please one expert. There’s no Robert Parker in whisky – and if there ever was any, he was Michael Jackson. Also because there’s much less speculation in whisky (so far) and, above all, no sales ‘en primeur’ (again, so far… gosh, maybe I shouldn’t give bad ideas to the distillers).

 

Your output is incredibly prolific.  How do manage to schedule your ‘malt moments’ around the rest of life?  On a weekly average, how much time do you dedicate to whisky?

As I sometimes say, an average Westerner spends around four hours a day watching stupid TV shows. Imagine what you can do with four hours a day. But if we’re talking about the time I need to taste, write and edit WF’s tasting notes, that would be around six or seven hours a week, sometimes a little more. The only thing that’s tricky is not to have to drive after a tasting session. Not that I’m drunk but if you ever have to blow into a breathaliser after just 1cl of cask strength Ardbeg, you’re in jail and presto. Or you’ll have to drink two litres of water…

 

I’ve seen answers before, but for the sake of completeness in this piece, I gotta ask…where do you source your vast samples from?  How big is the sample library at the moment?

I buy some bottles, I buy some samples and I get quite a lot of samples from retailers, distillers or simply good friends. The sample library?… Four figures – not talking about whiskies I’ve already tried. I need that because I always compare my whiskies and never taste them ‘on their own’, so, if I ever get a new Glenallachie in the mail, for example, I need to have at least one or two other Glenallachies already in my library. The nearest, the better (ages, vintages, cask types…) I do not believe in tasting ‘ex-nihilo’, I always need to compare whiskies or nuances just wouldn’t come out, at least not in the same proportions.

 

That last one ties in to another question.  I imagine many of what you review are indeed samples, but you manage to provide bottle shots for everything.  Do you actually have all of these old and rare bottles at your disposal and being opened regularly?

Sadly – or rather happily – not. Not all of them, at least. I’ve got unwritten or virtual deals with many retailers, they can use my notes and scores, I can use their pictures. Many are friends anyway. I also use private databases of pictures (not available to the public) that some friends have built, or I shoot bottles at fairs or shops. What’s more, I only post wee snapshots of labels just to give an idea of how a bottle looks like, I don’t think ever use a picture as is.

 

Speaking of old and rare…why do think  there is such a disconnect between whiskies made in the sixties and the seventies to those we are drinking today?  Enormous exotic fruits, like those found in older Bowmore, Benriach and Springbank seem to be conspicuously absent in latter day malts.

Good question again. I think there are many factors, some related to the makes, some related to bottle ageing, some related to commercial aspects. At random, direct firing, true sherry casks, larger selection of casks to choose from (because the market for malts was so smaller), worm condensers, different yeasts, slower fermentation, use of paxarette, no or very little fresh/ first fill American oak… And, above all, bottle ageing. Although the general public thinks that a spirit is inert once it’s confined in its bottle, I think it’s not. No top is never 100% airtight. The whisky keeps ageing, getting mellower, and I believe the phenols really change over time. All the good people who distil fruit eau-de-vie, for example, know that you shouldn’t open a bottle before it’s five, and some say even ten. Why would eau-de-vie change, and not whisky? Granted, a whisky was already matured in wood, but it does keep changing in glass, at a much slower pace. Many old glories were young and rough when bottled, and became stunningly complex after twenty, thirty or even forty years in glass. Hard to prove because you cannot quite compare them – or you’d need a time warp machine – but when you talk to older guys, including whisky people, they’ll tell you (sometimes after a few drams). All that means that some of today’s whiskies will be stellar when our children will inherit them ;-). I’d also add that in the old days, almost all the malt whiskies were made for blending purposes, so the distillers were tweaking their recipes depending on what the blenders were asking for. More fruits? More fruits! Some of these old casks are now reaching us via the independent bottlers or via the distillers themselves who bought them back from the blenders’ or indies, and what we’re sometimes tasting, I believe, is not a distillery’s general style, but a malt that was made after some blenders’ specs. Good examples are the older ex-Seagram peated Speysiders, for example. Or, hey, Brora!

 

Photo: © Olivier Thébault

 

You come across as a relatively unassuming fellow.  Are there any topics in whisky chatter that make you want to get up on your soapbox and be a little more nasty?

You know, I try to keep anything whisky fun. Otherwise, yeah, some very lousy attempts at premiumising very average whiskies using 20th century stunts (what I sometimes call the cognacqisation of whisky), or widespread commercialism, especially in social media which is fast becoming a kind of very noisy and frankly smelly souk. Or anonymous, obsessive know-it-alls here and there who keep spreading half-truths and plain lies about whisky. To be honest, I may have to include myself in the lot – but at least I’m not anonymous ;-).

 

What is the one amazing whisky experience you’ve had that you would love to live over again?

There were several and it’s always the same situation. Good friends, a rare old bottle of whisky that none of us have ever tried yet… And pop!

 

If your evening plans were comprised of the perfect malt, the perfect book and the perfect background music…what would they be and what would tie them together?

Well, the problem is that I don’t believe the evening is the perfect time for a perfect malt. Our senses are tired… For example, I never do my tastings at night. Also, I never taste whisky while listening to music. Sounds odd, I know, but the influence is too big on me, I’d end up writing about the bass line while thinking I’m commenting on the whisky’s… err, tempo. Having said that, I’d go for an old Willet bourbon while listening to R.L. Burnside and reading some of Tennessee Williams’ short stories. Or Duke Ellington with Macallan, Coltrane with Clynelish, Hendrix with Lagavulin, Bill Evans with an old Bowmore, Slipknot with Ardbeg (I’m joking!)…

 

Finally…any plans to venture over to our great white North for any of the Canadian festivals (i.e. the Victoria Whisky Festival)?

Oh yes, Victoria is on my to-do list since a few years already. It’s just that the beginning of the year is always quite hectic business-wise, but I’ll manage, I’ll manage!

 

Any last thoughts to share?

Let’s keep it fun; whisky’s no serious matters (unless you have to make a living out of it, or if you down way too much of it).

 

 

Sincere thanks to Serge Valentin. 

 

– ATW

 

 Posted by at 9:38 pm
Mar 122011
 

It is quite possible that Bruichladdich is my favorite distillery.  Though not the force behind my absolute favorite malts, they are responsible for many – and I mean many – that I absolutely adore.   The diversity of spirit produced and expansive cask selection allows for a palette (not to be confused with palate) of broad and stunning spectrum.  Armed with an arsenal of tools (great stills, brilliant wood and exceptionally clean spirit) and an unmatched artistic flare, Bruichladdich has managed to carve out an impressive niche and done so in the purest of fashions.  The distillery drives the local economy and community in way that puts the industry giants to shame (a topic I intentionally steered clear of in this chat).  They bottle at 46% or higher, never chill-filter and continually push the boundaries in searching for the next creative outlet.  And all of this has all been accomplished in a fiercely independent and uniquely Islay manner.

Several months back I spent an hour or so with Mark Reynier, managing director, in his office at the distillery.  We spoke of his path to ownership of the distillery, life on Islay, expressions en route (at the time Mark was writing up the latest Organic notes), reporting in the industry and much, much more.  Since that time Mark and I have shared a few email chats and his opinions and thoughts have always been something I look forward to. 

Undoubtedly one of my favorite industry personalities,

Mark Reynier:

Bruichladdich's Mark Reynier

ATW:  Your trials leading to the purchase Bruichladdich are not secret, but do have more of an impact coming from the source.  Can you share some of the history that led you to Bruichladdich?

MR:  Check out this film made by Crowsnest Films which I think captures it all pretty well: http://www.vimeo.com/15662396

 

ATW:  You take exception to the currently accepted translation of ‘Bruichladdich’.  When last we spoke you gave a much more romantic translation and spoke to how it reflects more closely the character of the distillery and whisky.  What is your take on the true meaning of ‘Bruichladdich’?

MR:  Bruichladdich is listed as one of the fifty most unpronounceable names in Scotland (Scottish Miscellany).

Most Hebridean names derived from either the Gaelic, Norse or Anglicised equivalents denoting a precise geographical location.  Bruichladdich is derived from two Gaelic words brudhach and chladdich.  Brudhach a Chladdaich.  It is usually translated as meaning ‘brae by the shore’.

‘Brae’ is a Lowland Scots word derived from the Old Norse, breiðr, meaning a broad hillside, or ‘a gentle slope to the sea’.  Since names were originally given as specific location markers for navigation, neither meaning is pertinent to this location.

There is a steep bank at Bruichladdich, a raised beach of post-glacial marine deposits; trouble is that it runs for 8 miles along the north side of Lochindaal and so is not terribly precise as a locator, like saying ‘1st Avenue and 1st to 60th street’.

The confusion perhaps comes from Brudhach or bruthach.  According to Dwelly’s 1901 dictionary, is a rather general term in steepness from an ascent, hill-side, brae, to a steep acclivity, and precipice.  Chladach or cladach means a shore, beach, coast, or more specifically, a stony beach.  Interestingly, though obsolete by 1901, it also means a lee shore, a dangerous coast for sailing ships in a prevailing wind.

This specific part of Lochindaal in front of the distillery, is shallow and peppered with exposed rocks up to 50 metres offshore rather than ubiquitous sand of the loch.  With only a metre of tide to cover it, this is a deceptive and dangerous piece of the loch in the prevailing wind to ships either landing or at anchor – even today.  In the days of sail, a lee shore with sharp rocks waiting for an unsuspecting ship would indeed be worthy of specifying it’s location.

We can be  fairly sure that  Brudhach refers to the the raised beach, but specifically ‘a Chladdaich’, at the place of the dangerous rocky shore: Steep Bank at the Rocky Lee Shore would seem a more useful and accurate, if not so romantic, translation.

Brudhach, pronounced ‘brew-ac(h)k’ – with the ‘ack’ heavily aspirated and  Chladdich, here on Islay, is a softer ‘kladd-ie’.  So we get ‘brew-ahk-ah-kladd-ie’, which with the ending of the first word and the beginning of the second, eliding over time became ‘brew-ah-kladdie’, or ‘brook-laddie’ as it became in the nineteenth century.

A view of the distillery from the shores of the loch.

 

ATW:  Your history in the wine spheres have given you a profoundly unique approach to whisky maturation and finishing.  What do you feel has been the most successful marriage of Bruichladdich whisky and wine cask to date?

MR:  The 125 bottling.  1970 vintage in “selection de grains nobles” casks from Olivier Zind Humbrecht, the famous biodynamic wine grower from Alsace.  They had contained Pinot gris grapes from the Clos Jebsal vineyard, late-picked for über sweetness.  The “magic casks”, as Olivier calls them, were made by Dominic Laurent in Burgundy.  The quality of the oak casks was simply exceptional.  Combined with the richness of the wine and the vanilla of the spirit it was sensational.  It is a profound bottling, a landmark I would go so far as to say, though some people just did not get it: the whisky either scored 99% or 70% – there was nothing in between.  We have learnt an enormous amount.  Jim is a cooper by trade, from the age of 15, and I was a wine merchant trawling the cellars and vineyards of France from the age of 18.  Together that makes a powerful combination.  I have been able to introduce types of oak that Jim had only dreamed about.  His unparralleled, hands-on knowledge of whisky and wood means that we have been able to achieve some extraordinary results.  You wait till you see the follow on to Octomore Orpheus, the Ocotmore 4:2, released this autumn… Boy – a real mindXXXX!  Of course the loudest critics at the outset, industry players, have to a man made miraculous Damascene conversions.  But for us this work that takes place on a daily basis is no marketing wheeze, dreamt up by some PR department in London, Paris, Tokyo or New York; it is inquisitiveness.  Besides, we reckon a mix of oaks is more interesting but that’s for another time.

 

ATW:  I can only assume with your experimental nature that the Renegade rum line, and the forthcoming gin (which is exceptional!), are your ideas.  What triggered the decision for an Islay whisky distillery to branch out in these directions, and can we expect more innovations beyond whisky?

MR:  There are many similarities between the rum and Scotch whisky industries.  They are, after all, pretty much owned by the same players.  In my view, the rum industry is in an even more parlous state than the Scotch whisky was when I started to get involved.

Unlike rhum agricole, British rum has always been a by-product of sugar manufacture; it was generally blended away with other rums.  Its success was consequently inextricably linked to the that of sugar and commerce. But most of the Caribbean single estate distilleries, many created in the seventeenth century, have now disappeared leaving a small number of mega-plants.  This situation was created, more or less, by fatal cocktail of post-colonial independence, capitalist amalgamation, and socialist nationalisation.

The odd barrel of these defunct distilleries’ rums still exist, bottling them naturally like our single malts – single estate rum – wasn’t therefore exactly rocket science.  We wanted to demonstrate the individuality rather than conformity.  As well as honouring these estates, we were curious.  There is a dearth of knowledge out there apart from the mega brands.

The same big guys dominate the rum industry as they do whisky: volume is king – the rum equivalent of blended whisky.  I fear the reality is, sadly, that what we have is a last-gasp, end of an era thing. There are, though, one or two small estates doing well, but when you see the old derelict distilleries lying there in ivy-covered ruins it is a damming, desolate sight.  And remember, the single malt category, a tiresome, fiddly sector for those big players, very nearly did not happen at all.  It may be just too late for authentic, single estate rum.  We’ll see.

Botanist gin came about because we are curious about distilling.  For us it is not a question of merely pushing buttons, we like to test our distilling skills, we are intrigued.  With Trestaraig and X4 we have explored triple and quadruple distillation, so with a Lomond still that we had liberated from Inverleven in 2003, we were wondering how to use it. It was an experimental still, the first of its kind and now the last.  

'Ugly Betty', the old Lomond still Reynier speaks of, used to produce Bruichladdich gin.

 

ATW:  Bruichladdich has released a couple of organic expressions to date.  Do you believe the Organic was a success in terms of both flavor profile and as a viable product to move forward with? 

MR:  Yes.  The first was a very limited, flag-in-the-sand bottling at high strength from the 2003 vintage.  The second, perhaps more representative, is a full scale bottling at 46%.  It has extraordinary definition and intensity which some will get, others won’t.  Scottish organic barley now represents almost 50% of our requirements (depending on harvest) with the other 50% + coming from Islay itself.  It is a definitive, unparalleled, tangible proof of our desire to rediscover traceability, authenticity and provenance all of which, we feel, have been surrendered for conformity.  We are going to distil some 100 tons of biodynamically grown barley, as far as we are aware this über organic barley has never been used for whisky.

 

ATW:  At some point in the future to you intend to malt at least a portion of your barley (be it organic or otherwise) on site?

MR:  Possibly, but it is not a priority as it is unlikely to add quality.  Malting is a very precise art which in my view is best left to the experts – and we have a very good relationship with Bairds who bend over backwards to help us with the 26 different farms’s barley that we use, keeping each separate from field to fermentation.

Malting is fine to play about with on a small scale – and we do – but with 2,200 tons (almost 50% organic) it is different. Sure, some play at it for the tourists, but I am unaware of anyone that malts that volume themselves on site for their own use.  We have looked at it, done a little ourselves, and it is certainly something that we could consider in the future; but it would be an economic consideration primarily – all or nothing – not an emotive one.

 

ATW:  Bruichladdich’s flood of expressions is one of the things that has made collectors and connoisseurs both groan and drool.  On the one hand, there are countless new expressions to try.  On the other, there are countless new expressions to buy.  How do you respond to criticism regarding claims there are simply too many expressions?

MR:  No one is forcing anyone to buy them.

 

ATW:  I guess the follow-up question would logically be about a core range.  Though your independent, small batch style doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to the idea of a consistent core line-up, are there thoughts of establishing a more traditional ‘age statement’ type structure at some point or is the goal to get people bought in to the “spirit” of BL as opposed to specific standardized products?

MR:  The distillery was shut between 1994 and 2001 – apart from a period in 1998 – and the older stocks erratic in both ages and volumes.  And with a cost price of December 2000. This influenced our sales strategy which was based, basically, on the independent bottler format – small volume, limited editions.  As we approach our 10 years, our own stocks are coming on line, and we have been able to evolve that strategy which we have been doing over the last three or four years. Our portfolio is now based around 10 specific Bruichladdich subsets from work that we have been doing over this period, each with its own intrinsic raison d’être:

Rocks, Classic, 10, Organic, Islay Grown (out in 2011), 18, Black Art, Infinity, PC, Octomore

As well as the first team line-up there will be one or two special, limited editions like PC 9 &10, Octomore 4, and 4:2, DNA, Micro Provenanace, and of course the odd intriguing vintage or two…

There are, for example, a brace of web and shop-only bottlings we are finalising to celebrate our 10 years of opening the distillery which coincides with our exciting new web site on 31st March.

 

ATW:  The Bruichladdich approach has resulted in an interesting and eclectic collection of whiskies…I have to assume that with this level of experimentation there has been many surprises along the way.  Any huge surprises (or humorous mishaps) you’d care to share with the readers?

MR:  The 125 bottling – grab it if you can find one – sort of encapsulated what we have been doing; for some whisky producers on the Ford production programme, the ‘any colour you like as long as it is black’ brigade, it is abhorrent to have any more than one single distillery bottling; that was how it was when we started – now even the most staid of distilleries has three or four bottlings on the go.  What is wrong with variety?  Choice?

We are not navel gazing, we want to attract new consumers to single malt rather than the died-in-the-wool ‘traditionalist’ (shall we politely say) that complain we have too many syllables let alone bottlings. Our bottlings are unashamedly aimed at sophisticated consumers, wine drinkers, the unblinkered, the inquisitive of mind, those prepared to try real things, to learn, enjoy to savour the flavour.  They want to to know the Scotch was made with Scottish barley, that Islay single malt was made – from barley to barrel to bottle – from Islay barley.  Bruichladdich consumers want integrity, provenance, authenticity.

Humorous mishap? An enormously fat woman falling through the first floor of a warehouse – between the joists no less – almost on top of a freaked-out warehouse worker beneath; unfortunately she was a health and safety officer on holiday.

 

ATW:  Can you speak to the working relationship you and Jim McEwan have?  Obviously you are both individuals with well-developed noses / palates, and I would assume strong opinions.  

MR:  Culturally, and age, you could not get two more different people if you tried: one a metropolitan, small company, privately-educated, wine trade, English upbringing, pragmatic, Catholic, rugby fan; the other an islander, large company, protestant, whisky industry, Rangers supporting, superstitious Celt.  I first met Jim in 1989 outside Bowmore and remember being amazed at the enthusiasm of the man who I recall being even more enthusiastic about his love of whisky than I am about wine.  The next time we met face to face was a decade later in a solicitor’s office in Glasgow on the even of the purchase of the distillery.  I would not deny that it has been challenging at times – that tension would not be there if one didn’t care – and after all, we have absolutely nothing in common.  Nothing, that is, except passion, pride, enthusiasm, eagerness, daring, tasting ability, determination, imagination, inquisitiveness, vision… It took time to understand each other but thanks to my mother being half Scottish (my heart probably rather than my head) and the French and Viking blood of my father it helps.

 

ATW:  Is there any talk of restarting the Bruichladdich Academy again?

MR:  No.  Too much hassle.  We wanted to do it properly, give people the true experience rather than some dumbed-down, vacuous PR exercise.  It was fun do do but the simple reality was that it was too draining, too invasive on everyone – and we have enough on our plate as it is.

 

ATW:  Can you update us on the status of the New Port Charlotte Distillery?

MR:  We have the planning permission but were held up by the environmental permissions.  But since we finally received those, a year of monitoring river levels and flow rates etc… the economy has fallen out of bed and with that uncertainty we feel it would be unwise to proceed with this project, at this time, and compromise what we already have.  

 

ATW:  …and finally (from a couple of us)…

If a distillery owner was turning 50, say next year, would they not want to vat a special malt for that occasion, and if so would they not want loyal fans in Calgary to share a bottle?

MR:  I do not know to whom you refer.

 

Thanks, Mark.  Your time and effort are appreciated.

Watch ATW in the near future for a review of Willow Park’s (Calgary) exclusive Bruichladdich manzanilla 12 year old and a feature on Bruichladdich’s distillery manager, Allan Logan.

Also ‘Laddie on ATW:

An interview with Jim McEwan, Bruichladdich’s master distiller.

The Port Charlotte lineup in a vertical tasting (PC5-PC8).

…and several reviews under ‘Reviews’ on the right side of the page.

Mar 012011
 

One of the most fascinating pieces I have read in years is an interview with Tom Waits done by…Tom Waits!  The ever-charismatic Waits knocked one after another out of the park and had me both in awe and stitches through the whole article.  I think it is something unique in that the interviewee is finally able to say what they want to say and not be confined to call and response.  It opens up all sorts of doors that wouldn’t necessarily be opened.

 Most of us know Ralfy by now.  Being the affable chap that he is, Ralfy embraced this one head on and immediately agreed to share some insight.  And this is why we love him.

I won’t bother with a big lead in, as you either know him already, or will once you’ve read his piece.

Ralfy Interview with Ralfy

February 2011

For allthingswhisky.com

 

Ralfy:  Hello there, ralfy

Ralfy:  … Hello, malt-mate !

 

Ralfy:  What’s up?

Ralfy:  … Just checking over my latest recording, which happens to be WhiskyReview 183 – Caol Ila 30yo MacKillop’s Choice, an Independent bottling of thirty year old single malt at £90 ($143 Can:) … an affordable old malt for it’s age and worth the effort!

The emphasis with the Vlog (video-blog) is to advise anyone uncertain of what to expect from old whiskies, and how to get the best out of the smell and flavour.

I am also drinking a strong cup of coffee and will shortly smoke a lovely Nicaraguan cigar out in the garden potting shed so as not to upset my dear old mum with the smoke-smell … bliss!

 

Ralfy:  The Vlogs tend to be your speciality … why’s that ?

Ralfy:  … Well, I started two years ago with a conventional blog-format which I made ‘different’ by being flippant and humorous about the Whisky Industry marketing flannel and other stuff.  There are so many whisky related blogs that have appeared over the last few years so that to get noticed you have to provide something original and informative, or anything at all in the way of content which will potentially attract an audience.

I had the time to set things up then due to a shoulder injury keeping me off work for three months, and it was early on during this convalescence that my brother suggested I buy a video-cam and “do something”.

Having checked what was already on-line, It seemed to me that my completely irrational obsession with Scotch Whisky and the many years of non-methodical smelling and tasting had provided me with an approach to talking about whisky which was unorthodox and potentially entertaining.

A ‘Vlog’ was recorded in my back room (thereafter called the Artisan Studio) and after four (flustered) takes, I was reasonably happy with the results.

It was posted on YouTube and less than two years later and with thirty six hours of recordings now showing, over a million viewings have taken place. … Excellent !

 

Ralfy:  What’s the reason for the Vlogs success then ?

Ralfy:  … An informal, simple, unpretentious, irreverent, humorous, eccentric, disorganised chat which passes across my experience to encourage viewers in choosing, enjoying and thinking about whisky and other spirits.

 

Ralfy:  And what will we see over the next few years with your ‘stuff’ ?

Ralfy:  … More of the same, moderated, adjusted and enhanced by viewers feed-back and comments.  That’s one of the things about the internet format, it’s still new and fresh, anyone, and I do mean anybody at all … with originality and a knack for presenting their topic of choice can very quickly get noticed and gather an audience, all with a minimal outlay of cash and without the expense of publishing books, a professional reputation or T.V. contract.

With traditional media like radio, magazines and television, professional presentations are created at increasing expense which then go out to a large, but geographically restricted and potentially passive audience where people will generally experience the event once if they’re interested, … then it’s gone, either into archives or onto dentist waiting room tables.

The internet blogger can rattle off a short presentation in minutes with no editing, no expense, no script, no make-up, no ‘meetings’, no managers, no hassle … and soon after, can upload onto the internet for an interested, inquisitive, ‘waiting’ International audience who after reading or listening or watching (as many times as they want, whenever and wherever they want) then have an opportunity to comment, approve, criticise, add some content and generally interact.

The whole style of on-line commentary can be as unorthodox and unconventional as you want to make it and it does help to be as ‘different’ to traditional styles as possible, so I tend include all my bloopers, stumbles, mistakes and other mini-disasters whilst recording so long as the affable opinions and knowledge are passed across to the viewer who will hopefully be entertained as much as informed.

Hard at work in the Bothy

 

Ralfy:  Significant stuff ralfy … What do the Whisky Industry think of this situation then?

Ralfy:  … The older, traditional ‘executives’ (if they notice) are bemused and probably mildly irritated, but not too fussed so long as the standard Blended Scotch volume-sales grow in China and Russia … that’s where the main cash is.

The younger Industry professionals are generally more aware and comfortable with it because (luckily for the Industry) it is clear that the biggest majority of on-liners are sympathetic and enthusiastic, with no real Trolls (bad-guy internet’rs) spoiling things with a CrapWhiskyList Blog.com ( it will happen eventually! )

Recently, the Industry big-guns have extended hospitality and other sweeteners to successful whisky-bloggers in order to build relationships and this is a good thing, not just to acknowledge, but reward commentators who have spent time and effort on their Sites.  All the commentators are different in personality which adds a refreshing variety to the ‘mix’.

The hospitality is an option though, and any long-term commentator is wise to keep a certain distance from Industry Reps: as it is now clear that we are at the stage where readers and viewers are alert and sensitive to marketing-spin loaded blogging.

 

Ralfy:  A bit of conflict between producers and customers with the internet the field of action then?

Ralfy:  … Conventional marketing schemes have been focused recently towards Internet bloggers with attempts to offer bottles of whisky for ‘approval’, (I refuse the offers by the way! ) but significantly, the orthodox marketing message can very quickly get scrunched-up, re-jigged and lost completely due to the interpretative skills of internet’rs, both bloggers and audience.

I think at this stage everyone can see just how influential the Internet will continue to be as regards the successful promotion of any product and I am pleased to see that some producers are slowly responding to repeated and much discussed demands by whisky drinkers on-line for authentic craft-presented (no added colour, chill-filtering and 46%vol:) bottlings of Malts. (e.g. the Real Whisky Campaign which has still to find it’s big moment! )

Quite simply, a small number of reputable commentators (like Serge @ whiskyfun and John @ whatdoesjohnknow) will steer the attitudes and expectations of the far greater numbers of whisky-inquisitive customers Globally.

My own view is that the all drinks Industries should review their standards carefully.

We are after all willing to pay more money for true quality Spirits than mediocre standard blended whisky because we value the intrinsic smell and flavour and quality has value in economically tough times.

If the quality is not present, sales are lost, then reputation is diminished.

The internet has been the most important arena for whisky-fans to resist the dumbing down and ‘blanding’ of whiskies which the Industry have intermittently been accused of trying to achieve in the pursuit of greater profit margins.

– Just ask them about substantial investment in genetic modification of barley and even oak!

– Just ask about marketing consultants advising that creating a poorer quality product empowers the value of aggressive marketing messages!

– Just ask about “inactive cask” tolerance levels!

To some ‘Career Executives’ in the Industry, smell and flavour costs money, and costs must always be cut cut cut! for their bonus bonus bonus …. the deficit can be patched up later with enhanced marketing budgets!  People who actually know about production have their influence marginalised in decision making.

I think you can tell that this pisses me off!

That’s why I am a fan of the small Distillers though they to can have their shortcomings.

 

Ralfy:  Well, tell us why you’re increasingly a fan of the small Distillers (dispute some shortcomings)!

Ralfy:  … Small Distilleries the World over are the custodians of the traditional contemporary culture of production of alcoholic spirits, whether Whisky, Whiskey, Gin, Rum, Tequila … or whatever!

Large multi-national producers are by their very nature committed to huge volume and mass production as part of their survival and monopoly.

Nothing wrong with that you understand, but for me, something important gets lost …. Identity!

For example …the only part of Talisker which relates to Skye is it’s production as a raw spirit.

The only part of Springbank that relates to Campbeltown is … absolutely everything!

The small Distillers have by default a social commitment offering proportionally greater jobs per cost of production, community focus, tourism in remote areas, social interaction, uniqueness … and an enhanced personal product benefiting from local grain, hands-on production and a lack of over-rewarded top-heavy bureaucracy and ingrained politics which features in muti-nationals.

Importantly, the Big Distillers can buy the attention of on-liners with helicopter rides, large measures of old whisky. meals and other flattering stuff! … and in doing so comfortably keep themselves ‘in the frame’.

Small Distillers cannot afford this so easily and so I am increasingly featuring smaller and Independent Distillery whiskies in my Vlogs as a core feature of the ralfy-identity.

Viewers will notice that location Vlogs often feature small Distilleries and the characters who work in them and also other related services like Coopering and retail shops.

An important part of my personality as a commentator is an informal interaction with small Distilleries which works well because they are more than happy to open up the facilities which are great places to record many, if not all aspects of production.

 

Ralfy:  …And do they pay you like they do the professionals ?

Ralfy:  … No, I don’t even generally accept samples through the Post as this implies a commitment to review favourably despite providers’ assurances to the contrary.

In buying the bottles I review, I review the same whisky people buy and not a vetted small samples which the Distillers (for very legitimate reasons) ensure are the best version to promote their sales.

A perfectly understandable system which generally works for the Industry, but I avoid samples.

My costs (fuel, travel, food, buying bottles to review etc.) come from on-line linked advertising. I receive no payment from the Whisky Distillers. … it keeps things fresh that way! … and more fun too!

 

Ralfy:  So what do you see happening in the future ?

Ralfy:  … Chinese Whisky of good quality.  (Sooner rather than later)

Polish oak matured Vodka.

More World Whiskies from some very exotic places … hello Greenland!

Better quality matured and sipping Tequilas, Rums and even that Cinderella of Spirits, Cachaca.

Many Distilleries going into receivership and/or bought out.

Small Distilleries getting more noticed.

More internet sales of Spirits.

The internet increasingly influential in everything.

New hybrid Spirits.

Educational Drink Cruises as a holiday option.

Several new Spirit drinks never seen before like Rainforest Spirit and plant-Infused whiskies.

Marketing Departments going more ‘softly’ with messaging and more communities-interaction.

New grain-combo whiskies.

A Canadian Whisky renaissance.

Better Russian Vodka.

Scotland showing more self-respect to itself due to economic pressures, social unrest and unemployment problems.

The Isle of Man building it’s first proper Whisky Distillery.

… that’s enough predictions for now.

 

Ralfy:  Any advice for whisky-fans ?

Ralfy:  … Enjoy every drop from the bottles, but don’t drop the bottles.

Pick friends carefully, then share your Whisky generously.

Get your ‘system’ organised on the internet for working out where the best whiskies are and how much they cost !

Don’t suffer too much bullshit from anyone about anything.

Make time for silence in your life.

Smell and sip … slow, slow, slow !

 

Ralfy:  And finally ralfy, tell us about the Canadian Connection at ralfy.com.

Ralfy:  … There’s three !

… Firstly, it was the decision by the Scotch Whisky Association to spend a fortune in cash trying to prevent Glen Ora Distillery, Nova Scotia, Canada from using the word GLEN in its’ presentation of the Glen Breton Single Malt Canadian Whisky.

It was my personal sense of being deeply insulted and witnessing Scotland suffering offence with this ‘business’ decision that specifically instigated the first ever Vlog at ralfy.com WhiskyReviews (now review number 2)

Scottish culture, heritage and blood infuses Canada through generations and Scotland is very much a part of the fabric of this big Country.

… I cannot believe that any self-respecting Scotsman would have taken the litigious action of the Scotch Whisky Association.

… Another Canadian Connection has been the excellent hospitality of the organisers and people at the Victoria Whisky Festival in 2010 where I both recorded Vlogs and presented a masterclass ( a bit unorthodox, but it was popular! ) and despite offers from around the World, Victoria remains the only appearance of ralfy outside of Scotland at a Whisky Festival and this situation is likely to remain for quite a few years yet.

… The final Canadian Connection is (apart from having relatives in Canada) is my awareness that of all the Countries around the World, Canada has the best position in being able to re-invent it’s Whisky Industry with many exciting happenings going on including the use of Canadian oak for maturation, the refining of skills in multigrain distillation and the appearance of something genuinely new to the world of Spirits.  Check Davin’s excellent website canadianwhisky.org for Canadian-stuff !

 

Ralfy:  Thanks, Ralfy !

Ralfy:  You’re welcome.

Ralfy raises a glass

Y’see what I mean?  Thanks again, Ralfy.  Canada looks forward to having you back.

Slainte!

          – ATW

Feb 082011
 

John Glaser is the man behind Compass Box whiskies.   His unique and uncompromising approach to the craft is nearly unrivalled in terms of innovation and determination.  This fierce drive and desire to break the mold have led to more than a few hackles being raised, and conversely…not a few glowing accolades.  While finding ways to work within the narrow confines of SWA regulation John has still managed to carve his niche and blaze a trail of originality.  His battles to bring The Spice Tree to life are legend now. 

Along the journey, John has littered the path with gems the rest of us are fortunate enough to pick up.  Hedonism, Eleuthera, Flaming Heart and The Peat Monster are but a few.  I would strongly recommend any whisky enthusiasts find their way to one of John’s tastings, and if that proves an impossibility…well…hit up your local specialist and tell them you want Compass Box.

Now.

Without further ado…

John Glaser.

John Glaser

ATW:  How did Compass Box come about?  Your history in wines and working with Johnnie Walker have quite obviously given you a formidable bedrock from which to start, but was there a catalyst that made you say “okay…here’s what I’m going to do…”?

JG:  Starting Compass Box came out of a realisation that I was in a unique situation:  I am someone who likes making things, who enjoys the creative process, and I found myself living in the UK with an idea for doing Scotch whisky in a different way (that of the craft-scale blender), access to purchasing whisky direct from the producers, and an understanding (due to my work) of how to bring whisky brands to market internationally.  One day, on a holiday to the island of Eleuthera, I simply decided I was going to act on this and do it on my own.  There did not seem to be any option otherwise.  It just seemed to make perfect sense.

 

ATW:  Can you explain the significance of the name ‘Compass Box’ and why you
chose it?

JG:  See:  http://server7.sky-map.org/starview?object_type=5&object_id=69&locale=EN

 

ATW:  Compass Box whiskies are beautiful marriages of only a select few components.  Was this more of an early reflection on the quality of certain whiskies and your opinion of how they would compliment each other, or a reaction to the homogeneity that is too often a product of blending many whiskies?

JG:  It was both.  My approach to blending is that I WANT the characteristics of key whiskies to stand out.  I don’t want to use so many components that you achieve homogeneity.  It’s a different approach to blending than others take.  I start by using component whiskies with significant character and build around that, adding a few other whiskies to enhance complexity, to complement, to create balance.

 

ATW:  When you started up Compass Box were you aiming primarily at whisky enthusiasts?  Has this changed over time?

JG:  I have always aimed at people who seek out good stuff.  Whether whisky enthusiasts or not.  The core mission of our business is to share the joys of great whisky with more people.  In the beginning, this was mostly picked up by enthusiasts, but as we ‘ve grown, our reach has broadened.

 

ATW:  Do you single-handedly create all Compass Box expressions?

JG:  As our business has grown, and as the range of what we offer grows, I have been helped enormously by Gregg Glass, my assistant.  I still create the direction for new whiskies and lead the creation of these through prototype development.  Gregg helps me with this and helps manage our relationships with the distillers, coopers and our bottler.

 

ATW:  Where does the inspiration for your new lines come from? Do you start with a specific end in mind, or build on the-go as you come across interesting casks that will form the foundation of something new? Have you ever reached out to your customers for input on new blends?

JG:  Inspiration comes from all over.  There is no formula.  I believe if you work hard and if you keep your eyes open inspiration will come along.  You can’t plan for it.  You have to just keep working.

 

ATW:  What can you say about the Compass Box wood policy?  You are purchasing mature (or maturing) whiskies to use in your blends, of course, but the wood you choose for final maturation will obviously have an influence on your end product.

JG:  Our policy is to work with higher quality, more active wood.  By higher quality I am talking about two aspects:  one is how active the oak is, which is based on how many times it has been used.  The more a cask is used, the less it has to offer in terms of flavour materials and the less complexity you are able to achieve in the whisky. Most casks in Scotland are far too many times in my mind.  Which is why so many Scotch whiskies are boring.  Secondly, I am talking about the inherent quality of the oak for maturation purposes.  This is based on the tightness of the grain, the type of seasoning (air-dried, which we prefer, versus kiln-dried), the duration of the seasoning, (generally, longer air drying of the wood creates more complex and delicious flavours in the wood), and the type of toasting and/or charring the wood is exposed to (this transforms the flavours in the oak further and very significantly).

 

ATW:  What is the Compass Box expression you are most proud of to date?

JG:  You mean, which child am I most proud of?  Hmm.  Difficult… .

 

ATW:  Going on a decade now, can you reflect back on the peer reception Compass Box received upon inception, and the esteem it is held in now?

JG:  Perhaps a question better answered by others.

 

ATW:  What has been the single greatest hurdle Compass Box has had to overcome?

JG:  My tendency to try and do too much.

 

ATW:  Compass Box has been the recipient of many awards (over 60 at this point, I believe).  Can you speak to the award that meant the most to you?

JG:  Our first award for Innovation was given to me in our second year, and it was presented to me by the late Michael Jackson.  I look back on this fondly, for he was such a tremendous influence on the world of whisky (and beer, for that matter!).  He was a devoted individual who worked extremely hard, right up until he passed away.

 

ATW:  When you hold master classes or tasting events, what is the message you really want to get across to the audience?

JG:  Share and enjoy.

 

ATW:  There has been mention of Compass Box tastings that allow a ‘blend at your table’ deal for attendees.   Can you elaborate on this and the inspiration behind it?

JG:  I simply believe that one way to change peoples’ perceptions of something, of anything, you need to offer them rational explanation for why their current perceptions are inaccurate.  To change the perception in whisky that blending is somehow bad (and anything “single” is supposedly good), I let people blend for themselves, using our components.  They see that when you start with high quality components, and just a few (not 30 or 40), and if you blend with care and with a stylistic objective in mind, you can make lovely things.  When people experience this, it changes their minds about the possibilities with whisky blending.  For ever and for good.  This is our “blending school” program which we have been running for several years now.

 

ATW:  …and finally, a fun one…

I believe you were a literature major.  Can you recommend a few book and whisky pairings for the Compass Box expressions?

JG:  Alfred Jarry and The Peat Monster.  I’ll buy a drink for anyone who
makes the connection between the two!

Thanks, John.  Your time and effort are appreciated.

The gauntlet has been thrown.  I wiki’d Alfred Jarry and am now more than intrigued.  Readers out there…if you make this connection please do not post it here.  Keep it on the downlow until you meet Mr. Glaser.  Let’s keep this challange alive.

Slainte

 Posted by at 7:40 pm
Dec 072010
 

This past September I spent a week touring the eight working distilleries on Islay.  Amid all of the phenomenal experiences, one shone above all others…My time at Bruichladdich.  The team at Bruichladdich have always prided themselves on doing things their own way, and apparently a hearty welcome was just another example of the Bruichladdich mandate.  I’ll spare you the details here, but if you care to hear a little more about the gang at Bruichladdich check out the following:  http://www.allthingswhisky.com/?page_id=236.

Unfortunately as I was touring Islay Jim McEwan, Bruichladdich’s Master Distiller, was in Toronto.  In lieu of the conversation were unable to have at the distillery, Jim happily agreed to answer a few questions for the faithful here at ATW.

Without further ado…

Bruichladdich's Master Distiller, Jim McEwan

Jim, can you tell us a little about your history in the whisky industry?

I Started at the age of 15 as an apprentice Cooper at Bowmore and stayed with Bowmore for 38 years, during which time I learned about Malting, Mashing, Distilling, Warehouse keeping, Blending, Marketing, Educating all sorts of people around the globe about Bowmore and other whiskies of course.

I lived in Glasgow during my Blending days and also during my time as the Bowmore Global Ambassador.

I left Bowmore in Dec 2000 and started in Bruichladdich on the 6th Jan 2001.

 

What does a typical day at Bruichladdich entail for you?

A typical day starts at 7.00 am with a cup of coffee and sort out my E-mails in order of importance and make a start on them.

7-30 am  Duncan and Allan arrive, and it’s a half hour of ‘whats happening throughout the day’ type discussion, what visitors are expected etc etc.

8.00 am – 10.00 am  Try and finish E-mails, which as you know is not without its delays, due to travel commitments or just way to busy preparing whisky for the bottling hall.

10-00 am – 12-30 pm  Warehouses to carry out Quality checks on casks or select casks for bottling

1.00 pm- 5-30 pm  A mix of meeting with visitors from our distributors or single malt fans who simply want to say ‘Hi’.

Check on the Mashing and Distillation with the guys.

Look after VIP groups and carry out tastings with them, plus find some more time to respond to the hundreds of mails I receive with questions on whisky…and I do try to reply.  Check with the bottling hall on what their requirements are for the next few days and check on the spirit that has been bottled that day.

5-30 pm  Chat with the operators on duty before going home for a well earned dram.

 

What role do you play, both artistically and technically (though at Bruichladdich these may be indistinguishable), in the creation of the Bruichladdich expressions?

My role is ensuring that the whisky we make is as good as it can be, that the whisky we sell is constantly as good as it can be.

I design new styles of Single Malts that I hope  will enhance the Brand and bring exciting flavours to new and old customers.  I also assist a little in the marketing of said products with ideas and concepts.

 

The Bruichladdich Distillery.

 

Are the more unique Bruichladdich expressions (such as Octomore, X4, PC5-8, etc) generally driven by an inspiration to smash boundaries or simply because you believe that they will be exceptional?

There will always be new and exciting products from us that’s the way we like it and so does the more educated consumer who wants quality and choice, that’s what we deliver.  Why?  Because we can, we  will continue to break down barriers plus we will always produce a high quality product and when the consumer talks we listen and take on board their comments.

 

In your opinion which characteristic of Bruichladdich most distinguishes it, not only from the other Islay malts, but Scotch whisky in general?

Being an unpeated Islay kind of sets Bruichladdich apart anyway, and the beautiful fruity sweet malt flavours which meld superbly with the oak make it an very easy and enjoyable spirit for the consumer to appreciate.  All the goodness and skill taken in making it is very evident due to  the quality of the Barley, the Casks and slow distillation plus the 100% maturation in the cellars by the sea make it truly unique, as most other distillers mature their stocks in central  Scotland.

Plus the fact that is produced with Victorian equipment in the time honoured way.  Bruichladdich is elegant, sophisticated, free from all additives and made by artisinal skills passed down the line since 1881. 

 

What factor of production would you suggest most directly influences and determines this character?

The speed of distillation and the cask quality.

 

Can you share a unique piece of Bruichladdich history that most of us wouldn’t know?

History WILL be made on 29th May at 8.26am 2011, that is when we will be 10 years old, it’s been a long haul but we are almost there.  Praise the lord.

 

Having been an integral part of the Bruichladdich renaissance, can you share some of the obstacles you’ve had to overcome in bringing it to where it is today?

The biggest problem was getting the distillery back into shape.  We have done well on a tight budget and carried most of the refurb work ourselves plus we still made whisky throughout the renovations.  There are many things still to be done and they will be done in time as we have shown with the building of a bottling hall, the changes made in the Stillhouse, the construction of a new warehouse and another about to be started in Jan 2011.  The team have been totally amazing, never a quibble or a complaint, and now we employ 50 people, which makes us the biggest employer on the Island outwith the Government who employ 62% of Scotland.

 

Are there any updates you can give us regarding the status of the Port Charlotte Distillery?

Port Charlotte is on the back burner due to the fact that we have to build new warehouses as I mentioned.

 

Can you share any insight as to the inter-relationships between the Islay distilleries?  Is there a high level of support and cooperation on the island?

The relationship between all the distilleries is and always has been first class, this will continue forever its an Islay thing and at the moment all distilleries are managed by local lads who have know each other all their lives.  It’s never been any other way.

 

What is your favorite expression in the current Bruichladdich range?

 At the moment I am in love with Black Art 2.  It’s absolute magic.

 

When not drinking Bruichladdich, what would your drink of choice be?

I love MORTLACH.  It’s my no. 1 Speyside, TALISKER  is another, as is BOWMORE, given that I helped to make a fair drop.

 

Is there one gem of a cask sitting in the warehouse you are itching to either bottle or drink yourself?

I have two casks of 1990 which I transferred into Chateau Y-Quem four years ago from Bourbon Barrels and it’s totally wicked.  No whisky should be this easy but it is and I love it.  No, its not for sale.

 

Can you give a hint as to what may be on the horizon for future Bruichladdich expressions?

Future Bruichladdich expressions?  Well today we started selling our own Gin made here in an old Lomond Still which I call UGLY BETTY.  It’s beautiful, very fresh and with the flavours of 22 Islay botanicals it’s dangerously drinkable.  It’s on our Web shop list so give it a try…you will not be disappointed.

Of course there will be unique bottlings like a 25 year old Oloroso bottling or Port Charlotte from a PX Sherry, lots of options it could be X4 in Château La Tour, watch this space.

 

'Ugly Betty'...The Lomond Still from which Bruichladdich has produced their (truly excellent) gin.

 

What can one expect if visiting Bruichladdich?

A warm welcome and a good dram .

 

…and finally…

What would you pour someone about to taste their first Bruichladdich?

Bruichladdich Classic would be my introduction malt to anyone trying Brookie for the first time.  It’s a mix of pre-Jim and post-Jim and it reflects all that is good about this distillery and all who work in it.

Warm thanks and sincere appreciation for your time, Jim.  Hopefully next time we’ll be able to share a dram.

In the meantime, readers…keep checking back in the coming days.  Part 2 of the Bruichladdich interview will be with Mark Reynier.

Slainte!

 Posted by at 9:51 am
Sep 212010
 
As more and more voices are joining the online choir of whisky chat, ATW thought it would be a good idea to draw attention to one that resonates a little louder than some of its peers.  Mark Connelly, of Glasgow, is helping to shape not only Glasgow’s whisky community, but the global community at large.  His forum (www.whiskywhiskywhisky.com) is a meeting place for malt lovers and anoraks from around the world to share tasting notes, news, gripes and all things related to whisky.  (Pssst…check out the Maple Leaf Lounge!).  The merit of such a deep pool of information is beyond question.  This is simply the leaping off point however.  Mark also maintains his own blog (www.glasgowswhisky.com), is a member of the Glasgow Whisky Club and is co-founder of the Glasgow Whisky Festival.
 
 Mark was an ideal candidate to be targeted for a chat with ATW.  He is the sort of easy-going humorous soul that we generally hang about with, and his experience and credentials speak for themselves.  Mark is also in a unique position of working in the industry and being a common drammer like many of us out there. 

In true ATW form, we sat down over an e-dram with Mr. Connelly and let him share some insight on the more demanding side of things before having some fun over music and lit.

Without further ado… 

 
 
 
 
ATW:  Everybody starts somewhere.  What was your first whisky?  Was it love at first sight (taste)? 

MC:  I think it was Laphroaig, somewhere in Glasgow, years ago. I loved the stuff. It was in a tumbler full of ice but that suited me fine at the time. I wasn’t looking for all the subtle notes and flavours, just something cold and tasty and alcoholic! I loved it. 

 

ATW:  There is generally a point of no return for whisky lovers such as us.  Do you remember that moment when you realized that you had gone beyond simple appreciation and moved into something more consuming? 

MC:  I think when I went to my first masterclass that really opened my eyes and took whisky from simply a nice drink to something that could be studied and discussed, as well as being enjoyable. From there I joined Glasgow’s Whisky Club and that really set it off. 

  

ATW:  What prompted the creation of the blog and forum? 

MC:  The forum came about because a few of us online were getting frustrated at another forum that we used. A couple of us had an idea to start our own and it seems mine was up and running first. We wanted something that we could make our own and that could evolve to suit us. 

The blog was simply a way for me to get stuff out of my head that was swimming around, but also to keep a record of places I’ve been and things I’ve done in a way that I couldn’t really do with the forum. It’s taking a blog back to the original use of an online diary, although there’s the odd bit of news and other things thrown in too. It’s mainly just for me but if anyone reads it that’s great too. It’s also a place to put Glasgow-based information as the city is under-represented in the whisky world in my opinion. 

  

ATW:  Before starting ATW I asked myself if I had enough to offer in creating a website and going live.  Did you have a moment like this, and if so, what tipped the scales? 

MC:  To be honest the forum was set up on a bit of a whim one night. Similarly with the blog. There’s been no real thought put in to either and they were easy to set up so I thought ‘why not’? I really need to design them properly at some point but right now there aren’t enough hours in the day.

  

ATW:  There is a certain level of responsibility that comes with blogging and reviewing whisky (or anything for that matter).  Let’s face it…others use this information to make informed purchases.  Have you ever given much consideration to the moral side of having a public voice? 

MC:  Since the blog is mainly for me I don’t really think like that. I try to watch what I say in case someone does read it but that’s more in keeping it politely written rather than misinformation. If you are honest then I think that’s the best you can do. I think Ralfy, whom you’ve interviewed, does so well because of his honesty. He also strives to keep his independence which is a big factor too as so many bloggers, writers and commentators are becoming more and more attached to certain companies. You can’t blame them as it’s their dream job to work in the industry but it does make you wonder if they can keep it unbiased. The only thing I am involved in is my festival which might get a few plugs here and there!

 

ATW:  Through the blog and forum you have helped facilitate a wide sphere of influence and allowed a lot of folks access to information that may not have been readily available.  That being said, where do YOU look to for your information? 

MC:  My forum! Seriously, the members are great at posting up news articles and starting discussions. They also regularly add to the tasting notes section which is great for checking whether you might want to buy a whisky as there’s usually more than one opinion to work from. Aside from that site I often pick up a lot of stuff from other blogs, but often it’s Facebook and Twitter where you hear something first. I also buy books, such as Malt Whisky Yearbook which is a great read, and discussions with friends and fellow club members. 

  

ATW:  Being the moderator of a whisky forum, and a damn good one (www.whiskywhiskywhisky.com), what trends do you see, not in the whisky industry, but in the people out there buying and drinking? 

MC:  I think there’s a definite move towards looking for value for money. The price of whisky keeps going up and up and with more limited expressions and fancy finishes (and packaging) it’s harder to find a good dram without spending loads of cash. Certainly that’s what I’m finding these days. The forum is a good place to ask for opinions before buying and for finding good, affordable whisky. There definitely seems to be a little bit of a backlash against all the finishing and wacky casks being used. 

  

ATW:  Do you have plans beyond the current medium you are using (blog/forum)?  

MC:  I have plans for something whisky-related which will have an online aspect but it’s not really a part of that. What I do have coming up is an exclusive bottling for the forum members. I’d really like to be bottling good whisky myself on a regular basis but as stocks are becoming harder to get hold of due to demand that might not be something I can really count on. I am in the middle of redesigning the forum but there’s nothing more I’d like to do online at the moment. I have another idea but I really don’t have the time or resources for that right now. Not giving much away, am I?

 

ATW:  The Glasgow‘s Whisky site has some fantastic photography.  You have a unique approach to shooting that shines as one of the signatures of the site.  Can you speak to the visual side of what you publish on the blog?

MC:  Photography has been a love of mine since before whisky and I was semi-professional at one point, meaning I occasionally got paid for it! I was really into music photography at one stage, shooting bands live from the photo pit at gigs was a great buzz. There just wasn’t really any money in it. I still enjoy photography a lot but I prefer to keep it as a hobby – something for myself – rather than work. I have been shooting a few distilleries recently so I might do something with that in the future. Distilleries are, mainly, a great place for photographers (as long as they don’t give you that ‘explosive environment’ crap!). It’s nice to be able to illustrate the blog articles with a few good photos and I’m lucky that I can do that without needing to source stock images or anything like that.

 

ATW:  How much of your time is devoted to whisky?  Is this hard to reconcile with work and family?

MC:  Hahaha! Yes, very hard. We have a young baby and my going out to a club night or other tasting isn’t looked upon too well right now. Work is now the festival and the other venture I can’t talk about so it’s just family that I need to balance. It’s not easy, though.

 

ATW:  Speaking of committed time…how did your role as organizer/founder of the Glasgow Whisky Festival come about?

MC:  Just like the forum this came about due to frustration at what was currently available. In my opinion Scotland’s largest city should have one of the biggest and best events but unfortunately this isn’t the case. Hopefully we can change that, although iit might take a couple of years to get properly established and build up to something really impressive. We’ve managed to pull in a pretty good lineup for this first one which has a good mixture of producers, including independent bottlers, which has been lacking with the other event here.

 

ATW:  Did you set out with a certain theme or image in mind for how the festival should ultimately turn out?

MC:  The idea was really as many and as varied as possible, and purely focusing on the whisky itself rather than all the sideshows that can sometimes come with these events. We wanted to get all the independent bottlers in Glasgow involved and also the local bars and whisky enthusiasts. The tagline ‘by Glasgow for Glasgow’ sums up our philosophy pretty well.

 

ATW:  How about a few pairings for us?

1)  A good book and malt to accompany it?

MC:  Just finished reading The Rum Diaries by Hunter S Thompson (before they make the film) which I would suggest reading with a large Aberlour A’Bunadh (you’ll need it)!

2)  A good album and malt to accompany it?

MC:  One of my favourite albums of all time is Appetite for Destruction by Guns and Roses. I remember listening to it full blast on my Walkman whilst cutting my parents’ lawn in the summers between years at high school. I would need to listen to that with something big, youthful and a bit wild, something like Ardbeg Still Young.

3)  A good meal and malt to accompany it?

MC:  A great big pot of mussels with a Laphroaig Quarter Cask.

 

ATW:  What is the one malt out there that you are itching to get your hands on?

MC:  If money was no option I would love a bottle of Black Bowmore. I have tried a sample twice and it is one of the best, old, sherried whiskies I have tried. I would love to have a bottle of that. Maybe one day…

 

ATW:  Finally…Can you share your best malt moment to date?

MC:  The best moment for me is whenever I get to try whisky straight from the cask in a warehouse. I hate going to those distilleries where you can’t do anything but have a quick look at the equipment and then you are whisked off to a brightly-lit, heavily-branded tasting room. The warehouse is where all the magic happens and to be able to open a cask and try the maturing whisky in that cool, damp, dark, sweet-smelling atmosphere can’t be beaten.

Sincere thanks, Mark.   (Not only did Mark excuse the delinquency in shipping these questions off to him, he replied within hours).

Readers…if you aren’t already a member or lurker at www.whiskywhiskywhisky.com, I strongly advise a visit.  There is much to learn, even if you don’t care to join in the chat. 

Whisky Whisky Whisky Forumwww.whiskywhiskywhisky.com/forum
Glasgow’s Whisky Festival
www.glasgowswhiskyfestival.com
Glasgow’s Whisky (And Ale) Blog
www.glasgowswhisky.com

 

Slainte!

 Posted by at 9:02 am