Very few in the published whisky world speak with such a balance of knowledge and conviction as Dominic 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’.
With 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.
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.