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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Ian Buxton

The charms of a 50 year old Glenglassaugh

After taking a curmudgeonly swipe at very old whiskies earlier this month, Ian Buxton has fallen for the charms of a 50 year old Glenglassaugh, a distillery that he has…

After taking a curmudgeonly swipe at very old whiskies earlier this month, Ian Buxton has fallen for the charms of a 50 year old Glenglassaugh, a distillery that he has a fair bit of history with. Here he explains why. 

Well, that didn’t take long. Only last month here I was criticising the trend to ever-older and more expensive whiskies and along comes another one.

My problem, if you can’t be bothered to look it up, is simply stated: all too often, in my opinion at least, they really don’t taste terribly nice. But that’s because they’re trophies, wrapped in increasingly lavish and frankly vulgar packaging and designed to be looked at, admired, possibly flipped for some inflated profit but never, perish the thought, actually drunk.

However, ever the optimist, I concluded with a note to the PR industry, “do keep sending those tiny little samples,” I wrote. “One day I’ll find one that I like.”  Social media wasn’t impressed, with one Instagram keyboard warrior, outraged but anonymous, suggesting that I required “a palate mature enough to appreciate it”. Ouch.

Glenglassaugh releases 50 year old “coastal treasure”

Glenglassaugh 50-year-old, note relatively modest packaging

The charms of a 50-year-old Glenglassaugh

However, the spinmeisters took me at my word and what I have in my glass today is 3cl of Glenglassaugh’s latest release, a 50-year-old single cask, finished in Pedro Ximénez and coming in just over the legal minimum at 40.1% ABV. It’s about £235’s worth apparently or just under £200 for a single pub measure with change for a packet of salt and vinegar crisps.

Sorry if that strikes you as flippant but it’s a great deal of money for a small glass of whisky.

Here’s the thing though: I’ve emphasised the price (it’s £5,500 for the full bottle and sadly there are only 264 of them) because, by the standards of these things, it’s actually remarkable value (not words I ever thought I’d write) not least because, Dionysus be praised, it comes in remarkably modest packaging.  

Yes, there’s a nice bottle and a wooden box but that’s about it. No crystal decanter and matching glasses, no enormous display cabinet, no silver stopper, and no leather-bound, letterpress printed volume of sycophantic drooling praise from some tame whisky hack (I’m available, though). 

However, I hope the oligarchs won’t be put off because they’d be missing a treat.  Yes, this is actually very, very enjoyable whisky.

Glenglassaugh

Inside a warehouse at Glenglassaugh

There’s treasure in those old dunnage warehouses

At this point, one of those sanctimonious disclosure statements: I’m familiar with the background to this whisky (hallelujah, you may say, he’s writing about something he actually knows about) because from 2008-2010 I acted as a sort of semi-detached interim marketing director for Glenglassaugh which was then undergoing the first phase of its revival.  Subsequently, I then wrote a book about it (it’s now hard to find but I’m told the distillery may have copies).

I vividly recall nosing old casks with then-MD Stuart Nickerson and the late Dr Jim Swan, then wood consultant to the distillery, in the warehouse at Sandend Bay. We were, frankly, astonished by the quality and found it hard to believe that the previous owners hadn’t appreciated these unsung gems.  

“These are gold medal winners in any competition,” said Swan and, of course, he was right. We bottled some as a 40-Year-Old and it swept the board at the 2009 IWSC awards, collecting the relevant gold medal, declared ‘best in class’, and lifting the blue-riband IWSC 40th-anniversary Trophy. 

However, even then, the potential for further aging was evident and stocks were reserved for future extra-aged releases. Fortunately, though the distillery has changed hands, subsequent owners have seen the merit in this plan and now it has come together.

Dr Rachel Barrie, Glenglassaugh

Your whisky is in safe hands with Dr Rachel Barrie

The merits of refill casks

But those old casks had aged remarkably slowly for one principal reason. While the Glenglassaugh warehouse is dunnage style and has a micro-climate unique to its coastal location the original distillers had used refill casks. Expecting the spirit to be quickly required for relatively young, mass-market blends they didn’t use the finest of casks – frankly, the barrels were showing their age when first used. But that meant extended, slow, undisturbed aging for the whisky and that, in turn, meant that Glenglassaugh’s distinctive tropical fruit character was maintained even as a richer, deeper character developed.

So, when I received details of this latest release I had just one concern, which was the finishing in a Pedro Ximénez cask which, on occasion, can overwhelm. However, my fears were unjustified: this is nothing short of a triumph.  The last Glenglassaugh casks have been under the watchful eye of master blender Rachel Barrie who has judged to perfection the balance of distillery character and the contribution of the finishing cask.

I rang her to discuss and her enthusiasm and belief in Glenglassaugh was a pleasure to share. “This is the most luscious and silky single malt elixir I’ve ever known,” she told me.  Simply check out her stellar career (SWRI, Glenmorangie, Morrison Bowmore, and now BeamSuntory) before you dismiss that as simply part of the PR.

It really isn’t. A decade or so ago I had my nose in this cask and the promise was clear back then. Since then, it’s just got better and better and better. I seriously doubt if I will taste a finer whisky this year.

So, note to the PR industry, do keep sending those tiny little samples of very old whisky. One day I’ll find another that I like.

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Great whisky marketing fiascos

Do you remember Bailey’s whiskey, or J&B -6°C? Don’t ring a bell? Well, they weren’t around for long but Ian Buxton remembers these and other product launches that failed to…

Do you remember Bailey’s whiskey, or J&B -6°C? Don’t ring a bell? Well, they weren’t around for long but Ian Buxton remembers these and other product launches that failed to take off. Here are some great whisky marketing fiascos from the recent past.

“Success”, or so the saying goes, “has many parents, but failure is a real bastard.” While God may love a trier, bold attempts to market new approaches to whisky are not always crowned with success. I’ve been looking at some of the more notable campaigns that have crashed and burned, frequently taking a previously glittering career with them. But, if your track record includes one of these disasters, you can relax because I name only brands, not the individuals behind the story.

But it does raise the question that while failed products, aborted launches and other inglorious failures are rapidly written out of a brand’s history, wouldn’t it be advisable for the industry to retain at least a corporate memory of catastrophe, if only to prevent making the same mistake twice? I offer these recollections then, not with a sense of schadenfreude but in a helpful spirit with the hope that these words might prevent some hapless marketer from repeating an embarrassing and expensive blunder.

Black & White Extra Light

How could it have failed with ads like this?

The lighter shade of pale

Since the 1960s, the whisky industry has looked on the rise of vodka and white rums (chiefly Bacardi) with increasing concern. This was particularly the case in the USA where the success of lighter styles of whisky such as Cutty Sark and J&B Rare led DCL (forerunner to today’s Diageo) to the conclusion that its brand Black & White, then a major force in that market, would benefit from the launch of a paler version. Enter Black & White Extra Light, launched in 1963 to almost total incomprehension and confusion, especially amongst bar staff, vitally-important in the US trade. 

It was speedily withdrawn but the damage had been done. All was not lost for DCL, however. While Black & White faded into relative obscurity, Johnnie Walker stepped up to take its place. A virtual walkover, you might say.

However, the belief that whisky’s colour and pronounced flavour deters some drinkers lingers on. There may be an echo of those fears in the launch of Haig Club but, whatever the views of committed whisky enthusiasts on that product, at least it has not suffered the ignominious fate of J&B’s -6°C. It was launched in 2006 and withdrawn in under a year. The curious name was, in fact, a commendably clear description of the product which had been chill-filtered to strip out virtually all the colour (and much of the flavour) in an explicit attempt to attract vodka drinkers.

The clarity of the description certainly matched the clarity of the liquid itself which was extremely pale. In contrast to the faces of the sales and marketing team, doubtless blushing deepest red at the whisky’s pallid reception. Or perhaps they were ashen-faced in sympathy; history does not record.

The proof of the pudding

J&B -6°C lasted less than a year. However, that’s nearly a year longer than the February 2013 lifecycle of Maker’s Mark 84 Proof. Attributing the change to very high levels of demand the brand announced that the strength of this much-loved bourbon was being reduced from 90 Proof. Now, a cut of just 3% ABV may not seem hugely significant and the company went to great lengths to explain that their own extensive testing had been unable to detect the difference and to outline the reasoning behind the change.

However, their commendable transparency was rewarded with a storm of outrage on social media and many forceful emails to Rob Samuels, the unfortunate COO (chief operating officer). Conventional media reported the story with some glee, feeding the barrage of commentary and the story became self-sustaining. Within a fortnight Maker’s Mark reversed their decision and resumed shipping supplies at the previous, higher strength, Samuels issuing an abject mea culpa, writing “You spoke. We listened. And we’re sincerely sorry we let you down.” No lasting harm appears to have been done.

But two weeks is almost an eternity compared to the still-born whiskey from Bailey’s. Yes, back in March 1998, the ever-popular Irish Cream liqueur ran a Dublin test market with their own ‘Bailey’s The Whiskey’ – finished in casks previously filled with the cream liqueur. Expectations for the product ran high and, to be fair, this came from the new product development team at IDV/Grand Metropolitan who had an impressive track record of success in developing new brands and line extensions.

However, corporate change and whisky’s politics soon overtook the fledgling spirit. December 1997 had seen the creation of Diageo (in the process absorbing Grand Metropolitan) who soon took over the project. With Irish whiskey then a small and largely moribund category, Bailey’s Irish was promptly killed over fears of a tiresome dispute with the Scotch Whisky Association and EU regulations. As a matter of fact, Bailey’s The Whiskey would have been legal but in the turmoil surrounding Diageo’s birth it appeared an unnecessary diversion of corporate effort.

Bailey's Whiskey.

Bailey’s Whiskey, here today, gone later today

The Cardhu debacle

It was not long, however, before Diageo found itself in another whisky dispute – and one accompanied by great bitterness. This was the ill-fated 2003 launch of Cardhu Pure Malt, an attempt to market a blended malt with a bottle and packaging closely modelled on the original Cardhu single malt, changing just one key word. Enter PR man Jack Irvine, a grizzled veteran of Scotland’s red top tabloids, armed with – allegedly – a blank cheque book from William Grant & Sons, and a brief to humble the industry giant. This he accomplished with some élan, as other industry players piled on to force Diageo into a humiliating climbdown.

Behind the scenes feelings and tensions ran very high, even at one stage threatening the future of the SWA who had approved the Cardhu packaging changes. One long-term result was new regulations for Scotch Whisky, eventually promulgated in November 2009. 

There are many more tales of corporate calamities such as these. Sadly, space does not permit discussion of Dewar’s hapless Highlander Honey, the star-crossed Loch Dhu Black Whisky or the flawed attempt to reposition Mortlach as a super-premium luxury whisky in half-litre bottles. The market soon gave its verdict on those but, in the ultimate irony, most of these doomed drams are now highly sought-after by collectors and sell for multiples of the original launch prices. Let’s hope the executives responsible tucked a few bottles away to soften the blow!

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Does very old whisky taste better?

There’s been a spate of very old whiskies released recently such as a 54 year old Singleton of Dufftown, and from Gordon & MacPhail, an 80 year old Glenlivet,  but does…

There’s been a spate of very old whiskies released recently such as a 54 year old Singleton of Dufftown, and from Gordon & MacPhail, an 80 year old Glenlivet,  but does old necessarily mean better, asks Ian Buxton.

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,

“And your hair has become very white;

And yet you incessantly stand on your head –

Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

Lewis Carroll’s verse came to mind when reading a recent press release from renowned independent bottlers Gordon & MacPhail. The company has plundered is Elgin warehouses and will shortly release what’s claimed to be the “world’s oldest single malt Scotch” – an 80 year old Glenlivet if you’re interested. Don’t bother to ask the price because, even though it hasn’t been revealed, it’s safe to assume you can’t afford it.

Whisky Advent 2020 Day #21: The Dalmore Cigar Malt

The nose behind Dalmore Trinitas, master blender Richard Paterson

Old and expensive

Now, not to be unduly pedantic, but I seem to recall that the October 2010 release of Dalmore’s Trinitas featured spirit from 1868 but as this had been vatted with other whiskies, some dating from as *recently* as 1939 it could *only* be marketed as a 64 year old. At the time, this seemed an incredible age and the launch price – a mere £100,000 – raised more than a few eyebrows.

However, like the infamous taxis in the rain, it seems that hardly a week passes without some exceptionally old whisky being launched, often at prices less than the cost of a three bedroom house in Grimsby – which, if you can’t be bothered to look it up, is around £55,000.

You’d actually have to sell two properties from Grimsby to enjoy something like the Glenfarclas Family Trunk, though there are 50 (albeit small) bottles of whisky from every year between 1954 and 2003. At 20cl each, that’s just over 14 full bottles, making this Speyside beauty something of a bargain at the 70cl equivalent of £7,000 each. Mind you, with just a couple of minutes on any decent property website it’s possible to find a selection of one and even the occasional two bed flats or terraced houses for less than that.

Back in October last year, a complete set of Macallan Red sold for more than three-quarter of a million pounds, albeit in a charity auction and today, assuming you could find one, just one bottle of Macallan Red 78 years old would set you back around a cool £100,000.  Alternatively, a 54 years old Singleton could be yours for £28,850 or perhaps three half litre bottles (a 1972, 1977 and a 1982) from the Brora Triptych at £30,000 would appeal. Or £50,000 for a Black Bowmore DB5. Unfortunately you’ve missed the chance of the Black Bowmore Archive Cabinet which auctioned in April for a cool £405,000. Not bad for a whisky which proved slow to sell at the original launch price of around £100 a bottle.

Brora Triptych

Brora Triptych, note fancy packaging

The investment boom

Right, that’s enough silly whisky prices. Like old Father William the whisky business seems to be standing on its head because it wasn’t so very long ago that whisky more than 25 years old was thought next to undrinkable (we’ll come back to this), and warehouse managers would have been chastised for letting any cask reach this excessive age.

What, you might well ask, is going on? Well, we can lay some of the blame at the door of the whisky ‘investment’ boom which I’ve been banging on about for some while. The claims just get bigger and wilder, all fueled by the cheap money that’s washing around the world, inflating asset prices and helping the rich get richer. You can thank the world’s central banks’ various quantitative easing (aka ‘helicopter money’) programmes for that but, understandably, if a distillery can see the chance of a windfall profit from one last venerable cask they can hardly be blamed for taking the money. They’re businesses after all.

And we have to face the uncomfortable fact that a large part of the price is accounted for by the increasingly lavish trappings that dress these whiskies – that Gordon & MacPhail 80 year old Glenlivet will come in a decanter and oak case designed by leading architect Sir David Adjaye OBE. No pictures yet but I’m betting it won’t feature a tall round bottle with a screw-top closure. Elsewhere, we see one-off custom-made cabinets, hand-blown crystal decanters, leather-bound tasting ledgers and other exquisitely crafted but frankly increasingly vulgar packaging designed to conceal the elephant in the room.

Taylor's Single Harvest 1896

Compared with some whiskies, this £4k Port is a steal, And it’s delicious

Does very old whisky taste better?

Which is that the vast majority of these whiskies are for display not drinking. Which, as it happens, I find something of a relief. And now I’m going to let you into a curious secret: that’s because they’re often not very nice. Those that I have sampled are simply over the hill – over-woody or bitter, lifeless and one-dimensional.

Perhaps it’s a grape vs. grain thing. I don’t have the science to back this up but give me a dignified and stately Madeira or vintage port, or even a very old brandy, be it Armagnac or Cognac and the liquid seems vibrant and even fresh tasting by comparison. Not to mention that prices seem a relative bargain – Louis XIII at under £3,000 for example or an 1870 Tawny Port (with companion 1970 bottle for comparison) at £4,000.

I fear the whisky industry has a bad case of the Emperor’s New Clothes though, note to PR industry, do keep sending those tiny little samples. One day I’ll find one that I like.

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The surprisingly long history of column single malt whisky

Copper Rivet Distillery has just released what is claimed to be “the first column single malt whisky ever released from any distillery in Britain”. Not so, says Ian Buxton. Here…

Copper Rivet Distillery has just released what is claimed to be “the first column single malt whisky ever released from any distillery in Britain”. Not so, says Ian Buxton. Here he takes takes a look at the long history of malt whisky made using a continuous still.

Dramatic news from Kent where Chatham’s Copper Rivet Distillery has announced the launch of its ‘Column Single Malt Whisky’.

Since opening in December 2017, Copper Rivet has been doing some interesting and noteworthy things.  The team makes a tasty gin (OK, so a small distillery making gin isn’t the most interesting and noteworthy thing in the entire history of the world, but it is very tasty) and have gone on to release a fine English malt whisky, made using classic pot stills.

But this is something different and unique – single malt whisky distilled in a column still. In fact, they claim it’s “the first column single malt whisky ever released from any distillery in Britain”.  This puppy comes courtesy of Copper Rivet’s Head Distiller Abhi Banik who joined them from Heriot-Watt University’s internationally renowned International Centre for Brewing and Distilling where he was teaching brewing and distilling on the post-graduate course.

You can see him here discussing the new product, from which it’s fair to conclude that, apart from wearing a pretty fetching tartan bunnet, he knows more than a little about making whisky.

But, as we shall see, they clearly don’t study much history on the course.

Copper Rivet Distillery - Abhi Banik

Abhi Banik sporting a very fetching ‘bunnet’

The SWA says no

Interesting though this is, it’s very far from Britain’s first column still single malt. In fact, were it not for an apparently arcane clause in the 2009 Scotch Whisky Regulations, we could be enjoying Loch Lomond Distillery’s Rhosdhu.

Back in 2007, Loch Lomond’s then production director John Peterson revived this name to describe the ‘single malt’ whisky he was making in the distillery’s column stills. And very agreeable it was, as I recall. The company’s argument was that the process was inherently more efficient than pot still distillation, saving as he claimed “more than 1,400 tonnes of CO2 being released every year” – as well as being something the industry had done in the past.  They weren’t even arguing for inclusion in the single malt category but proposing a distinct and clear description for column-distilled single malt.

The SWA was having none of it, arguing that “the further category being floated does not reflect traditional Scotch whisky distillation and practice” according to then spokesman Campbell Evans.

However, he was wrong.

Copper_Rivet_Disitllery_312_5134

The mighty central column still at the Copper Rivet distillery

The history of column single malt whisky

In fact, the technique had been used ever since the invention of the column still c.1826 and when our old friend distillery hack Alfred Barnard visited Yoker Distillery in Glasgow in 1886 he saw ‘one of Stein’s patent stills for the manufacture of malt whisky, the same as that described hereafter at Cameron Bridge Distillery.’ At Glenmavis he witnessed the patent still installed in 1855 producing 2,000 gallons of malt whisky every 24 hours. 

In 1913, in his magisterial survey of whisky production, J A Nettleton noted the production of patent-still all-malt whisky in “one or two distilleries” which he thought “may claim the title ‘whisky’ with the qualifying description” [patent i.e. continuous still].  Known then as ‘silent malt’ the practice certainly continued until the 1960s at the North of Scotland Distillery. 

Just as pertinently, the unusual Lomond still wasn’t invented until 1955 and never widely adopted. But one large distiller still operated such equipment and so a place was found for it in the 2009 regulations.

But as regards traditional practice, the SWA is more flexible than an Olympic gymnast. The use of former Tequila and mezcal casks was never, ever Scotch whisky practice. However, as an industry trade body, the SWA argues for what the industry wants – and that generally means what the bigger firms want (they pay the bills after all and Loch Lomond wasn’t then even a member). Back in 2009 the industry’s paymasters didn’t want continuous still single malt and so a part of whisky’s history was conveniently airbrushed out of the records. 

More recently, with trend-driven new consumers to attract alternative cask types seemed the way forward and, once again, commercial imperatives triumphed. Now a wide variety of hitherto-unknown barrels are used in finishing (itself a technique not widely seen until the 1982 launch of Balvenie Classic).

Copper Rivet Masthouse Column Still Single malt

Masthouse Column Still Single Malt – with the still in question behind

It’s not unusual

In recent years, column malts have been distilled outside Scotland. From Japan we have Nikka’s excellent Coffey Malt and there are other examples from world whisky.

Right, that’s enough history. My purpose is not to bury Copper Rivet but to praise them. This is a bold, exciting and innovative thing they’ve done and I hope it causes one or two folk in the hills and glens (or more probably, some urban corporate office blocks) to think hard about what opportunities Scotch whisky may be missing.

Copper Rivet’s PR person summed it up nicely, telling me “Copper Rivet’s viewpoint is that the Scotch Whisky regs have done enormously well for Scotland and for whisky in general; but that new whisky producers who are not bound by these regs can help add excitement and perhaps new flavours and new drinkers (who knows) to the whole whisky category”.

Amen to that: let’s welcome the buzz and intellectual and gastronomic excitement they’re adding by using a broader rule book for the 21st Century.

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Master of Malt Islay Festival 2021 Day 8: Bunnnahabhain

It’s the Master of Malt Islay Festival 2021 Day 8: Bunnahabhain time! It’s the eighth day of our celebration of all things Islay and we’re looking at what’s going on…

It’s the Master of Malt Islay Festival 2021 Day 8: Bunnahabhain time! It’s the eighth day of our celebration of all things Islay and we’re looking at what’s going on at Bunnahabhain while Ian Buxton shares with us some of his memories of the distillery. 

Today, we’re moving the virtual party to Bunnahabhain, famed for its unpeated whisky though it does produce some smoky bottling. So let’s take a look at what the distillery is laying on before handing over to Ian Buxton for some Islay reminisces. But first, here’s a rain-drenched video we made in 2019 with distillery manager Andrew Brown. And if you want some music, why not listen to our Islay memories playlist on Spotify?

What’s going on today:

It’s all taking place on Facebook on Friday 4th June. Go here for more information:

4pm – A warehouse tasting of drams straight from the cask. 

8pm – A masterclass featuring a veritable class of masters including master blender Julieann Fernandez, master distiller Brendan McCarron, Andrew Brown, visitor centre manager Billy Sinclair and whisky writer Dave Broom. They will be tasting the 12 year old before moving on to the Fèis Ìle 2021 bottlings.

The distillery is also hosting a virtual tour of Islay, which will give viewers a chance to choose where the distillery visitor centre manager, Billy Sinclair, visits. He’ll speak with some of the island’s most famous residents, sharing tales about everything it has to offer and explain why we’re so taken by Islay’s landscapes, Gaelic heritage, whisky bars and nautical past. The distillery has also made Islay Roam Around and Spotify playlists to enjoy and will today unveil a third Fèis Ìle release live during its evening tasting – a super-exclusive bottling which one lucky fan will have the chance to win by taking part in Billy’s voyage around the island. All of the distillery’s events will be broadcast live on Facebook.

What are the distillery exclusives to look out for:

There are two whiskies, bottled just for the festival: a 2013 Moine (peated expression) finished in Bordeaux casks and bottled at 59.5% ABV for £85, and a 2001 Marsala Cask Finish, bottled at 53.6% ABV, which cost £199 but it is sadly already sold out. A third is also due to be announced…

Master blender Julieann Fernandez

Master blender Julieann Fernandez

Ian Buxton’s Bunnahabhain memories:

I have fond memories of Bunnahabhain.

I first visited around 35 years ago when it, like most of Islay, was in a sorry state. Production was at a very low ebb or had possibly stopped completely. The buildings, stark and functional at the best of times, felt almost abandoned, looking drab, unkempt and uncared-for. There was a somnolent air about the place, lacking even a Hebridean sense of urgency.

Bunnahabhain’s heyday

It was not always thus. Visiting shortly after its construction, that indefatigable Victorian whisky hack Alfred Barnard thought it “a fine pile of buildings … and quite enclosed”, noting also “a noble gateway”.  Much later his spiritual successor Michael Jackson went so far as to compare it, not unfavourably, to a Bordeaux château. But in Barnard’s day Bunnahabhain was second only to Ardbeg in output and Michael, ever the extravagant romantic and ready to embrace lost causes, saw only the best in places that a colder eye might have found harsh, almost brutal.

It’s the concrete, of course. The original builders, who landed here to create from the heath and bare rock a distillery and a community, made free use of it. The tiny puffers (small coastal tramp vessels, vital to the economy of all Hebridean islands until pushed aside by the larger ferries in the 1960s) could run up onto Bunnahabhain’s stony beach and land men and materials and, once the distillery was operational, bring barrels and barley (and tea and like necessities for the men and their families) leaving with barrels and whisky. Eventually, a pier was built, functional yet graceful and larger ships would call. Today most supplies and visitors come by lorry or car along the tortuous, twisting road that starts just above Caol Ila immediately before its precipitous drop into Port Askaig.

Bunnahabhain

No shortage of concrete at Bunnahabhain

Summers on Islay

I recall long summer breaks, staying first in the old manager’s house high above the distillery itself and later in one of the rows of cottages to the left of the main building. It was the perfect spot for a holiday with small children – safe and quiet and with access to rock pools to explore, shipwrecks to discover and a deserted beach on which to build a makeshift barbeque. 

And it was cheap – tourism to Islay had yet to be invented. In my memory, the sun shone, though I am surely putting a generous gloss on the weather. Most days, we could at least glimpse the Paps of Jura and the fast-running waters of the Sound of Islay.

Once I traded with some fishermen and acquired two fine partens (edible brown crabs) which I intended to cook later that evening. The children had other ideas: having made firm friends with the doomed crustaceans, they argued long and passionately for their release. And so it came about that I threw my dinner in the sea, an enduring memory of this place. On better days we enjoyed Loch Gruinart oysters – with just a splash of Bunna and sea air to taste.

The wreck of the Wyre Majestic

I should think we visited the Wyre Majestic almost daily.  Walk just past the cottages and round the point and you’ll see her: a 338-ton trawler, looking slightly less majestic since October 1974 when she ran aground on the rocky shoreline, perhaps seduced by hints of whisky on the breeze. Here’s the thing: if you time your visit for low tide it’s perfectly possible to hit the rusting hulk with a well-aimed stone (there is no shortage of suitable missiles). It makes a very satisfactory noise and if you have small children with you, especially boys, they will be impressed by your manly skills.

Since 2014, Bunnahabhain’s ultimate owner is Distell, a major South African drinks company and owner of Burn Stewart whose name is on the door. But, with Heineken circling Distell and a takeover bid rumoured to be imminent, it’s unclear who will end up with the keys to Barnard’s noble gateway.

Bunnahabhain holds a special place in my whisky memories, its austere and apparently forbidding walls a part of my whisky soul. It’s unclear when I will return. But return I shall and take in the peace and recall the crabs and the sea trout I took off the beach – or nearly took, for it slipped the hook only inches from my over-eager grasp – and throw stones at the old Majestic in search of lost time and memories.

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Covid spirit start-ups

Many people took up new hobbies during lockdown like cooking or jogging, but some brave individuals went a bit further and started distilling businesses while a global pandemic raged. Ian…

Many people took up new hobbies during lockdown like cooking or jogging, but some brave individuals went a bit further and started distilling businesses while a global pandemic raged. Ian Buxton found out how the Covid spirit start-ups are getting on. 

It’s never easy starting a business. I know; I’ve started a few myself and understand the sleepless nights, the financial strain, the emotional rollercoaster….I could go on. But my entrepreneurial efforts were in relatively benign economic times, at least compared to the last twelve months. I can’t imagine starting a new venture during a pandemic. But these three pioneers have done it and I wanted to find out why.

Old Mother Hunt

Matt and Rebecca Hunt with their little still

Old Mother Hunt in Strathaven, near Glasgow

“I’m proud that we took a really dark moment in our lives and we’re trying to use that turmoil to funnel into creating a new life and career,” Rebecca Hunt of the Old Mother Hunt distillery told me. “It’s been tough and we definitely still have harder days than others, but it’s been a rewarding challenge and we’ve barely even scratched the surface yet.”

So why start at all, I asked. Essentially, because she and husband Matt had to. With her planned teaching career interrupted by the (happy) arrival of a family the Hunts relocated in early 2017 to Strathaven a small village just south of Glasgow. Matt was working a a pilot for FlyBe. Unfortunately, in 2020, FlyBe failed and he was made redundant.

As they very soon learnt employers were not crying out for part-trained teachers or airline pilots. So, as Rebecca says, “we had to create our own space in the world.” What that meant in practice was learning – very quickly – to distil, building their own Old Mother Hunt distillery and home-made still, getting licensed, building a website, brand and packaging, and going out where and when possible to sell their rum. Initially they were rectifying but now have a full distilling licence so as you read this will be producing from scratch.

Why rum? Their view is that the market for gin, the currently-fashionable spirit for start-ups, is now over-saturated and, like all trends, will wax and wane in popularity. Rum they see as offering a five to tenyear opportunity for growth. “The noise is building,” says Rebecca.

Lazydog distillery

The lazydogs

Lazydog in Coalville, Leics

Rum is also the route adopted by Matt and Lauren Thompson of the LazyDog distillery in Coalville. They were inspired by Caribbean distillery visits and a desire to create something “pared back and honest,” as Matt puts it. Once again, experience of furlough and the lockdown was the impetus – “if not now, when, we asked ourselves,” he explains. Though he modestly describes the distillery as a “side hustle” the couple are very fully committed. In addition to daytime careers in property, they work evenings to distil and bottle, and spend weekends manning a sales stall on local markets, where they are already meeting enthusiastic regular repeat customers.

That commitment is also clear in a personal investment of more than £75,000 on plant, equipment, bottles and so on. “I dread to think what it has cost,” admits Matt with a wry laugh. But long-term they aim to create permanent jobs in their own business, seeing rum as a globally popular spirit. The opportunity for a smaller producer comes, he believes, in “keeping our rum as stripped back as possible… it’s the most important thing”, adding “we only use fresh natural ingredients from start to finish (fresh orange peel in the spiced, freshly-picked local sloes in our Sloe Rum), never any artificial colours or flavourings.”

Much of the investment is due to LazyDog’s decision to buy a ready-to-go StillDragon still, rather than building their own, as Old Mother Hunt has done, reflected in their more modest start-up cost of less than £15,000. But then, as Rebecca explains “we’ve done everything ourselves; designed the logo, website and labels and built the still so we’ve kept costs to an absolute minimum.”

Green Room gin

Green Room gin

Green Room in Wandsworth, London

By contrast, Duncan McLean and business partner Seb Frost of London’s Green Room distillery have embraced white spirits, launching with a dry gin and vodka and then quickly adding sloe gin to the range. More ambitiously, single malt whisky is also in their plans.

Both have backgrounds in the technical side of theatre, hence Green Room. Impressively, by starting with a tiny second-hand still bought in France for £500, their start-up investment has been below £10,000 – though that includes a new 60 litre copper pot still from Iberian Coppers as they embark on the first stage of their expansion. The design studio in Duncan’s garden in Wandsworth has been converted to house the distillery.

Duncan handles the distilling, based he says on much trial and error though, as a malt whisky enthusiast, he admits to having taken the five day distilling course at Strathearn distillery and spent a few days shadowing workers at Bruichladdich. The project only started as a weekend hobby to get through lockdown but suddenly got serious when their gin picked up a Bronze award from the 2021 International Spirits Challenge.

The target is to reach 5,000 bottles in the first year. Local pubs, restaurants and off-licences are now stocking the brand; several theatres have promised to carry Green Room in their bars and there are plans for a supper club with wine consultancy Bacchus & Brodie.

A breath of fresh air

Compared to the sanitized, PR-curated corporate statements I encounter in my daily life, there’s a refreshing candour, an honesty, almost an innocence in talking to these neophyte distillers. But then they’ve found ardent spirits to provide a lifeline to better mental health or, like Green Room, supporting a charity, Backup, from their professional life. Turns out that for these new businesses distilling is more than a job, it’s their bright new future.

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A history of celebrity-endorsed drinks 

From Sean Connery advertising Suntory in the ’90s, to David Beckham with Haig Club, Ian Buxton looks into the history of celebrity-endorsed drinks. Nowadays you’re nowhere in celeb world unless…

From Sean Connery advertising Suntory in the ’90s, to David Beckham with Haig Club, Ian Buxton looks into the history of celebrity-endorsed drinks. Nowadays you’re nowhere in celeb world unless you’ve got your very own Tequila, whisky, gin or Prosecco.

I couldn’t help but notice that Sir Ranulph Fiennes is flogging rum these days. Celebrity-endorsed drinks adverts have been a long-standing fixture since, well, since there were celebrities and advertisements in which to feature them but looking into Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ Great British Rum, it seems that those relationships are now more than skin deep.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes with Dr John Waters

Sir Ranulph Fiennes with Dr John Waters from English Spirit

Celebrity-endorsed drinks through the ages

Sometimes, the celebrity juxtapositions seem bizarre– hard to believe that even in 1949 actress Doris Day was the best salesperson for Harvester road rollers, for example. In alcohol, today’s audiences might look askance at Woody Allen promoting vodka (assuming any brand would think it a great idea) but, in 1966, he was apparently the ideal choice for Smirnoff to appeal to trendy young drinkers.

Fortunately for Smirnoff, its association with Mr Allen was long forgotten (except for this blog’s keen eye for gossip) before recent adverse publicity reflected badly on the brand. But in fact, the possibility of the celebrity turning toxic and damaging the partner is a real danger of celebrity endorsements.

That’s something probably well remembered by Bacardi’s marketing team who, in late 2003, had to withdraw TV commercials featuring ex-footballer turned thespian Vinnie Jones hastily following his involvement in an unfortunate air-rage incident. Unfortunate for both parties as he lost what was clearly a lucrative gig, and Bacardi had to dump at least one expensive advert that had yet to air.  

Once upon a time, it was simpler to use dead celebrities, as at least they could be relied on not to misbehave. Mark Twain (died 1910) and Rudyard Kipling (1936), were both disinterred to promote Old Crow bourbon in American press adverts in the early 1950s based on Twain’s reputed fondness for the brand. He could hardly argue the point or ask for a fee.

Old Crow Whisky

Just Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain enjoying a glass of bourbon

Take the money and run

Some years later, a fashion developed for publicity-shy but impecunious celebrities to endorse Japanese brands, confident that the association would not be picked up in the West, a trend wonderfully satirised by Bill Murray in the 2003 movie Lost in Translation. Murray stars as Bob Harris, a fading American movie star who is having a midlife crisis when he travels to Tokyo to promote Suntory whisky.

Who could he have been thinking of? Surely [surely shurely? Ed.] not Sean Connery’s 1991 promotion of Suntory Crest? Surely one of the world’s greatest Scotsmen would want to promote a fine single malt? Well, no single malt could afford his rumoured fee of $1 million but Dewar’s stepped up in 2004 with some digital magic in which Connery meets his younger self and advises ‘Some age, others mature’.

Doubtless Connery’s agent was happy with that deal and by the turn of the millennium any coyness about an association with alcohol had long been abandoned as more celebrities began to cash in. In fact, coy hardly describes Sharon Stone’s promotion of the William Lawson’s blended Scotch whisky, a sister brand to Dewar’s that’s popular in European markets. 

Leveraging the brand

But soon an even more astute generation of celebrities with a keen sense of their commercial value began looking for more than a lucrative payday, linking their personality uniquely closely with the brand by seeking first a royalty payment based on sales and, even more recently, taking an ownership position with equity in the brand itself.

This is a new development and demonstrates our continuing fascination with celebrity.  Never mind seeking out some obscure, artisan product – as consumers we’re proving little more than biddable sheep, anxious to secure the reflected glory of a well-known face and name.

The trend setters have been US hip-hop* artists such as Sean Combs (aka P. Diddy, Puff Daddy, Puffy, Puff, etc) with his 2007 partnership with Diageo’s Ciroc Vodka. Fellow rappers had worked previously with various Cognac brands, such as Jay-Z with Chateau de Cognac’s D’USSE and Nas has been working as a brand ambassador for Hennessy since 2012. 

But P. Diddy changed the rules, treating the French vodka like a trainer brand and insisting on a 50/50 profit split and creative control of US marketing. Did it work? Ask Diageo, which when it acquired DeLeón Tequila was quick to cut a similar deal with Combs.

George Clooney Casamigos

The two amigos, George Clooney and Rande Gerber

In fact, this appears to be a particularly effective strategy for star-struck Diageo which has form in celebrity tie-ins with their brands – think David Beckham with Haig Club and George Clooney’s Casamigos Tequila, both following in Combs’ Ciroc footsteps.

Cashing in

The amounts of money are staggering. Casamigos changed hands for a reputed $1 billion if all the longer term targets are met, and August 2020 Diageo was back in business, having ponied up a cool $335m to buy Aviation American gin, with another $275m to follow if sales live up to expectations.

The fortunate celebrity here is Ryan Reynolds who we may safely assume will be able to stand his round for many years to come.

* For the avoidance of doubt the editor has suggested I confirm that I am unfamiliar with the oeuvre of Messrs. P. Diddy, Jay-Z and Nas though, full disclosure, I did once watch a James Bond film.

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Scotch Whisky Association – guardian or bully?

We reported a few weeks ago on the legal action the Scotch Whisky Association is taking against a Canadian whisky producer in Vancouver Island, Saanich for violating Scotch whisky’s geographical…

We reported a few weeks ago on the legal action the Scotch Whisky Association is taking against a Canadian whisky producer in Vancouver Island, Saanich for violating Scotch whisky’s geographical indication. Now here’s Ian Buxton with the full story.

What is the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) up to?

The more grey-haired of my readers may recall that in June 2009, after a nine-year legal battle, the SWA retired somewhat bloodied from its battle with Canada’s Glenora Distillery and its Glen Breton Canadian single malt. Their long-running attempt to stop the use of the tiny operation using the term ‘Glen’ ended with ignominious defeat in Canada’s Supreme Court and the award of some costs to the company.  You can buy Glen Breton to this day and Scotch whisky doesn’t seem to be suffering too badly.

SWA vs Macaloney

But despite this rebuff, they’re at it again and, earlier last month, in a joint action with Whyte & MacKay, filed a civil suit against MacMhaol‐onfhaidh (Macaloney) Brewers & Distillers, the owner of Macaloney’s Caledonian Distillery & Twa Dogs Brewery in British Columbia, Canada. 

Objecting to the use of the words ‘Caledonian’, ‘Macaloney’, ‘Island whisky’, ‘Glenloy’, and ‘Invermallie’ on the distiller’s products, the SWA claims that Macaloney is violating Scotch whisky’s geographical indication (GI) by using words that are associated with the country on its Canadian whiskies.

Caledonian Distillery Canada

Scottish not Scotch, from left Graeme Macaloney, the late Jim Swan and Mike Nicolson

Let’s put to one side the curious but undeniable fact that Macaloney Brewers & Distillers is in fact largely owned by its founder, president & whisky maker Dr. Graeme Macaloney who, not unreasonably you might think, wants to put his name to his products. These, as it happens, include whisky, which is distilled and bottled at the distillery’s Victoria Island home – ‘island whisky’ perhaps, in acknowledgement of the fact that, along with another twenty or so small distillers, it’s actually produced on a piece of land completely surrounded by water. So proud of this fact is Macaloney that a map of Vancouver Island appears on the cartons and both front and back labels of the bottles proclaim them to be Canadian.

Scottish not Scotch

Macaloney is both hurt and confused by the SWA’s actions, claiming to have “reached out to them five years ago to ensure our indie-bottled Macaloney’s Twa Cask vatted Scotches were fully compliant, from which they were aware I was using my name Macaloney and also the local regional name Caledonian”.  Further, he says, they have “responded to SWA’s request in late 2019 to describe our master distiller [ex-Diageo Scot Mike Nicolson] not as a ‘Scotch master distiller’ but as a ‘Scottish master distiller’. We also agreed to prominently display ‘Canadian’ on our whiskies. Our labelling and packaging identify our products as Canadian, and our distillery [location] in Victoria, British Columbia.”

For their part, a SWA spokesperson issued a statement confirming the action, saying: “The SWA consistently takes action in our global markets to prevent the use of Scottish indications of origin on whisky which is not Scotch whisky. This is vital to protecting both Scotland’s national drink and to ensuring that consumers across the world are clear about whether or not they are buying whisky that is produced in Scotland.  It’s critical to us to ensure that spirits producers in other countries do not take advantage of the quality reputation of Scotch whisky that our industry has built up over decades. It is important that anyone who wants to purchase a bottle of Scotch whisky can do so with the confidence that what they are buying is authentic, and that products which aren’t Scotch whisky are clearly differentiated.”

On The Nightcap: 26 March edition we learn not to mess with the SWA

A bottle of Mac Na Braiche single malt from the Caledonian Distillery (in Canada)

Is there room for compromise?

And that seems reasonable enough if Macaloney were claiming to produce Scotch whisky. However, while clearly proud of his Scottish heritage and links to Scotland, including a Scottish distilling team and equipment sourced from Scotland, he maintains his company, brand and whisky are 100% Canadian. “We do not, and never have used the geographic indicator ‘Scotch whisky’ on our Canadian products”, he says “and strongly disagree with the SWA lawsuit’s assertion that our use of ‘Caledonian’, ‘Macaloney’, and other terms including ‘Glen’ ‘Inver’ and ‘island whisky’ are alternatives synonymous with Scotch whisky.”

The lawsuit is already attracting unfavourable publicity in Canada but it’s clear neither party is ready to back down. But, with the legal precedence already set in the Glenora case and with his army of loyal small investors behind him it’s hard to see why Macaloney wouldn’t fight this.

Well, as 19th-century French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon once wrote “Laws: We know what they are, and what they are worth! They are spider webs for the rich and mighty, steel chains for the poor and weak, fishing nets in the hands of government.” The SWA seems to have got rather tangled up this time.

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China’s baijiu giants: the most valuable drinks companies in the world

Looking for a hot share tip? Ian Buxton looks at whether you might be best off investing in China’s rapidly growing national spirit baijiu. The top three most valuable drinks…

Looking for a hot share tip? Ian Buxton looks at whether you might be best off investing in China’s rapidly growing national spirit baijiu. The top three most valuable drinks companies in the world are all Chinese, relegating the mighty Diageo to fourth place. Most of this growth is based on the domestic market but now baijiu is slowly taking off in the West.

Have you ever heard of Wuliangye Yibin Co. Ltd? No? Then perhaps you’re more familiar with the Jiangsu Yanghe Brewery Joint-Stock Co. Ltd.

As you’ve probably realised, they’re Chinese. What you may not know is that these companies are very large – some might say, huge. We’re hearing a lot more about Chinese businesses these days, whether it’s their impact on global supply chains, employment or environmental practices or their effect on their Western competitors and our economies.

Baijiu production at Ming River

Baijiu production at Ming River

The most valuable drinks companies in the world

In fact, if we look at the ten largest drinks companies in the world, ranked by market capitalisation, then remarkably three of them are Chinese. What’s more, they would have proved a great investment over the past year. Shares in the Jiangsu Yanghe Brewery have more or less doubled in the last twelve months, while investors in Wuliangye Yibin are toasting an increase of more than 130%.

By comparison, good old Diageo – well known to all readers for its Guinness, Johnnie Walker, Captain Morgan, Smirnoff, Gordon’s and a cluster of single malts, to name just a few of its brands – appear in a modest fourth place in the global ranking and its shares have managed to grow by less than 15%. Actually, considering what’s been going on recently, that might have been thought a reasonable performance until compared to the Chinese cohort.

A booming market

And I haven’t mentioned the world’s number one drinks business yet. Showing an annual growth in value of just over 100%; a market capitalisation of around US$450billion and assets of US$25.6bn, please give a big Master of Malt welcome to Kweichow Moutai Co. Ltd., with its headquarters in Renhuai, China. Even more remarkably, it’s not even located in a major centre: Renhuai is comparatively sparsely populated by Chinese standards, with fewer than 750,000 inhabitants in the relatively poor and economically undeveloped province of Guizhou.

Despite this, and despite the fact that around 97% of its sales remain within China, high-end bottles from Kweichow Moutai can and do sell for over $40,000. That’s Macallan pricing, serious money by any standards. A 1935 vintage bottle of Moutai, a brand that’s collected by investors and reportedly produced in small batches to maintain its air of exclusivity, has sold for £1.2 million ($1.7 million) at auction according to reports in Forbes.

Cocktail making with Fenjiu 10 Years Old

Baijiu companies like Fenjiu are using cocktails to appeal to Western drinkers

It’s baijiu!

So what’s going on? Well, it’s baijiu – the biggest-selling spirit you’ve may not have even heard of, let alone tried. For those who don’t know, baijiu is a clear, pungent high-alcohol liquid distilled from fermented sorghum, rice or other grains. It’s China’s national spirit, typically purchased by the bottle and drunk as shots. It appears in the home, at business dinners and state banquets and is widely employed in the Chinese tradition of gifting. Some adherents also hold that it has medicinal properties and can strengthen the immune system – handy right now, though not a view endorsed by conventional medical science.

Sales have rocketed recently. And while Western drinks companies try to build their small foothold in China, leading Chinese brands are now trying to take baijiu onto the international stage. Take Ming River Sichuan Baijiu, already available in European markets and launching soon in two dozen US states in a partnership with Sazerac. Others will surely follow – in fact, Master of Malt already offers seven different brands at prices from £30 to over £160.

Just as Indian beers and single malt whiskies initially gained a foothold in Indian restaurants and then expanded their reach to the wider market, expect to encounter baijiu first in Chinese restaurants where it can be enjoyed with food and shortly afterwards anticipate it on specialists’ shelves. But whether you develop a taste for baijiu’s unique charms or not, you might want to call your stockbroker.

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A warning about whisky investment

Ian Buxton returns to one of his favourite topics this week, the rapidly-expanding whisky investment market. It can’t keep going up forever, he warns, and there are signs that the…

Ian Buxton returns to one of his favourite topics this week, the rapidly-expanding whisky investment market. It can’t keep going up forever, he warns, and there are signs that the bust is coming soon. You have been warned!

There’s an old story, probably apocryphal but containing a great truth, about the Great Depression of the 1930s which was triggered by the crash of the New York Stock Exchange.  Offered advice by a shoeshine boy on a share to buy Joe Kennedy began selling his portfolio. “You know it’s time to sell when shoeshine boys give you stock tips,” he’s said to have observed.

A stuck record?

Now I realise that I’m in danger of sounding like a stuck record, having criticised the whisky ‘investment’ craze for a number of years now. And it’s certainly true that, even relatively recently, had I bought some whiskies for future sale that I preferred to drink I would be sitting on some handsome capital gains. The recent appreciation in the prices of the most sought-after bottles have been truly spectacular. Undoubtedly some people have made a great deal of money.

But if you’re expecting a mea culpa or tearful confessional, please look away now. As far as I can see the inflationary trend in whisky collecting and investment is silly and getting sillier, egged on by a group of advisers, auctioneers and, sadly, even distillers who have a clear vested interest in seeing the whole mad circus continue indefinitely. Call me cynical if you will but I fear that what are seeing are prices driven ever upwards by the Greater Fool theory of investment.

On The Nightcap this week we've got fancy Macallan!

Elaborate packing on the latest release from Macallan

Whisky is for drinking

Three points then:

Firstly, whisky is for drinking, not locking away in a vault. That’s not to say that a very special or rare whisky shouldn’t be reserved for a suitably special occasion but, eventually, all whiskies should be drunk. That is why they were made and to hoard them in the pursuit of monetary gain disrespects the people who made it and the convivial spirit of whisky itself.

Secondly, all that glisters is not gold. Great whisky does not need lavish packaging. It’s expensive and wasteful. Consider for a moment some of the most expensive wines in the world – the Burgundy grand cru Domaine de la Romanée-Conti or Château Cheval-Blanc from Bordeaux for example. They’re packed in essentially the same style as their everyday supermarket own-label equivalent – slightly nicer label, much better cork and heavier glass to be sure – but the bottles will be visually identical and the differences are marginal when the relative retail prices are considered. They don’t need a crystal decanter, silver stopper, hand-crafted oak box or leather-bound journal because the wine speaks for itself. The informed buyer has no need of the superfluous trappings that increasingly surround high-priced whiskies.

And finally, I maintain that this will end in tears. Rather like Joe Kennedy’s shoeshine boy the boom in prices is drawing in all kinds of speculators and ‘investment’ funds promising advice for a fee on what whisky to buy. I’ve been around this industry for longer than I care to mention yet almost every week now I’m seeing new firms that I’ve never heard of fronted up by slick ‘Loadsamoney’ City types offering alluring returns on whisky. They, of course, make money whether you win or lose. Beware of people contacting you out of the blue with apparently generous offers. If it seems too good to be true it almost certainly is. Question their motives in offering to cut you in – if it was that easy they’d certainly keep it to themselves.

On The Nightcap this week we learn the youths are investing in casks!

Pssst, wanna buy a cask of whisky?

What goes up, must come down

Whisky is now a traded commodity on the London International Vintners Exchange (Liv-ex). The purchase of single casks is once again booming but prices bear increasingly little resemblance to trade filling prices, suggesting that should the private buyer wish to liquidate their investment by selling into the blending market an unpleasant surprise awaits.

Having no wish to be sued I name no names but suggest you proceed with caution. There have been scandals and short-lived booms before. History teaches us to beware whenever whisky and investment occur in the same sentence. Be it the distillery investment boom of the 1880s and 90s, the Pattison scandal or, more recently, the Cavendish Hamilton Spirit Management cask sales fiasco, the end is the same – the unlucky small investor limps away nursing a substantial loss.

Don’t let it be you!

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