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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Ian Buxton

Whisky heroes: the architects who made the mould

As part of his series on whisky heroes, Ian Buxton celebrates three architects who defined how a distillery should look, Charles Doig, William Delmé-Evans and George Darge. There was a…

As part of his series on whisky heroes, Ian Buxton celebrates three architects who defined how a distillery should look, Charles Doig, William Delmé-Evans and George Darge.

There was a fascinating article here at the end of March by my fellow contributor Lauren Eads on new distillery architecture. She highlights a number of distilleries where producers are ‘breaking the mould’ of the familiar style of white buildings, pagoda roofs and predictable rectangular forms. But who was responsible for creating this ‘mould’ originally? In this part of my Whisky Heroes series we meet the three Scottish architects principally responsible for the look that is now being so vigorously challenged with a new visual language.

Balblair Distillery

Balblair Distillery, remodelled by Doig in 1895. Note his pagoda.

Charles Cree Doig

First up, of course, has to be Charles Cree Doig (1855 – 1918), the inventor of the Doig Ventilator and thus responsible for the distinctive pagoda roof. This was a technical improvement to the malting process, enabling more efficient dispersal of peat smoke and, in the days when virtually all Scottish distilleries operated on-site maltings, rapidly became the ubiquitous signature of a distillery. Fortunate to be working at a time of a production boom he’s credited with working on more than 50 sites in both Scotland and Ireland though sadly many have since been swept away by ‘progress’ in subsequent redevelopment, such as at Craigellachie, or lost altogether such as at Gerston, Lochside, Auchinblae, Stronachie, Breadalbane and Killowen distilleries.

The design for the ventilator evolved through a series of sketches for Dailuaine distillery, which had commissioned Doig to make alterations to its maltings. He succeeded brilliantly, with a design both functional and elegant and, in an industry not noted for its ready acceptance of innovation, his pagoda was swiftly adopted. The trade press praised the new look Dailuaine and other commissions swiftly followed. Indeed, his competitor John Alcock immediately developed the idea for the striking twin pagodas at Strathisla, and later worked with Doig at Glentauchers. Doig’s influence on the great Japanese distilling pioneer Masataka Taketsuru (founder of Nikka Distilling) in the design of Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido is also clear at a glance.

Indeed, long after on-site maltings were largely abandoned, distilleries as far-flung as Kavalan have incorporated the pagoda roof detail as powerfully symbolic of the building’s purpose. And the mould has not been completely broken: note that just this month in proudly announcing substantial investment in upgrading their site, Dalmore stressed that “a beautiful pagoda, sat elegantly atop the Old Dalmore Kiln, will mark the heart of the reimagined distillery”.

Doig himself famously prophesied that after Glen Elgin (1898) no distillery would be built on Speyside for fifty years. That was not perhaps as prescient as it sounds, as whisky went into a decline as catastrophic as the dot com fiasco of recent memory, but it’s a curious fact that he was right, it being 1958 before the construction of Tormore saw new distillery construction by the Spey. Sadly, Tormore’s ventilators are squat and functional.

The winner of a VIP trip to Jura Distillery is...

Jura distillery, it’s functional!

William Delmé-Evans

But a new generation of architects were now about to leave their mark as whisky entered a new period of expansion. Chief amongst these was William Delmé-Evans (1920 – 2003) who was responsible for Tullibardine, Jura (1963), Glenallachie (as advisor, 1968) and probably much of Macduff (home of The Deveron single malt), though he left partway through that project following a dispute with the client team.

Like Doig, Delmé-Evans was a technical innovator, working at a time when distillery tourism was far from anyone’s mind. He was greatly concerned with production efficiency, concentrating on gravity flow where possible and advocating the use of shell and tube condensers, then relatively unusual.

Apart from Jura, which has gone on to great success – arguably as much through location as by moving on from Delmé-Evans’ blander style of whisky (it was designed to make spirit intended for blending, not a distinctive single malt) – his projects are relatively little-known but he was nonetheless at the forefront of Scotland’s whisky revival in the post-war years and, in his concern with efficiency and conservation, anticipates many of today’s concerns.

Caol Ila distillery

The still house of the Caol Ila

 George Leslie Darge

More recently, the work of George Leslie Darge (1919 – 2001) can be seen as creating an unconscious and unintended bridge between distillery as efficient production unit and visitor attraction. He worked for 28 years in Scottish Malt Distillers (think today’s Diageo) in-house design team in Elgin, mainly as chief architect responsible for remodelling some 46 distilleries at many sites including Lagavulin, Talisker, Cragganmore, Linkwood and Cardhu, as well as maltings, bonds and workers’ housing.

Darge’s great and lasting contribution was the then-radical use of curtain glass walls on stillhouses, which can still be seen today – for example, at Aberfeldy, Royal Brackla and spectacularly in the remodelled Caol Ila (1972-74), his final project. Like his two predecessors, the original aim was to improve efficiency – the glass walls allow easy access for maintenance or the replacement of stills plant and control of excess heat from the stills. But, unintentionally, the glazing permitted the heart of the distillery to be opened to public view, thus speaking to today’s concerns with ‘transparency’ and providing an alluring aspect to seduce the passing tourist into the lucrative visitor centre.

Today’s technical development in glass production permit architects ever more radical approaches to the curtain wall, as seen at The Macallan, Dalmunach, Kentucky’s New Riff and a number of other new projects.

But all owe something to these earlier pioneering whisky heroes – the mould we might conclude has been more remade than broken.

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Whitetail Gin: spirit of Mull

Today, Ian Buxton visits a tiny distillery on the Isle of Mull in Scotland called Whitetail making fine Scottish gin inspired by the local flora and fauna, specifically an enormous…

Today, Ian Buxton visits a tiny distillery on the Isle of Mull in Scotland called Whitetail making fine Scottish gin inspired by the local flora and fauna, specifically an enormous eagle.

A Whitetail – just in case you didn’t know – is the name the aviation industry gives to an aeroplane that has been fully built but not yet delivered to a customer. With no logo yet applied the tail is plain, hence ‘whitetail’. Clever, eh?

It’s also a very, very large type of eagle, the UK’s largest bird of prey, with an impressive 2.4 metre wingspan. That’s big. Driven to extinction in the UK in 1916 the white-tailed eagle was eventually reintroduced during the 1970s, since which time some 40 breeding pairs have become established in Scotland, notably on the Isle of Mull.

Whitetail

Tiroran House, home of Whitetail Gin

Off the beaten track

But, as this isn’t a plane-spotting site or even Twitchers Central we’ll leave off the ornithological notes to mention the third – and tastiest – Whitetail which is a gin produced on Mull, hence the name. A pair of the giant eagles actually nest in a top-secret location close to the distillery so it’s not too hard to guess why Laurence and Katie Munro, and son Jamie, picked this particular name when setting up their company in late 2016.

Now, learning that I was taking an Easter break on this Hebridean island your editor volunteered me to ‘pop in and take a look’, curiously omitting to note that this would involve a 900 mile round trip from my front door [this was your idea, Ed.], a ferry trip and more miles than I care to recall on some seriously small and alarmingly busy single-track roads, culminating in a rutted track with little or no possibility of reversing if another vehicle came along in the other direction.

Not that that was actually terribly likely since, as you have gathered, Tiroran House where the gin is made is seriously remote, even by the standards of Scottish islands. Every drop of neutral grain spirit, every bottle, every label – not to mention the tiny still, because this is a true micro distillery – has to be slowly and expensively brought in along the aforesaid roads, though it has to be said that the local carriers drive with a cavalier disregard for more apprehensive visitors, at least in my brief experience.

Whitetail Gin

Local botanicals, naturally

However, the trip was well worth it to learn about this true family-controlled small batch producer of gin and gin-based fruit liqueurs. Originally hoteliers by trade (Tiroran House continues in operation), the Munros decided to diversify into gin in 2016 as all three were looking for some fresh challenges. With advice from the renowned Charles Maxwell of Thames Distillers a juniper-forward recipe for a classic London Dry was soon devised, incorporating locally-sourced botanicals. These include heather, winter savory (a semi-evergreen plant, also used in herbal medicine to treat premature ejaculation – kindly note that I asked for a friend), together with pine needles from the family’s small estate and sea kelp (a type of seaweed) collected from the shores of Loch Scridain.

Kelp was once of huge economic significance here, to fertilise the croft lands and for sale as a lucrative cash crop. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century it was extensively harvested and burned in special kilns to form alkali kelp ash, then used in bleaching linen and also in the manufacture of glass and soap. In fact, in a little over six months in 1792 more than 1,800 tons of kelp was recorded as leaving Tobermory, Mull’s largest town. Today, it’s still used by locals as a fertiliser, has inspired a Dutch art collective at nearby Knockvologan (check them out, they get seriously excited about seaweed) and more recently has found a new role as a gin botanical, both here and on Harris.

Whitetail James Munro

James Munro from Whitetail with his little still. Photo from Oban Times 

A gin with real body

Distiller Laurence Munro explained that the inclusion of local ingredients was critical to their vision for the brand, as was the decision to adopt a 47% ABV strength – “I wanted a gin with real body, even after adding tonic” he insisted to me. And, like its namesake, Whitetail does indeed combine strength with power and a soaring grace in the glass. The pine notes are evident on the nose, while despite the strength, the taste is surprisingly soft and almost sweet. This is a classic gin with a distinctively local twist and the potential to ruffle a few feathers.

Coming out of the pandemic, which Whitetail met with free hand sanitiser for a grateful local community, tourism is returning to the island which will make for a busy summer at the distillery’s tiny shop and tasting room. But the Munros are looking now to expand their distribution and grow sales of their distinctive blue bottles off the island.

The summer should also boost sales of the range of fruit liqueurs, prepared to recipes devised by Katie Munro, which work well sipped neat (if you have a sweet tooth), poured over ice cream or mixed with Prosecco. The Late Summer Berry Gin Liqueur was my favourite but I could find a place in the drinks cabinet for many of the others, particularly the Lemon Balm & Elderflower variant. But then again, the Pink Grapefruit & Rosemary replicates the flagship’s signature serve and would be hard to resist…

Note to Editor: my Easter break has turned out to be quite hard work!

Whitetail Spirits are available from Master of Malt. Click here to buy.

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Whisky heroes: Aeneas Coffey: exciseman, distiller and inventor

As part of his series on whisky heroes, Ian Buxton looks at the life of a man who transformed whisky and made the world domination of blended Scotch possible, Aeneas…

As part of his series on whisky heroes, Ian Buxton looks at the life of a man who transformed whisky and made the world domination of blended Scotch possible, Aeneas Coffey, inventor of the first practical and efficient continuous still.

“I was attacked by about 50 men… they fractured my skull, left my whole body one mass of contusion and gave me two bayonet wounds, one of which completely perforated my thigh… and to this day I feel bad effects from them, which I never expect entirely to get rid of.”

Life wasn’t easy for Irish excise officers in the early part of the nineteenth century. They were collecting duty on behalf of the British crown and, perhaps understandably, their work was resented and, as in this case, very actively resisted.

Aeneas Coffey

Aeneas Coffey (1780 – 1852)

But this particular incident, which took place near Culdaff in Donegal in November 1810 would be long forgotten if the unfortunate victim, one Aeneas Coffey (1780 – 1852), had not gone on to enduring fame as an inventor who changed the course of the whisky industry forever. However, before moving on, it’s only fair to note that the excise officers frequently gave as good as they got, resulting in an exchange of angry correspondence in the pages of the then highly influential Edinburgh Review. In that Coffey, by then Inspector General of Excise for Ireland, was required to respond to the claims of abuse levelled by the Rev. Edward Chichester in his ‘Oppressions [and] Cruelties of Irish Revenue Officers’.

Whether it was the lasting effects of his injuries or perhaps he found the strain of defending his junior colleagues intolerable, we may only speculate but in 1824 Coffey resigned from the Government service and set up as a distiller, first at the Dodder Bank Distillery and subsequently at the Dock Distillery in Grand Canal Street, Dublin.

Developing continuous distillation

This allowed him to develop his earlier work on continuous distillation. But he was not the first to experiment with this technique – basic continuous stills had been developed by Sir Anthony Perrier, Jean-Baptiste Cellier-Blumenthal, the Dutch sugar trader Armand Savalle, Jean-Jacques Saint Marc of the Belmont Distillery in Vauxhall and others, most notably Robert Stein, proprietor, along with the Haig family, of the very large Kennetpans and Kilbagie distilleries in Clackmannanshire. Stein had applied for various patents and by May 1830 a still of his design was operating at Cameronbridge in Scotland (today, a major Diageo operation).

The Coffey design proved superior however, producing spirit at a greater purity and considerably reduced cost compared to other designs. It was markedly more efficient than the traditional pot stills then favoured by the Irish industry, which hitherto had dominated the whisky market.

JOhn Dore Coffey Still

Diagram of Coffey Still from John Dore & Co

How a Coffey still works

According to Richard Seale of the Foursquare rum distillery in Barbados, “the success of the Coffey still was really due to the evolution of the original design which had been little more than an improved Cellier-Blumenthal still. By 1840, the Coffey still would have copper piping, copper plates (trays) perforated with bubble caps and the still was split into two columns – analyzer (or stripping) column and the rectifying column. This separation of stripping and rectifying would be the foundation of nearly every spirit still in operation today. The use of perforated copper plates (trays) would be a marked improvement on the Stein continuous still which did not have contacting plates and the wash needed to be misted to ensure good liquid / vapour mixing. Even the Haig family would install a Coffey still.”

However, the greater purity of the spirit produced by Coffey’s design meant that it was rejected by the overwhelming majority of the Irish industry, who styled it ‘silent spirit’, considering that its blending with pot still spirit amounted to adulteration and a fraud on the public. Irish resistance to the continuous still was considerable, causing Coffey to relocate his business to London by 1839.

Move to London

Scotch whisky distillers and London gin producers had proved more receptive to the continuous still and his business, by then styled Aeneas Coffey & Sons, grew following the initial sale to William Young & Co’s Grange distillery in Burntisland (Fife) in 1834, followed by installations at Inverkeithing, Bonnington and Cambus. Though the Burntisland distillery closed in 1927 it was a substantial concern – commentator Alfred Barnard noting in the 1880s that the distillery was producing 650,000 gallons (nearly 3m litres) of whisky annually. By 1876, seventeen newly installed Coffey stills would be making whisky in Scotland.

Such scale demonstrates the impact on the Irish distillers who stubbornly continued with pot still distillation: one factor among many which led to the rapid decline of that industry in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Scots, meanwhile, enthusiastically adopted blending where the grain whisky produced by the Coffey still proved ideal for increasingly popular brands such as Walkers, Haig, Dewar’s, Pattison’s and many others lost in the mists of time.

Aeneas Coffey

Poster advertising Burntisland distillery (photo credit: Ian Buxton)

Not just whisky

Rum distillers were also enthusiastic adopters of the Coffey still in Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, St Vincent, St Lucia and Grenada. Some of the original designs remain in operation to this day, most notably the ‘Enmore’ still at Demerara Distillers Diamond complex in Guyana.

Coffey had transferred control of the business to his son Aeneas Jnr around 1839 and, following his father’s death, the company was sold to their long time foreman John Dore. His company, John Dore & Co Ltd, continues in operation to this day in Guildford, supplying distillery plant and engineering services.

Aeneas Coffey – it is not clear if the senior or his son – was honoured by the medal ‘For Excellence’ awarded following participation in 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, London. Our hero died on 26 November 1852 and is buried in Tower Hamlets.

Today he is remembered by a grateful industry and in Nikka’s Coffey Grain whisky. Perhaps think of this pioneering whisky hero next time you raise a glass of that particular dram or indeed any blended whisky. 

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Do the words ‘master distiller’ mean anything?

The drinks world proliferates with various masters like master blenders and master distillers. But do these terms have any validity or are they just marketing flimflam? Ian Buxton investigates.  The…

The drinks world proliferates with various masters like master blenders and master distillers. But do these terms have any validity or are they just marketing flimflam? Ian Buxton investigates. 

The lovely new packaging’s all done, the paint’s drying on the achingly fashionable ‘brand home’, the website’s about to launch and I’ve installed the plug-and-play still I bought off the web – in fact, my box-fresh distillery is good to go. Time to order some spiffing new business cards (letterpress, of course).

But what to put on them?

Well, no problem. I’m the ‘master distiller’ of course. Let’s skip over the admittedly uncomfortable fact that my ‘experience’ consists of a few days on a ‘craft distilling’ course and some late nights with a textbook I found on Amazon. And perhaps best forget that, until I handed in my notice, I was a butcher, baker, or candle maker. After all, distilling – how hard can it be?

When I was a lad…

I apologise for yet another article along the lines of ‘when I were a lad’… but not so very long ago we’d never heard of ‘master distillers’, or ‘master blenders’ for that matter. But, recalling my early days in whisky, what distilling had was distillery managers, production directors, and blenders – all, for the most part, largely anonymous figures who worked in the background, at least as far as the consumer was concerned. Distillery managers made spirit, blenders put the whiskies together, and production directors lunched and played golf. They weren’t celebrities and had little or no public profile. In fact, as I recall here, the public wasn’t all that welcome in the average distillery.

So I found myself wondering: what do the impressive-sounding titles master distiller and master blender actually mean? After all, you can’t just rock up at the docks, call yourself a Master Mariner and assume command of the first vessel that takes your fancy. That particular and highly valued qualification requires years of practical experience and passing some serious examinations; little wonder then that it’s internationally respected.

Even in the world of bread, a Master Baker would be expected to have many years’ experience (a full eight years in the USA) and hold relevant qualifications such as an HND in Baking and Food Processing or a Diploma in Professional Bakery. And, as one authority confirmed to me, “anyone claiming Master Brewer status who had not qualified via the Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD) or the equivalent German body would be regarded as charlatan, cad, and fraud”. And to be a Master of Wine takes years of study with a high chance that you will fail.

Jancis Robinson

To be a Master of Wine like Jancis Robinson takes years of study

No mention of master distillers

Looking for the origins of the titles master distiller and master blender, I turned to Philip Morrice’s Whisky Distilleries of Scotland and Ireland (1987) and can find neither term mentioned, as Morrice describes only brewer, distillery manager, and distillery director. Similarly, the exhaustive Scotch Whisky Industry Record (1994) by H Charles Craig, a highly respected former MD and chairman of Invergordon Distillers (also known as ‘The Nose’) doesn’t admit to either as a job description.

It appears that they are a marketing creation of recent vintage – probably originating no more than two decades ago as consumer interest in production grew and marketing departments saw advantage in the promotion of the arcane lore and esoteric arts of their distilling counterparts. Significantly, a pamphlet from the early 1990s, The Blender’s Art published by John Walker & Sons describes Turnbull Hutton as “the present master blender” – without capitalisation, going on to state that “his role is rather like that of the conductor of a great orchestra”.

Industry veterans

To confirm my theory I spoke to two recently retired industry veterans. Alan Winchester, master distiller emeritus (now there’s a title) for Chivas Brothers, recalled that “my title when I retired was distilling manager, the master distiller was my brand ambassadorial part of the job”, going on to suggest that “as The Glenlivet is number one single malt in the USA, it was easier for the marketing teams to introduce the distillery manager as a master distiller, as the title was better understood by the Americans”.

Similarly, Alan Wolstenholme, formerly of Diageo, William Grant & Sons and more recently an honorary professor at Heriot-Watt University and chairman of the Scottish Whisky Awards, agreed with me, suggesting that “it [master distiller] has only become prevalent in the last 20 years or so. It was never a thing before that and folk were just distillers or blenders,” adding that “I used to say that it should only be conferred by one’s peers but generally seemed to be conferred by any marketing department”.

Alan Winchester, Glenlivet

Master distiller Alan Winchester with very old cask

An actual qualification 

So my case rests – but there has recently been an important development, which aims to restore the credibility and status of the master distiller title. Together with Diageo’s Douglas Murray as IBD Diploma in Distilling examiners, Wolstenholme has persuaded the IBD examination board to set up a qualification equivalent to that of master brewer covering various distilling cultures, not just Scotch.

It consists of four exam papers, (normally taken once a year) and a project which must be mentored and sponsored. The focus is on the practical application of distilling skills, not as far as I could see writing a blog, signing bottles, or presenting at whisky festivals!

Within the last year, a small number of brave pioneering candidates have stayed the course and been awarded their M.Dist by the Institute and now count as QUALIFIED Master Distillers (hence the capital letters). These include Paul Mundie from William Grant & Sons, Ian Thorn from the Gospel Distillers in Melbourne, and Tambudzai Makunde from African Distillers in Zimbabwe. Congratulations newly-minted Master Distillers! To learn more about what’s involved in reaching the pinnacle of professional distilling qualifications you can visit the IBD website.

It does not, however, explain how you are going to fit this impressive new title on your business card.

Header photo courtesy of the Helsinki Distilling Company.

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Whisky heroes: Michael Jackson

As part of a new series on his whisky heroes, Ian Buxton takes a look at the man who pretty much invented whisky writing for the modern age, Michael Jackson. …

As part of a new series on his whisky heroes, Ian Buxton takes a look at the man who pretty much invented whisky writing for the modern age, Michael Jackson. 

Michael Jackson – not, quite possibly, the one you’re thinking of – was frequently untidy in appearance (actually, ‘dishevelled’ would be nearer the mark), often late and capable of boring for England on the subjects of rugby league and jazz. He was also extremely good company, restlessly curious and a fine and honest commentator on both beer and whisky, with a profoundly held journalistic integrity that rarely lacked for a nicely judged phrase.

Born in Yorkshire on 27th March 1942, he died in London on 30th August 2007. Having suffered from Parkinson’s Disease the deterioration in his health had been painfully obvious for a number of years and on several occasions prior to his untimely death he had seemed gravely ill. Yet, despite that, his death came as a considerable shock, especially within the world of whisky where he had his greatest and most lasting influence.

Michael Jackson

Is that Brian May? No, it’s Michael Jackson

Not that Michael Jackson!

Yet, if you have come recently to enjoy whisky, his name may mean relatively little to you and you may even confuse him with the pop artist of the same name, who died a couple of years later. Should that be the case, read on for, in your enthusiasm for the cratur, you owe this Michael Jackson more than you may realise.

By training and natural aptitude a journalist, his early career took him to Edinburgh and his first encounter with whisky. On moving to London he was for a short period editor of Campaign magazine, an advertising industry trade title, and also a TV reporter and producer. By the mid-1970s Michael had moved to freelance journalism, and soon developed an interest in beer and brewing, at a time when the UK industry was rapidly consolidating and traditional styles all too casually abandoned in favour of lager.

Influential beer writer

Though not the first British journalist to deplore trends in beer (Richard Boston’s humorous earlier columns in the Guardian and his Beer and Skittles of 1976 arguably paved the way) Michael was undoubtedly the most influential and the 1977 publication of the first edition of his World Guide to Beer was both ground-breaking and an immediate international success, with a particular impact on the nascent small brewing scene in the USA.

More books and columns on beer followed quickly, together with the Discovery Channel/C4 TV series The Beer Hunter (1989). However, he had rediscovered his early appreciation of whisky and saw parallels in the beleaguered state of the industry with the condition of traditional brewing which, by then, was staging something of a recovery due in large part to his work and the pioneering consumerism of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).

Beer Hunter, whisky chaser

Beer Hunter, Whisky Chaser

This led to the companion title World Guide to Whisky, first published in October 1987 and subsequently in a number of further editions and foreign language translations. This book and the later Malt Whisky Companion mark the start of many of today’s enthusiasts’ personal journey in whisky. They were also significant in persuading the publishing industry that there was a viable market for whisky books, which in turn has permitted the flowering of a number of writing careers. Many of today’s writers are in his debt, though it is arguable whether or not this is fully appreciated.

I discussed this recently with Charles MacLean MBE, himself a long-standing veteran of the whisky scene and Michael’s near contemporary. “He was the first person to put single malts on the map,” he said, adding that with the Malt Whisky Companion Jackson was central in “establishing the category”. Around this time, indeed, he was employed by United Distillers (predecessors to today’s Diageo) to help promote their Classic Malts collection, stressing flavour differences and regional variations in a manner then radical and ground-breaking. As MacLean has written in Beer Hunter, Whisky Chaser, the memorial volume issued to commemorate Jackson’s life and work and raise funds for the Parkinson’s Disease Society (UK), this launch material “opened up the whole sector and laid the foundations for the ‘Malt Revolution’ that gathered pace in the 1990s.”

International Whisky Day – 27 March 

Amongst his many other interests, Jackson was an early and important contributor to Whisky Magazine; active in presentations and tastings at whisky festivals and a tireless traveller, especially to the USA where he was held in especially high regard. International Whisky Day, which sadly has been subsumed into a commercialised festival, was created originally as a charitable initiative by the Dutch writer Hans Offringa (translator of several of Jackson’s books) as a celebration of Michael Jackson’s life and the many samples remaining in his tasting room formed the basis of a limited release of blended whisky which appears from time to time at auction.

Particularly importantly, especially in the context of today’s obsession with whisky presented as an investment and, God help us, NFTs Michael wrote not just about production techniques and flavours but also the cultural significance of both beer and whisky, something which in the present writer’s view we are in danger of losing.

For many of us, this Michael Jackson remains the genuine thriller.

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Royal Warrants: the history of Scotch whisky and monarchy

With the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Celebrations coming up later this year, Ian Buxton looks at Royal Warrants and the long interlinked history between Scotch whisky and monarchy.  Did you raise…

With the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Celebrations coming up later this year, Ian Buxton looks at Royal Warrants and the long interlinked history between Scotch whisky and monarchy. 

Did you raise a glass of something very special last Sunday evening, 6 February. Something regal? Something with a Royal Warrant, perhaps? It would have been appropriate, because the date marked an occasion that will probably never occur ever again as Her Majesty The Queen became the first British Monarch to celebrate a Platinum Jubilee, marking 70 years of service to the people of the United Kingdom, the Realms and the Commonwealth.

So what to celebrate with?

My thoughts turned at once to Johnnie Walker Platinum Label – only to realise that Diageo dropped the Platinum tag in March 2017 with a renewed focus on age statements. Platinum is now ‘Aged 18 Years’, which seemed to lack the appropriate gravitas.

Never mind, I thought. As Walker proudly carries Her Majesty’s Royal Warrant I went in search of the Walker Diamond Jubilee bottle. Strangely though, I couldn’t find this £100,000 whisky anywhere – I must have finished it back in 2012. On to their King George V 80th Anniversary bottling which curiously was also absent from my cellars. Johnnie Walker Black Label it would have to be. Or wait, there are always single malts one can turn to in this hour of need.

george-iv-scotland-equipt-for-a-northern-visit

George IV visit to Scotland was immortalised by cartoonist Charles Williams

Not one but two Royal Warrants

Royal Brackla, for example, the first distillery ever to carry a British Royal Warrant and, to this day, the only one with two. King William IV patronised this Highland distillery back in 1833 and, on her accession to the throne, the warrant was renewed by Victoria, despite Brackla’s then owner the irascible Captain William Fraser being fined on several occasions for ignoring demands for excise duty due on his whisky. Fraser was immortalised in whisky history in Reminiscences of a Gauger by Joseph Pacy as high-handed and imperious in manner but, as Pacy himself was a self-confessed stickler for detail and something of a martinet the portrait may not have been entirely fair.

Today owned by John Dewar & Sons (Bacardi) much of the production remains reserved for blending but the single malt has been relaunched and is more widely available than in the past.

No doubt happier relations were enjoyed with Lochnagar, conveniently located close to the Royal family’s Balmoral estate. Victoria and her Prince Consort Albert famously visited in September 1848 after which the distillery was astutely renamed Royal Lochnagar. The Warrant was renewed by both Edward VII and George V but despite His Royal Highness The Prince Charles, (or the Duke of Rothesay as he is correctly styled when in Scotland) visiting the distillery on three occasions, most recently in 2018, it eventually had lapsed. Until December last year that is, when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth was pleased to grant a new warrant – the fifth in total held by Diageo.

Royal Salute - Royal Warrant

Royal Salute, the clue is in the name

Regal blends

What of blends other than Johnnie Walker? Chivas Brothers bring us Royal Salute, a super-premium blend first created by the renowned Charles Julian (a blending celebrity before they all became rock stars). It was launched as a 21 Year Old in June 1953 to mark Elizabeth’s accession to the throne and the brand has subsequently released further expressions to mark royal events, most notably Royal Salute 50 Year Old for Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. The Royal Warrant was renewed in 2017.

Prior to that, Chivas’ then owner Sam Bronfman had created Crown Royal, a Canadian whisky that remains a best-seller to this day, arranging for supplies to be placed on the train carrying King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the late Queen Mother) on their 1939 visit to Canada. Today, of course, the brand is owned by Diageo and the royal link remains no more than a historical association and marketing hook though it was something of a media sensation at its original release.

Similarly Chivas Regal. Despite the apparent link, it remains – as the label declares – merely the ‘Prince of Whiskies’ rather than something with a full royal endorsement.

Tommy Dewar Highball

Dewar’s, the Jubilee Spirit

The most consistently awarded whisky is…

Possibly the most consistently awarded whisky is Dewar’s which received its first award from Queen Victoria in 1893. After Queen Victoria’s death and the accession of King Edward VII, John Dewar & Sons’ Royal Warrant was renewed as it has been by every British monarch since. Today every bottle carries the Queen’s coat of arms on the front label, marking an enviable continuous association.

Royal associations have long proved safe, enduring and popular with the marketing community. So it’s strange that – so far – no brand has announced a special edition for this remarkable Platinum Jubilee. Perhaps they are reserving an announcement for the specially extended bank holiday weekend from 2-5 June…. but whatever the industry’s plans (or lack of them) that’s certainly a time to break out something very, very special.

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Don’t overlook blended whisky

Love good quality Scotch but don’t want to spend too much on a bottle? Well, don’t overlook blended whisky, says Ian Buxton. From the big boys like Johnnie Walker and…

Love good quality Scotch but don’t want to spend too much on a bottle? Well, don’t overlook blended whisky, says Ian Buxton. From the big boys like Johnnie Walker and Dewar’s to scrappy upstarts like Blaze, quality has never been higher. 

I can’t say I feel all that sorry for whisky sales folk, but there is a small place in my heart for those trying to sell blended whiskies, especially in the UK. It can’t be much fun.

Though blends still make up almost nine out of every ten bottles of Scotch whisky sold around the world there can be no doubting the significance of single malts in the UK. They certainly dominate the conversation amongst whisky fans and receive arguably more than their fair share of the distillers’ marketing budgets and retailer’s shelves.

But while that makes the selling of blends all the harder, conversely it turns out that there are some relative bargains to be found lurking in plain sight, especially amongst premium blends. By that, I don’t mean ultra-expensive one-off releases such as Johnnie Walker’s recent Masters of Flavour 48 Years Old (a snip at £20,000) but those styles – often around 12 years old – that are just one jump up from the basic blend. They’re frequently both remarkably tasty and remarkably affordable as the different blenders seem to compete keenly around this point and deliver value with great flavour.

Stephanie Macleod, master blender at Dewar's

Stephanie Macleod, master blender at Dewar’s

You can find the perfect blend

For exhibit one consider Cutty Sark, once a popular call in UK and US cocktail bars for its light, bright flavour and great mixability. That still works well, and the recent change of ownership to France’s La Martiniquaise has seen the blend back on song but consider this – for a couple of quid you can trade up to the fuller flavour and markedly higher strength (50% ABV) of Cutty Sark Prohibition. It’s a lot more bang for your buck. Moreover, having recently tasted an advance sample, I can say with confidence that the new Cutty Sark 12 year old, soon to arrive in the UK, is a distinct step up from the standard bottle.

Or consider Dewar’s. If you can find them the Double Double range shows off the blending expertise of Stephanie Macleod that has brought her the acclaim of her peers (she has been awarded the title Master Blender of the Year a remarkable three years running by the International Whisky Competition). But her skills and Dewar’s deep stocks also show well in the 12 and 15 Years Old expressions. For the price of a couple of nips you can trade up from the regular style to the 12 Year Old and, frankly, you should.

Johnnie Walker highball collection

Buckers was bowled over by Black Label

Keep walking

I could and do say the same for Johnnie Walker. It’s not the best-selling Scotch whisky in the world for nothing but, in the froth surrounding single malts, it’s easy to forget just how good it is. And, if I’m not mistaken, how much better it has got in recent years. I had formed the view that I didn’t really care for the Johnnie Walker Black 12 Year Old version on the grounds that it was somewhat harsh and smoky. Well, it might have been once, but returning recently to taste the brand after some years I was bowled over by the balance, subtlety and complexity that it delivers – and all with change from thirty quid.

If none of these appeal then the only answer is to have a go yourself. The Master of Malt Blend Your Own Whisky option allows you to create your very own blend, altering the composition of the various components to your hearts’ content in the sure and certain knowledge that your blend will be bespoke and in all probability completely unique.

Blaze Scotch whisky

New kid on the block, Blaze Scotch whisky

Don’t overlook blended whisky

It might even be life-changing. Like 19 year old Diarmaid McCann from Inverkip (it’s on the Clyde just down the river from Gourock) you could go into business. Determined to take on the giants of the industry, he’s created his own blend Blaze Scotch Whisky which he markets via social media, especially TikTok. Emboldened by the sale of 250 bottles he’s dropped out of Edinburgh University with the ambition to create a blended malt brand “without the pretension or traditionalism of the industry that can unleash the full potential of each spirit” and, he claims, over the next decade “take on the titans of the spirits industry”.

Believing that social media marketing is in its infancy and aiming to create personal relationships with every buyer he poses the question “While everyone else focuses on how their bottle looks on the store shelf, we ask how does this look on Amazon? How does this come across on the TikTok FYP? Well, God loves a trier, so they say. According to his website, Blaze is “blended for cocktails, enjoyed by all mixed, [and] fantastic neat for the aficionados.” Best of all it’s £30 and there’s a guarantee of enjoyment or your money back. What could possibly go wrong?

And, at least, unlike some of the industry it sounds like he’s having fun.

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Arbikie and Inchdairnie, the Scots rye revival

Ian Buxton returns with a look at two new distilleries, Arbikie and Inchdairnie, that may appear quite different but actually have a lot in common. Not least a common interest in…

Ian Buxton returns with a look at two new distilleries, Arbikie and Inchdairnie, that may appear quite different but actually have a lot in common. Not least a common interest in reviving Scotland’s rye whisky tradition. 

I’ve had the opportunity recently to visit Arbikie and Inchdairnie, two exciting new distilleries under development on Scotland’s east coast – an area relatively sparse in distilling’s history and present-day practice.

Arbikie and Inchdairnie

The Stirling Brothers, the brains behind Arbikie

Two very different distilleries 

On the face of it, they could not be more different: while Arbikie lies in the middle of some bucolic farmland with stunning coastal views of Lunan Bay, Inchdairnie is located on the edge of an unprepossessing industrial estate in Glenrothes. That’s Glenrothes in Fife, a creature of post-war planning that created a ‘new town’ in a bid to create employment through industrial regeneration – a very far cry from the picturesque Speyside scene the name may conjure up.

And there’s more. By April 2022, hopefully just as soon as the last fears of Covid subside, Arbikie will be welcoming visitors to a brand new, up-to-the-minute visitor centre while Inchdairnie remains firmly closed to the public and has no plans whatsoever to open its doors. 

One was dreamed up over several drams in a New York bar by two farmers while the other was the meticulously planned culmination of a forty-year career in whisky production by a highly-regarded distillery engineer, sought after for his consulting skills. And one is as high-tech as this industry gets, with custom-designed, bespoke equipment while the other relies on off-the-shelf plant. There are no prizes for guessing which is which.

Arbikie and Inchdairnie

Rye has been made in Scotland before, even if it’s something of a forgotten history

Rye hopes

But what surprised me is that, despite the apparent gulf between them, they have ended up in much the same place: one which, for Scotland at least, is highly unusual. Because, against the grain of standard industry practice, both are distilling rye and feature this as their inaugural release.

To understand this, let’s take a step back into history. Though today Scotch single malt is distilled from malted barley, with maize and wheat also used for the grain whisky essential to blends, life has not always been that simple. 

Historically, other grains such as rye were used to make whisky in Scotland. At Inchdairnie, MD Ian Palmer points to the 1908/09 Royal Commission Report on Whiskey and Other Potable Spirits as irrefutable historical evidence that rye was used to make Scotch whisky. 

Similarly, at Arbikie this nineteenth-century practice is cited as a tradition they have revived. It’s curious that while both are breaking with today’s orthodoxy their innovation is defended by reference to impeccable documentation but an esoteric source for all but the keenest student of whisky’s history. It seems that even the newest of distilleries look to the past in creating a heritage and provenance for their brands.

However, I’m not so sure they needed to bother. Rye is well established as a distilling grain and rye whisky a key component in many whisky cocktails, especially in the USA. Whisky enthusiasts will surely welcome a Scottish twist on this longtime classic and it surely makes sense for any new distillery to be doing something, well, new – at least in their home market.

the stills at Arbikie Distillery

Rye made here: the stills at Arbikie Distillery

Arbikie’s first releases

The good news is that Arbikie’s version is already available. The 1794 Highland Rye Single Grain uses Arantes rye (some wheat and malted barley are also included in the mash bill) and, in line with Arbikie’s ‘field to bottle’ philosophy, all the grain is estate-grown. Bottled at 48% at £125 a bottle, this may just be one that ends in collections, not on a bar. Though a price drop from the £350 asked for the first release, it might seem a trifle ambitious price for a brand new distillery, especially as Arbikie’s white spirits are considerably cheaper.

Turning to Inchdairnie, they have been distilling their RyeLaw style of rye since December 2017 and expect to release it sometime this year – “when it’s ready”, says Ian Palmer. If not Scotland’s first rye, which one suspects was their initial hope, it’s certainly technically interesting. To produce the more finely ground flour that suits rye the grain is prepared using a hammer mill as opposed to the conventional roller set-up and instead of the usual mash tun, a mash filter (as also seen at Diageo’s Teaninich – which may also be making rye whisky to go into Johnnie Walker High Rye) provides a higher extract of starch and sugar.

Arbikie and Inchdairnie

Scottish rye whisky is well and truly back

Innovation at Inchdairnie

The innovation doesn’t stop there: Inchdairnie uses its own variation on the Lomond still, designed by Palmer to include six fixed condensing trays, to take the low wines. With increased copper contact between spirit and still considered vital the two adjacent pot stills are both fitted with twin condensers, providing enhanced heat recovery as an energy bonus to the process.

With so much relatively novel technology packed into one distillery and the whole site designed from the ground up it’s disappointing to tell you that there are no public facilities, though privileged trade visitors are received in a boardroom dressed with stylish contemporary art. But Inchdairnie is single-mindedly in the business of making whisky, not tourism or coffee shops and so we must be content with the website’s tantalising suggestion that “we may in future occasionally host special visits”.

Yes, but when can we buy the whisky?

But what about the whisky? As it matures in new American oak, it’s approaching the point where Palmer and his team consider it time for the launch. Personally, judging by a precious sample, I’d consider it not far off ready for bottling and tried it with pleasure. It’s a high-quality, sipping style of whisky that rewards contemplation and considered drinking. As to the price, nothing has been revealed though given Inchdairnie’s larger volumes compared to Arbikie I would anticipate it to be competitive with the wider market.

Both are a credit to their respective owners and their entrepreneurial spirit. They bring welcome fresh thinking to the industry, offering the curious drinker the opportunity to explore a style that is both a whisky classic yet something not seen in Scotland for a century or more. Firmly rooted in their locality both look confidently outward on a whisky journey that has taken them back to the future.

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Tips for investing in whisky (and avoiding scammers)

Today, Ian Buxton returns to one of his favourite topics, buying whisky in cask. He’s come up with some tips to help you not to get scammed. Here are seven…

Today, Ian Buxton returns to one of his favourite topics, buying whisky in cask. He’s come up with some tips to help you not to get scammed. Here are seven tips for investing in whisky.

I was thrilled to see Dr Nick Morgan’s piece here last week on whisky investment scams from the 1960s and ‘70s. It’s strange, but like the proverbial bad penny, these things keep coming around.

More than one hundred years ago people were getting fooled, thanks to the Pattison brothers but it seems we never learn. Skipping over Dr Morgan’s examples, we can fast forward to the £10m Cavendish Hamilton Cask Management ‘investment’ debacle of the early 2000s. And, not to say I’ve already warned you – but I’ve already warned you here, more than once.

So, how to be sure the great British public won’t get fooled again? Here’s my simple, seven-step, cut-out-and-keep, whisky investment guide.

Ken Grier investment

You could make a fortune out of investing in whisky. But you probably won’t

Seven tips for investing in whisky

1) Don’t!

And this is my TOP TIP. Retire to a quiet, dimly-lit room with a large dram of your favourite whisky and repeat to yourself the sacred mantra ‘whisky is for drinking; whisky is for drinking’. Try to imagine setting alight a huge pile of money – your savings. Imagine your partner’s reaction when you show them the ashes of your carefully-planned future. Then drink more of that delicious whisky.

If the fever has not passed then this is what you need to know.

2) Distilleries can go under

Remember that distilleries can and do fail. So, if you decide to buy a cask from one of the more recently-opened operations, bear in mind that it may not be around by the time you want to sell. Even if they survive, their whisky is highly unlikely to be in anyone’s blend recipe so there will be virtually no trade market for your cask. You’re effectively just supporting a new start-up: fun, emotionally satisfying but an investment only in your pleasure.

3) Don’t pay too much  

Be aware that prices for private casks have increased substantially in recent years. Once the cost was set by the trade price for fillings and was a modest premium on what the industry paid. Today, all too often it’s little more than a slight discount on the eventual retail price. In other words, you’re being asked mature whisky prices for new make. The easy money has left the building.

4) Do some digging

Don’t just take their word for it. Don’t be impressed by a glossy brochure or slick website and never, ever fall for phone calls pressing you for an immediate payment suggesting you will miss a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’. Check out the people behind the pitch. The web doesn’t forget, so be prepared to dig and don’t be surprised to find a dodgy history. If there are no names obvious then smell a rat. Search names at Companies House (it’s free). If your promoters have a history of failed companies or a suspiciously long list of directorships, then walk away.

whisky crash

Ian Buxton contemplating buying a cask of whisky

5) Make sure you have a Delivery Order

You have to get the Delivery Order (Do). Do not accept a ‘Certificate of Ownership’ or similar document from an intermediary, it’s spurious. Without the Delivery Order if something goes wrong you’re on your own. And, it may sound obvious, but check first that the person selling you the cask actually owns it themselves.

Think of the DO like the V5C for a car – the owner’s logbook. But know this: when you buy a car, you’ve bought it. It’s yours. Now imagine that the manufacturer could step in at any time, perhaps years later, and tell you how far or how fast you could drive it. Or who you could take as a passenger. You might come to think that you don’t actually ‘own’ the vehicle after all, even though you parted with the money. Be aware that many of the casks sold today to private buyers come with strict caveats on what you can and can’t do with the whisky – so if you plan to bottle and retail it at huge profit, think again because the small print often explicitly forbids this. Don’t imagine that you can slip this under the radar because brands watch the market very carefully and you will be hearing from their lawyers soon.

Historically, that wasn’t the case. Once you’d shown you had paid the tax and bottled the whisky, it was yours. Or you could sell the cask under bond and the new owner was free to do what they wished. Increasingly, that’s not possible, which is why tales of lucky owners who turned a few thousand quid into hundreds of thousands of pounds will never, and can never, be repeated. Be happy for them but forget it – it’s never going to happen to you. The lawyers have seen to that.

Tip 6: prepare to do some work

If you’re planning to bottle it yourself, then get ready for some hard work. Trust me, because I’ve done it. Organising shipping, bottling, labelling and selling your whisky while keeping on the right side of the law, and the original distillery will take time and effort and more money than you think possible. There’s more paperwork than fun, believe me. But, if you must, good luck (you’ll need it).

#7. Refer to step 1

 

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How Scotch whisky opened up

Ian Buxton returns to take a look at how Scotch whisky opened up. He remembers a time when master distillers were unknown and unreachable, and whisky production was a secret…

Ian Buxton returns to take a look at how Scotch whisky opened up. He remembers a time when master distillers were unknown and unreachable, and whisky production was a secret kept by each distillery. Now the industry is much more open, accessible and diverse. Here’s how it happened. 

You probably noticed the recent announcement that, at the end of a distinguished career of more than forty years, Johnnie Walker master blender Dr. Jim Beveridge OBE is to retire soon and will be succeeded by a Dr. Emma Walker [no relation, Ed.].

Whisky stepped out of the shadows

Dr. Emma Walker is succeeding the legendary Dr. Jim Beveridge OBE

The illustrious women of Scotch whisky

This news has been extensively covered (rightly) so I won’t elaborate here other than to offer congratulations. Dr. Walker joins the many other highly capable women changing the face of the whisky industry. In the blending rooms alone we can count Maureen Robinson, also at Diageo, Rachel Barrie (BenRiach etc.) and Stephanie Macleod at Dewar’s among others – and that’s before mentioning the women in senior executive roles in finance, marketing and other key positions. Just a decade or so ago this would have been quite exceptional and widely remarked upon; today we take it for granted.

It suddenly struck me that this was just one of the very many changes that I can recount after my near-forty years in whisky. For an industry all too frequently thought of as resistant to change and overly traditional in its ways, I can reflect on changes that seem quite radical and profound. Never mind lady master distillers and blenders, the whole role and visibility of this once mysterious character has been transformed. Previously shadowy but powerful figures, they were invisible to the outside world – and hidden even from many of their colleagues. I started work in the mid-1980s for a well-respected firm of Glasgow blenders, now part of Edrington, in a middle management marketing role.

The marketer who asked to meet the blender!

One day, shortly after joining, I expressed a wish to meet The Blender (for so he – and it was always going to be a ‘he’ in those days – was styled and spoken of) and learn more about what he actually did and how this linked to marketing. Consternation! The Blender would be busy. The Blender could not be disturbed from his sacred work. The Blender did not concern himself with matters such as marketing and, if impertinent young marketing folks knew what was good for them, they did not enter his inner sanctum.

In actual fact, he turned out to be Paul Rickards (remembered today for his contribution to the development of the tasting wheel) and, once he recovered from the shock of talking to me, proved affable, engaging and very open to sharing his knowledge. He wasn’t terrifying at all and would probably have fitted right into today’s world where distillery managers and distillers are rock stars, highly visible on promotional world tours, presenting at whisky shows, signing bottles and posing for selfies. One wonders, on occasion, just how much blending and distilling they manage to fit into their busy week.

It’s about transparency, something that the industry has embraced to an astounding degree. Take visitor centres, or ‘brand homes’ as they are increasingly styled. Once, really not so long ago, distilleries were closed and secretive places. Believe it or not, it was quite normal for colleagues outside a production role to have to seek permission in advance to visit distillery or bottling facilities and expect to be questioned on the purpose of the trip.

Whisky stepped out of the shadows

Johnnie Walker Princes Street Experience demonstrates how public access to whisky is changing

How Scotch whisky opened up

The first visitor centres date from the late 1960s when both Glenfarclas and Glenfiddich had some limited – very limited by today’s standards – facilities for the public. However, with a few exceptions, in general the idea was firmly resisted by the rest of the industry for a further twenty years or so. Notably, the DCL (forerunner of Diageo) gave long consideration to the concept of building a small model distillery, codenamed the Bothy Still, which would open to the public thus avoiding the trouble and expense of visitors to their ‘real’ distilleries. In the event that plan was abandoned in favour of a modest exhibition above the public toilet block in a layby off the A9 by Kingussie (today it’s the privately-run Ralia Café and a great place for a short break on the tedious drive north).

Compare that attitude to the reputed £150m Diageo have just spent on the Johnnie Walker Princes Street Experience and its four satellite distillery centres. Public access to distilleries is now the norm and those that maintain a closed door policy a fast-diminishing minority.  They are frequently critical to the economics of many new boutique ‘craft’ operations where visitors are welcomed with open arms (and a ringing till).

Greater transparency

Alongside this transparency there has been a greater willingness to share details of production, blend make-up, cask regimes and so on that would have been unthinkable even ten years ago. While some brands continue to resist, a new generation of more open-minded industry leaders have recognized that today’s well informed, media savvy and curious consumers cannot be fobbed off with PR platitudes, misty faux-heritage anecdotes and a few sepia-tinted photos of Victorian gents with resplendent facial hair and curious hats.

Distillers such as Waterford and Sweden’s Gotland provide astonishing amounts of information on their websites for all to see. Sometimes the detail can be overwhelming but the evidence seems to be that the more a brand shares the more the consumer (or some of them at least) will happily absorb and then come back for more. The distillers of my youth would require many a long and liquid lunch to overcome their apoplexy at such heretical disclosures.

So, many changes, though arguably more could and should be done. Notably, the whisky industry in the UK remains predominantly white and middle class, albeit with an improved and improving male/female balance, while ethnic minorities remain a rarity, certainly at any level of management. However, take some comfort from these few thoughts based on a lifetime’s observations. Don’t believe the historically ill-informed Jeremiahs who suggest that this is a stuffy and unduly conservative industry – hopefully this brief survey belies that view and provides hope for a better future.

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