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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Ian Buxton

Alan Gray, Scotch whisky industry expert – obituary

Today, Ian Buxton pays tribute to one of Scotch whisky’s greats who died recently: Alan Gray, the man behind industry bible the annual Scotch Whisky Industry Review. Here at Master…

Today, Ian Buxton pays tribute to one of Scotch whisky’s greats who died recently: Alan Gray, the man behind industry bible the annual Scotch Whisky Industry Review.

Here at Master of Malt, we were greatly saddened to note the passing of Alan Gray. Alan Gray – ‘who he?’ some of you might ask. 

Alan may not have been well-known outside the industry, and he is unlikely to have been recognised by the whisky drinker, but he was widely respected by industry insiders for his insightful commentary on the Scotch whisky business.

Born in Lanark in December 1939, he trained initially as a chartered accountant, became a financial journalist in London and, on his return to his native Scotland, a stockbroker. Bear in mind that in the 1960s there were still very many more independent whisky companies and thus stocks quoted on the market. But whisky became his great love and, in 1977, he launched the first edition of his Scotch Whisky Industry Review.

As he developed his contacts and networks (which were extensive, for he was a clubbable man), this came to be seen as the most credible independent source of information and commentary on the industry. Each issue went into meticulous depth on production, stock levels, shipments, brand and marketing activity, frequently covering 300 pages or more of closely packed argument.

Alan Gray (photo credit: The Keepers of the Quaich)

His reputation grew with the publication of a monthly newsletter and he was valued for his discretion and his respect for the many ‘off the record’ conversations which added such depth to his commentary.

Alan was recognised as a Keeper (later Master) of the Quaich, an honour which he greatly valued. He was not afraid to challenge some of the industry’s conventions or to debunk the myths and spin that he detected from time to time in marketing. During his long life, Alan recorded the whisky industry moving from the depression of the ‘whisky loch’ to today’s current prosperity and expansion, always with sharp wit and a keen intelligence.

Think of him as a latter-day Alfred Barnard – a chronicler and enthusiast who has left an invaluable and unrivalled record. He had only recently completed work on the latest Scotch Whisky Industry Review 2019, remarkably the 42nd edition (photo in header from this publication). Its 284 pages will be a lasting memory of an impressive lifetime’s achievement.

Alan Gray died on 20th February 2020 and is survived by his wife of 56 years, Margaret, his three sons Barry, Colin and David, his brother Jim and by six grandchildren.

 

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Agave cask Scotch whisky: what fresh madness is this?

In June 2019, the SWA issued a statement outlining changes to the Scotch whisky rules allowing, among other things, ageing in casks that previously held agave spirits. Now the first…

In June 2019, the SWA issued a statement outlining changes to the Scotch whisky rules allowing, among other things, ageing in casks that previously held agave spirits. Now the first agave-aged whiskies are here (or nearly here , the UK market will have to wait a while), and Ian Buxton wants to know: what came first, the new rules or the whiskies? 

Well, that didn’t take long.

Back in January 2018, you might recall excited commentary around a story that Diageo had a ‘secret working party’ suggesting new rules expanding the types of casks that could be used to finish Scotch whisky. The Wall Street Journal broke the story but it soon led to much speculation on social media, with some commentators having a minor fit of the vapours at a proposal considered shocking, radical or heretical (insert your adjective of choice – you get the general idea). If you believed some of the responses, the whole future of Scotch was at stake.

Diageo’s secret jungle HQ. . . allegedly

At the time industry leader Diageo played the predictable dead bat. Speaking quite possibly from a hidden lair in an extinct volcano while stroking a white cat, an anonymous spokesman offered these priceless words to a breathlessly waiting world:

“Scotch is the most important category for Diageo and we have an unwavering commitment to the integrity, long-term success, history and tradition of the category. As champions of Scotch, we are always looking at ways to innovate to both protect and secure the future success of the category. In doing so, we work with the Scotch Whisky Association [SWA] on a range of ideas that seek to strike a balance between tradition and innovation, in a way that ensures consumers get the great products they want. We will never compromise on the quality and integrity of Scotch.”

And so matters remained until June 2019 when the SWA, previously reported to be unenthusiastic about the changes, quietly announced an amendment to the prosaically-named Scotch Whisky Technical File.  This permitted Scotch whisky to be matured in casks previously used to age agave spirits (such as Tequila and mezcal), Calvados, barrel-aged cachaça, shochu and baijiu, as well as some other fruit spirits. Discreet industry lobbying had evidently persuaded the SWA to revise its position. However, as an industry-funded body, it had little choice if larger members insisted on the change which had been duly approved by the SWA Council in the previous December.

In any event, it’s now clear that much surreptitious activity had been going on anyway in warehouses across Scotland.  Unsurprisingly, Diageo was very quick off the mark with the low-profile announcement of Buchanan’s Two Souls in Mexico in May 2019 (before the SWA amendment). The blend is finished in Don Julio Tequila casks, a brand that Diageo owns, and which happens to sell a Tequila finished in old Lagavulin barrels.  

With this timing a pedant might consider that in its enthusiasm – how shall we put this politely – Diageo’s Mexican team were sailing close to the wind in promoting a still illegal whisky. Mexican press coverage refers to a “launch” on 16 May, yet the rules did not come into force for another three weeks. On investigation though, it transpires that this was a media pre-launch briefing for influencers and Two Souls was not publicly available until 1 July.  That could have been embarrassing but we may, of course, safely assume that not a drop was served.

However, we’re now seeing a number of new cask finishes joining the party. As of this month Diageo’s Buchanan’s offering has been matched by Chivas Extra 13 finished in Tequila casks and Dewar’s Ilegal SmoothIlegal being a fashionable Mezcal brand in which Dewar’s ultimate owner Bacardi has a share. The Chivas Extra 13 forms part of a small range, also including Oloroso Sherry, Rum and American Rye finishes.  Not to be outdone, Dewar’s brought its Caribbean Smooth (it’s a rum finish, as if you hadn’t guessed) to North American markets in September last year though it should be noted that these other finishes had been permitted for some years prior to the new regulations.

Ewan Gunn in action on Islay

Wondering what Diageo will do next? Predictably, they’re pretty tight lipped about future plans. This is what senior global brand ambassador Ewan Gunn (above) had to say:

“Whilst we never reveal any of the hundreds of ongoing experiments our whisky makers are constantly engaged in, you can rest assured that we will continue to be at the forefront of making great whisky and pioneering new and exciting expressions. Watch this space…”

Nothing, thus far, on how Buchanan’s have got on in Mexico, so it remains to be seen how markets will accept products such as Two Souls, Dewar’s Ilegal Smooth and Chivas Extra. Traditionalists should hold onto their hats though as the marketing folks undoubtedly aren’t done monkeying around with Scotch whisky. One thing I suppose is clear. We may not have seen cachaça, shochu or baijiu finished whisky yet (though we assuredly will) but the world hasn’t ended. Scotch will survive which, given we’re all likely to be in lockdown soon, is a reassuring thought.  (Note to self: better lay in a few bottles).

Though he has neither a beard nor any visible tattoos or piercings, Ian Buxton is well-placed to write about drinks. A former marketing director of one of Scotland’s favourite single malts, his is a bitter-sweet love affair with Scotland’s national drink – not to mention gin and rum, or whatever the nearest PR is pouring. Once, apparently without noticing, he bought a derelict distillery. Follow his passionate, authentic hand-crafted artisanal journey on the Master of Malt blog.  Or just buy his books.  It’s what he really wants.

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It’s Indian whisky, my friend

Indian whisky brands sell a staggering amount on their home turf but much of what is sold as ‘whisky’ wouldn’t be recognised as such in the EU or America. But…

Indian whisky brands sell a staggering amount on their home turf but much of what is sold as ‘whisky’ wouldn’t be recognised as such in the EU or America. But now this distilling giant is producing single malts to take on the world. Ian Buxton takes a closer look at the biggest whisky market of all.

What’s the best-selling whisky in the world? You’d probably guess Johnnie Walker, or perhaps Jack Daniel’s. You’d be wrong. In fact, it’s Officer’s Choice, which outsells Walker roughly two to one. Diageo’s global behemoth is also outpaced by a number of other little-known brands such as McDowell’s No. 1, Imperial Blue and Royal Stag.

Of course, ‘little-known’ is quite incorrect.  As befits their staggering sales – Officer’s Choice alone sells over 32 million cases annually – they are very well known indeed in their home market, which just happens to be India, the world’s largest whisky market. Even the tenth biggest seller, Bagpiper, accounts for some 6 million cases which would make it easily the world’s third largest selling Scotch. It’s not as it happens, though you might think the name and packaging just a trifle confusing.

For years, most of us outside India have tended to look down on Indian whisky, if we thought about it at all. Quite a number of the cheaper brands are distilled from molasses, which makes them rum in the eyes of EU and US regulators, hence the fact that they never appear on our shelves. The better Indian whiskies, however, are distilled from grain and frequently blended with a proportion of real Scotch. Scots distillers aren’t above shipping bulk whiskies to India for local bottling with Indian-made spirit, it’s just that they don’t make much noise about it.

The inability of the huge Indian distilling industry to sell most of its products in the EU has long been a source of friction and partly accounts for India’s significant tariff barriers on imported Scotch (up to 150% with additional regulations at individual state level). However, in recent years the more innovative Indian distillers have been producing single malt whiskies that meet EU legislation in full and, from a slow start, have been gaining sales here.

Ashok Chokalingam from Amrut in action

One of the pioneers was Amrut Distilleries, based in Bangalore who first launched in the UK in August 2004 in Glasgow. Since then they have collected both awards and appreciative fans who look to Amrut for both flavour and value.  Because of the rapid maturation of Indian whiskies and their willingness to experiment with finishes there has been a steady stream of releases and there is more to come. “We have released three different versions of Greedy Angels 10 Years Old last year and a single grain (first ever single grain whisky from India and one more first from India),” master distiller and head of international sales, Ashok Chokalingam told me. “In 2020 we are planning to release a number of exciting single casks for a number of countries, mainly for Europe and America. Also one more first of its kind is planned from India by May 2020,” he added intriguingly.

Amrut have progressively moved up-market: the 2019 Greedy Angels release commands a near-£700 price tag, albeit at 55% ABV. Stocks are very limited but such is the demand that a price hitherto unimaginable for whisky from the sub-continent can be sustained. Similarly, the Paul John range from John Distilleries of Goa also includes a number of interesting variants at £100+ prices.

Nor have rivals been idle. Rampur, based in the foothills of the Himalayas and one of India’s oldest distilleries, currently offers its Select single malt expression with a Double Cask and PX sherry finish variant due to follow shortly. Well informed critics tell me that Double Cask is an excellent product. “Rather nice” is how one understated Scots distiller described it; which, take it from me, is praise indeed. But then, this is a serious distilling operation – the company’s 8PM blend is one of India’s top ten whiskies, with annual volumes estimated to exceed 7 million cases.

Rampur Double Cask, “rather nice”

No surprise then, that Rampur has been looking at the lucrative European markets with interest and employing Scottish expertise to provide the essential skills. The legendary Dr Jim Swan was involved in their early single malt production and, more recently, former Diageo master distiller Charlie Smith (once of Talisker and latterly responsible for getting Ballindalloch up and running) has been working to install new distilling plant with a production potential approaching 2 million litres of spirit annually.

The new distillery will be capable of producing two distinct spirit types (think Roseisle) and is to be supported by new warehousing facilities with sophisticated humidity control to combat the estimated 12% angel’s share. These are substantial investments and indicative of the serious long-term thinking behind this project and the company’s commitment to quality.

Perhaps then, it’s time to rethink our attitude to Indian whisky.

Though he has neither a beard nor any visible tattoos or piercings, Ian Buxton is well-placed to write about drinks. A former marketing director of one of Scotland’s favourite single malts, his is a bitter-sweet love affair with Scotland’s national drink – not to mention gin and rum, or whatever the nearest PR is pouring. Once, apparently without noticing, he bought a derelict distillery. Follow his passionate, authentic hand-crafted artisanal journey on the Master of Malt blog.  Or just buy his books.  It’s what he really wants.

 

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What the blazes: a history of distillery fires

Making whisky is not without its hazards, distillation can be a dangerous business. Then there’s the challenge of storing thousands of wooden casks of flammable liquid safely while they mature….

Making whisky is not without its hazards, distillation can be a dangerous business. Then there’s the challenge of storing thousands of wooden casks of flammable liquid safely while they mature. Inevitably, things sometimes go wrong. Ian Buxton looks into the explosive history of distillery fires. 

If you’ve ever visited a distillery warehouse of recent construction, you’ll have noticed that it’s festooned with all kinds of safety precautions in the event of fire: smoke sensors; sophisticated monitoring and alarm systems (frequently linked to the local fire station) and substantial fire walls to prevent the flames taking control of the whole building. There’s generally a significant gap between modern buildings, both to prevent the fire spreading and to allow firefighters access to all sides of the structures. Different vintages of production are spread across a number of warehouses to prevent the possibility of the total loss of a specific age of whisky.

Not the aftermath of the Blitz but Watson’s Whisky Bond following a fire

All permanent staff will have had training and there will be fire-fighting equipment on site, though possibly out of sight of the visitors. Health & safety legislation quite properly lays great stress on mitigating risks and training staff in good practice or, if the worst should happen, evacuation procedures. For all the care, though, there are still accidents (and sometimes accidents with a still), such as the recent fire at Masons in Yorkshire. For some reason, the USA has in recent years been particularly prone to significant conflagrations: Heaven Hill (1996), Wild Turkey (2000), Jim Beam (2003 and again in 2019) and, tragically, Silver Trail in Kentucky where in 2015 a young distiller was killed and a colleague severely injured.

Fortunately, fatalities are rare these days and usually only whisky is lost.  Sadly, it has not always been so. Glasgow was the scene of one of Britain’s worst ever peacetime fire services disaster when, on 28 March 1960 the Cheapside Street whisky bond caught fire and collapsed, killing 11 firemen. The blaze took a week to fully extinguish and, at its peak, required 450 firemen, 30 pumping appliances, five turntable ladders, four support vehicles, and a fire boat on the River Clyde. There were six bravery awards, including two awards of the George Medal.

At this time, Glasgow still had a considerable number of operational warehouses in the city itself though. Following the fire, most were relocated (the buildings still presented hazards, though.  Failure to remove security bars from the windows at an old bond in James Watt Street led to the death of 22 employees of an upholstery workshop just eight years later.)

Postcard commemorating the fire at the North of Scotland Distillery in Aberdeen

Clearly earlier lessons had not been learned. Prior to world war one there were disastrous fires in both Aberdeen and Dundee. In September 1904, the North of Scotland Distillery in Aberdeen was totally destroyed by fire and some 700,000 gallons of whisky (around two year’s production) was lost. Though the distillery did reopen it proved hard to recover and it eventually closed in 1913, ironically just as Port Dundas Distillery in Glasgow, which had lain dormant since a fire ten years earlier, was recommissioned. 

A little further down Scotland’s east coast, in Dundee, a devastating fire broke out in July 1906 in the James Watson & Co. bond at the junction of Seagate and the aptly-named Candle Lane. Then one of the largest distillers in the country and a major force in the industry, Watson’s never really recovered from the disruption to their business and the company and remaining stocks were eventually acquired by the DCL (forerunners of today’s Diageo). The neighbouring blending house of John Robertson & Son was also badly affected by the fire as flaming alcohol was seen raining down on surrounding streets and buildings, setting light to a sugar warehouse, jute factory and printers. 

So bad was the inferno that firemen had to be called from Edinburgh to help fight it. The fire, which burned for 12 hours, has been described as the most destructive in the history of Dundee. An eyewitness recorded it sending “rivers of burning whisky” through the city, the spectacle attracting a thousand strong crowd of spectators. According to the Dundee Courier, the glow was visible from Brechin and Montrose (about 30 miles away) and people on Dundee’s outskirts could read newspapers out of doors at midnight.

major fire at Jim Beam

There was a major fire at Jim Beam in 2019

While the six storey bond, several other buildings and around 1,000,000 gallons of spirits were lost, there were mercifully no fatalities recorded – and local postcard company Valentines were quickly on the scene to record the damage in a series of rare and now collectable postcards.

So, next time you visit a distillery and your guide prohibits flash photography try to remember these tragic events in Scotland’s distilling history and confine the mixture of fire and whisky to a Blue Blazer cocktail when you return home!

Though he has neither a beard nor any visible tattoos or piercings, Ian Buxton is well-placed to write about drinks. A former marketing director of one of Scotland’s favourite single malts, his is a bitter-sweet love affair with Scotland’s national drink – not to mention gin and rum, or whatever the nearest PR is pouring. Once, apparently without noticing, he bought a derelict distillery. Follow his passionate, authentic hand-crafted artisanal journey on the Master of Malt blog.  Or just buy his books.  It’s what he really wants.

 

 

 

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The whole fruit and nothing but the fruit

Fruit brandies are big on the continent but unknown in Britain. Almost unknown, that is. There is one man distilling eau-de-vies in tiny quantities using local fruit and an obsessive…

Fruit brandies are big on the continent but unknown in Britain. Almost unknown, that is. There is one man distilling eau-de-vies in tiny quantities using local fruit and an obsessive attention to detail. Ian Buxton travelled to the Cotswolds to meet him. 

Where do your literary sensibilities lie? Do you prefer Henry James or Marcel Proust to Ian Fleming and Wilbur Smith? Or for an agreeable foreign break, would you choose a cultural tour of little-known Greco-Roman remains over Club 18-30? Nothing wrong with either I should add, but you do need to know what you like. You may, for example, really enjoy very robust Islay single malts or monstrous roaring sherry-soaked whiskies. That’s fine, but if so I’d suggest that you look away now because I doubt that the English fruit brandies (or eaux-de-vie) of the Capreolus Distillery will really float your boat. 

Everything here is about subtlety, refinement, delicacy and precision. These are very cerebral spirits, not for quaffing with roguish abandon but to be savoured, thought about and analysed. These, I would submit, should be drunk with at least some appreciation and regard for the precision that has gone into making them.

Barney Wilczak in action

But who or what is the Capreolus Distillery, I hear you ask. At one level, it’s another of the many tiny craft distilleries we’ve seen spring up over recent years. This one is based in a converted Cotswolds greenhouse, with a garage serving as warehouse and dry goods store.  Two small Czech stills are the engine at its heart and self-taught distiller (and professional photographer, see photos in the article) Barney Wilczak presides over the operation. A highly-regarded gin first drew the world’s attention.

So far, so unexceptional: well-rated gin from a start-up distillery is praiseworthy (and the gin is very, very delicious) but not all that unusual. What really makes Capreolus stand out are the fruit brandies. Eaux-de-vies are not an English tradition. With the exception of cider and, less often perry, fruit has conventionally been used in England for preserves and desserts whereas in much of continental Europe small-scale, artisanal distilling is well established. Indeed, such is its importance that in France, Germany, Hungary and Italy among other nations it’s considered part of their cultural patrimony, enjoys an honoured place in the drinking repertoire and is an essential component in gastronomy. Oh, and upstart outsiders are looked at sceptically. 

Fermented raspberries

Fermented raspberries being transferred to still by hand

In working with locally-grown English apples, pears, quince, plums, damsons, greengages, blackcurrants, raspberries and other fruits, Wilczak has taken on a considerable challenge.  Not only are the products a minority taste in the UK, his meticulous approach means they are incredibly demanding and expensive to produce. His pursuit of absolute purity of taste borders on the obsessive: only the finest fruit is selected, no sugar is added and only wild yeasts employed in fermentation. Very considerable quantities of fruit are required to produce even a single litre of distillate.

Just imagine examining 34.5 kilos of raspberries by hand. Each single berry is inspected, damaged berries or leaves removed and prior to fermentation the fruit is washed by hand.  When bottled at 43% ABV, Wilczak estimates that there’s the equivalent of one kilo of raspberries in each 25cl measure or, as he puts it, “100,000 pips in every glass”. 

Even using a 37.5cl bottle as standard, this painstaking approach means that quantities are very limited: in 2018 there were a mere 93 bottles of the Raspberry Eaux-de-Vie and despite a price tag of £120 they were soon all gone. Other expressions are similarly restricted: 106 bottles of Damson, 142 of Greengage, and 194 from the Quince, every single one of which was picked by hand, then individually washed to remove any trace of a fine fluff that becomes rancid after distillation. 

Guarding the precious eaux-de-vie

The results are remarkable, with an intensity and delicacy that is hard to convey on paper.  What Wilczak is doing seems closer to perfumery than distillation as we understand or usually experience it. The natural home of these products would be a Michelin-starred restaurant where they can be served with due ceremony and appreciation as the culmination of an exceptional gastronomic experience. I should add that a little goes a long way, but that these are a quite exquisite expression of the transcendental power of distillation to preserve the essence of the base ingredient whilst magically transforming our understanding of the fruit to a profound new level.

That may be a candidate for Pseuds Corner but, if you had tried any of these products you’d understand. Here’s a tip: start with the Garden Swift Gin. Not only is it less expensive, it’s the ideal pathway to understanding what has been achieved here. Personally, I’m happy to sip it neat, very slowly, and restrict myself to a single, small glass (not a sentence I write all that often).

Click here for the Capreolus range available from Master of Malt.

Though he has neither a beard nor any visible tattoos or piercings, Ian Buxton is well-placed to write about drinks. A former marketing director of one of Scotland’s favourite single malts, his is a bitter-sweet love affair with Scotland’s national drink – not to mention gin and rum, or whatever the nearest PR is pouring. Once, apparently without noticing, he bought a derelict distillery. Follow his passionate, authentic hand-crafted artisanal journey on the Master of Malt blog.  Or just buy his books.  It’s what he really wants.

 

 

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Greenwashing in Scotch whisky

We hear a lot about environmental concerns and sustainability from the Scotch whisky industry these days. But is there real substance behind the marketing? Ian Buxton investigates… I watched a…

We hear a lot about environmental concerns and sustainability from the Scotch whisky industry these days. But is there real substance behind the marketing? Ian Buxton investigates…

I watched a nice little video recently. It features Doug Allan, a wildlife cameraman particularly noted for his work on Blue Planet, talking about his relationship with the sea. It runs alongside another short film about some rather earnest Californians who make ‘sustainable surfboards’. Both form part of Old Pulteney’s Rise with the Tide campaign on the brand’s website, where it tells us, rather sententiously I felt, that its story “is inseparable from the sea”, and that it embraces “the sea’s immense power… to do something remarkable.”

I rather like Old Pulteney and enjoyed the feel-good videos, without thinking about them very deeply.  After all, who these days doesn’t want to appear concerned about the environment in general and oceans in particular?  We’ve all seen the disturbing images of oceanic pollution and watched distressing footage of birds, animals and fish caught up or killed by plastic waste.  We all want to do something.

Kudos then, to the films with their stated aim. “Our latest film series is all about sharing these stories,” the website assures us, “so people can take inspiration from them. To get out there, embrace that opportunity and do something remarkable.”  

So, I wondered, what remarkable thing is Pulteney doing? I posed a series of questions to the brand, expecting to hear about wave power generating the distillery’s electricity, reductions in effluent and waste, work with local environmental campaigners – something, anything related to these worthy messages. To summarise the answer: there’s nothing in particular.  Turns out this is a brand awareness campaign attempting to highlight Old Pulteney’s claim to be ‘The Maritime Malt’.

Now we could discuss the highly-vexed and contentious question of saltiness in the taste of whisky, but I’m not going down that particular rabbit hole. Or we could enquire what it is, precisely, that makes Old Pulteney notably different from other distilleries located on our coastline (Talisker’s marketing is uncannily similar). But there’s a bigger issue – and that’s the question of ‘greenwashing’ in marketing.

Sustainable Surf x Old Pulteney - Rise With The Tide

The Ecoboard boys enjoying a dram

Greenwashing: “a form of marketing spin in which green PR (green values) and green marketing are deceptively used to persuade the public that an organisation’s products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly and therefore ‘better’” (thanks, Wikipedia for that cogent summary). I’d say that aligning your brand with cuddly Doug Allan and the manufacturers of ECOBOARDS™ without actually doing anything is a classic example. Incidentally, the surf video was shot on location in California – each person from the brand who flew to Los Angeles generated 2.63 tonnes of additional CO² (or around three times that if they were fortunate enough to be flying business class, which would wipe out the CO² saving of more than 200 ECOBOARDS™).

In fairness, I don’t think anyone at Old Pulteney really thought about this in terribly great depth. They seemed genuinely surprised by my questions so what I think we have here is a bit of fluffy PR with no real substance.

It’s a shame though, and the disappointment is made worse by the fact that some brands are doing this well. Take Glenmorangie, for example, and its DEEP sponsorship, which we covered back in May last year. It is helping the regeneration of the oyster beds in the Dornoch Firth, which will improve the local marine environment and may, in time, form the basis of a sustainable high-value fishery. Who wouldn’t enjoy half a dozen native oysters washed down with some Glenmo’?  I know I’d be available for that media trip!

Nightcap

The oyster beds in the Dornoch Firth

Chivas Brothers, justifiably proud of the reduced energy footprint at Dalmunach, is the  lead sponsor of VIBES, the Scottish Environment Business Awards. “We believe sustainable business should be at the core of any enterprise that takes a long-term approach and expects their product to have a purpose and role in society,” says Ronald Daalmans, environmental sustainability manager for Chivas Brothers. Past award winners include Diageo for its work on environmental protection on the Leven site.

Not so very long ago, Dewar’s adopted lightweight bottles for its blends and installed a biomass boiler at Aberfeldy distillery, which was projected to deliver a phenomenal 90 percent reduction in the brand’s carbon footprint on the site. In 2018, Chivas Brothers barred plastic straws and stirrers from all its events in over 100 countries, and campaigned on Twitter to raise funds for the Marine Conservation Society. 

And so on… there’s no shortage of whisky brands stepping up to meet the environmental challenges in distilling.  So, greenwashing marketers should take care. Today’s consumers are alert to empty claims and not shy in calling out offenders, with the consequent backlash far outweighing any early wins for brand image.

Though he has neither a beard nor any visible tattoos or piercings, Ian Buxton is well-placed to write about drinks. A former marketing director of one of Scotland’s favourite single malts, his is a bitter-sweet love affair with Scotland’s national drink – not to mention gin and rum, or whatever the nearest PR is pouring. Once, apparently without noticing, he bought a derelict distillery. Follow his passionate, authentic hand-crafted artisanal journey on the Master of Malt blog.  Or just buy his books.  It’s what he really wants.

After Ian Buxton filed this article, he received a short statement from Old Pulteney:

The Rise With The Tide campaign was developed to tell the story of The Maritime Malt in a new way, giving more insight into how our coastal hometown of Wick has depended on its relationship with the sea for hundreds of years.

Our content series shares personal life stories which mirror our brand narrative. Our first partners (Doug Allan in the UK and Sustainable Surf in the US) were selected for their lifetime of work with the sea, and their craft depending on the same patience that’s required to make a really great whisky. This is just the beginning, with the next phase of the campaign set to reveal more about the $20,000 investment we’ve made with Sustainable Surf to back their projects designed to protect the sea. This is being finalised now and will run this year – we’re looking forward to revealing more on this in the coming months.

Being a responsible member of the community is a value that Pulteney distillery has held for decades. Working in partnership with Ignis, Pulteney has supported a district heating scheme which supplies over 200 homes with renewable energy and utilises the biomass boiler’s steam to reduce the distillery’s greenhouse gas emissions. In recent years, we updated the secondary packaging of our whisky to ensure the design was fully recyclable. Projects such as these continue our ongoing commitment to, where possible, put in place sustainable measures.”

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When Burns Night goes wrong

Burns Night is now an international institution with events celebrated all over the world. Ian Buxton should know, he’s hosted a few. But now he’s hanging up his ceremonial trews,…

Burns Night is now an international institution with events celebrated all over the world. Ian Buxton should know, he’s hosted a few. But now he’s hanging up his ceremonial trews, so it’s the perfect time to share the highs and lows of honouring Scotland’s national poet in some decidedly unScottish environments. 

After many months of reflection and internal discussions, I have chosen to make a transition this year in starting to carve out a progressive new role within this institution. I intend to step back from Burns Night to focus on a new chapter.

Over the past decade it’s been my pleasure and privilege to attend Burns Night celebrations, often acting as fear an taighe (that’s master of ceremonies to you), at gatherings as far-flung as San Diego in the west to Budapest in the east; Lisbon to the south and Helsinki in the north.  Not every one of these would be recognised as an entirely conventional Burns Night in Alloway, the birthplace of the great man.

Burns Night, for those of you unaware of the event, is the biggest celebration in the Scottish calendar (well, apart from Hogmanay, possibly, and the Scottish Cup Final, but Celtic generally win that and it’s getting quite boring to be honest).  It commemorates the 25th January 1759, birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet. He’s noted, apart from the verse obvs, for collecting traditional songs, authorship of a book full of dirty ditties that his admirers tactfully forget to mention and for siring twelve or possibly thirteen children with four different women.  Frankly, in the world of #MeToo, Burns would be in the dock as a sex pest.

But back to the party, which involves the consumption of haggis and whisky; a set pattern of speeches and sometimes songs, and the consumption of haggis, not forgetting the whisky which greatly assists getting the haggis eaten up.  Not everything runs smoothly on these occasions (did I mention the consumption of whisky?)

Now that is what a haggis is supposed to look like

At one event in the rather glamorous setting of Lugano in Switzerland, I was deputed to give the Address to the Haggis and all eight verses were requested. No difficulty there as I learned this at my mother’s knee and other low joints (sorry). I instructed the kitchen and requested a sharp knife for the theatrical third verse:

His knife see Rustic-labour dight,
An’ cut ye up wi’ ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin, rich!

They obliged with something close to a bayonet. Again, no difficulty as I fondly imagined this could only add to the fun.  What I did not expect was that the kitchen, having been strictly enjoined not to cut up the presentation haggis, had also neglected to cook it.

The result: a greasy, rugby-ball shaped beast that resisted all my increasingly frenzied attempts to break through its skin and which proceeded to bounce off the magnificent platter and across the table. My Italian audience applauded with vigour, believing this to be a regulation part of the proceedings; the Scots in the room were generally helpless with laughter, though their enthusiastic consumption of whisky may have played some small part.

In Oslo, the distinguished chef took great offence at the idea that the haggis should be shipped from Scotland and insisted that he was more than capable of preparing the dish himself. The result looked like cheap dog food, which I then spent some anxious minutes wrapping in cling film wrap to give some resemblance to an actual haggis. “So you eat this in Scotland,” enquired one politely curious guest. I fear that I may have prevaricated somewhat and that they can only be disappointed if ever they encounter the genuine article.

Ian Buxton with Hungary’s finest piper

On piping in the haggis in Budapest the locally-engaged piper, allegedly the finest in Hungary and it must be conceded splendidly arrayed in full Brigadoon mode, appeared to have indulged not wisely but well in the drams that I had arranged. As a result he was unable to inflate the bag on his pipes and marched in an unsteady manner, swaying somewhat as I attempted several a cappella verses of ‘Flower of Scotland’ while we presented the haggis to the assembled guests, now somewhat bemused by proceedings.   No more, I may add, than I was. The piper made his excuses and left shortly afterwards

And, at a prestigious London venue, the kitchen staff made such a mess of cooking the haggis that the host for the evening dragged them out in front of the guests and made them apologise to the company for their inept presentation. If nothing else, it certainly made for an unforgettable evening.

On Burns Night, in the words of the poet: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/ Gang aft agley”. Truer words have seldom been written!

 

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Old Buxton’s almanack 2020

Today industry veteran Ian Buxton peers into the future to see what the wide world of drinks will bring in 2020. Warning, it’s not worth betting your house on his…

Today industry veteran Ian Buxton peers into the future to see what the wide world of drinks will bring in 2020. Warning, it’s not worth betting your house on his predictions. 

In looking into my crystal ball, I determined for this final column of 2019 to seek out the views of senior and influential industry leaders on the prospects for the spirits industry in the coming year and publish a range of informed and authoritative views on what the future holds for all of us.

Then I thought, ‘sod it, that’s a lot of work and they’ve no more idea than I have’, so here, in a spirit of frivolity entirely unsuited to the impending environmental apocalypse that’s about to engulf the known universe / fantastic economic Boris Boom as we ‘get Brexit done’ (delete as applicable), are the predictions to be found in Old Buxton’s Almanack (price several large ones at a PR junket, sorry ‘media briefing’, near you).

The following article contains forward-looking views and opinions. Master of Malt accepts no liability for any decisions taken on the basis of this ‘information’.  In fact, Master of Malt doesn’t accept any liability for anything. Frankly, you’re on your own.

January: Mystery Egyptian collector Mustafa Dram pays £1m at auction for a piece of paper with ‘Macallan’ written on it. Ken Loach announces filming to start on Angels’ Share 2, starring Charlie MacLean as himself and Jacob Rees-Mogg as Dr Dick Horgan, would-be PR exec. Two new craft gins launched this month.

Gin

There’s going to be a lot of gin in 2020

February: American craft distillery Ultimate Spirits launches Ultimate Monster Peat Whiskey (also available in herring barrel finish).  Pernod Ricard buys the distillery. Four new craft gins launched.

March: Not to be outdone the folks at Bruichladdich reveal their ultimate peated whisky, The Peat Behemoth.  Distilled by their peat master Peter ‘Peaty’ Peterson in peat-fired stills and aged in casks buried in a peat bog, each bottle contains a peat widget that releases a concentrated burst of phenols when the bottle is opened. “It’s verra peaty,” says Peterson “but ah just keep mine in the safe. We’re hoping Mustafa Dram will visit soon.”  Eight new craft gins launched.

April: Mystery Egyptian collector sells piece of paper with ‘Macallan’ on it for £1.5m to Cayman Islands based ‘whisky investment fund’, but pays £5m for bottle of Macallan 10 Year Old.  “It says Macallan on the label,” says Dram. “Look, I can see it here.” 16 new craft gins launched.

May: Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon raises stakes on Boris Johnson with unilateral declaration of Scottish independence and reveals ‘Resource Tax’ on distillery water supplies.  “It’s Scotland’s water,” she cries into her Irn Bru. 32 new craft gins launched.

June: Chivas Brothers cancels Chinese project and announce £200m investment in new Carlisle distillery. SWA commences legal action against the estate of deceased country singer Glen Campbell for ‘passing-off’. 64 new craft gins launched.

July: Greece leaves the Euro. The New Drachma immediately devalues by 50%. Greek spirits market collapses.  Scotland applies to join the EU. Construction begins on Boris’ Wall along Scotland/England border. English Whisky Association applies for GI protection for ‘English whisky’.128 new craft gins launched.

August: Nothing happens in August. Everyone is on holiday in Greece.  Greek spirits market recovers. New Scottish currency ‘The Bawbie’ immediately devalues 50%.  No-one notices. 256 new craft gins launched.

September: Macallan launches £10m Ridicularius with label by Banksy; only bottle bought by Geneva-based whisky investment fund Fleece, Ewe & Runne which outbidded Mustafa Dram.  512 new craft gins launched.

October: “Rum is the new gin,” claims rather pompous PR hack Dr Dick Horgan.  No-one tells consumers as gin craze continues unabated: 1,024 new craft gins launched.

“Can you believe what they’ll pay for this stuff?”

November: Diageo re-opens Port Ellen and Brora distilleries in a move to “restore authenticity to single malt”.  Whistleblower reveals leaked internal email reading “can you believe what they’ll pay for this stuff? I mean seriously.”  Banksy Macallan self-destructs; shattered bottle now worth £20m. 2,048 new craft gins launched.

December: Geneva-based whisky investment fund Fleece, Ewe & Runne files bankruptcy papers. Macallan launches limited edition £150m Absurditas, each bottle comes with a free distillery.  Gin consumers notice they’re drinking mostly flavoured vodka; 4,096 new craft gins launched; Pernod Ricard buys them all. Master of Malt rebranded as Master of Gin.

Enjoy your passionate handcrafted artisanal journey to 2020 and I’ll see you in the New Year.  Slainte! 

 

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Could too much alcohol cause spontaneous human combustion?

Some readers may have done things they regret after a bit too much to drink but in the 18th and 19th centuries, a surfeit of alcohol was thought to cause…

Some readers may have done things they regret after a bit too much to drink but in the 18th and 19th centuries, a surfeit of alcohol was thought to cause spontaneous combustion! Ian Buxton investigates this curious phenomenon.

Do you sometimes wonder if you’re drinking too much? Despite the health warnings, I know that I do. The risks are well-known and widely publicised, and yet we carry on tippling regardless (at least, I know that I do). But have you considered – and, ladies, I’m looking particularly at you – the horrific risk of spontaneous human combustion?  Yes, the all too dreadful prospect that after a few drinks too many you might burst into flames and be consumed by fire?

Consider the case of Mary Clues. Following the death of her husband the unfortunate widow was, understandably perhaps, “much addicted to intoxication” and for the next year reputed to consume at least half a pint of rum or aniseed water (presumably something resembling today’s pastis) each day.  Struck down by jaundice she was “incapable of much action and not in a condition to work, [but] still continued her old habit of drinking every day”.

Late on Saturday 1 March 1773, she was helped to bed and left to sleep. At 5:30 the following morning, smoke was seen pouring through the window of her humble lodging. Neighbours broke down her door and rushed in. Mary’s body—or what was left of it—was found between her bed and fireplace. “The skin, muscles, and viscera were destroyed,” it was reported and “the bones of the cranium, breast, spine, and upper extremities were calcined and covered with a whitish efflorescence.” Only one leg and one thigh remained intact of the poor woman.

Does your room look like this after a night out? Then you may have been the victim of spontaneous combustion

Now if she had been paying attention, she might have been warned by the fate of Grace Pitt, an Ipswich fishmonger’s wife. On the 9th of April 1744, overjoyed by the news that one of her daughters had returned safely from a trip to Gibraltar, she celebrated not wisely but well with “a large quantity of spirituous liquors”. The next morning another daughter found her burnt remains in the kitchen, “having the appearance of a log of wood, consumed by a fire without apparent flame”. Pouring water on Grace resulted in a “foetid odour and smoke which exhaled from the body” almost suffocating some neighbours who had come to help.  “The trunk…..resembled a heap of coals covered in white ash” and her head, arms, legs and thighs were also burnt. There was little or no damage to other items in the room.

These are several similarly chilling accounts to be found in scientific and popular literature of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Even novelists took up the idea. In Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1852-53) the rag and bottle merchant Krook, “an eccentric individual of intemperate habits, far advanced in life” is discovered to have been completely destroyed, leaving only “a smouldering suffocating vapour in the room, and a dark greasy coating on the walls and ceiling.”

Further similar accounts pop up from time to time.  Curiously, they were quite frequent in pre-Prohibition America but still appear, most recently in September 2017 in Tottenham, north London when a 70-year-old, John Nolan from County Mayo in Ireland, appeared to spontaneously burst into flames while walking in the street. The coroner later concluded that the luckless pensioner had accidentally set fire to himself while lighting a cigarette proving, we might conclude that smoking holds even greater hazards than excessive drinking.

whisky crash

Ian Buxton at Glenfiddich, happily not about to burst into flames

But most of the earlier cases have something in common: they occur in temperance and prohibitionist literature. I’ve selected the instances of Mary Clues and Grace Pitt from a number that may be found in Robert Macnish’s The Anatomy of Drunkenness, a highly-influential work from the 1830s which enjoyed multiple reprints (my current bedtime reading, if you must know). “In speaking of drunkenness,” he writes, “it is impossible not to be struck with the physical and moral degradation which it has spread over the world”.

To be completely fair, Macnish does quietly admit to some scepticism about the whole idea of spontaneous human combustion but included a lengthy chapter on the subject just to be sure.  And many of the cases have something else in common: they involve women, generally of lower social class. Drinking to excess is bad enough seems to be the moral here, but especially wicked when working class women are involved!  Ladies, you’ve been warned: best to abjure the demon drink altogether and embrace a life of abstinence and Christian virtue.

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Ronnie Lee – the man who mends mills

This week Ian Buxton celebrates a true whisky hero, a Welshman without whom Scotland’s distilleries would literally grind to a halt. What about those malt mills, eh? They’re just about…

This week Ian Buxton celebrates a true whisky hero, a Welshman without whom Scotland’s distilleries would literally grind to a halt.

What about those malt mills, eh? They’re just about the first thing you see on any distillery tour but, once you’ve heard the guide’s regulation story about their age and how they outlived the company who made them, you move on.  

It’s a shame. Painted, usually, in that distinctive shade of dark red, sturdy, planted four-square in the mill room, ready to receive another load of malt, these quiet occupants of an unobtrusive corner of the distillery just do their job in a modest and under-stated way.  A malt mill would never shout or draw attention to itself you feel, happy to do an honest day’s work and then await the next consignment to be turned into grist.

But if you take a second, harder look you might see a simple plaque discreetly fixed to the side with the legend RONNIE LEE, MILLWRIGHT and a telephone number.  One day I couldn’t bear it any longer; I was puzzled and intrigued; I had to ask: “Who is this bloke Ronnie Lee?” 

R. Boby

Plate from an old Boby mill

“I have no idea,” was my host’s honest, if unhelpful reply (but then he was a marketing type). I began asking production folks – real whisky people. To a man, they smiled.  “Ronnie Lee,” they said. “You must know Ronnie Lee.” Embarrassingly, I didn’t and the more I learned the worse I felt. So, I set to tracking him down because everyone told me that, though he wasn’t their employee, Ronnie Lee was a vital part of their team. From Diageo to Kilchoman, Chivas Brothers to Rosebank, he keeps the mills running. Without his unique service those antique rollers might seize up and fail, whisky could not be produced – indeed, a great national disaster would befall Scotland.

So I called the number and found myself on an industrial unit alongside a chicken farm in Chepstow – about as far from the glamorous world of luxury seen in whisky’s current imagery as may be imagined. This is where old-school engineer Ronnie and his two sons are based and where the world comes when a mill – possibly more than one hundred years old – needs some TLC. 

These fine pieces of machinery, be they the familiar Porteus design or that of their less well-known rival Boby, were built to last.  Their solid construction and simple, yet well-proven design has stood the test of time and, entirely fortuitously, speak to our present-day concerns about sustainability and the responsible use of resources.

A beautifully-restored Porteus

A beautifully-restored Porteus mill

But how long can they continue to run? The answer may well surprise you. I was certainly taken aback when Ronnie proudly shared with me his latest project: the restoration of a Boby mill, found in an Australian brewery and saved from scrap, that he believes was manufactured around 1855-60.

It may well be the oldest surviving example of a malt mill anywhere in the world and, following 80-100 hours of skilled and experienced cleaning and restoration, it will certainly work again and looks good for another 150 years of service (though, strictly speaking, non-commercial use as it lacks the anti-explosion guard fitted to later models).  Perhaps it will become a display piece, tribute to some far-sighted Victorian engineers as Robert Boby Ltd of Bury St Edmunds.

And how has it happened that Ronnie has found himself in this highly specialised niche? He grew up near his present Chepstow home and, after school, was apprenticed to the motor trade, quickly passing through a dozen or more jobs before embracing self-employment.  Back in 1995 he was contracting to Buhler, a Swiss mill manufacturer, installing their larger systems in flour mills (there aren’t many in distilleries, though you can see a mighty example at Glenfarclas). 

Ronnie Lee with an old Boby mill

The man himself with an old Boby mill

By this time, Boby was being closed down and the old Porteus company was owned by Briggs of Burton (a name you’ll find on mashtuns and other larger pieces of brewery and distillery equipment). But the heyday of the Porteus mill was the 1960s and by 1972/73 manufacturing had ceased. Maintenance and spare parts became more and more of a problem and eventually Briggs were unable to support what was by now, for them, an obsolete product. 

Ronnie was able to acquire the original Boby plans and drawings (he could build you one from scratch) and armed with these and Porteus’ withdrawal from the market, it was natural for him to step into this gap. His affinity with old machinery and his ability to coax new life from their aging cogs and gears has ensured his unique place in whisky. So, in a world which lauds distillery managers as rock stars, spare a thought and raise a glass to Ronnie Lee, the man who mends the mills and a true whisky hero.

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