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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Ian Buxton

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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The unstoppable rise of craft and world whiskies

It’s been nearly ten years since Ian Buxton’s first book on craft and world whiskies. With a new edition out (plug! plug!), here he reflects on how this category has…

It’s been nearly ten years since Ian Buxton’s first book on craft and world whiskies. With a new edition out (plug! plug!), here he reflects on how this category has grown beyond his wildest dreams.

Your editor – may massed choirs sing his praises and tell of his wonders – has spoken, decreeing that I may plug my latest book (“once”) provided I write something about new world whiskies and craft distilling. So here goes: I’ve got a new book just out and, guess what, it’s called 101 Craft & World Whiskies to Try Before You Die

It’s been less than a decade since the first edition came out in 2012, and the changes have been staggering. In truth, it was a struggle back then to find many new ‘world’ whiskies outside the establishment. And, apart from a few brave pioneers, small craft distilleries were all but unknown – and those that had released whiskies were treated with some scepticism. In Ireland, distilling was still utterly dominated by three huge producers and England had just two tiny operations, only one of which had actually released any whisky. As for Australia, well there was Tasmania and the rest of that vast nation a near desert: that has certainly changed out of all recognition.

So, taking a really deep dive into the new distilleries that are challenging the hegemony of the classic big five distilling nations and the dominance of the giant producers has been a fun and educational way to spend the last few, rather tiresome months. And what a lot I’ve learned.

Dingle Single Malt

Dingle distillery – Ireland’s whiskey scene has exploded in the last ten years

How do you define ‘craft’?

But first, some definitions. What do we mean by ‘craft and world’? Well, the latter is straightforward enough: a ‘world’ whisky is one which doesn’t come from Scotland, the USA, Canada, Ireland or Japan, the ‘big five’. Most people would agree with that, but as for craft well, that’s where things get a little contentious.

Craft distilling, you see, is a little like pornography. Hard to define, but we all know it when we see it. Except, of course, that one person’s pornography is another’s erotic art. Japanese shunga prints – art or smut?  

But I digress. When the ‘craft distilling’ term first appeared, many large distillers, especially those promoting globally well-known brands, got rather tetchy, arguing that there was every bit as much craft employed in their blending rooms as in any new wave Lilliputian garage start-up. 

After thinking about it for some while, I came to the conclusion that no one really knows but I was comfortable with ‘craft’ as a description of a type of new distillery, generally but not necessarily small and possibly independent – or possibly not, because it doesn’t seem to matter all that much if they have been bought up by the big boys. Generally, they’re doing something interesting, different or groundbreaking.  But, confusingly, a craft distillery can be located anywhere in the world, including the aforesaid big five countries which means that we’re now enjoying some very innovative whiskies that challenge established orthodoxies. 

Starward Distillery

Starward Distillery in Melbourne makes great whisky, but is it craft?

The wide world of whisky

But really they might pop up almost anywhere. After a little bit of research I was learning about distilleries in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada…the list of countries goes on.  Some you will know but others may come as a real surprise.

In Australia, for example, the rule book has been ripped up and thrown out of the window. Operations such as Adelaide Hills are making delicious whisky with native grains, such as weeping grass (actually it’s a cereal, so a legitimate base for whisky), all the while posing questions about diversity, sustainability and the preservation of indigenous species.  And if that isn’t pioneering fresh consideration and challenging established orthodoxies about the place of terroir in whisky then I’m a vodka drinker.

Not so very far away, I found Peter Bignell and his Belgrove farm and distillery, maker of Australia’s first rye whisky. He has a hardcore approach to craft distilling as a philosophy, building his own stills, coopering his own barrels, growing and harvesting all the grain from his own farm and hand labelling the bottles. Belgrove may well be the only distillery in the world that grows all its own grain and malts, ferments, distils, coopers, ages and bottles on site using waste cooking oil for fuel and rainwater collected from the distillery roof. It wouldn’t work for Johnnie Walker but his approach does lend colour and variety to all our lives. And just to confirm, the whisky is a fair dinkum drop which you should try when the opportunity comes along (my spies tell me that some UK distribution is under discussion).

Thousands of miles away, I encountered La Alazana, one of three single malt whiskies made in Argentina. That may sound improbable but, in fact as so often, Scotland was the inspiration to Lila Serenelli who travelled to Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University to complete a Masters degree in distilling. Did she meet Desiree Whitaker? It’s possible, because this neophyte from New Zealand’s South Island also travelled to Scotland to gain the skills to build her Cardrona distillery, buying stills from Forsyths of Rothes.

Dr Jim Swan with Ian Cheung from Kavalan in Taiwan

Dr Jim Swan with Ian Cheung from Kavalan in Taiwan

The Jim Swan factor

Their name came up time and again, as did that of the late Dr Jim Swan who I wrote about here. More than any one person he influenced the growth and direction of the craft and world movement. He cropped up everywhere I turned but since his death in February 2017 the distilleries he helped build have been striking out in their own exciting new directions – and no one would be more excited about that than the man himself.  It’s a brave new world and it’s going to grow and prosper and ask new questions.  I was reminded me of John Keats, first encountering Chapman’s Homer

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold…
…Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken.

Someone should really write a book about it.

101 Craft & World Whiskies to Try Before You Die is available from your local bookshop and from Amazon.

101 Craft and World Whiskies

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The lost whisky industries of Australia and New Zealand

In all the excitement about new world whiskies, it’s not generally known that we have been here before. Until surprisingly recently, both Australia and New Zealand had thriving whisky industries….

In all the excitement about new world whiskies, it’s not generally known that we have been here before. Until surprisingly recently, both Australia and New Zealand had thriving whisky industries. But by the late 1990s they were gone. So what happened? Ian Buxton investigates.

Casting my eye idly over my bookshelves recently a curious question came to mind. Why, I wondered, did the Canadian whisky industry go from strength to strength yet distilling failed to make much impact in Australia and New Zealand?  While today we may be increasingly aware of small-batch whiskies from both, few appreciate that they have a hidden history.

All three countries had more than a fair share of the Scottish diaspora and those new immigrants brought with them an appreciation of fine whisky and the know-how necessary to produce it. And, as new English-speaking countries with colonial links to Britain they were predisposed to favour the spirits they remembered from their original homeland. Australia, in particular, has been a strong market for Scotch blends but though their history is little-known today it turns out that there were local distilleries to be found.

The New Zealand whisky book

New Zealand’s whisky heritage

These musings were prompted by the sight of an interesting old book. The New Zealand Whisky Book by Stuart Perry was published back in 1980. Perry tells a tangled tale of bootleggers, some less-than-subtle discouraging words from Scotland, local pressures for high taxation and advocates of prohibitionist pressures. Notwithstanding this, a small industry did get off the ground in the middle of the nineteenth century but these modest efforts were strangled more or less at birth by NZ Government action in the 1870s.

Fast forward about one hundred years and in November 1969, Wilsons Malt began distilling in Dunedin under New Zealand’s first modern distiller, one Robert Logan. Over the years the distillery has had several names, including Dunedin, Lammerlaw and Willowbank. According to Perry’s book, initial production was a modest 90,000 litres per annum though he notes that in 1975 the whisky was awarded a ‘Certificate of Excellence’ in a Chicago competition.  There were early losses, however, and it would seem there was some trade reluctance to embrace domestically-produced whisky over Scotch.

By the early 1990s, the business had been acquired by Seagram, who produced the New Zealand single malt originally sold under the Lammerlaw brand. However, this was discontinued in 1997 when Seagram sold the stocks and the plant to Australian brewer Fosters. Only for Fosters to mothball operations and send the stills to Fiji for making rum, since when the rest of the distilling equipment has been dismantled.

The whisky then languished in Wilson’s old aeroplane hangar warehouse until bought first by Rachel and Matthew Thomson, who today are distilling in Auckland. However, the bulk of the remaining stock, then said to comprise 80,000 litres in 443 barrels, was acquired by The New Zealand Single Malt Whisky Company in 2010. It is primarily this whisky that appears from time to time in the UK.

Willowbank Distillery in Dunedin, New Zealand

Willowbank Distillery in Dunedin, New Zealand

Australian whisky waxes and wanes

While much Scotch whisky was exported to Australia, there was also a vibrant local industry from the 1860s, greatly helped by the discovery of gold. The resultant boom saw the population grow rapidly and the thirsty miners (and others) enthusiastically embraced whiskies from Melbourne, in particular. Soon, protected by a customs wall, substantial distilleries were built here. 

In 1929, to avoid prohibitive import duties on Scotch and other spirits, William H Ross of the Distillers Company opened a very large malt and grain operation at Corio, near Melbourne making whisky and gin. By the 1950s, locally-made whiskies took more than two-thirds of the market but were unable to compete once the tariff barriers fell and Scotch returned in force.

Corio 5 Star whisky, launched in 1956, was once a considerable force in the market but latterly, perhaps because of its low 37.1% abv bottling strength and a perceived inferiority to growing Scotch imports, sales began to fall away. Matters were not helped by the construction of an adjacent fuel refinery. Losses then mounted, the distillery closed in 1989 (some accounts say 1983) and within thirty years, the local industry had disappeared.

Come to think of it, distillery closures were not entirely unknown in Scotland during the 1980s so suggestions that Corio’s owners deliberately ran it down may be misplaced. Wider market forces are a more probable explanation.

Corio still

Old still from the Corio Distillery

So why did Canada thrive?

Meanwhile, in Canada, an already well-established industry received an unexpected bonus. As a result of Prohibition, clandestine imports to the USA boomed and fortunes were made (not least by organized crime). A substantial industry was built at this time and brands such as Canadian Club, first launched in 1884, grew significantly in volume.

The Canadian industry benefited greatly from a fortunate set of circumstances: huge demand in a contiguous market; favourable conditions for the growing of quality grain; and a generation of determined entrepreneurs, such as the original Hiram Walker and Joseph Seagram, and later the redoubtable Samuel Bronfman of Seagram. Despite this, and most probably because of ease of access to the US, Canadian whisky never really took off in world markets.

Today, with the explosion of craft distilling, all three countries are represented on the world whisky scene. Due in no small part to brands such as Forty Creek and the landmark Northern Border Collection from Pernod Ricard’s Corby the reputation of Canadian whisky has grown to unprecedented levels.

Starward

Australian whisky revived: Starward distillery in Melbourne

The modern revival

Australia too has seen a boom in small-scale distilling, dating from Bill Lark’s eponymous Hobart operation (1992) which kick-started Tasmanian production. Today, Tasmania remains a key force down-under but has been joined by larger operations such as the Diageo-backed Starward, building on Melbourne’s distilling heritage and a number of smaller craft distillers such as Bakery Hill, The Gospel Distillers and Limeburners.  Domestic demand has proved so large however, that many of the smaller distillers simply don’t have stock to export.

And, as for New Zealand, well they are catching up fast. Following the 1970s revival which petered out with the closure of Wilson’s Willowbank distillery, interest in the remaining stock proved just about sufficient to justify the opening of the small Thomson Distillery in Auckland some ten years ago and, more recently, Desiree Whitaker’s Cardrona Distillery at Wanaka on the South Island. Both are exporting now to the UK, albeit in very limited volumes.

And so the wheel turns.  Perhaps, after more than forty years, a new book is called for.  We’re not yet at the point of 101 Australian & New Zealand Whiskies but it can’t be far off….

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Last Drop Distillers – sniffing out rare casks

The Last Drop Distillers’ business model is based on sniffing out rare casks of spirits and Port. But what happens when such rarities become impossible to find? Ian Buxton talks…

The Last Drop Distillers’ business model is based on sniffing out rare casks of spirits and Port. But what happens when such rarities become impossible to find? Ian Buxton talks to managing director, Rebecca Jago, to find out. 

What do you do when the last of the really good, really old stuff is all gone? Admittedly, it’s not the kind of issue that confronts many of us all that often, but it is an existential problem if your name is The Last Drop Distillers and your company’s raison d’etre is to sniff out vanishingly rare old spirits, snap them up and bottle them for our delectation.

But let’s start at the beginning because, unless you’re one of the fortunate few able to purchase at this rarified and thus necessarily expensive end of the drinks market, the activities of The Last Drop Distillers may have gone unnoticed. And that would be a shame because this is an interesting and innovative little company with a refreshing approach to rare, super-premium spirits.

Rebecca Jago MD of Last Drop

Rebecca Jago MD of Last Drop

The Last Drop story

The company began life in 2007 as a retirement project for two notable figures with long-standing and distinguished records in the drinks industry – James Espey, OBE and his erstwhile colleague Tom Jago. But ‘retirement project’ doesn’t really do justice to two remarkable individuals. Espey’s conventional working life saw him rise through various corporate ranks, ending with very senior roles in International Distillers & Vintners (IDV – a forerunner of Diageo), United Distillers and latterly as global president of Chivas Brothers’ whisky business. After that, instead of fading gently away, he reinvented himself as a mentor, philanthropist, author and entrepreneur, as well as non-executive director of various drinks businesses. In truth, even today an hour in his company is both stimulating and quite exhausting for those of us of lesser talents and energy.

As entrepreneur he joined forces with an old colleague, Tom Jago (who sadly died, aged 93, in October 2018). He too was something of a force of nature and a new product development genius in IDV’s glory days. Often working with Espey, Jago led the teams that created Baileys, Le Piat D’Or, Malibu, The Classic Malts and Johnnie Walker Blue Label amongst others. He did have flops, but not many in what is a notoriously failure-ridden process.

So, what do you get if irrepressible energy combines with unrivalled expertise? The result was The Last Drop Distillers, which set out to be (in Espey’s words) “the world’s most exclusive super premium liquor company, offering rare finds (very limited quantities) of very old superb award winning whisky and cognac”. Many, of course, available through Master of Malt including blended and single malt whiskies, Cognac, rum and even some remarkably venerable Port.

The younger generation take over

So, since 2008, that’s what they have been doing. But by 2014 they were both ready to step back and control of the business, still wholly independent at that stage, passed to their daughters Rebecca Jago and Beanie Espey. Motherhood and another drinks project (Xeco sherry) caused Beanie Espey to restrict her role to that of an advisor, and today the company, which in 2016 was sold to Sazerac, is run by Rebecca Jago with two colleagues Nick Morton and Michael Cowman. 

The aim remains the same but, with Sazerac’s financial and distributor might behind them, Last Drop is evolving. It’s an interesting partnership – being privately-owned, intensely tight-lipped and appreciative of the extended timescales involved in the maturation of fine spirits, it’s harder to think of a more appropriate parent than Sazerac.

Jago is fulsome in her praise. “Respect for the liquid is at the heart of everything we – and they – do”, she says, adding that “we need to plan ahead to build relationships, letting customers know what we plan next. Sazerac’s support has transformed the business while letting us plot our own path.”

Colin Scott - Last Drop

Colin Scott, just one of the illustrious names in the Assembly

Assembling the Assembly 

That path now involves a carefully structured programme, incorporating a curated autumn release of three very exclusive spirits and a spring release of a new creation by one of their ‘Assembly’ members – a group of luminaries from Scotch, American, Irish and Indian whiskies, Cognac and rum. And what a group they are: there’s Colin Scott, formerly of Chivas Brothers; Drew Mayville, master blender at Sazerac; Richard Seale from Foursquare Rum; Louise McGuane of JJ Corry Irish Whiskey; Michael d’Souza, master distiller and blender at Paul John Whisky; and Denis Lahouratate, cellar master at Domaine de Sazerac Cognac.

Though we can probably eventually expect some extra-aged Buffalo Trace bourbon from their Warehouse P climate-controlled racks (Sazerac own this iconic distillery), the first expression from the Assembly is a Scotch. Last Drop’s first ever release under its own label is 500 bottles of a 50 year old blend, created by Scott and carrying his signature. Now it’s not what you’d call cheap. But by the standards of today’s whisky pricing, at £3,250, is in comparative terms it’s something of a bargain.

last drop 50 yo blend

Last Drop 50 Year Old blend, for drinking, not investing

Rare spirits for drinking, not investing

And that led me to discuss with Rebecca Jago the vexed question of ‘investment’ in whisky.  It’s a subject I’ve been outspoken on for some time, considering the very idea to be almost sacrilegious and watching, with growing concern, the increasingly inflated claims for returns from the purchase of casks of new make whisky. Turns out we’re of like mind. “Alcohol was never designed as an investment,” she told me. “It’s for celebration and conviviality – it was designed to be shared.” 

So, when you get your bottle from Last Drop, remember that the mini they include with every release is not to give you a little taste before you flip the rest at auction, but so that you can plan, savour and anticipate the momentous occasion when you open the big bottle. So go to it – invest in your pleasure in some extraordinary spirits that deserve to be set free.

The Last Drop Signature Blend is available from Master of Malt. Click here to buy. 

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Book review: Drunk by Edward Slingerland

Edward Slingerland’s new book Drunk looks into mankind’s long relationship with alcohol and comes to the startling conclusion that far from being merely a pleasure or a vice, alcohol might be vital…

Edward Slingerland’s new book Drunk looks into mankind’s long relationship with alcohol and comes to the startling conclusion that far from being merely a pleasure or a vice, alcohol might be vital to civilization itself. Ian Buxton takes a closer look. 

What – in this increasingly puritanical age, with the government attempting to micromanage what we eat and drink, and how much we exercise – are we to make of strong drink?

Well, I’m with Burns – “freedom and Whisky gang thegither” – and, so too, it seems is Professor Edward Slingerland (distinguished university scholar and professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia) who in his new book DRUNK. How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled our Way to Civilization rides to the defence of the demon drink in the face of the Lancet’s notorious, terrifying 2018 conclusion that the only safe level of alcohol is zero.

slingerland revised Credit Thalia Wheatley_crop

It’s Edward Slingerland (credit Thalia Wheatley)

Plucked out of the air

This built on the earlier report from the UK’s Chief Medical Officer (then Dame Sally Davies, not the saintly Chris Whitty, frequenter of our TV screens during the current unpleasantness) recommending a reduction to 14 from the old 21 units of alcohol per week for men. Nanny Davies was pilloried for her joy-crushing comment: “Do I want the glass [of wine] or do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer? I take a decision each time.” She appeared to ignore the startling confession from Richard Smith from the original Royal College of Physicians working party who in 2007 told The Times that “those limits were really plucked out of the air. They were not based on any firm evidence at all. It was a sort of an intelligent guess.” 

Slingerland’s book seeks to rescue alcohol from, as he puts it: “cheery New Age ascetics and dour neo-Puritans” and proposes “our desire for alcohol is not an evolutionary mistake. There are good reasons for why we get drunk.” Readers of this blog may safely be presumed confirmed (if responsible) imbibers all, and accordingly wondering if the author hasn’t simply set up a straw man for the pleasure of setting fire to it (for he surely accomplishes more than simply knocking it down).

Sadly, alcohol’s enemies are all too real and growing ever more powerful, deeply embedded as they are in Government and officiously determined that their bleak prognostications should prevail. Slingerland’s book should be required reading in the corridors of power where it has perhaps been forgotten that as often as not we drink because we enjoy it and it makes us feel good – and has done for all of recorded human existence. He describes it as “a holistic defence of alcohol and intoxication, one that gives pleasure for pleasures’ sake its due”. But more than this Drunk posits that alcohol is central to civilization itself. 

Not an evolutionary mistake

Like an expert mixologist creating a beguiling cocktail, Slingerland draws on evidence from archaeology, history, cognitive neuroscience, psychopharmacology, social psychology, literature, and genetics, to show that our taste for chemical intoxicants is not an evolutionary mistake, as we are so often told. In fact, intoxication helps solve a number of distinctively human challenges: enhancing creativity, alleviating stress, building trust, and pulling off the miracle of getting fiercely tribal primates to cooperate with strangers.

Indeed, earlier commentators such as the 18th century author of Ebrietatis Encomium or The Praise of Drunkenness noted that it had been “authentically, and most evidently proved, the necessity of frequently getting drunk; and that the practice of getting drunk is most Ancient, Primitive, and Catholic. Confirmed by the example of Heathens, Turks, Infidels, Primitive Christians, Saints, Popes, Bishops, Doctors, Philosophers, Poets, Free Masons, and other Men of Learning in All Ages.” But we should note Slingerland’s concern over the, in evolutionary terms, recent and rapid arrival of distilled spirits as he suggests beers and wine with their generally lower alcohol levels may be a wiser choice.

Drunk by Edward Slingerland

What about Europe?

Drunk is, however, for the British reader, something of a curate’s egg. The style veers curiously between the formally academic (in the manner of such things there is an intimidating twenty-four page closely typed bibliography and the text is littered with citations) and faux hip, populist and rather flip observations somewhat in the style of an abbreviated TED talk. A sinologist, Professor Slingerland’s academic and research interests lie primarily in early Chinese thought and the study of comparative religion. Accordingly the book is packed with references and quotations from Chinese poets, philosophers and writers. That’s all very interesting but readers will look in vain for any sustained discussion of Western Europe’s rich cultural commentary on drink and its contribution to life and society.

There is a passing reference to the Britain’s gin craze of the mid-1700s, surely one of the most exciting if unwitting explorations of the effects of mass consumption; the disaster that was Prohibition is only lightly touched upon and I would have welcomed something on the relationship of great writers and the bottle: a small measure of Hemingway, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, F Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac or Dylan Thomas let alone Shakespeare or Burns might have balanced the Chinese references which for the non-specialist tend to the obscure. Or we could have heard something of booze and the blues (Robert Johnson, for example) or, for the more erudite musicologists, surely there was room at the bar for Schubert’s Trinklieder or even Neil Gow’s joyful Strathspey Welcome Whisky Back Again of 1799 – any ceilidh the better for this tune, celebrating the lifting of a ban on distilling.

But these are minor cavils. Drunk offers us an elegant, well-argued and occasionally drily humorous pushback against the killjoys and party-poopers. Buy it remembering Hunter S. Thompson’s wise words “Good people drink good beer” but perhaps read it in an abstemious moment fully to appreciate Slingerland’s lengthy, cask-strength toast to drink’s formative contribution to human civilization.

Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization by Edward Slingerland is published by Little, Brown, £25. Buy it here

 

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The charms of a 50 year old Glenglassaugh

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

After taking a curmudgeonly swipe at very old whiskies earlier this month, Ian Buxton has fallen for the charms of a 50 year old Glenglassaugh that has just landed at Master of Malt

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

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

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

Glenglassaugh releases 50 year old “coastal treasure”

Glenglassaugh 50-year-old, note relatively modest packaging

The charms of a 50-year-old Glenglassaugh

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

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

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

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

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

Glenglassaugh

Inside a warehouse at Glenglassaugh

There’s treasure in those old dunnage warehouses

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

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

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

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

Dr Rachel Barrie, Glenglassaugh

Your whisky is in safe hands with Dr Rachel Barrie

The merits of refill casks

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

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

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

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

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

Glenglassaugh 50 Year Old is available from Master of Malt. Click here to buy.

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Great whisky marketing fiascos

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

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

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

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

Black & White Extra Light

How could it have failed with ads like this?

The lighter shade of pale

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

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

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

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

The proof of the pudding

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

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

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

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

Bailey's Whiskey.

Bailey’s Whiskey, here today, gone later today

The Cardhu debacle

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

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

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

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Does very old whisky taste better?

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

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

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

“And your hair has become very white;

And yet you incessantly stand on your head –

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

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

Whisky Advent 2020 Day #21: The Dalmore Cigar Malt

The nose behind Dalmore Trinitas, master blender Richard Paterson

Old and expensive

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

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

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

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

Brora Triptych

Brora Triptych, note fancy packaging

The investment boom

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

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

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

Taylor's Single Harvest 1896

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

Does very old whisky taste better?

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

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

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

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The surprisingly long history of column single malt whisky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copper Rivet Distillery - Abhi Banik

Abhi Banik sporting a very fetching ‘bunnet’

The SWA says no

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

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

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

However, he was wrong.

Copper_Rivet_Disitllery_312_5134

The mighty central column still at the Copper Rivet distillery

The history of column single malt whisky

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

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

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

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

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

Copper Rivet Masthouse Column Still Single malt

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

It’s not unusual

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

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

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

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

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Master of Malt Islay Festival 2021 Day 8: Bunnnahabhain

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

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

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

What’s going on today:

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

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

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

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

What are the distillery exclusives to look out for:

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

Master blender Julieann Fernandez

Master blender Julieann Fernandez

Ian Buxton’s Bunnahabhain memories:

I have fond memories of Bunnahabhain.

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

Bunnahabhain’s heyday

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

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

Bunnahabhain

No shortage of concrete at Bunnahabhain

Summers on Islay

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

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

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

The wreck of the Wyre Majestic

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

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

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

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