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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Nicholas Morgan

The changing role of the whisky distillery manager

With news of the constant churn of distillery manager jobs in Scotch whisky, industry veteran Dr Nick Morgan takes a look at the history of the role, and how it…

With news of the constant churn of distillery manager jobs in Scotch whisky, industry veteran Dr Nick Morgan takes a look at the history of the role, and how it has gone from job for life to gun for hire. 

Lagavulin Distillery has found a new distillery manager, and whilst wishing him all the best in his new role, it has to be hoped that he lasts a bit longer there than the last two incumbents. Time was when a distillery manager’s role was a posting for life, or at least for seven to ten years. And in larger companies with multiple malt and sometimes grain distilleries too, it was unusual for managers to leave the corporation, even if they might rotate around its sites. 

Not it seems any longer. In 2018 Diageo announced it had ‘appointed three of the most coveted jobs in the Scotch whisky industry’ at Port Ellen, Lagavulin and Brora, and yet within a few years each of the successful candidates had moved elsewhere, leaving these ‘dream jobs for any whisky-maker’ behind. What is it about the role of today’s distillery managers at large companies that might makes some turn their backs on dreams in order to embrace a preferred reality? Single malt marketeers used to like to put distillers at the heart of their brand stories, but are they still at the heart of the whisky their distilleries produce? What’s changed in the role of a distillery manager, when, and why?

pierrick Guillaume

Pierrick Guillaume left his dream job on Islay to make whisky in France

A short history of distillery managers

The large, complex, and highly capitalised Lowland distilleries of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, often with absentee owners, quickly adopted strictly hierarchical management structures. However, in the Highlands the newly-licensed distilleries of the 1820s, often former illicit operations, worked by early proprietor-managers (like John Cumming at Cardhu) struggled to achieve both quality and consistency as they sought to commercialise their pre-industrial operations. Cumming’s spirit was of such a variable character that his agent in Edinburgh (his brother) complained bitterly about his inability to manage the production of whisky properly. It was so poor, he said, that he had to ‘cover it’ with other makes before it could be sold (an early origins of blending story). Distilleries such as these only slowly transitioned into management by a new and highly accomplished managerial class by the middle of the century.

Accomplished though they were, these men were first and foremost practical distillers, with skills and secrets learned on the job, very often from fathers, uncles and brothers. Few could match the family of John Smith, who worked on his father’s farm in Glenlivet before following his brother to George Smith’s Upper Drumin Distillery, where he learned the trades of malting, mashing and fermenting. This ‘far famed brewer’ had six sons who ‘seemed to possess naturally the distilling faculty of their father’. The most famous were John Smith, like his father a graduate of Glenlivet distillery and later head brewer and manager there, and his younger brother George who also began his career under the tutelage of his father. John was a giant of a man (‘he turned the beam at 26 imperial stone’) famed for Cragganmore Distillery which he established in 1869, but it was George who was the giant of distilling. Having honed his craft at distilleries from Aberdeen to Argyllshire, he was appointed brewer and manager at Royal Brackla in the late 1860s where the owner Robert Fraser ‘gave him carte blanche powers as to the improvement of the buildings and machinery’. When George Smith died [in 1927] one obituarist wrote ‘his lifelong experience in distilling gave him a knowledge of the art which few men possessed’.

Royal Brackla

Royal Brackla Distillery

Masters of their own destiny

Men like Smith, who transformed the production of malt whisky in the second half of the nineteenth century, were masters of their own destiny with wide-ranging responsibilities that would gradually be diminished for most distillery managers, particularly in the second half of the twentieth century. They led the expansion of an industry where output increased from around 14 million proof gallons in 1870 to over 30 million at the turn of the century. They also pioneered the introduction of technology like pneumatic maltings, mashing machines, refrigerators, steam-heated stills, and condensers and purifiers (the last two of which would have a profound impact on spirit character) in new distilleries and old. They were responsible for purchasing raw materials, and very often for selling (on a commission basis) their yearly output. They would have been known from the barley fields of Banff to the breweries and blending rooms of Britain’s major cities, making annual sorties south at the start of each distilling season.

‘Everything’ said one critic of the management of late nineteenth century distilleries, ‘is entrusted to the workmen, the head of the establishment who generally has no scientific knowledge giving directions’. But what these managers may have lacked in scientific knowledge they made up for with their practical experience and learned technical skills. To proprietors they were indispensable. 

At the end of the first world war, John Walker & Sons was desperate to have two men returned to them from wartime service. One was marketing director Sir James Stevenson who had worked in the Ministry of Munitions, the other was Cardhu distillery manager William Fraser, who was serving in the Royal Corps of Signals. “There is a great deal to be seen to which Fraser alone knows about’ wrote John Cummings to Stevenson, who while unable (and quite possibly unwilling) to quit working for Winston Churchill was able to employ his considerable influence to get Fraser back to Cardhu, and the distillery back in operation in the autumn of 1919.

Mortlach 47 Year Old

The famous Mortlach stills

Demoted to the lower decks

Fraser remained as manager until 1933, when he spent a further seven years as ‘overseer’ of both Cardhu and Mortlach distilleries. His career was to witness the start of the emasculation of the traditional all-encompassing role of the distillery manager, brought about by the rationalisation of malt whisky production within the newly expanded Distillers Company (DCL) under the oversight of Scottish Malt Distillers (SMD), which by 1935 owned or managed 51 distilleries. 

At the helm of this unwieldy fleet of over fifty distilleries in the 1930s and 1940s was Stuart Hastie, war hero, chemist, fermentation expert and passionate advocate of an interventionist centralised control of malt whisky distilling where science was to rule over the waves of tradition. And with Hastie at the helm, with an officer’s mess of regional distillery inspectors, scientists and technocrats, distillery managers found themselves demoted to the lower decks. Raw materials (barley, yeast and casks) were purchased centrally, upgrades and expansions were determined and managed from the SMDs office in Edinburgh in conjunction with the DCL’s General Works Department, and the final arbiters of quality were the blending departments of the main brand-owning companies within the DCL. Distillery managers were still figures of considerable local importance in the communities in which they worked and lived, and their general managerial and technical skills were still highly valued but in this new corporate structure they were mere ciphers compared to their late Victorian and Edwardian whisky-making predecessors.

The changing industry

Nor was this approach confined to the DCL. Whilst few turned their backs on the company’s generous pension scheme, DCL trained managers were best in class, and the few who left took the production philosophy championed by Hastie with them wherever they went. After the second world war as new capital and new holding companies began to challenge the DCL’s supposed pre-eminence, the centralised distilling operating model it had developed, with specialists back-rooms attending to all the technical, scientific and quality issues, was adopted by all. One leaver was John McDougall, who turned his back on ‘the nannying culture of the DCL’ to manage Balvenie for William Grant & Son’s before joining Long John Distillers in 1970 to manage Laphroaig, where he was told, he would be ‘king of your own domain … you can go walking or shooting, or you can take the afternoon off and play golf when you want’.

Long John Distillers was owned by the expansionist Schenley Industries of New York. The distillery, ‘a series of ramshackle old stone buildings’, ‘certainly wasn’t hi-tec in fact … it wasn’t even low-tec, more no-tec at all’; it had suffered from a lack of investment, had very low spirit yields, but ‘did have that magical ingredient of the personal touch’. A highly invested workforce however, made change particularly difficult to effect. At the end of the day it was neither McDougall nor his workforce, but the engineers and accountants at Long John who determined the distillery’s destiny. When the stillhouse was upgraded in 1972, rather than pay for two new spirit stills they installed one double-sized spirit still, very much against the manager’s wish. ‘From the point of view of the traditionalist’, wrote McDougall, ‘what emerged was not the Laphroaig of old’. ‘Economic considerations’, he continued ‘mattered more than maintaining the quality and tradition of one of Scotland’s finest and most distinctive whiskies’, and certainly mattered more than the opinion of the enervated distillery manager.

Laphroaig John Campbell

Laphroaig on a rare sunny day

Manufacturing excellence processes

Ask a distillery manager employed today by one of the large distilling companies about his or her day job and you’re more likely to hear about manufacturing excellence processes, health and safety regulations, permits to work, efficiency improvements and boiler breakdowns than you are whisky making. 

That’s not to suggest that these companies don’t care about quality – quite the reverse. They are obsessed by quality. Everything they do is to deliver precisely defined and specified spirit characters, and to ensure consistency. And whilst the manager has some responsibility for this, like a process engineer manufacturing Bird’s Eye Fish Fingers, it’s all determined, assessed and ultimately managed elsewhere. It’s the blenders and the boffins who call the shots. The totemic distillery manager of yesteryear, still much beloved by marketing departments, PR agencies and gullible consumers, is no more, and has been no more for a long time.

Arbikie and Inchdairnie

The Stirling Brothers, the brains behind Arbikie, one of Scotland’s new wave distillers

Distilling disruptors

Of course, that’s not entirely true. There are new distilleries the length and breadth of the kingdom where the onus is on the distillery manager and distiller (not always the same thing) to deliver innovations through grain varieties, yeasts, and distillation and maturation regimes. And they are often being asked to bring palatable products to the market at ages that turn category norms upside down. They are distilling disruptors. It’s almost wilfully reckless: anything goes (within the Scotch Whisky Regulations) in the pursuit of an eye-catching story that might tempt a punter to open their wallets. Why, some distillers are even being given the chance to design and build their own distilleries from scratch, just like they did in the good old days.

Where once there were few opportunities for people to enter the distilling industry, challenging opportunities for creative distillery managers to spread their wings are almost endless. Consequently, the lure of the big name ‘dream jobs’ at larger companies is correspondingly diminished. The days of distillery managers being lifers are long gone.

The barriers to movement, particularly the very generous pensions offered by some large companies, have also been removed as schemes have been closed and potential retirement benefits significantly reduced. With the handcuffs unlocked, and with all the noise, energy and excitement in distilling in Scotland apparently coming from these newly established businesses, it’s hardly surprising that people are on the move, trying to turn their dreams into reality.

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Accelerated ageing, in search of whisky’s Holy Grail

Whisky takes time. Following distillation, you have to wait years until it is ready to drink. It’s a process that can’t be hurried… Or can it? Dr Nick Morgan takes…

Whisky takes time. Following distillation, you have to wait years until it is ready to drink. It’s a process that can’t be hurried… Or can it? Dr Nick Morgan takes a look at whisky’s Holy Grail – accelerated ageing.

Social media-savvy readers may well have recently spotted the appearance of the Whiskey Pump on various feeds. A handheld American-made device which forces spirit at pressure through small charred oak wooden discs, it promises to deliver “richer flavours equivalent to five years of barrel ageing”. 

Meanwhile producers such as California’s Bespoken Spirits boast of a “consciously crafted” environmentally friendly mixture of “tradition and technology” that “delivers premium quality spirits full of nuance and flavour thanks to a pure and natural sourcing methodology”. Rather than using casks the company fills metal kegs with spirit and wood chips to produce rapidly matured liquids rich in vanilla flavours. 

bespoken-spirits

Image courtesy of Bespoken Spirits

Accelerated ageing, whisky’s Holy Grail

They are not the only ones in search of this whisky producers’ Holy Grail. One CEO of a major British distiller complained that “not a week goes by, but someone comes to us with an idea for making new whisky old”. Another, exasperated, grumbled that “people are for ever coming here with rapid maturing schemes, they ask us for a gallon of our newest spirits and offer to bring it here within a week in such a state of perfection that you would not be able to distinguish it from a ten-year-old whisky”.

In case you’re wondering, the words are not from Diageo’s Ivan Menezes, or Chivas Brothers’ Jean-Etienne Gourgues. The first was Arthur Gilbey of the eponymous wine merchants and distillers, the second an unidentified spokesman for John Dewar & Co. In January 1902 they had both been asked to comment on a paper by London academic Professor J T Hewitt which described a process to reduce the aldehydes (flavour bearing compounds developed during fermentation and distillation) in new make spirit, with the result that distillers could produce “a fine mature, and most important of all, a wholesome whisky” for bottling in a couple of months. More importantly, as newspaper headlines trumpeted throughout the UK, it would mean “whisky at 2s a bottle”, almost half the then on-shelf price for a quality proprietary blend.

Professor Hewitt had patented his rapid maturation process in 1898, and set up a company to exploit it. However, despite a trial at Dewar’s Tullymet Distillery, where the professor “toiled week after week with his alembics and retorts” there were no clients to be found; only Ireland’s Tyrconnell Distillery took up the idea for any length of time. The distinguished chemist later recalled that “the direct pecuniary results were negligible”. Despite his failure, the temptations of massive profits that could result from the successful adoption of a patent by the large blending companies were difficult to resist. Despite the sceptical comments from last century’s industry veterans, Hewitt was by no means the first, nor the last, to grasp at this seductive chimaera.

Patent for accelerated whisky maturation

Patent for accelerated whisky maturation

Trawling the archives

Trawl through Victorian and Edwardian patent applications in the UK and the USA and among the thousands of better mouse traps you’ll find a significant number for ‘improving’ the maturation of whisky, or spirits more generally.

The patents tend to follow a small number of well-trodden paths. Hewitt’s approach was to add chemicals during the distillation process that would retain aldehydes in the pot stills after the new make spirit had been drawn off. Some applications involved heating up immature spirits in special copper vessels, others cool them down or freeze them, and yet more both. Agitating casks of one sort or another, like a rapid automated riddling process, sometimes using complex hydraulics (as it happens this was part of the now infamous Loch Dhu’s secret production method) was another.

Speeding up the delivery of wood extractives by draining whisky through troughs of wood chips (or sometimes other materials like corn cobs), or by introducing wood chips into vats or adding extra staves in casks (disingenuously described today by Compass Box as an ‘avant-garde method of oak-ageing’) were common approaches. When in doubt, sparky inventors prefer to pass some electricity through the liquid, or expose it to ultraviolet rays, and it shouldn’t be surprising that, when the process and effects of maturation and oxidisation were so misunderstood, so many patent applications pass air or oxygen through the spirit to effect rapid and beneficial change.

Wholesome beverages

Among the first to attempt to commercialise this stream of inventiveness was the Spirit Ageing Company in Glasgow which in 1877 publicised their process, based on an earlier patent by W J Phibbs which had been first demonstrated in the city a few years earlier. A fifty-gallon copper vessel, filled with new make spirit and a tightly sealed top was heated under extreme pressure for a matter of hours, the result being whisky with “an incipient brandy flavour imparted to it, while it had all the harshness removed, and was rendered smooth and soft, and otherwise had the properties of age conferred upon it”. One chemist “of great experience on the science and art of distillation” asserted that the transformed whisky was “more wholesome as a beverage than that of equivalent age obtained in the ordinary way”.

The Brinn Oxygen Company (later the British Oxygen Company), with a French patent that allowed them to produce reasonably priced oxygen at scale for the first time, were equally keen to find a market for this new product. It was largely employed to make limelight to illuminate the stages of theatres around the country, and its meal-ticket, the oxyacetylene torch, was some years away from invention. Oxygen forced into spirits at high pressure and left for ten days or more could, claimed Brinn chemist Robert Thorne in 1888, mellow the spirit “to the extent of about three to five years” and significantly reduce its fusel oil content by as much as 94%. Ellis-Clark, Manager of the Brinn works in Horseferry Road, explained to the Pall Mall Gazette that “as fusel oil is the maddening and dangerous element in cheap spirits, the application of oxygen has sanitary as well as commercial advantages”.

Experts were sceptical about the real benefits of such processes; while they acknowledged the treated spirits had changed, it wasn’t necessarily for the better. Giving evidence to the 1891 Select Committee on British and Foreign Spirits analyst and chemist W Cobden Samuel explained that while the processed samples he had tasted had altered significantly in character from the original, they “seemed to have lost something, but not to have obtained the mellowness” expected of a mature whisky. To use current whisky maturation terminology, it was as if there had been a very intense subtractive effect, but little or no additive, let alone interactive effect. He concluded that he did not think that “the palate or the nose of a connoisseur would recognise [the change] as age or mellowness”.

Salt Regal

Advert for Salt Regal from the Queen

Salt Regal – a whirlwind of costly national advertising

Nonetheless entrepreneurs were not to be deterred from the pursuit of the distillers’ gold. Richard Clarkson Scott was a Liverpool shipping agent who had a successful patent for a stepladder, designed to allow dockers to safely enter and leave ships’ holds while overhead cranes and winches were in operation. He had also developed and patented a health drink called ‘Salt Regal’ which was launched with a whirlwind of costly national advertising in 1889. At the same time he patented, trademarked and launched a hygiene product ‘Gnu Soap’ on an unsuspecting and largely unappreciative world. As these two ventures lurched into bankruptcy Scott turned to whisky, and in 1892 he was granted a patent for “improvements in ageing spirits”, developed after “considerable personal study and cost”. In 1899 he formed the British Spirit Process Company, to exploit the patent.

Scott’s process, which “received the approval of some of the best analysts in the kingdom”, involved cooling the spirit to below freezing point and then passing equally cold air through it, which, apparently, carried many of the impurities in the new make whisky away, with “the character of the whisky as whisky being perfectly retained”. The two-hour process delivered the equivalent of two or more years of maturation in a cask. Nonetheless, said its many scientific advocates, it was more of a cleaning than an ageing process, and would be most effective when used in conjunction with some traditional cask maturation. For all the praise Scott’s process received, distillers and blenders steadfastly ignored it, and the British Spirit Process Company went the way of his other failed business ventures.

Hewitt’s experiments had also received praise from leading whisky scientists such as Philip Schidrowitz, but only scorn from the Scotch whisky industry. Of course many of these experts were by no means temperance supporters and were indeed frequently consultants or expert witnesses for whisky interests. They adduced moral or social reasons for supporting such innovations. Well-aged proprietary brands such as Dewar’s and Johnnie Walker were the preserve of the middle classes with ever-increasing disposable incomes. 

Vested interests

‘Working man’s whisky’, tap ‘Scotch’ whiskies sold in pubs, were often of uncertain origin, quite possibly adulterated, and certainly not long from the still. They were rich in those impurities which it was believed led the way to madness and immorality. Nonetheless a successful method of accelerating ageing, or producing a liquid equivalent to a five or six-year-old whisky in a matter of days, if not hours, was anathema to the vested interests of the large blenders and distillers. Just think of the famous Ealing Comedy The Man in the White Suit.

The value of maturing stocks of whisky would plummet overnight. Millions of pounds worth of investment over many years lost at a stroke. Widespread job losses. The whole economy of whisky production would be turned on its head. Any ‘whisky at 2s a bottle’, of whatever quality, emasculated the business model and profits of both distillers and blenders. ‘We firmly believe’, said Dewar’s, ‘that there is only one way of maturing whisky, and that is by age’. ‘The best whisky’ said Arthur Gilbey, ‘is stored in sherry casks … for six, seven, or eight years’. These vested interests were far happier to accept the three-year minimum bonding period introduced during the First World War (as a result of the successful political machinations of Walker’s Sir James Stevenson) than any technical innovation as a solution to the social problems believed to result from the consumption of young whisky.

Fast forward to the early 1950s when A J Menzies, manager director of Fettercairn distillery, claimed to have a patent process that reduced maturation to a matter of hours. This time it was the Board of Trade (whose desire to exploit Scotch whisky exports as a means of earning foreign currency had led to a highly interventionist relationship with the industry) who feared the impact that such an invention could have on the value of stocks, prices, the structure of the market and the long term reputation and integrity of Scotch.

The Whisky Murders

There’s been a murder!

The Whisky Murders

Richard Grayson (a pseudonym for Richard Grindal, a Scotch Whisky Association PR veteran) put a process for the rapid maturation of Scotch (‘the philosopher’s stone of whisky’) at the heart of his 1984 novel The Whisky Murders. Needless to say, its creator was the first to fall foul of the murderer’s bullet. Now, with a three year minimum age for whisky as the bedrock of the Scotch Whisky Regulations, and also enshrined in European law, it’s hard to see any place for such an innovation, let alone homicide, in Scotch today. 

Careful cask management and the cynical deployment of a range of marketing tropes seem to have enabled new distillers with hungry investors (not just in Scotland) to persuade self-styled connoisseurs to pay well over the odds for their juvenile whiskies, albeit mostly for collecting rather than consumption. American distillers, less constrained by regulations, can legally increase wood extractives in younger spirits in several ways, but it remains to be seen if regular American whisky drinkers are ready to adopt the consumption of artfully treated spirits only a matter of months old. Over a century and a half of failures would suggest it will never work.

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A love letter to Dukes Bar

During all the lockdowns, there’s one thing that Nicholas Morgan missed the most, a Martini made by Alessandro Palazzi at Dukes Bar in London. Here’s why… It’s hard to think…

During all the lockdowns, there’s one thing that Nicholas Morgan missed the most, a Martini made by Alessandro Palazzi at Dukes Bar in London. Here’s why…

It’s hard to think that January 2022 in London is really that much different from January 2021. Well, that’s not quite true. Of course it’s different. We still have Covid 19, but now we have vaccines. Crucially, we’re not in lockdown. People are still working from home, wearing masks on public transport, in shops and public places, but there are no restrictions on socialising and the hospitality industry is definitely open for business.

Like a ghost town

Yet the city looks, sounds and feels, and even smells, like we are under lock and key, even if this time it’s a voluntary, self-imposed incarceration. Want to get a barometer reading of the pressure of London’s nightlife? Try booking a table at J Sheekey, one of the capital’s best fish restaurants. Tucked away behind Leicester Square it is at the very centre of the capital, in the very heart of theatreland. In better times you might have had to wait three to four weeks before you could secure a booth or table, even longer for a Thursday, Friday or Saturday. At the time of writing there are tables available in profusion, lunchtimes and evenings, for the foreseeable future. Both doughty stalwarts and starstruck tourists are voting with their feet. The Zoom drinks parties have started again. Even the garden at Number Ten Downing Street has fallen eerily silent.

A few days before bars and restaurants were first closed in March 2020, I paid a visit to Dukes Bar off St James to enjoy Martinis with a few friends. Dukes is a famous London hotel, founded in 1908, and particularly beloved by visitors from the United States. It lives and breathes ‘old school’. The door is hidden away (rather like the hotel) in a corner of the lobby, an unassuming entrance to this half-lit Aladdin’s cave of cocktails. But it is a well-trodden path, a place of pilgrimage for martini lovers in search of a special style of serve pioneered in the 1980s by Salvatore Calabrese, and now championed by Alessandro Palazzi. Both the bar, and its extensive range of martinis and classic cocktails, have a dedicated cadre of followers and devotees. As Tales of the Cocktails acknowledged in 2021, it’s a timeless classic. It’s the sort of place that gets under your skin.

London pleasures

London, like many great global cities, has no shortage of cocktail bars. Other celebrated hotels in the capital have classy watering holes, many of which are mentioned in the diaries and society gossip columns of the 1920s and 30s. The Savoy, the Ritz, the Connaught, Brown’s and Claridge’s (‘photography is not permitted and formal attire is required’) are all still going strong, still at the very cutting edge of the cocktail world, destination bars for Londoners and visitors alike. Some restaurants too have almost secret bars serving wonderful drinks, like the oldest eatery in London, Rules, or the now lamented Mark’s Bar at Hix Soho. There are the hipster cocktail bars up in Shoreditch, Hoxton and Clerkenwell staffed by self-conscious mixologists wearing leather aprons, designer jeans and no socks. There are the bars featured in Time Out’s league table of ‘London’s Prettiest Bars’, feasts for the eyes bursting with colour, bright lights (important for Instagram) and crazy furniture along with highly experimental cocktails, and often, like the hipster bars, with obtrusively loud music. There are also whisky bars, when you’re in the mood. Oh, and still of course some wonderful historic pubs, many of which serve good beers. Something for everyone and every mood.

3. DUKES Bar

It might look like nothing has changed here since 1953 but Dukes is slowly moving with the times

Understated charm 

Dukes is none of those, and almost certainly is content not to be listed among the ‘prettiest bars’. On the contrary, its vibe is understated, quietly smart though relaxed, classic, grounded –  or, as my friends say, ‘grown-up’. The stars here are the staff and the drinks, not the décor. Alessandro Palazzi and his colleagues have that knack of making everyone feel equally welcome. Not an easy thing to do when you have such a disparate clientele. Aristocrats young and old appear from nearby clubland, wealthy (often elderly and always charming) American guests who know how to drink, the Buckingham Palace crowd, country mice in town for the weekend, conspiratorial cabals, romantic couples of all ages, Tinder hook-ups, ‘uncles’ and ‘nieces’, the Italians, the drinks people. Like all the greatest bars Dukes is marvellously egalitarian, the waiting staff making all their guests feel at home, even if you must sometimes wait a while before you get seated.

And just as a reminder, that is the essence of hospitality. Journalists have talked and written about ‘the hospitality industry’ over the past two years as bars and restaurants have lurched from one crisis to another, but at its heart hospitality isn’t an ‘industry’. It’s all about the personal touch, ‘the reception and entertainment of guests or strangers with liberality and goodwill’, something at which Dukes excels.

Goodbye to all that

I recall we were the last to leave that March night two years ago, at around 9.00pm. The bar already felt like the Marie Celeste. It was an unusually gloomy departure, an overbearing cloud of pessimism dulling our usual good spirits. For the record the bar closed the following day even before the government Covid regulations came into force, as customers had dwindled to virtually nought. I took a farewell photograph, which would become my Zoom backdrop of choice as drinking home-made cocktails with friends captured on a computer screen became the entertainment de jour. Walking out onto a deserted St James felt like turning my back on a dearly loved second home, with a sad certainty that it would be a long time before I saw it again. Home, they say, is where the heart is. It felt as though I’d left a little piece of my heart behind.

Since then, it’s been two years of closed, open, open, closed for Dukes Bar, as it has been for the rest of the on-trade in London, as lockdowns have come and gone. With the same group of friends I’ve been replaying farewells and welcomes at Dukes as if caught in my own slightly alcoholic Groundhog Day. The resilient staff, as welcoming as ever, appeared to have been in place throughout the closedowns, frozen like exhibits at London’s famous Madame Tussauds waxworks, just waiting to be brought back to life by the sound of arriving guests. The warmth of their welcome is undiminished, their enthusiasm for making great drinks is as strong as ever. Sinking into the welcoming blue upholstered chairs the sense of being back where one belongs is overwhelming. It’s the comfort, rather than the contempt, of familiarity.

And then there’s the Martini.

The home Martini

Now I’ve become rather a dab hand at martini mixing at home over the past few years. The gin (Tanqueray mostly) and the glass both fresh from the freezer, a generous dash of Cocchi Americano, stirred over ice and served with an olive (Spanish Gordal olives, with a hint of lemon, are my choice). Strictly enforced house rule: one only. But nice as that may be it’s simply not the same as the free pour Dukes Martini which I would never dare to try and imitate at home. It just wouldn’t be right.

There is something deeply indulgent about having a drink made for you. It’s like being measured by a tailor for a new jacket or suit. Every detail attended to so as to ensure the perfect fit. Yes, you may have to wait a little while before the full pleasure is realised, but a little deferred gratification makes it even more worth it. Part of the pleasure is in the anticipation. 

Dukes Martini served by Alessandro Palazzi

Worth waiting for, a Dry Martini prepared by Alessandro Palazzi

The famous Dukes Bar Martini

At Dukes my Martini is made at a wooden trolley by my table. The background music here is gently shaken ice and smoothly stirred drinks. For new guests there’s a running commentary as the drink is made. I have a choice from a wide selection of classic and contemporary gins (or vodkas), but it’s hard for me to see past the familiar citrussy juniper of Tanqueray (preferably at 47% ABV). The house vermouth, which under normal circumstances barely touches the side of the frozen glass before being dispatched contemptuously onto the long-suffering carpet, is from Sacred, made in Highgate. The viscous gin slowly, seductively, poured from a height, like an intoxicating waterfall, to the very brim of the glass. Not shaken, not stirred. I choose to stand firm against Palazzi’s liturgy and get (with considerable reluctance) a large, single, Sicilian Nocellara olive, otherwise it’s a twist from a delightfully aromatic Amalfi lemon. And then miraculously this ice-cold concoction appears before me from the steadiest of hands. It’s perfect theatre. It’s like watching Gielgud or Olivier play out one of my favourite scenes from Shakespeare. It never disappoints. And then following my first sip, there is always a moment (dare I say a Martini moment?) of silence, of reverence and reflection shared with my guests before we plunge back into conversation.

Absence, and abstinence, makes the heart grow fonder. As a result, there was only one place I was heading last week for after a holiday season disrupted by a lengthy Covid-enforced isolation. Most people may be staying at home in a virtual lockdown, but I was determined to re-engage with society. While the streets of St James were unusually quiet, there was an agreeable hum of discrete conversation in the bar. Perhaps not as busy as usual, but a pleasing mix of familiar faces all equally determined to ride out this particular storm in style, and a warm welcome from the irrepressible Palazzi and his white-coated crew. The sound of the trundling trolley heralded the main event, the perfect pour, the perfect performance. After weeks of solitary confinement this magical Martini moment marked an epiphany. With that visceral first sip from the glass, I was restored to the world. More to the point, I was home.

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Don’t over-ice my Negroni

Nick Morgan has a bone to pick with bartenders. He’s noticed a worrying trend to put so much ice in cocktails that it’s impossible to drink them. So for 2022,…

Nick Morgan has a bone to pick with bartenders. He’s noticed a worrying trend to put so much ice in cocktails that it’s impossible to drink them. So for 2022, he has one request: ‘please, don’t over-ice my Negroni’.

Reflecting on the past 12 months (which we are all encouraged to do at this transitory time of year), I have had cause to wonder about a rather different pandemic that has blighted almost every lunch I ate out from that time in the spring of 2021 when we were first allowed to venture out of our houses. Blinking like a dormouse emerging from a lengthy hibernation, I scuttled into the heart of the city that was once London. From St John to the Savoy Grill, and from the French House to the Argentine Sucre, even in my club in Soho, no bartender seemed immune to this infection. And I soon discovered this wasn’t only a metropolitan crisis. Even the best Italian restaurant in Auld Reekie (that’s the tiny one opposite Haymarket Station if you’re interested) fell victim to the contagion.

Too much ice, sir?

Looking at this through the forensic lens that a trained epidemiologist might use, I can see that this particular plague was already with us several years before we retreated to our homes to escape the most recent one. I recall a truly sensational lunch in the Clove Club in 2017 when I mentioned to our very attentive server that there had possibly been too much ice in the Negronis. He reacted as if stung by the cruellest of barbs.

In case you are in any doubt I refer to that vile phenomena, the over-iced Negroni. By over-iced, by the way, I don’t mean just too cold or over-chilled. I mean when one’s Negroni is served in a rocks glass filled with so much ice that it becomes a physical impediment to consumption. So much ice that it protrudes from the glass like a wayward berg in the ocean, waiting to trap some hapless passenger liner. So much ice that merely raising the glass to your lips can risk removing an eye, or the embarrassment of an ice shard performing a lateral flow test up both nostrils. Do any bars or restaurants, I wonder, risk assess their Negronis? They certainly should. If there is a risk of a patron losing an organ or suffering life-changing injuries, then that is simply too much ice.

Pandan Negroni - Nomad

Can we talk about the difficulty of drinking through one of these gargantuan ice cubes?

Enough of these so-called experts

In the same way that people can create a social media account and instantly become whisky experts, or heaven help us, ‘whisky influencers’, so they can also step behind the bar of a fashionable restaurant and overnight become gods, or even gurus, whose commandments are not to be challenged. It matters not how imbecilic the serving suggestions may be – blue cheese-stuffed olives in a Martini anyone?

But so much ice in a glass of Negroni? Just what are they thinking of? Certainly not the simple ergonomics of drinking, not the laws of physics that dictate what will happen to all that ice once the glass is lifted and angled towards the lips. They’re certainly not thinking of the customer, who for all the highfalutin pontifications that we hear from behind the bar, is actually the most important person in the room. If there is so much slow-thawing ice in the glass that it’s impossible to drain your drink before the appetisers appear along with a nice bottle of Burgundy, well, it’s just as bad as being served a short measure.

What does Wondrich think?

Perhaps unsurprisingly I thought I should take a look at some of the history of the Negroni and its relationship with ice. Given that cocktails are the victims of even more bad history than whisky (you might not have thought this possible, but it actually gets worse with every cocktail book that’s published) I first checked my contributor’s copy of the newly published, and rather definitive, Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, to read what Dave Wondrich had to say on the subject. As one might expect Wondrich, despite a few alarming ‘probablys’ and ‘possiblys’ tells a good story of the evolution of the drink, and particularly it’s halcyon days post Second World War. 

But whilst Wondrich tells us that the drink is ‘usually served with ice’, he insists in his recipe that the drink is to be mixed in an ‘ice-filled’ Old Fashioned glass, as does, for the record, the late Gary Regan in The Joy of Mixology. Pre-filling a glass with ice, Difford’s Guide to Cocktails helpfully reminds us, makes the drink colder, and reduces dilution. At this point one might want to hunt for the ever-elusive expert on historic weights and measures to deliberate on exactly how much ice goes into an ‘ice-filled’ glass.

Style over substance

So, is it heresy to ask for less ice? Do we drink for pleasure, or do we really have to be subjugated to this modern tyranny, this overbearing sickness of style over substance?

Is it heresy to ask for what you want, rather than be intimidated into accepting what you are given (as sadly happens far too often in cocktail bars)? To ask for a drink that is still cool, but that can be comfortably enjoyed in the hand without risk of first degree facial lacerations and possible humiliation? To ask for a Negroni is to ask for a drink that speaks loudly of its unique individual parts, not flavours overwhelmed and hidden by ice. The Negroni is an unbeatable lunchtime aperitif (sorry sherry lovers), and it is intended to be drunk and enjoyed relatively quickly before food service commences.

The good old days

I have heard dissident whisperings in dark corners of London’s finest cocktail bars that in ‘the good old days’ Negronis were never served with as much ice as has become the accepted practice de jour. It could of course just be a British thing – we never were that good with ice in the past. Remember the classic pub Gin & Tonic in a wine glass with a solitary small lump of ice?

References to Negroni recipes in post-war British newspapers are far and few between, but you will find Hugh Johnson recommending serving his Negroni with crushed ice in The Sunday Times Magazine 1964; Jeremy Lee recommends ‘four or five’ cubes of ice in The Guardian in 1999. Until these ice-rich recent times I would have to suggest that ice-filled Old Fashioned glasses were a trans-Atlantic phantasmas.

London Cocktail Week

You wouldn’t want to over-ice one of these

Don’t over-ice my Negroni

Indeed, enthusiasts for using old (and increasingly expensive) ingredients in their Negronis (where the Campari, for example, will look and taste totally different from today’s version) tell me they would never dream of killing these complex flavours with ice. As anyone who’s ever enjoyed a free-pour Negroni chez drinks legend Charlie Maclean will know, there’s rarely any ice used in his serve (although that’s possibly because Charlie forgot to buy any – again). Just to repeat, the simple perfection of the Negroni is a perfection of flavour. That is what the drink is all about. Chilled gin, vermouth and Campari, a handful of ice cubes, but never a glass filled to the brim with over-large dangerously jagged chunks. It’s a new orthodoxy that the drink just doesn’t deserve.

So as we enter a new year with the hope of eventually being unburdened from the oppressions of one pandemic, let’s not allow ourselves to be oppressed by another as we all seek to enjoy the best that our hospitality industry can offer. Here I stand with my new-year Negroni manifesto: bar tenders shouldn’t be slaves to their ice machines, shouldn’t think that the fact that they can use fistfuls of ice means that they have to use fistfuls of ice, they should think about those appetising flavours, and they should think about the physical act of consuming a Negroni when they load each glass, and ask themselves how the drinking will be done in practice. Most controversially, does it need ice at all? Let’s make 2022 the year of long Negroni-fuelled luncheons, and dear bar people, just go easy on the ice.

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Whisky investment déjà vu

A number of warnings about whisky investment firms have appeared in the press, and on this blog, in the past year. But, as Dr. Nick Morgan explains, dodgy schemes promising…

A number of warnings about whisky investment firms have appeared in the press, and on this blog, in the past year. But, as Dr. Nick Morgan explains, dodgy schemes promising big returns are nothing new. And many of them ended in tears. Here is whisky investment déjà vu.

These are the sorts of things that clog up social media feeds of the whisky curious: “15 – 30% capital growth per annum”; “in four years your matured whisky may double in value”; “malt whisky investment shows an average profit of 50% at maturity.” Outlandish claims from firms that sprout up from nowhere like new leaves on a springtime tree, and they might well be from 2020, but these particular claims date from the late 1960s and early 1970s, when investors, principally in the United Kingdom and the United States were lured into whisky investment schemes by promises of returns beyond the dreams of avarice.

The last whisky boom

Between 1950 and 1970 production of malt whisky had increased over fourfold in Scotland, (and grain whisky more than fivefold), as distillers struggled both to replenish inventories depleted during the second world war, and satisfy an apparently unquenchable thirst for blended Scotch all over the world. However, stocks of maturing whisky ate away at the capital of both producers and brokers, many of whom began to look to cash-rich post-war economies as a way of financing their inventories. Potential buyers were lured into schemes unaware of what they were buying, often ill-informed about the volatility of prices for grain whiskies on the open market, or of the fluctuations in the pricing of malts as demand from blenders shifted.

Along with advertisements from numerous investment companies (‘Brigadoon Scotch Investors’ being, perhaps, the most appropriately named) articles appeared in American newspapers with headlines such as “Aye, the clans smile on such investments” commending the “opportunities for investors of more limited means to participate with a simplified type of transaction”, selling parcels of Scotch for as little as $1000. In reality, what these companies (some of whom did, and some of whom didn’t have access to stocks of maturing Scotch through partners in the UK) were selling were not casks of whisky, but rather warehouse receipts, giving title to either real or imagined inventory. These practices soon attracted the attention of both State authorities as well as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which took the view that these warehouse receipts represented unlicensed investment contracts under American legislation, and were thus in breach of the law.

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Whisky, you could make money out of it, but you might be better off drinking it

Whisky investment déjà vu

It soon became apparent from a series of investigations by the SEC that this technical breach of regulations was not the only thing wrong with these get-rich schemes.  

Michael Lundy & Associates, and its partner company Scotch Whisky Limited, were among the first to be investigated, partly because Lundy was also being pursued for the sale of fraudulent property investments in Florida, which along with his sale of warehouse receipts would see him eventually jailed for six years. Lundy was also found to have misled whisky investors by claiming that aged whisky would automatically increase in value (rather than being priced according to the law of supply and demand), by making it appear that the investment was insured against all risks by Lloyds of London, and that it would be straightforward for investors to take physical possession of the casks for which they held receipts should they want to.

A self-styled publicity-seeking maverick

Also feeling the long arm of the SEC in London was war hero, former wine merchant, and whisky entrepreneur John Haffenden. A self-styled publicity-seeking maverick he charmed drinks and business writers (but less so the PR agencies whose bills he struggled to pay) with his very public contempt for the authorities, be they the American courts, the whisky establishment of the Distillers Company, or the Scotch Whisky Association (“bootleggers who’ve turned respectable”). “Thanks to disastrous public relations,” he wrote in one of his regular acerbic newsletters, “the Distillers Company which has in the past wielded almost feudal power over the rest of the trade in Scotland, is losing its grip”. 

Haffenden’s business was whisky broking and blending. He declared his ‘Highland Silk’ blend to be a “rare blend’ of half malt and half grains, matured for at least four years, with at least twenty percent Glenlivet’s”, “S.M.O.O.T.H”, and “popular with both sexes”. In a gushing interview with Haffenden for the Illustrated London News in 1970, Peta Fordham wrote “writers have a soft spot for any David who successfully challenges the Goliaths in a world in which the individual finds it increasingly difficult to survive”.  

Blend your own whisky

This particular David caught the imagination of the press in both the UK and the USA with a series of quirky headline-capturing innovations. His ‘Master Blenders kit’, launched in 1969, was a do-it-yourself blending pack containing four single malts and one-grain whisky. “A three-year-old child standing on his head could use it to produce a whisky better than most proprietary brands” observed Haffenden in an interview with an American newspaper; “you can blend whisky in five minutes,” he told another. 

Haffenden claimed that hundreds of thousands of the kits had been sold all over the world. Harrods, he said, described it as their “best selling thing for years”. A much-trumpeted launch event for 400 MPs in the ‘long bar’ of the House of Commons ended in an acrimonious fiasco, but unbowed Haffenden nominated himself for a Queen’s Award for Exports on the basis of the alleged success of his kits. Two other eye-catching projects were ‘Haffy’s whisky sour’, the first in a promised range of pre-mixed Scotch cocktails, and ‘the Nightender’, an automatic dispensing machine, that promised hotel guests all-night drinking “at bar prices”.

Haffenden claimed to have pioneered the selling of casks as investments in the United States in the early 1950s and had been active in the UK since at least 1965.  He suggested in advertising that the value of cask investments could triple over three or four years, advertising his firm’s services in the United Kingdom as “the leading whisky brokers”, claiming maturing stocks of between eight and twelve million gallons, and offering potential punters a free illustrated booklet on ‘Scotch Whisky Investment’. In the USA he partnered with the Rimar Corporation, which promised returns of between 20% and 25% to investors “disgusted with the stock market.”

Ivan Straker - Glenlivet

Ivan Straker (left) from Glenlivet Distillers warned about outlandish whisky investment promises (credit: Douglas Moir)

High-pressure sales techniques

Like Lundy, the Rimar representatives deployed high-pressure sales techniques which wilfully misrepresented the nature of the investment (investors were never told what whiskies they were buying), the likely returns, the risks involved, the nature of the insurance that was on offer, and the difficulties associated with transferring casks from Scotland to the USA. The whisky was sold to investors with a mark-up of between 36 and 70 percent on its market value, partly to fund the hefty commissions paid to salesmen. Haffenden Rimar was banned from trading in the United States in 1973. A long list of other traders who followed in its wake were also banned, including some names still familiar in the Scotch whisky industry today,

Until this point the British financial press had been woefully uncritical of such schemes: “a minimum investment of £500 could be troubled or trebled in three or four years’ time if the whisky cult spreads to new countries abroad” said The Sunday Times enthusiastically in 1965.  Sentiments began to change with leading figures in the industry such as the Glenlivet Distiller’s Ivan Straker speaking out against them “‘the poor investor is being hoodwinked by glowing literature”) and even the normally beige Scotch Whisky Association expressing reservations. The FBI, Interpol, and fraud squads in Glasgow and from Scotland Yard were on the case.

Haffenden disingenuously recast himself as the saviour of the poor investors led astray by ‘cowboys’, but his various business interests were crumbling and in 1974 his brokerage company received a winding-up order. A subsequent business, Haffenden International Marketing, was short-lived and equally unsuccessful.

Keith St John Foster

Enter at this point Keith St John Foster, a former Daily Telegraph junior financial journalist, with a business promising to deliver greater transparency to hapless investors, and “introduce some order into an essentially chaotic market”.  Brokers, said St John Foster, “benefit from the virtual conspiracy of silence within the legitimate trade to feather their own nests at the expense of the private investor”. With “considerable trade backing” and thus access to insider information St John Foster’s company claimed a unique position “to place funds in stocks of high return and high security”. The American press reported that his firm would “in time evolve into a major commodity market”.

Fate determined otherwise. The new company faced legal challenges to its advertising and by the end of 1975 was heavily in the red, with St John Foster being declared bankrupt in 1977. In the same year St John Foster, then described as a ‘commodity broker’, was accused (and acquitted) of being involved with four other men in the murder of a drug dealer on the Isle of Wight. Then only months later he was convicted of the attempted murder of his estranged wife and jailed for eight years. He later reinvented himself as Aphelion, an international ‘parfumeur’ who apparently made custom scents for Princess Diana and Ivana Trump among others. Such is the tangled webs of the lives and careers of whisky investment experts.

Old casks at Glen Garioch

Old casks at Glen Garioch

Glen Garioch, Glenrothes

Arthur G Schuffman’s whisky expertise was somewhat questionable when he set up Perthshire Scotch Whisky in New York in 1973 and began selling warehouse receipts for casks of White Abbey blended Scotch whisky to investors, guaranteeing fantastical returns of over 55% after a two-year maturation period. The six-year-old whisky was sold to investors for $6.80 a gallon, although investigators subsequently put its worth at $1.50 to $2 a gallon.   

In a textbook boiler room operation, Schuffman and his partners targeted “unsophisticated investors” with glossy mailshots which were followed up by high-pressure telephone calls, making “numerous misrepresentations about the value of Scotch whisky as an investment”. Perthshire Scotch Whisky would, it was promised, either buy the whisky back or assist them in selling it to third parties. “Like a masterpiece of art”, claimed the company’s advertisements, “White Abbey appreciates in value as it ages”. Neither Schuffman nor his partners waited to see if their claims were true. After luring twenty-seven or more investors to part with over $60,000, they closed down their smart Park Avenue South office, leaving no forwarding address. As it turned out, jail was their eventual destination.

We’ve been here before

There is no doubt that with the right advice there is money to be made from speculating in cask purchases; there always have been. There can be a great deal of pleasure in simply buying a reasonably priced cask from a new distillery, either as an individual or with a group of friends, for bottling and enjoying at some later date. But those tempted by the seductive promises of many whisky investment firms today, keen to “find out why investors are going crazy over whisky” might do well to reflect on the experiences of the late 1960s and 1970s when incalculable losses were experienced by investors in both the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere as a result of illegal and fraudulent practices. 

Then as now, tempted by glossy brochures, seductive (and mostly misleading) promises of huge returns, investors placed trust in companies whose resources and expertise in whisky was minimal, whilst their salesmanship was weaponised. The deluge of new firms over the past three to five years with little or no proven background in Scotch whisky, desperately trying to steal a share of the profits of the whisky investment bubble, exactly mirrors the experiences of the past. And we know how that ended.

Perhaps then we should consider not the catchy and almost hysterical advertising claims of the 1970s, but rather the news headlines that followed in their wake such as: “Con man sentenced in liquor swindle”; “amateur suckers for Scotch whisky investments”; and “Scotch whisky racket bad news.” It has to be hoped it’s not a lesson too late for the learning.’

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Lifting the lid on bulk Scotch whisky sales to Japan

Today, we’re delighted to have a new writer for Master of Malt, industry veteran Dr Nick Morgan. Here he brings us a tale of greed, deception, and short-sighted business decisions,…

Today, we’re delighted to have a new writer for Master of Malt, industry veteran Dr Nick Morgan. Here he brings us a tale of greed, deception, and short-sighted business decisions, as he lifts the lid on the long and murky relationship between the Scotch and Japanese whisky industries.

Diligent readers may recall that in February the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association acknowledged that there had been a longstanding practice of mixing Japanese spirits with distillates from other countries, which were then sold under the description of ‘Japanese whisky’.  

This was in a preamble to proposals for a new voluntary code (effective from 1 April 2021) to be followed by Japanese distillers and blenders which is intended to prevent this from happening in the future.  Disingenuously, and with not a word of contrition, the preamble explained that these practices were part of “the tradition, history, and culture of Japanese whisky-making” which “had enriched the Japanese drinking culture” and “were supported by many people around the world”.  The Association, it continued, “took pride in that fact and are grateful for the efforts of our predecessors”.

The Nightcap

Dave Broom was not happy

The dog that did not bark

Whilst one might have expected such an announcement to have been met with outrage, it was instead greeted either with a muted response by commentators, and a deafening silence from the Scotch whisky industry. Only Dave Broom (in the past a prominent cheerleader for all things Japanese) wrote frankly about the questions this statement raised, the consequences that this admission would have for the reputation of the Japanese whisky category, and the breach of trust it represented with those consumers (and for that matter writers) around the world who had helped to build it.  Otherwise, the dog did not bark. 

Can you imagine a similar announcement, from say the Scotch Whisky Association, confessing to decades of consumer deception by some of its members? Would it have been greeted with such equanimity?

Perhaps what is most shocking is that so many stakeholders, industry commentators, and even consumer groups were already aware of this practice of blending Japanese whiskies with those of other countries, and selling them under a misleading description. In many respects, it was hiding in plain sight.  

In recent years some CEOs of large Scotch businesses, enraged by the amount of love that whisky commentators and consumers have chosen to shower on Japanese whiskies at the expense of Scotch, pulled out their hair in frustration because no one would publicly call out Japanese producers for this practice. It was almost, you might think, as if there was a conspiracy of silence, with the foremost conspirators being the Scotch whisky companies.  Why? Because some had been happily selling bulk malt whisky to Japan since the 1960s. 

Master of Malt bucket list

Nikka’s Yoichi distillery

So how did we arrive at this situation?

First, some history. As the Japanese economy began to recover after the Second World war, leading Japanese distillers (Suntory and Nikka dominated the category, with Suntory having a market share in excess of 70%) had ambitions to build both domestic and global reputations for their brands as rivals to Scotch both in terms of craftsmanship and quality. But despite significant increases in whisky production in the early 1960s and again in the early 1970s, inventory and spirit quality lagged behind ambition. Japan’s whisky distilling tradition rested on Masataka Taketsuru’s much romanticised adventures in Scotland in the early twentieth century. As we shall see, some of his contemporaries in Scotland came to think of these as akin to industrial espionage. 

Meanwhile, Scotch whisky, considered to be the epitome of quality, was held in such high regard domestically and globally. However, the two whisky industries could not have been more different. In Scotland, a history of independent distilleries selling mostly new-make whisky either directly to blending houses or to brokers and speculators had created a commodity market where mature whiskies were bought and sold freely. Blenders might even trade or exchange casks with competitors. As a result, it was common practice for blenders to make use of a wide variety of the available makes in their blends. 

In Japan, on the other hand, production was concentrated in the hands of a small number of companies, and the tradition of using other distiller’s whisky was unknown. Over time this forced the large Japanese distillers to develop the skills to produce a variety of spirit characters and qualities from their stills. It also made the major Japanese brand-owners look outside Japan for whisky that would help meet their volume requirements, and more importantly their desire to match, or surpass, the reputation that Scotch whisky had for quality. And what better place to go in the first instance than Scotland?

What better place to buy whisky than Scotland?

In 1961, Japanese distillers were selling an estimated 2 million cases in the domestic market.  By 1975, this had increased to 25 million cases. In the early 1960s, bulk malt whisky from Scotland was being imported into Japan, largely through brokerage firms, in the tens of thousands of gallons. By 1975 it stood at over five million gallons, and by 1978 over six million. 

For tax purposes, Japanese whiskies were divided into three grades: Special Grade, First Grade, and Second Grade, a categorisation that remained in place until 1988.  These grades were also de facto designators of quality. Some writers have reassuringly yet inexplicably suggested that bulk Scotch malt whisky was being used principally to improve the quality of the cheaper First and Second Grade brands. These were typically blends of Japanese malt whisky, neutral grain spirit, and sometimes other flavourings.  

On the contrary, as Scotch whisky executives reported in the late ‘60s and ‘70s (and British newspapers and commentators also wrote), Scottish malt whisky was being used to bolster the quality of the Special Grade brands (like Suntory Old, ‘with a smoothness akin to fine Scotch’), which in the early 1960s had been available in only very limited quantities. The objective was to enhance the reputation of domestic whiskies with consumers and put them on an equal footing with Scotch.

Between 1963 and 1975 the per capita consumption of whisky in Japan had more than tripled. It was the Special Grade of domestic whiskies that were growing most rapidly, as the cheaper grades declined. The leading brands were Suntory Old and Nikka Super, and Suntory Royal and Nikka Kingsland, the last two priced between standard and deluxe blended Scotches such as Johnnie Walker Red Label and Black Label. By 1975 Special Grade accounted for almost 60% of Japanese whisky sales, and a graph showing its rapid growth in the early 1970s would almost correlate to one showing the equally dramatic rise in imports of bulk malt whisky from Scotland. 

‘You can’t tell the difference between Suntory Old and Scotch’

At the same time companies such as Suntory were promoting their brands with huge advertising budgets, with messaging to persuade consumers that Suntory brands were as good as, if not better, than Scotch whisky.  As one observer commented, the advertising message was “you can’t tell the difference between Suntory Old and Scotch”. By 1975, Suntory claimed that Suntory Old, which like Suntory Royal was thought to contain 20% Scotch malt whisky, was the largest selling brand of whisky in the world (8.5 million cases). The label read: ‘a blend of rare, selected whiskies, distilled and bottled by Suntory Ltd … Product of Japan’. Sean Connery drank it as James Bond in 1967’s You Only Live Twice and would go on to appear in advertisements for the brand in the 1990s.

Suntory Old, “with a smoothness akin to fine Scotch” was launched in the United States in 1962, at a time when the company had very limited inventory to support such a bold move. Suntory whiskies were being sold in European Duty Free in 1972.  In 1976, advertising agency Chiat Day launched a striking campaign for Suntory Royal in the United States with the strapline “From the bonnie, bonnie, banks of the Yamazaki” (“if Suntory Royal happens to taste like Scotch we wouldn’t be surprised”). “Just as Suntory Royal is similar to Scotch, but better” said an advert in the Los Angeles Times the following year. 

In 1977, Suntory opened a restaurant in London to showcase its brands alongside Japanese cuisine, “within a stones-throw” noted the Aberdeen Press and Journal, of the head offices of Johnnie Walker, Cutty Sark and Justerini & Brooks. Suntory Old was listed in luxury outlets such as Harrods. Whilst total exports remained small the global intent was very clear.

Helping the competition 

Scottish distillers, often with overseas owners or investors, had begun to get directly involved in the supply of these bulk malts, rather than leaving the business to brokers. Seagram entered into an alliance with Kirin, announcing in 1973 the launch of a new blend, Robert Brown.  The whisky, said the press release, would consist of malt whisky from Scotland imported from Chivas Bros. and local Japanese whisky which would eventually be produced at the new distillery planned by Kirin at Gotemba in the Shizuoka Prefecture. 

The industry, however, was divided on the issue. Some, like the giant Distillers Company, remained aloof from this business, despite being regularly courted by Suntory. DCL’s Robin Cater warned that bulk exports used to improve the quality of Japanese blends were in effect helping to create the reputation of a category that would soon compete with Scotch, while Adam Bergius of William Teacher’s described bulk exports as “short-sighted and against the long-term interests of the Scotch whisky industry”. 

Trades unions formed a pressure group, the Scotch Whisky Combine Committee in 1977. Its purpose was to lobby both the industry and the Scotch Whisky Association, and government, complaining of the long-term threat both to jobs, and the reputation of the category, that the export of both bulk malts and blends represented. The Scottish National Party supported the campaign. 

Reports were commissioned and reports were written, warning of the long-term damage that would result from the “self-interested and short-term policy” that some companies had adopted to the sale of bulk malt whisky, particularly to Japan. At the heart of this was a concern that the increasingly multi-national ownership of whisky companies in Scotland (and elsewhere) could lead to the commoditisation of Scotch and the development of a globalised trade in whisky generics, with a commensurate loss of distinctiveness for Scotch, and for that matter other types of whisky too. 

Masataka Taketsuru and Rita Cowan

Tartan-tinted spectacles 

The warnings went unheeded, allowing Japanese distillers to develop a very specific “tradition” and “culture” of Japanese whisky-making. It “enriched the Japanese drinking culture” at the expense of Scotch. In addition, it led to whisky consumers and collectors all over the world, in a category where provenance is everything, being sold products that were not, as one might say, exactly as described.

Of course, this part of the story wasn’t told when Japanese whiskies were taken to the world in the late 1980s. Producers persisted with a carefully-curated narrative, told through tartan tinted spectacles, of an auld alliance between the two distilling nations based on Masataka Taketsuru’s visits to Scotland, an alliance symbolically solemnized by his marriage to Scot Rita Cowan, sometimes described as “the mother of Japanese whisky”. The tale that is told is of long-standing respect shared with Scottish distillers for authenticity, craftsmanship, and traditional methods of production. 

Industrial espionage 

For the record, that’s not quite how the chaps at the DCL saw it. They had been outraged when the purpose of Taketsuru’s visits became clear following the release by Suntory of a ‘Scotch Whisky’ with an English language label in 1929, invoking both government and the law to try and prevent its distribution and sale. As late as 1982, they were still debating whether uninvited Japanese visitors should be allowed into their distilleries, so stung were they by the events of the past. Indeed, it’s quite possible that the extreme culture of secrecy that surrounded distillation in the DCL for so many years was one of the unintended consequences of Taketsuru’s time in Scotland.

Retailers, writers, and commentators were sucked in by the romance story and the ‘zenness’ of it all, and of course by the outstanding quality of many of the whiskies produced (whatever their origin). In a collective attack of cognitive dissonance, they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see beyond it. Scotch producers, as the fortunes of their bottled products waxed and waned in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, came to rely on bulk malt sales as a way of maintaining revenue and managing excess inventory. As the global popularity of Japanese whisky increased, so did the sales of bulk malt Scotch.

Increasingly through either direct acquisition or developing shareholdings, Japanese companies have increased their presence in the Scotch whisky business, and their access to stocks. So complicit has the Scotch whisky industry been in the development of the deceptive practices finally acknowledged this year by their Japanese counterparts, that it’s hardly surprising that they have remained so tight-lipped on the subject. 

At the same time, Japanese interests in the world of Scotch (and for that matter American) whisky has increased its influence over writers and commentators. So the muted response to February’s announcement is hardly surprising. Say the wrong thing about Japanese whisky these days, and it could cost you a free trip to Islay. Or Speyside. Or Kentucky.  Let alone to the bonnie bonnie banks of the Yamazaki.

Biog

Nick Morgan’s career as a historian and writer was rudely interrupted by a thirty-year, award-winning spell in the Scotch whisky business. Beginning as archivist for United Distillers, he body-swerved his way into marketing, and managed the largest portfolio of single malt whiskies in the world for over ten years. Laterly he was a spokesman on Scotch whisky related issues, famously described as ‘Diageo’s human shield’. He has now returned to the relative sanity of the past, and recently published A Long Stride, the official history of Johnnie Walker. His new book, Everything you need to know about whisky (but are too afraid to ask) is published in August 2021.

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