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.
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.
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.
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.