Thursday, 28 January 2016

Pride of Place Part One: Apples and Oranges

As coincidence would have it I was writing the notes for this post in my lunchbreak yesterday (I lead such a rich, full life) when my phone went zing and an e-mail from arrived in my inbox complete with an article by Becky Paskin arguing the case for Scotch Whisky being divided into its traditional regions. Coincidental, I should say, because I intend for the most part to argue against it.

Firstly, to those of you who read this blog through being a supportive friend or relative newcomer to whisky, I should say that ought to be your first online whisky port of call and that Becky Paskin is far more informed and intelligent than I am, has a sparkling whisky CV and is about as deeply involved with and knowledgeable about the industry and its product as it's possible to be. Whereas I'm basically a grubby little urchin with a glass and a tuppenceworth opinion. But, you know, please keep reading...

The idea that a Whisky should reflect its sense of place can be split into two parts - albeit both probably have labyrinthine subcategories which I won't go into here. Essentially the theory would be that the whisky should offer a sense of its region generally, and its immediate place within that region specifically; what the French call terroir - remember that word, we'll come back to it. In this writer's opinion however, the idea of region - one theoretically designed to aid the consumer in selecting a whisky most suited to their palate - is one with more pitfalls than positives when it comes to Scotch.

So, these regions. Depending on who you talk to you've got either five or six. The main five are Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside, Islay and Campbeltown, with the sixth being 'Islands' for those who don't want the Island distilleries shoehorned into the Highlands category. The theoretical upside of such regions being to stylistically group whiskies so that consumers can make a more informed choice. E.g: 'ah you enjoyed Glen McTartan? Well then Glen Sporran, also a Highland Whisky, will be right up your street.' Or more likely - and worryingly - 'Well, I liked Glen McTartan...not sure what to buy next...ah, well this one says 'Highlands' on the bottle...that'll probably taste the same.'

And so the unwary buyer selects Glen Sporran on the basis of region, but instead of the unpeated, honeyed style they experienced with Glen McTartan they are confronted with waves of smoke and salt and spice. (Not 100% why I went for those names instead
of just saying, for example, 'Aberfeldy and Talisker.' I'm sure it'll be fine - the Scottish are famously tolerant of ignorant English people using condescending stereotypes....) I digress. The point is that whilst, in a perfect world, the consumer's reaction would be 'well this is nothing like my previous Highlands dram, but I find it equally delicious in its own unique right,' the reality is that this won't always be the case. And not just because people don't really talk like that, but because the flavour distance between the two is like tequila to gin. Probably further, if such a thing could be measured. I suspect, for example, that my girlfriend Rachel would enjoy Aberfeldy. I know, having seen her taste it, that she loathes Talisker. Philistine...

Admttedly Aberfeldy to Talisker is an extreme example. They are opposites, more or less, on the whisky spectrum both in terms of flavour and geography. But herein lies problem number one with Scottish regions as they currently exist. The Highlands is massive. It's a 373 mile trip from Arran Distillery to Highland Park, and that's a hell of a long way. In context, that's the distance from my new hometown of Reading (just West of London for readers outside of the UK!) to Glenkinchie Distillery - within spitting distance of Edinburgh. Sure, the Highlands are technically defined by a geographical fault - the Arran Distillery would actually be a Lowland Distillery had it been built in the South of the Island - but that's my very point. It's a way to define geography. Not a way to define Whisky.

On the other side of the size coin is Campbeltown. Now, as readers who have followed my blog thus far know, I would go to war for the whisky this town makes - Springbank in particular. And Springbank fought tooth and nail for Campbeltown's right to be its own region and far be it from me to go and argue  against that. But whilst the Highlands, as we have seen, spans hundreds of miles, Cambeltown's distilleries don't even span one. In my 25 minute commute to work I cover the distance between Campbeltown's
distilleries 28 times over. There are also only 3 distilleries in Campbeltown at present. Speyside has upwards of 50. In fact Dufftown, within Speyside, has 6 working distilleries that I can think of off the top of my head. Clearly, relative to one another, these regions don't make sense.

I understand entirely the point Becky Paskin has made, and this article is in no way intended to refute her argument. She also points out that the seasoned drinker quickly moves past the idea of regionality as a guide to a whisky's style. I also have no issue whatsoever with distilleries proudly labelling their product 'a Highland Whisky' or 'a Campbeltown Whisky.' That is their right and their privilege. There is also, in some cases, a degree of general truth in the idea that some whiskies of some certain regions share some characteristics. Whilst they may not all be big peat beasts like the Kildalton three I think even relatively new drinkers know, by and large, when they are drinking an Islay whisky. It is also true that many Speysiders share the fragrant fruit-and-floral characteristics they are generalised to have. But it is inaccurate to suggest that this is true of all  of them. It is misleading to use the current regional boundaries as indicators of a whisky's style.

So what's the answer then? Well - I don't have one. Fat lot of good I am. If I were pressed I'd say chop the Highlands into pieces. I think grouping Aberfeldy, Edradour, Tullibardine, Deanston, Blair Athol, Glenturret and Glengoyne would not be unreasonable - I'd even stretch to grouping Dalwhinnie in with them. I think there's merit to the Highland distilleries North of Inverness - and I'm going to include Talisker and Ben Nevis in that group - having their own region too. But that still wouldn't solve the problem. Because straight away I've grouped Glenmorangie and Talisker there, and that's against my 'group them stylistically' argument. And the two distilleries on the Orkney Islands - Scapa and Highland Park - they're about a mile apart by distance, but they're chalk and cheese where their whisky's concerned. So I haven't solved the problem so much as further entangled it.

What would be great would be if whisky retailers - and I'm including supermarkets here - were a bit less lazy when it came to talking about whiskies to the customer. Why mention region at all? There's no need! Cask is clearly more important. Whether or not the whisky is peated is more important. The level to which it is peated is more important. Fundamentally, flavour is more important. Flavour is the most important. In fact flavour, including aroma and texture, is the only thing of any importance. If I like you I won't care where you're from. If I like you I don't want to be pointed towards someone who is completely different to you, just because they live on your road. (Especially if they cost £40+ per bottle. Not that I'm accusing you  of bottling your neighbours - that would be impractical to accomplish and cruel to even attempt.) I want to meet others like you, make a group of friends and then, if I want to, explore pastures new.

But region is the easy way to group whisky. 'Hey - it works with wine' I can hear retailers and whisky associations say. 'People understand wine better because of it. People are more comfortable exploring a wider wine world because of it.' Yes it does. And yes they do. And yes they are. I suspect - whether consciously or not - the key reason for the notion that whisky should be categorised by region comes from the success of doing so with wine. But that doesn't work -  it's apples and oranges, it's grapes and grains. But I believe that a desire to emulate the systems in place for wine lies at the root of  something causing unnecessary confusion - and division - in the world of whisky. Confusion for the drinker just starting out, division in the ranks of the seasoned and impassioned veterans. Remember that word Terroir? It's time to come back to it. Because it lies at the heart of what my next post will examine.


PS - I don't normally do links, but I've mentioned the article a couple of times now. It's a fascinating read, and the finest website about Scotch there is. So for Becky Paskin's stance do take a look here:

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Under Siege. Part Three - Sending Them Homeward

As an ex-English Student and Student Theatre enthusiast (God help me) I've been involved in a discussion or two about what my favourite Shakespeare is, and my usual answer is Antony and Cleopatra. Partially because my list of off-piste interests also encompasses Ancient Rome, but mostly because I think it's the play in which Shakespeare's language is richest and most poetic. (Any old Uni mates or others wishing to argue this point please feel free to put all your opinions in a bottle with my name on it and throw it into your nearest sea.) Amongst the hundreds of terrific quotes from the play is one voiced by Enobarbus explaining why Antony will inevitably return to Cleopatra: 'Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.'

If you'll indulge me in suspending disbelief for a moment and casting myself as Antony then Scotch Whisky is my Cleopatra. (Sorry Rachel!) Yes she frustrates me; she lets me down at times with sub-par expressions, sucks my wallet dry and fills me with rage at her marketing and stubbornness - albeit that's less to do with the drink and more with the people involved - and yes I'm unfaithful and stray away to other countries and whiskies, advising friends to do the same. But I always come back to Scotch. And I come back for the same reason Antony returns to his 'Egyptian dish'; the reason I once gave in Scotch's defence when a friend stated categorically that all whiskies should kneel at the feet of Bourbon; the reason Scotland remains - in this drinker's view - the Greatest Whisky Producing Nation on Earth: its infinite variety.

Let's step away from the subjective question of personal taste for a moment. I put it to you that there is no one living who could have a Laphroaig 10yo, a Highland Park 12yo and an Aberlour A'Bunadh put in front of them and not distinguish the vastness of the gulf between each whisky in terms of flavour profile. And all 
three are under that £40 limit set in the last article. (OK, so you've got to shop around to find A'Bunadh at that price, but damn it it's achievable.) In fact so distinct are they all in individual character and flavour that I remember my best friend Rob, with whom I have shared innumerable whiskies, cracking open a bottle of Laphroaig that his generous girlfriend had bought him, taking a sniff and asking me whether it was meant to smell like that!

Sure, your peat monsters might not be to everyone's taste, nor might the sherry bombs. But crucially, even within this price bracket, Scotch offers the widest range of flavour experiences available to the whisk(e)y drinker. Let's look at American Whiskey for a moment. Imbeciles, Scotch snobs and people who haven't tasted American Whiskey claim - I've heard them - that it all tastes the same. Now whilst that is definitively not true; indeed the flavour spectrum of American Whiskey is dizzyingly complex, it is not an unreasonable generalisation to suggest that the emphasis on virgin oak across the American Whiskey board in addition to the overwhelming preference for making unpeated whiskey mean that the opposite points of the American Whiskey spectrum are not nearly so far apart as are their Scottish counterparts. And believe me when I say that I state that with absolute objectivity as a man who will drink and champion Bourbon, Rye and every other American whiskey style for as long as it continues to be made. (But for further and better information on the subject permit me to point you towards the superb 'Bourbon Curious' by Fred Minnick, which will, if you are not already a well-versed convert, open a door to American Whiskey which you will never want to close.) 

Variety is, as the saying goes, the spice of life. And quite apart
from the plethora of different characters to be found from distillery to distillery in Scotland the array of different styles and expressions to be found from single operations can be bewildering. Springbank creates three completely different whiskies - as does Bruichladdich. I forget how many different bottlings come out of Edradour nowadays but it's something ridiculous. And that's without getting into independent bottlers, blended malts and blended Scotch whisky. Sure there are more than a few dud bottlings and experiments with casks and finishes that go more than a little awry. And, particularly in some of the younger blends and Single Malts from Speyside and the Highlands, there can be an element of individualities blurring somewhat, but when one looks at Scotch as a whole that variety, that staggering whisky buffet endures and thrives and has never been so diverse.

Aha, you will say. But I can get diversity from Japan. I can get a big, sherried Yamazaki, a peated Yoichi and a 'happy-medium' Nikka Pure Malt Black. Yes you can, and yes diversity is there, as it is in India, Australia, Ireland and most other whisky nations. Hell, Ireland has its own signature style you won't find made anywhere else - Single/Pure Pot Still - and a delicious and inimitable style it is too. In fact, should you decide not to drink any whisky made outside of Norfolk you could still have cask strength, regular strength, heavily peated, lightly peated, triple distilled, double distilled, Sherry matured, Bourbon matured, and Rum matured. Oh, and Supertuscan matured. (And pretty much all of them are awesomely good to boot - God I love the St George's Distillery.)      

Completely true. But it doesn't change the fact that Scotland will provide me with more different flavours than any other whisky producing country in the world. At the most recent count there were 117 distilleries up there, and more are opening and being
planned every year. Which is so, so, so many more than you'll find in Japan or Switzerland or Canada or Australia or England. Sure, the USA has hundreds, but something like 99% of US whiskey is made by just 13 of them. And again, good luck finding much of that. No, the market on that infinite variety is dominated by Scotch. It is my belief that you would be foolish to ignore or attempt, at present, to refute that.

Challenging the establishment is good fun. It's something that the vast majority of us like to do. Were that not the case I don't think half the links I see popping up on my Facebook home page would get posted and The Independent would go swiftly out of business. It is also often vitally necessary that an establishment be challenged/corrected/put back on course, and as largely uninterested friends and colleagues will attest I am the first to complain about the problems with the modern Scotch Whisky Industry, and to advocate their trying drams from the other whisky nations whose produce is available. However - and this, I think, is important - challenging the establishment just for the sake of challenging the establishment, and with no additional motive or relevant information is the act of the clinical moron. And it's so unutterably dull. People do it all the time in the hope that their listeners will mistake controversy for cleverness and it just isn't. Or it isn't necessarily. It grates in my ears to hear people blindly attest that only Scotland makes whisky worth drinking, but equally enraging is the vacuous testimony espoused by so many pointy-moustached, colourful-trouser wearing nutters that Scotch is best avoided altogether, and that all the other countries are just so much better than it in every respect. (The worst part of the whole rotten business being the nodding, open-mouthed listener who doesn't know or care anything about the subject but stares at the speaker as if they're some kind of guru delivering previously unthought of wisdom.)

Many of the people involved with Scotch Whisky on every level have their heads in the sand. They won't respond to competition from elsewhere simply because they don't acknowledge that there is
meaningful competition in the first place. And there will always be legions of immoveable disciples unwilling to so much as a glance at a Whisk(e)y from outside of Scotland. Which is a very great shame, because there is so much that they will miss out on. I have made an effort, wherever possible, to alternate my whisk(e)y drinking habits so that these days for every Scotch I enjoy I also sample a Whisky from another country entirely. Of course that doesn't always work, particularly given my usual reluctance to frequently return to whiskies I have already experienced, but I earnestly believe that it gives me the best chance to take in the broadest possible spectrum of what the drink that I love has to offer. It is what I recommend to any of my friends and family who speak to me on the subject, whether they are just starting out on their Whisky road, or whether they have been imbibing for years. It may also be the case, as I know it is with Rachel, that you have yet to find the right Scotch for you, but that Bourbon, or a whisk(e)y made elsewhere is just your cup of tea. And I stand by the point I made in the last article; for objective reliability of quality across the board in the under £40-50 category I believe the USA to currently be the best Whisk(e)y nation in the world.

But because of that infinite variety; because if someone gave me an opaque glass and told me only that there was a Scotch in it I would have no idea whatsoever of what to expect; because every whisky is so unfathomably different to the last and because of the mind boggling number of those different whiskies available Scotland, as a nation, is still at the top of the whisky leaderboard. If someone put a gun to my head and forced me to abandon every whisky country but one, it would be Scotch that I would continue to drink. I believe there needs to be more awareness of what other countries are achieving, especially in the value end of the market. I believe that in some cases laurels are being rested on. And I believe that several bad habits have slipped, or are slipping, in. Most importantly though I believe that all three of those beliefs are generalisations, just like the generalisation that Scotch 'is not as it was.' Of course it isn't. What is? If there is one thing we can be sure of in Whisky, as in everything else, it is that change is inevitable. But Scotch Whisky is still the yardstick beside which that of other Nations will be measured. And Scotland is still the country whose loss to Whisky would be most keenly felt.

On which note it is time to draw a line under the subject. It shouldn't be a case of one vs the other anyway, and there is a bottle of Buffalo Trace downstairs which requires my urgent attention.


Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Under Siege. Part Two - Surround and Conquer

I can't remember the chain of events that led to me drinking my first Bourbon. I know it was at University and I know it will have been in my 3rd or 4th year, as I spent my first two years loudly proclaiming that Whisky made outside of Scotland wasn't worthy of the name, despite staunchly avoiding actually trying any. I also know that it will have been from a bottle I bought - at that stage I didn't know any specialist whisky places, drank cocktails when at cocktail bars and believed (as I still do) that drinking anything that isn't a pint, wine or in extreme circumstances a gin and tonic at a pub is basically peacocking. What possessed me to buy the bottle completely escapes me, though it will almost certainly have been
the packaging. The point is that, for whatever reason, I bought that bottle of Woodford Reserve, poured myself a glass, tasted it and in doing so altered the course of my Whisky journey, fell in love with American Whiskey and possibly ensured that my father and uncle would never look at me in the same way again. Because, to use the technical term, it was sodding delicious.

My prejudices didn't leave me overnight. Indeed I remember for a time opining that whilst I had enjoyed Woodford Reserve all the other American whiskeys were probably rubbish, and it was just some freak of chance that had led me to pick the only good one. But ever so gradually the walls of my stubbornness eroded, the list of countries whose product I had sampled grew and last year, for the first time in my life, I reckon the number of Whiskies I had that had been made outside of Scotland as near as makes no difference equalled my Scotch total. More importantly the number of disappointments I endured at the hands of World Whisky was significantly smaller than the number of dud Scotches finding their way into my beleaguered glass. The winds of change had blown and swept my cloak of ignorance into the ether. And good riddance.

So. To business. All these wonderful whiskies from all over the world. Are we better off with them than we are with Scotland? Well, before I stick my head completely over the parapet I'm going to say straight away that my answer is tailored to and focussed on a UK audience. For example I don't know how much whiskies X, Y and Z might cost in an American or Chinese market or how hard they are to find for the average consumer there. Which, since my blog is primarily aimed at people just beginning their Whisky journey and with incomes within touching distance of my own, are factors of primary importance to this debate. If you happen to be a price-no-object millionaire or a well-versed expert, then as you were - I'm sure you'll do fine without any help from me! What this
isn't going to be is a big list of whiskies that I think are good and whiskies that I think are bad. What it will hopefully do is make your bottle purchasing a bit less of a gamble, and better still consign any prejudices you might harbour to the same dustbin in which mine now fester. Right. Disclaimer over, let's crack on.

I've lost count of the number of times in the last year I have told people that if they're spending less than £40 on a bottle (which my friends almost invariably are) they're more often than not best off buying American. Yes there are exceptions and we'll cover some of those in the next article, but for my money if you're in front of a bank of whiskies in that price bracket and you don't know anything about any of them you're more likely to get a whisky of a higher objective quality if you look at the options from the wrong side of the pond. Because, simply put, they are more reliable. For starters every Bourbon on every shelf in every supermarket or specialist shop has been matured in new oak casks. If it hasn't (e.g Angel's Envy, and we're getting into niche territory there) it will have to clearly say so on the label. There is therefore no chance that your bourbon has been in a cask treated with a sulphur candle, or which has become tired from former use. Secondly Bourbon avoids the all-too-prevalent Scotch trick of hoodwinking you with colour. US legislation prohibits the addition of colouring or flavouring to your Bourbon through any means other than the casks in which it is matured. So under no circumstances will your darkly coloured whiskey be simply a caramel-fabricated lie. (Certain Distilleries outside the US please take note.)

But appearances are all very well - what about the product? Again, certainly so far as the stuff we import to the UK goes, reliability is the watchword. Forget South of £40 - for under £25 you can get Buffalo Trace, Maker's Mark, Knob Creek, Bulleit, Wild Turkey 81 and depending on where you look even Woodford Reserve. And forget just Scotland - there's no Whisk(e)y we import to or make in the UK that offers anywhere near the same quality for that money. And I think it's that ruling on oak that makes the difference. Apart from the naturally 'cleaner' aspect of virgin oak when compared to reused casks the bottom line is that new charred oak barrels combined with the warmer temperatures of Kentucky (or wherever else in the US Bourbon is made) mean that Whiskey extracts flavour and colour from the wood at a much faster rate than it does in the second (or third) hand barrels in Scotland's chillier climes. Considering the importance of oak to a Whisk(e)y's flavour the ability to take on more in a shorter space of time is always going to be an advantage when it comes to producing whisky quickly and in bulk. In short - for the lower priced end of the market. And if we increase that £25 to £40 the number of extraordinary Bourbons, Ryes and other American Whiskeys that become available is mind boggling. Two of my own favourites this year have been Rittenhouse 100 proof Rye and Four Roses Single Barrel, but the list is simply endless. And whilst naturally some will be harder to find (supermarkets rarely cross the £30 mark on Bourbon) or better quality than others the bottom line is that the average standard is - in this drinker's opinion - some way ahead of Scotland's in this price category. And that's without even considering the premium and super premium options available to those with deeper purses. (Buffalo Trace's Antique Collection is always astonishing, and like every other Bourbon lover the whisky I covet trying most is Pappy Van Winkle 23yo. Well, a man can dream...)

So that's America - what about the others? Well, Japan's juice has permeated popular consciousness pretty effectively over the last few years, spurred chiefly on by Jim Murray's selection of the
stunning Yamazaki 12 year old Sherry Matured as his 'World's Finest Whisky' in the 2015 Whisky Bible. It's worth noting that the Taketsuru 17yo also won blended whisky of the year in the World Whisky Awards that year but, and I'm going to go out on a limb here, I suspect that the increased number of Japanese Whisky related questions I've fielded from friends and bottles I've seen on shelves recently is more due to Mr Murray. The point is that the no-expense-spared approach of the Japanese distilleries is clearly paying dividends when it comes to the average quality of their distillate and casks, and as with most American Distilleries they have the natural advantage over the Scots of a slightly warmer climate meaning that the oak impresses itself on the spirit more quickly so in theory their supply should be more able to keep up with demand without compromising on character.

Elsewhere the trend continues; the Kavalan Solist of the King Car Distillery in Taiwan and the French Oak Cask of Sullivan's Cove in Tasmania have both taken the World Whisky Award's 'Best in the World' at the expense of the Scottish. And when we look at countries whose efforts have merited inclusion in Jim Murray's Top Five in the last two years we have Japan, the US, Ireland, Canada and (doubtless the biggest slap in the face) the Auld Enemy ourselves, England. In fact of the 10 entrants that make up the fives from the last two years the USA has four and Japan and Ireland have two each. Furthermore, whilst the Scotch Whisky industry has spent the last couple of years in decline, competitors (notably Ireland) have grown both in share of world whiskey and in overall exports at a staggering rate. On a personal note I have given 6 friends on separate occasions blind drams of a Scotch Whisky next to a Whisky from elsewhere in the world of the same or similar price, and in every case the non-Scotch has emerged as the favourite - an assessment with which on five of the six instances I agreed.

So m'lud, I put it to you that in the categories of value, quality and growth percentage Scotch is defeated by its rivals at every point. It is our contention that the consumer in the UK is unquestionably better off looking elsewhere, that the Scotch Whisky industry is a dinosaur, a ruin of its former self and a tawdry also-ran in the current race of World Whisky. I rest my case.

Except for the fact that that's a load of absolute bollocks.

Since when can an industry - any industry - be defined solely by its single finest exponent? The suggestion that, for example, Canadian Whisky is inherently better than Scotch because Crown Royal's
Rye was one man's top dram of the year is like saying that Argentina are automatically the World's finest footballing nation because Lionel Messi just won the Ballon d'Or. (OK, so they're ranked Second as it is, but you get the point.) Let's consider a couple of those rival industries as a whole. Both of the Japanese entrants in the last two top fives have come from the same distillery - Yamazaki. Both of the Irish entrants have been products of Midleton. Of the four from America three are out of Buffalo Trace. Three unquestionably superb distilleries - not representative of general world whisk(e)y. And if you are going to lean solely on Jim Murray for your Whisk(e)y advice then consider this - he acknowledges both Japan and Ireland to suffer from the same problems of sulphur casks and caramel as Scotland, and he admits that he was planning to demote Canada from having its own category on the basis of the overall quality of its output which includes several products labelled as whisky which contain in some cases up to 9.09% of liquid which is not Canadian whisky (sometimes not even any sort of whisky) at all.

Furthermore you UK whisk(e)y drinkers on that £40 or less budget - good luck finding much variety over here. At present, if you look on the Whisky Exchange, the world's largest online Whisky Retailer, you have seven (admittedly delicious) options for Japanese Whisky in that price category and none of those are Single Malts (not that that necessarily matters.) You have four options from England, four from Wales, two from India and fourteen from Canada.  There's a decent range from Ireland, but that's largely because of our relative proximity. As for Taiwan and Australia - forget about it. Increase your budget or look elsewhere I'm afraid. It's also worth noting that although I'd always advise them to do so, most people don't look at the Whisky Exchange or Master of Malt - they look at Supermarket shelves, where (at present) you'd be lucky to find two Japanese Whiskies, two Canadian and one from Taiwan. 

And even those Whisky Exchange options - stellar though many of them are, do not represent the whiskies that are earning top gongs. My colleague actually asked me this morning what the average price of the award winners was. I hadn't really considered it before, but doing some research made it clear that with the exception of the Crown Royal (which I can't find in the UK anyway, so basically irrelevant) his top Whisky had only come under £50 twice. And in both cases that whisky's country of origin was Scotland.

In terms of total production of whisky the only country in the world
which comes close to Scotland is India, which with over 120 million cases sold last year actually makes considerably more! It ought to be mentioned however that the overwhelming majority of this is distilled from molasses, not grain, has a load of colouring added and isn't matured at all. The two distilleries of serious international clout are Amrut and Paul John, which despite making seriously good stuff are, again, not cheap and relatively few and far between. No, so far as the UK consumer (and indeed the average consumer from outside the UK) is concerned, Scotch is still number one for availability.

But whilst availability is all very well, to many of us it is a secondary consideration to quality. Glenn's Vodka and Archers are available; quality they ain't. So are we stuck on a tiny island surrounded by a vast lake of mediocre plonk? I've already said that I usually point people to American kit for reliable quality from bottle to bottle, so where does that leave Scotch? Is it still the most worth buying, or is it simply what happens to be made and put on the shelves? That's the question that the next and final part will attempt to answer.


Sunday, 10 January 2016

Under Siege. Part One - Disturbances in The Force (I know - hilarious, right? And so topical.)

The World is Changing. No, scratch that, the World has Changed. Old generalisations, once held as truisms - once possibly even true - have been debunked. Old Kings, we are told, have lost their crowns.

I'm a Whisky boy at heart, but I'm a Wine boy by trade, and dealing as I do primarily with men and women of a certain generation I am constantly presented with the statement 'France or Get The Fuck Out.' Or, you know, words to that effect. But the fact remains that the idea that French wine is inherently better than wine from anywhere else is now so outdated as to be utterly risible. Yes, at its best France punches with, and more often than not knocks out anyone else - but who can afford its best? I know I can't. The average amount of money spent on a bottle of wine in the UK is considerably less than £10. And frankly if you buy a bottle of French Wine, particularly from France's flagship regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy, for much less than £10 you're either irretrievably obstinate, irretrievably ignorant or your senses of taste and smell have ceased to function. Or all of the above.

Ok, that's a wild generalisation, but the point remains that with a handful of exceptions you'll almost always get a better return on your brown note from Spain or Chile or Argentina or California or Italy or Australia or New Zealand or any other of the myriad wine producing countries of the world. And this is not news. This has been established for years now. Decades. Longer than I've been drinking wine; longer than I've been alive. And with the nature of France's largely marginal climate and astronomical prices at its upper (and even middle) levels that isn't going to change. Olympus has fallen. The King is not only dethroned; he has been thoroughly guillotined. He will not rise again, and in 20-30 years the last generation of the 'France or GTFO' era will have all but disappeared too.

But this is a Whisky blog, and I've talked long enough about grape juice, so let's get back on point. I think it's fairly obvious where my analogy is going. A country long held as the unassailable fortress of a particular drink now under heavy siege and showing the cracks. Surrounded by rivals whose arsenals grow ever more formidable, and whose ranks of supporters more swollen, vocal and vociferous. For the second year in a row newspaper articles written by folk who may or may not be familiar with the subject have delightedly crowed of the Scots 'left reeling,' and 'Scottish distilleries in shock,' as Jim Murray admits none of their expressions to his list of the 'Five Finest Whiskies in the World.' Admittedly Jim Murray is only one man, however well-informed, so let's also consider the World Whisky Awards. 2016 has yet to be announced at the time of writing, but in 2014 Australia took the Single Malt Laurels with a Whisky from the Sullivan's Cove Distillery, and in 2015 it was Kavalan of Taiwan that emerged triumphant.

So where does that leave Scotland? And more importantly where does that leave the averagely-heeled Whisky consumer? Am I better off spending my precious pennies elsewhere, leaving the ancient Laird to moulder in some increasingly fragile castle? Or are the victory cries of the revolutionaries premature; the defences of that old fortress still equal to the battering of the aggressors? The issue is a gnarled and thorny one; certainly too much so for me to hack my way through in a single blog post. (Let's face it - you'd get bored! Or more bored. Shut up.) So this introductory aperitif will be followed by a two part main course, and hopefully once the plates are cleared we'll have a better idea of what we ought to pour into the after-dinner tumblers.