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:

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