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.


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