Monday, 2 May 2016

The People's Drampions

In my younger and more vulnerable years a Bollinger sales rep gave me some advice that I’ve been turning in my mind ever since.

Ok, it wasn’t technically advice so much as information. And by ‘younger and more vulnerable years’ I mean 12 months ago. And I don’t know whether his title was technically ‘sales rep’...look I just wanted to shoehorn that misquote in, alright? Fine. Literal version of events for the benefit of pedants: last year I met a bloke peddling Bollinger and he said something that stuck. (Not an intro sentence that would have made F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel a treasured masterpiece.)

Anyway, this Bollinger man was selling me and my colleagues on the merits of his fizz (not that he really needed to) through the admirable method of pouring us many glasses. (Which were followed by Taylor’s Port, and it was 9:30 in the morning. Afternoon customer service standards probably dipped...) He was giving us the spiel whilst we waited impatiently, clutching yet-to-be-filled flutes and eyeing the 2002 R.D, and all of a sudden he comes out with ‘Bollinger say their best Champagne is the Special Cuvée.’

Eyebrows were raised. For the benefit of those not fortunate enough to have Champagne touts dropping in at the office of a Thursday, Bollinger’s Special Cuvée is the Bollinger ‘house’
Champagne. It’s delicious, but it’s also considerably cheaper than their Grande Année or R.D bottlings, and far less gushed about. So this statement of the salesman called for some elucidation.

‘Bollinger say the Special Cuvée is the best,’ he went on, ‘because it’s the bottle that best represents the house style. Grande Année and R.D are snapshots of vintages, but the Special Cuvée is the way we want Bollinger to taste to the consumer year in, year out. So it’s by far the most important.’

Like I say, it stuck. And don’t worry, you are on the right blog. It stuck because when he said it, my mind immediately leapt to whisky. In a way, that’s not surprising. Not because whisky is a sparkling wine made in Northern France, but because that idea of creating a ‘house taste and style’ rather than a snapshot of a vintage – almost unique to Champagne in wine terms –  is something of a mainstay of the whisky industry. Single Malt, Blend, Pot-Still, Column Still, Bourbon, Rye, you name it. It’s about the creation – and then to as close a degree as possible, recreation – of the product you want to bear your stamp.

As I’ve wandered Scotland, England and Wales on my whisky
pilgrimage I’ve only published notes on the ‘flagship’ expressions of the distilleries – 36 thus far – that I’ve visited. (Privately I make notes on the majority of what I taste as long as I've paper and a pen handy.) Frequenters of my blog (all both of you) may also remember the '40 under £40' Lent exercise that I undertook, and you may sense the beginnings of a pattern.

Alright, hands held up; I admit it. I love the flagships. I’m guilty as all hell of referring to them as ‘entry levels’, which is just ridiculously disparaging, but I love them. For me, they’re the real test of a distillery; beyond ‘oh we’ve got those 30 year old hogsheads in the back of warehouse 4, shall we slosh them into a PX cask for a bit and make a special edition?’ The flagships; the signatures if you want, tell you so much about who a distillery is; the style they want the consumer to identify as their own.

Of course there are variations in every batch; no two casks are the same. But what a skill for a master blender to create a Highland Park 12 or a Springbank 10 or a Laphroaig Quarter Cask or a Compass Box Asyla or a Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select or a Glenfarclas 105 or a Bulleit 95 Rye or a Johnny Walker Black Label over and over again, so closely and in such metronomic fashion that its devotees will return and return and say ‘yes, that’s my whisky. That’s what I was looking for.’ To me, that’s a poetry; a distillery or blending company utilising the totality of its stock as opposed to a few hallowed casks. It’s the creation of a place and the continuation of a legacy.

Cynics amongst you may well currently be thinking ‘oh, this is just a load of sour grapes. He can’t afford the good stuff, so he’s making the best of things and claiming he prefers it.’ It’s true that a great benefit of these flagships – these ‘everydrams’ if you will – is that they occupy the most accessible rung on the dizzyingly tall whisky price ladder, and it’s also true that I can’t financially justify the likes of Highland Park Ice, Diageo’s Special Releases or even Kilchoman’s Loch Gorm by the 70cl bottle – at least not more than once or twice a year. But in my defence I would add that between Drinks by the Dram, festivals, masterclasses and specialist bars I’m
able to level the playing field a bit, and I reckon I bat a fair innings as far as ‘number of different tastes per year’ is concerned.

And look – don’t get me wrong – I love a special release and a bit of something fancy as much as anyone else. I didn’t sit by my computer mashing the F5 button for ten minutes when the Generations Mortlach Tasting tickets were being released so I could tell Charles Maclean what a fan I am of Glenfiddich 15. Of course I didn’t. I had the opportunity to taste the oldest bottled whisky in the world and I didn’t think twice. Who would?

But there is something better about a dram to which you can return often enough for it to become an old friend. And there’s something truly magical about spending less than one red note (£50 for those outside the UK) and unearthing a gem. Not only that, but a gem which is reliably available because it’s in constant production. Not something you’ll miss out on if you have a day away from the internet, or something you can only fantasize about, because your opportunities to taste it are less frequent than February 29th.

I read an article recently in which whisky, specifically Scotch, was described as an ‘aspirational’ drink, and that made me sad. Because you can’t buy a scotch, or even look at a label, without being reminded of heritage and tradition. Ok, some of that’s just any amount of marketing guff, but make no mistake, heritage and tradition are what these drinks are all about, even if not in the way that the backs of bottles would have you believe.

The heritage of Scotch; its roots and beginnings, are as a drink of community. As something accessible and available and in which all could have a share. It was the fall of Cognac that led to the position in which Scotch, especially Single Malt, is associated by some non-whisky-drinking observers with inherent wealth, exclusive clubs and an air of the unobtainable. The flagship drams and the affordable, regularly released expressions, are what remains of Scotch’s old heritage. That’s why, when they are great, I find them to be the most meaningful whiskies of all. 

So I celebrate these ‘Peoples’ Drampions’. I love them, I recommend them and I go in search of those I haven’t tasted yet. They are the mast of the whisky ship to which my colours are firmest pinned, and I wish they got a little bit more of the limelight. I suspect the majority of the whiskynet will remain focussed primarily on special editions and expensive one-off releases, and of course they’re wonderful, wonderful things. But if you’re after something really special; something that will give you sheer satisfaction and those moments of magic, all for less than £50, then you’re speaking my language – I hope we can help each other out. 
Below is a list of whiskies that I reckon might suit you down to the ground, divided into (very rough) flavour categories. No order, and only a snapshot of what’s available – they’re simply a selection I’ve enjoyed in the last couple of months.

So I guess I’m just a down to earth sort of chap really. Now must dash – just heard there’s Dom Perignon ‘06 on the downstairs tasting counter.


Some whiskies under £50 I’ve drunk in the last 2-3 months and would heartily recommend:

Compass Box Great King Street Artist’s Blend/Asyla
Mackmyra Svensk Ek
Dalwhinnie 15yo
Ballantine’s Finest
Penderyn Madeira Finish

Clynelish 14yo
Springbank 10yo
Bruichladdich ‘The Classic Laddie’
Benromach 10yo
AnCnoc 12yo

Glenfarclas 10yo/15yo/105
Isle of Arran 10yo/14yo/12yo Cask Strength
Green Spot
Nikka from the Barrel (also check out Pure Malt range and Coffey Still)
Dimple 15yo

Off-dry New Oak
Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select
Maker’s Mark
Rittenhouse Straight Rye 100 proof
Four Roses Small Batch/Single Barrel
Rebel Yell Small Batch Bourbon/Small Batch Rye

Laphroaig Quarter Cask
Finlaggan (whole range decent, Cask Strength fantastic)
Elements of Islay ‘Peat’
Ledaig 10yo
English Whisky Co. Chapter 11 (Heavily Peated)

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