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December 17, 2012

’101 World Whiskies To Try Before You Die’

What would 101 days of Christmas be like? This question is not purely rhetorical, of course, due to the militarised encroachment of Festive cheer (or perhaps uninterest, verging on febrile rage) into the month of September or even earlier. How fortunate we are, therefore, that Ian Buxton has a solution should tradition ever be rewritten to reflect consumerist reality; he has provided an itinerary a good deal more delicious – if less catchy – than the Patridge-In-A-Pear-Tree variety in the shape of his latest book, ’101 World Whiskies to Try Before You Die’.

I caught up with Ian at a recent talk here in St Andrews to promote the new tome, which follows on from ’101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die’ (‘Police Academy II’ as Ian dubbed the sequel). Although it is not a title I own, it was responsible for initiating a whisky-based friendship with a Swedish gentlemen who was sitting next to me on one of my many train journeys to and from university and reading all about Compass Box. I have since associated Mr Buxton’s work with my favourite kind of whisky fellowship, and having met the man himself I can confirm that he is every bit as sociable and engaging as his Twitter account (@101Whiskies).

For an hour and a half, Ian waxed lyrical about whiskies at home and abroad while little morsels of those he has listed in his books appeared before our lips. It was a struggle to cling onto our thimbles and juggle the various props Ian circulated throughout the room, in addition to paying close attention to the torrent of fact and opinion he produced.

Beginning at the beginning, Ian’s point of departure from the traditional heartland of whisky production focused on the explosion of farm-scale distilling in America. He eulogised about the potential for flavour innovation these start-up distillers symbolise. In subsequent correspondence, Ian revealed the fun he had had exploring Swiss and Finnish whisky. When I asked which book he had preferred writing – this one, or its predecessor – Ian replied that both had been a lot of fun, but with the latest focus on whisky counter cultures, he hoped to ‘open a few people’s eyes to the great quality and great value that’s out there if you step off the ‘big brand luxury’ path for a moment (though that delivers some surprises too).’

The final reveal of the whiskies we had been sampling took a few by surprise, including myself. I had selected the final whisky as my favourite, as had my neighbour Doug Clement who could announce on the night that Kingsbarns Distillery had at last secured the financial backing necessary to begin its own farm distilling story. Dram #5, however, hailed from an operation that is more than 210 years old: Highland Park.

Ian holding court - and an empty bottle of Highland Park.

Of greatest curiosity – and supplying what was tantamount to a committee of world whiskies in one bottle – was Orbis. A blend of whiskies from Canada, the US, Ireland, Japan and Scotland, the nose was lemon-accented before heavy brown grist appeared and took the whisky in a different direction. Aromas of oregano, tomato puree and red wine materialised, before a hint of peat smoke made its presence felt. On the palate, there was blackcurrant juice and chocolate, with a return of the gristiness and the peat. I had thought this was Scotch – an unusual and young Bunnahabhain perhaps. How wrong I was.

Some days after the tasting, I solicited the Buxton perspective on tourism in Scotch whisky distilleries – the raison d’etre for the Scotch Odyssey Blog, after all. Ian has worked as a consultant on projects such as Dewar’s World of Whisky and the visitor centres at Highland Park and Glenfiddich; curiously enough, all of these feature in a list of my top 10 whisky visitor attractions in Scotland, with Highland Park picking up the top gong, and Glenfiddich not far behind with their supreme (and free) standard tour. Ian’s advice: “to thine own self be true”. Don’t try to position your whisky or your distillery into a gap in the market which they are not destined to fill, but with any marketing activity remain faithful to a core and authentic principal. ‘When building and operating a centre you need to engage and seduce the visitor, not beat them to death with branding,’ he says, ’People know where they are and why they came, so you don’t need to ‘sell’ to them. Get the right people working there and let them engage with the visitors, then those visitors go away as ambassadors and bring more visitors.’

His own picks for distilleries to visit include The Macallan with their revolutionary presentation on the subject of all things wood, and also Bruichladdich for the commendable reasons that it is ‘so down to earth and a faithful representation of the brand, company, place and people’.

Another ’101′ format book in the offing, maybe? I should warn him that the Scotch Odyssey Blog will defend its niche – even if ’42 Whisky Distilleries to Visit Before You Die’ hasn’t quite the same ring to it.

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June 11, 2011

‘The World Atlas of Whisky’…

World Atlas of Whisky… Or Why I Love Dave Broom

The World Atlas of Whisky stands aloof from its peers. Released amid a deluge of other whisky titles, Broom has deconstructed, cogitated upon and reconstituted the subject of cereal-based distillates in a manner and to a degree I have come across nowhere else.

‘At first glance,’ Broom suggests, ‘the creation of a whisky style may seem like the triumph of technology’. But he has looked again: dusting off, picking apart, shaking about and inspecting from all angles facets of the whisky debate to discover that ‘in truth it lies at the interface between science, economics, creativity… and landscape.’ In other words, everything is infinitely more complex. Production processes? History? Regional continuity of styles? Don’t make him laugh. ‘What is whisky?’ he asks. ‘Anything you want it to be’.

So, having stripped away all of our landmarks and comfort blankets, what does he offer the novice and initiate in exchange? Broom, quite ingeniously, directs us straight back to the crux of the matter: flavour. When contemplating a whisky, Broom urges us to ‘concentrate’ – not on extraneous details of geography and other easily digestible but specious ‘rules of thumb’ – but on the spirit as it converses with you. Dave can help with supplying the minutiae of how your malt, bourbon, Irish pot still whiskey or whatever it happens to be was crafted (and he does, in anorak-pleasing comprehensiveness) but such processes only begin to make a tangible bit of sense once we get round to ‘sticking our noses in the glass and inhaling.’ We all, Broom promises, have the ability to understand the flavours in front of us. ‘A whisky’s character is expressed through the pictures in the taster’s mind’, he asserts; whatever we imagine when provoked by our dialogue with whisky is our truth, and it can and ought to sustain us in our private sensory explorations. Broom’s employment of technical vocabulary is descriptive, there only to inform the larger, richer image that is flavour in front of which the reader is left to make their own qualitative judgements.

This is not to say that Broom is forever impartial and objective, however. When he is not performing an explicatory role he indulges an artful evangelism for those spirits whose technical genesis belies, intensifies or even contradicts the personality of the final product. His entry for Linkwood distillery is one example amongst countless others that are so beautifully composed and strikingly phrased that they compel a reciprocal ardour and curiosity in the reader. Crucially, though, Broom always marries enthusiasm for a particular quality with descriptions of how that quality came about. For example, Broom may marvel at how ‘Linkwood’s new make smells of the skin of peaches, of light apple blossom falling in an orchard; in the mouth it sticks and seems to spin in a ball in the middle of the tongue’, but he can attribute this fruitiness which he loves so much to the clear wort and long ferment and the complex mouthfeel to the intensive copper contact in the ‘Rubenesque’ stills. It is never the case of extrapolating some arcane aroma and basing a grandiose proclamation upon its equivocal existence but deducting effect from regimented cause. You can go away, try a Linkwood and in consequence appreciate where these notable characteristics have derived from. Whether they are to your liking is not for Broom to prescribe.

Perhaps the element of the book I value most – even above its written style, its abundant information and its passion – is the unprecedented endeavour to analyse the new make spirit of each site. He calls it the distillery’s ‘DNA’, the result of the distiller’s specification and skill of execution unadulterated by oak. Perhaps it is here that Broom’s willingness to factor out, subvert and democratise facile terminology as I mentioned at the beginning is most demonstrably seen. Legally, it isn’t ‘whisky’ and some of his tasting notes don’t appear to reflect any substance we might recognise as such (‘Chinese cough medicine’; ‘wet chamois’; ‘meaty’, and ‘feral’) but it is boldly, squarely, obsessively concerned with flavour.

I would recommend Broom’s tome to all those who possess even the vaguest interest in beverage appreciation, and not just that of whisky but wine, beer – any other liquid you can think of. By comparing spirits according to flavour and not process or location, Broom has rendered the subject far more accessible; he has struck upon the correct terminological approach, the most enlightening blend of tones that illuminate how it should be that nearly 100 different Scotch whisky distilleries – and the many many more across the globe – contrive to produce subtly different but ultimately distinctive styles of spirit from the same raw materials.

At last there is a work that can both inform, empower and liberate the whisky neophyte, exploding the nonsense some in tasting clubs, magazines and the industry itself expound, airily typecasting some distilleries and even whole areas as ‘this’ or ‘that’. It is, I repeat, a much more complex world but one which only makes sense when we reject misleading received reason and promote our senses as the primary tools of navigation.

Dave Broom, The World Atlas of Whisky, Mitchell Beazley. £30.

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December 11, 2010

The Scotch Odyssist’s Handbook

If you are tired of waiting for me to produce the definitive tome to the world of Scotch whisky tourism (and I know I am) then please allow me to do the next best thing and point you in the direction of two men who have done just that.

Not content with contributing to a thorough, and to my mind successful, revision of malt whisky’s seminal work – the Malt Whisky Companion of Michael Jackson - Gavin D. Smith, in partnership with Graeme Wallace, has released a gem of a book which does not follow the whisky out of the distillery to the bars and shops, but stays behind to take a closer look around.

Discovering Scotland’s Distilleries may have been the subject line in my correspondences with Scottish Field prior to their publishing an article of mine in October, but I learnt earlier this week that it is also the title of a pioneering work concerned with informing the whisky enthusiast of how he or she might get the most out of their time amongst the towns, hills and pagodas of Scotland’s whisky landscapes. I am delighted to see this work appear, because it confirms in my mind how the attentions of the industry, and of the whisky-drinker, have become increasingly focused on the idea of provenance. Nothing was more crucial to me when I elected to sit on a slender saddle for six weeks and pedal to as many distilleries as possible. We now wish to make a journey and plenty of discoveries beyond the drinks cupboard and the nation of Scotland is eminently well-euipped to accommodate such urges.

Rather than the ‘coffee-table books’ you may find lauding the Scottish landscape and the romantic, artisanal industry within it, this is a slender volume (195mm by 120mm) to be thrust into an overnight bag or coat pocket for use out ‘in the field’. The rigidity of its thick card cover would suggest it would withstand even my abusive shovings into backpacks and panniers. In fact, I rather wish I had had it to hand prior to and during my Odyssey.

Divided into a general introduction covering whisky history, the geographical regions which, for all the concept has been questioned of late, is still highly relevant to the traveller, and a very evocative passage on the present state of distillery tourism. Congratulations are in order to Gavin Cunningham and company at Tullibardine who lured in the most thirsty tourists during 2008.

There follows a series of thoughtful suggestions as to combining a distillery visit with a general excursion in Scotland, focusing on the major cities and also outlying rural districts. Some of these I undertook by bike: the accessibility of the ’Eastern Perthshire Trail’ I can attest to - even on two wheels! Together with how you might work your day around a peep at Glenturret and Tullibardine, for example, are listings of bars, hotels and eateries. These sections really are fine pieces of research, although I’m quite certain they do not cater for the budgetary considerations I was obliged to observe!

Both this and the section detailing those distilleries which offer tours take a counter-clockwise route around the country (in much the same manner as I did). From the relatively accessible malts and distilleries of the Lowlands, the book is structured to reflect the increasingly intrepid nature of getting to the far-flung birthplaces of some of the other malts you may have encountered. For each distillery with a regular tour in operation (fifty are listed) there is a double-page spread with information, on the left-hand leaf, regarding ownership, the malt itself and the production, in addition to distillery and local history. The right-hand page deals solely with the ‘Visitor Experience’ with an extended prose commentary in addition to listings of times and tour specifications. It is all so up-to-date it is quite unnerving, and proves my suspicion that many distilleries were set to upgrade the tourist experience shortly after I passed through.

The remainder of the book approaches the other half of the industry which, officially, don’t provide an established tour. However, there is the suggestion that, with perseverance and charm, you may be able to arrange a look around.

I’m still waiting on some page proofs from the publishers to illustrate much of what I had to explain above, and when they arrive I shall return and slot them in. Of course visitor centres function, on the most basic, cynical level, as the most immediate and stylishly-furnished extensions of the owners’ marketing departments, but there has been a committed, coordinated response to the increased interest in where one’s whisky comes from, and as a result there are some truly memorable experiences on offer to cater for all tastes – and which the Scotch Odyssey Blog can still help you to distinguish between!

Discovering Scotland’s Distilleries is available from Amazon and Waterstones at GBP £9.99.

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