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Whisky Prices Blast Off into Orbit

Whisky whisky everywhere, but so little of it affordable...

A disclaimer from the outset: this is NOT about Diageo’s recent announcement concerning the direction its new range of whiskies from the Mortlach distillery will take and which has got many bloggers VERY hot under the collar. Just head over to Oliver Klimek’s redoubtable ‘Dramming’ if you don’t believe me or are not acquainted with the issue. All I would say is that the decision to price a no-age statement whisky at £55 for a 50cl bottle and £180 for an 18yo whisky is symptomatic of a wider trend: Scotch prices are on the up.

Back in the good old days when I was nobbut a lad (rather, six and a half years ago, when I was 17) you could wander into a good spirits store and even a larger Tesco and pick up a bottle of The Glenlivet 18yo, the first whisky I tried that seduced me with difference, depth and intrigue, for between £36 and £40. When I first peeped into the Garden of Eden that was Scotch whisky, of course, this was no mean sum of money to me. I was used to seeing bottles of alcohol for the £20 mark, maybe a shade over if I was paying attention in the spirits aisle. Now, you are doing very well if you come across an 18yo Glenlivet (re-packaged since 2007) for less than £60. And that is at the competitive end for single malts boasting such an age statement. Bowmore’s 18yo is £67 – Highland Park’s is £88 (using Master of Malt as my price guide). Mortlach’s will be £180 – but the less said about that the better.

I’m not going to go into why this should be in this post – economics, guys, all very unseemly – but what I do want to talk about are the few pockets of comparative shade away from the rising temperatures of Scotch prices more generally. Below are a few of the single malts and blends that offer good drinking for a fee that won’t having you spitting it all back up again.

BenRiach

Bodacious BenRiachs.

Maybe it was the torrent of liquid released when Billy Walker and partners purchased this quiet Speyside giant back in 2004 but the wealth of choice came at an attractively low price. Former owners back in the 80s, Allied, had experimented heavily with the production regimes and releases continue to showcase this shape-shifting ability in complex, characterful and fully-mature expressions. Heavily peated, triple distilled as well as clean and fruity single malts are all available under the BenRiach banner. My picks of the bunch would be:

16yo 40% £36.43 If you like your whiskies quintessentially Speyside, dripping with honey, pear and vanilla, this cannot be improved upon for the price. When I tried this last year I could not believe how lovely it was, showcasing excellent cask management and a beautiful spirit. Master Blender Walker has added a tiny smidgen of smoke into the vatting, too, to add complexity.

Solstice 17yo 50% £58.37 Maybe not quite a full 18yo, but what you have here is a Glenlivet 18yo price tag plus extra ABV, smoke, and a delicious, heavy Port influence. This shouldn’t work, but it just does.

Also on the sensible pricing policy are their single cask releases, which appear a couple of times a year.

Glenfarclas

The Grant family have owned Glenfarclas, beneath the mountain of Ben Rinnes on Speyside, for six generations. Their whiskies are bold, full-bodied, and demonstrate only the best Sherry cask attentions.

15yo 46% £43.21 Every time I come back to this it puts a smile on my face. The spirit within the rich, dry Oloroso drapery is powerful, sweet and completely delightful. There is the juiciest vanilla imaginable and tannic presence. A superstar. Also, a 21yo for £61.49? Unbeatable value.

Bailie Nicol Jarvie

Under the LVMH umbrella with Glenmorangie and Ardbeg (although you’d never know it), BNJ is visually anonymous with it’s bland white label. However, what’s inside the bottle is anything but.

Bailie Nicol Jarvie 40% £19.69 waves of melon, caramel and soft oak arrive on the nose while the palate boasts a commendable weight and texture with oodles of vanilla and succulent yellow fruits. Blends are, to my mind, liquid comfort blankets and this one will soothe and invigorate in equal measure.

Signatory

Owned by Andrew Symington, who also controls the Edradour distillery in Pitlochry, Signatory are a mad-cap independent bottler offering their own unnamed expressions from the various whisky regions of Scotland for under £30, as well as their Unfiltered range which includes single malts from all over the country, either as single casks or pairings of casks, reduced to 46%.

Really amazing value is to be had from their Cask Strength Collection range with whiskies typically of between 19 and 25 years of age, bottled at cask strength and usually from single casks, for below £100 in most cases. It must be borne in mind that Signatory have a reputation of sorts for wine finish deviancy (but less so than Murray McDavid) so tread carefully. However, the company is very good at listing the maturation history of the whisky you are buying.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

The Queen Street SMWS bar.

Okay, I will admit that the upfront costs are definitely on the steep side: this is, after all, a private club whereby the Society bottles whiskies for the titillation of its members (no sniggering in the back). Since 1983, when some Edinburgh-based single malt zealots began sourcing single casks from all over Scotland, the Society has spread to just about every continent and major city around the world. There are more than 130 single malts and 10 single grain whiskies listed on the Society’s coded books with monthly releases of single casks.

I was gifted membership for my 21st birthday and I haven’t looked back. The cost to join is now £122 but for that you receive a welcome pack stuffed with goodies, including 10cl miniatures of Society bottlings and four issues of Unfiltered each year (annual renewal currently at £59), a rather brilliant magazine which covers the more esoteric fields of debate and flights of fancy whisky can engineer. Oh yes, and the opportunity to buy some stunning single cask whiskies (the Society won an Icon of Whisky Award in 2012 for best independent bottler).

This month, for example, my eye was caught by 77.34: a 13-year-old Northern Highland dram at 56.2% and less than £50. Or, on the more mature end of the scale, what about a 29-year-old single cask for £131? The SMWS prefers to root out distinctive and unusual examples of spirit from the various distilleries of Scotland (and even Japan). What you are buying is, in effect, unique and unrepeatable. Even if you don’t buy full bottles, membership also gains you access to members rooms in London and two separate venues in Edinburgh where masses of green bottles await the arrival of your adventurous streak.

I would not go so far as to say that good whisky is dying out, but the days of inexpensive whisky are rapidly coming to an end. These guys offer something tasty, individual and not too dear, either. If you have any brands or products offering cracking value which you think I’ve missed out, please comment below.

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A Day in the Life of a Compass Box Intern

6am      My second alarm erupts beside me (I’m one of those people who likes to give myself a 30-minute warning) and I collapse upright. In term time I can usually greet the new day on my own terms - anywhere between 8.30 and 10 I would deem acceptable. 6am in Enfield had, for the first couple of weekday mornings, felt like an incursion into my human rights. Now I seem to have adjusted and I’ve even stopped swearing under my breath.

6.30am      Cereal in the process of being munched, toast to follow. Heart FM witters away by my right ear. I now know what has become of Jamie Theakston.

7.30am      I manage to pick my way through the slush of yesterday’s Metros and board the Greater Anglia service from Southbury.

7.42am      Disembark at Seven Sisters. After a few days I start to get the hang of platform positioning: in seconds I scythe between commuters still half-asleep and then, for the next eternity, shuffle down the stairs to the Victoria Line escalators.

7.48am      Duck into the Tube train and grab on to a pole. Slowly adjust facial features to apathetic hostility. Summarily fail to find a position that will not leave me vulnerable to the next influx of passengers to left and right.

8.06am      Disembark at Victoria, misread platform notices and head on to the Piccadilly Line. About turn and find the District Line platform. Feel like a mouse in a lab experiment.

8.16am      Ears ringing to ‘MindtheclosingdoorsMindtheclosingdoors’, I take my position on – but not beyond – the Yellow Line for the next train bound for Richmond. During the journey, daylight appears.

8.35am      Disembark at Gunnersbury. Wander through the cigarette smoke of other commuters trying to squeeze a final one in before the office. Check Twitter. Arrive at 9, Power Road, Compass Box HQ.

8.45am      Enter the office and nod to Chris, signalling both: ‘Good morning’ and ‘Extraordinary outfit’. Spectate on the Coffee-Making Ritual. Coffee is very important to office morale, as fastidious and passionate in its preparation as the whisky arm of the business. Hot, rich percolation aromas rise over the glass partition of the kitchen/blending lab area to where I sit at Brian’s Desk. I don’t partake of coffee since it makes me paranoid. I check my emails instead, which makes me paranoid.

Coffee. The Compass Box office boasts somewhat better beans.

9am      Start as I mean to go on with the Great PR Filing Project. Beside Brian’s Desk is a plastic trough full of binders containing press cuttings of Compass Box praise. Not all of this is in English, neither is it all from publications I recognise. However, the editorial staff of The Sex Herald really liked Oak Cross back in 2004. Scan and digitise, scan and digitise. Celine pretends the scanner beeping isn’t driving her insane.

10am      An email has come through from The General (John Glaser) re. The General. I have to get in touch with some Missouri-based distributors ahead of the whisky’s launch in America in March. I print off the letters, address and seal the envelopes, return to the Chiswick high street Post Office, exchange cheery waves of recognition with the staff.

11.15am      I return to the office. Gregg ‘Hurricane’ Glass has a query about samples (I have also been consulted on snooker and haggis). I rummage in the Room of Doom for bottles before filling them with the Signature Range: Asyla, Oak Cross, Spice Tree, Peat Monster, Hedonism, Great King Street, Orangerie (Orangerie always spills). Label, bubblewrap, pack. Coordinate delivery with a well-known courier service. Check Twitter.

12noon      Eat lunch. Elif, Celine, Chris and Inga take turns to microwave something wholesome and tasty. To my recollection, not once did I see John or Gregg eat anything for lunch (lovely olives, dates and pistachios aside).

12.30pm      Scan and digitise, scan and digitise. These binders won’t get the better of me. Succomb, mentally, to the arcane rhythms of Radio Paradise, commercial-free, listener-supported radio.

2.30pm      It’s about time I was providing some vital feedback for Gregg ‘Hurricane’ Glass on one of the new whiskies he’s concocting. One of these is the result of their Experimental Great King Street Batches. Will it be smoky? Will it be sherried? Will it have passion fruit in it? Dear SWA, It will NOT have passion fruit in it. Feel like Dave Broom for a bit, all cool, insightful and influential. I’ve neglected my scanning.

3pm      Scan and digitise, scan and digitise.

4pm      Take bottles out of cardboard boxes and put them in the Liquid Library cabinet or vice versa. As you enter Compass Box HQ there is a giant cabinet on the right filled with bottling run samples of all the core range and the Limited Releases. I have to unearth the duplicates and lay them aside for office Neknomination videos (I don’t). I’ve never handled so many Oak Crosses in my life. Speculate on the wonders of Eleuthera and Last Vatted Grain. Contemplate having a bath in Hedonism.

5pm      Depart from Chiswick bound for either Alexandra Palace for Masters Snooker, Soho to meet up with friends, Shoreditch for a cocktail and beard watching, or Enfield to sleep.

That was a representative snapshot of a working day during my two weeks with the Compass Box crew. I loved my time there nearly as much as Celine loves Mezcal – no, in truth I had a brilliant fortnight and I’m grateful for every act of kindness, be it a headtorch for the Room of Doom, a How Not to Get Lost on Chiswick High Street lecture, permission to roam through Borough Market, a frame of snooker, a pep talk from Jonathan Driver, some cured meat, and a cocktail or seventeen. Thanks for putting up with me, guys, and I hope the cake went some way to derailing your January diets.

White chocolate sponge with orange and passion fruit curd. Delicious cake for a delicious whisky company.

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London Bar Trawl – Pt. I

If you have been offended by the chasm of silence which has gripped the Scotch Odyssey Blog since the beginning of the year, I do apologise. However, in order to write interesting posts about whisky you have to get out there and do interesting whisky-related things. If reportage was somewhat thin on the ground, therefore, I assure you my fieldwork was pretty intense.

Part way through January I had an internship lined up with those lovely people at Compass Box Whisky Co. Regular readers cannot have failed to pick up on my fanatical thirst and approval for Compass Box creations. For more than a decade John and his growing team have crafted and marketed whiskies that appeal to my geeky side as well as being frankly delicious. When I approached founder John Glaser about the possibility of becoming the glorified office bitch for a couple of weeks, therefore, my love and respect for their products overwhelmed any negative considerations about where they operate from: London.

England’s capital city is, to one who grew up on the back-of-beyond Northumbrian coast and attends a university on the back-of-beyond Scottish coast, an alien province equally glitzy and frightening. The size, the over-crowding, the aggressive furthering of one’s own interests – it was a scary place in my mind. Then you read about the cool whisky launches and events, and most especially the bars of London, and it starts to pulse in your imagination as the intersection of creativity, choice and quality.

In my second week at Compass Box, I made the decision to delay – or at any rate elongate – my 1 hour 20 minute commute back to Enfield where I was staying and check out a few bars whose reputations preceded them. This meant going to Shoreditch. Buoyed by good module results, I had three bars in mind which I hoped would show me a good time and serve me a stupendous drink.

Hawksmoor (Spitalfields), 157A Commercial Street, E1 6BJ

Word in the office was that Hawksmoor was the place to go if I wanted an excellent cocktail and a bite of something tasty to eat. The inclusion of the basement bar on my itinerary was rendered absolutely necessary by the cocktail menu and one ‘Stolen Heart’; none other than Compass Box’s iconic Spice Tree combined with Kamm & Sons Ginseng Spirit and apricot brandy.

The fare at Hawksmoor, Spitalfields.

Ducking off the high street and into the narrow stairway, I found a thick wooden door at the bottom behind which was part Turkish baths ante-room, part Art Deco diner. Lots of richly-coloured ceramic tiles prevented this space from being too dark. A very friendly (bearded, of course) man took my order. I went for the roast ox cheek sandwich and one Stolen Heart. I would have sat at the bar but every stool was taken with Young Professionals enjoying the craic with the bartenders. From what I overheard, they were in the drinks industry, also, so this is where those who work with beverages come to consume beverages. The clientele was otherwise a mish-mash: couples out for a quick snack before the pub, single businessmen not quite ready to face the commute back home.

I enjoyed my sandwich immensely although at £12 I would have wanted more sandwich. Maybe a second one, perhaps. The Stolen Heart was silky yet palate-gripping at the same time, the Compass Box supplying a buzzing energy at the base. It was probably the weakest of the cocktails I had on the night, however. Having paid the bill (I’d discover 12.5% service charges are standard practice in such places) it was on to the next bar.

The Worship Street Whistling Shop, 63 Worship Street, EC2A 2DU

Shoreditch is apparently so restlessly trendy it is in the process of being knocked down and remodelled. Inspecting Google Maps, none of the building sites I had to navigate were shown which made finding Worship Street more difficult than it really needed to be. When I saw another basement entrance, however, I knew I’d arrived.

The Whistling Shop was recognisable for two reasons: I’ve read a lot about it, bar consultant Ryan Chetiyawardana being something of a UK bartending Buddha. Ryan has also worked on Bramble in Edinburgh, which is my ‘local’ and possibly favourite bar. The low lighting and tucked-away bar space was very similar. Also, it managed to feel like the St Mary’s Library here in St Andrews: two sides of the seating area are walled with books. The idea is to meld ‘the charm of Victorian squalor with the elegance of grand gin palaces’. Quite.

The menu fits on one side of A4, which is a good thing, in my opinion. There are only  so many mini oak casks and weird tinctures you can store on the bar at any one time, and it lends a feel of specialism to the operation. Not exactly seasonality, but what the bartenders are excited about at that moment. I went for the Pikesville Rye Whiskey, which is not telling the whole story. The guys have ‘finished’ rye whiskey with port and left it in a mini cask to fuse in flavour. This is decanted into a little thimble glass and served alongside ginger ale with an enormous slice of lemon peel. You drink one, then the other, or pour one into the other – it really depends. The first sip of the spirit/port combo with the ginger ale next was delicious. It carried on being delicious, in fact.

So inspired was I by the liquids on display – the Peat & Umami tincture which went in to the Late Pickings cocktail was extraordinary – I had another, the Onesie. For this they take Four Roses and combine it with a hop distillate and pale ale syrup. Fascinating concept, but it came across as a touch too soft and grassy for my tastes.

NOLA, 66-68 Rivington Street, EC2A 3AY

NOLA's Hurricane Sandy.

I decided that one more bar was essential, and NOLA had been recommended by a St Andrews partner in crime. This is a Creole/Cajun/Deep South/Big Easy bar concept co-founded by Dan Priseman, Four Roses ambassador and writer of the excellent Bitters & Twisted blog. When I came to a red brick underpass with a giant mural on it I thought I’d gone too far. NOLA is another bar that you have to squeeze into, as though through a cocktail cat flap. This time, I was heading upstairs rather than down.

The bar was quieter than Hawksmoor and Worship Street had been, but that allowed bartender Ian to be still more friendly. It is a real pleasure being able to chat to London bartenders and easily the best way to discover where else is doing exciting things and who you need to check out. For example, we had an in-depth discussion about where the best banana daiquiris were to be had in East London. The décor of NOLA is relaxed, fun and with great attention to detail. The bar itself is beautiful: carved wooden cabinets showcasing the wealth of spirits (with a strong Four Roses line-up, as you would expect) on offer.

I liked the look of the Hurricane Sandy, a twist on the classic Blood and Sand. Rather than the sweet vermouth, Monkey Shoulder was combined with orange and lime juice as well as cherry brandy. Masses of crushed ice made for an amazingly refreshing drink.

Every bar I went into offered a distinct atmosphere, interpersonal protocol and drinks selection. Every bar was professional but homely, too. It was leaving NOLA that I thought: ‘I want to live somewhere I can find such hospitality and creativity on my doorstep. London rules’. I still favour Bramble in Edinburgh, though, for reasons of economy (cocktails are usually £2-£3 cheaper) but also intimacy. It is a London approach to mixing great drinks with a more particular feel.

If pressed, I would go back to NOLA of the three. I feel that, later on in the evening, this would really be a place to let your hair down while enjoying excellent drinks. Next time I’ll talk about three more bars I visited – only this time, I had the Compass Box office with me.

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‘Cheese and Whisky Gang Thegither!’

If you found yourself stood beside a mashtun in a Scotch whisky distillery this summer – and I really hope you did – your be-tartaned guide may have mentioned the final resting place for the fragrant porridge caked at the bottom. With the sugary wort having been piped away to the next stage of the whisky-making process, the remaining ‘draff’ will ultimately nourish Old MacDonald’s coos. NB – if they even hint that bovine intoxication results they are lying: there is no alcohol created during mashing.

A distillery with draff to offload - in this case, Tobermory.

 

I rather like the ancient-seeming and mutually-beneficial relationships at the heart of whisky production, itself an agricultural off-shoot once upon a time. The farmer of yesteryear would grow the barley, malt it, and distil it, diverting any waste products towards the fortification of his livestock. Distillers and farmers may no long amount to the same person, but draff still supplies much-needed nutrition for cattle and sheep raised on farmland neighbouring whisky distilleries.

Mull of Kintyre Extra Mature Cheddar.

A charming press release appeared the other day attesting to the enduring beef/whisky bond: Tobermory have honoured Mull of Kintyre Mature Cheddar, recognised at this year’s British Cheese Awards as the Best Scottish Cheese ahead of 79 other contenders. Produced in the First Milk Campeltown Creamery, it is one leading example of the uniquely sharp and fruity cheese first produced at the Sgriob Ruadh Farm on the island of Mull in the Scottish Hebrides by Jeff Reade. This year’s award was dedicated to Mr Reade, whose legacy is sure to be a heartening one: whereas Scotland could only claim 24 artisan cheese varieties in 1994, today there are 80.

Jeff Reade.

The whisky and cheddar connection is a more tangible one than mere sponsorship alone, however. Tobermory draff historically provided sterling winter feed for Jeff Reade’s cattle and today the Reade family craft a cheese incorporating the peaty portion of Tobermory make, Ledaig. Congratulations to all at the First Milk Campbeltown Creamery, and here’s to the craft producers on Mull generally lovingly nurturing some mightily tasty wares.

Isle of Mull Cheddar’s sharp, yeasty characteristics are said to hail from the unique pungency of draff which impregnates the milk when eaten. However, I’d also like to make mention of whisky and cheese’s delectable compatability even when the dairy cows have been no nearer draff than the moon. In partnership with Svetlana Kukharchuk at St Andrews’ Guid Cheese Shop, we have on two previous occasions allied some of Europe’s most distinctive cheeses with a selection of Scotland’s boldest spirits. Vintage gouda makes a splendid marriage with Bunnahabhain 12yo, and the double cream Chaource combines magically with Auchentoshan 12yo. Indeed, Auchentoshan’s sister distillery, Glen Garioch, actively encourages this pairing with cheeses as a signature serve.

At their most spectaular, taking cheese and whisky together can unleash tertiary flavours neither possessed on their own: the creamy textures can aid in taming the whisky’s alcohol, allowing nutty flavours with overtones of butterscotch or spice to enthral the palate. The golden ticket as far as I am concerned, however, combines blue cheese with peated whiskies. At a more recent tasting, Svetlana’s Gorgonzola Piccante shared a bed with Benromach’s Peat Smoke. The dry smoky malt smoothed out the blue mould piquancy while the soft richness of the cheese’s body lengthened the fruity flavours sublty embedded in the whisky. A triumph!

Take the plunge with some cheese and whisky pairings for yourself. I could use some company on my Gout ward.

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The NAS Nay-Sayers

How eclectic, democratic and precious our whisky weblogs are. Whatever the malty polemic of the day, your correspondent will have an opinion on it, and chances are that one or two others will have their point to make, too. The comments section of blogs boils with activity as author and reader negotiate fact from fiction, hearsay from heresy.

Recently, I have noticed a rather vocal sect pitching in beneath reviews of malt whiskies with the temerity to withhold their ages. NAS (or non-age statement) whiskies have been increasingly conspicuous on the Twitter feeds and off-licence shelves – controversially in the eyes of some. Indeed, last week I scrolled to the bottom of a piece describing the new Glen Garioch Virgin Oak on a popular blog and I was stunned by the irate dialogue which I found there. Without having tried the whisky in question, this commenter went so far as to advocate legislation prohibiting distillers from charging beyond a certain price point for whiskies without an age statement. As if in an attempt to alienate me further from their cause, they then insisted that older whiskies were always better.

Two of the Glen Garioch range: part of the problem, or the solution?

The gist, amidst the salvos of punctuation marks, was that age offered a guide as to what was actually in the bottle. From that they could then decide what was and what was not value for money. After a more informed reader commented to correct them on their extreme adherence to age before beauty, their response asserted both a re-entrenchment in their views and a threat of physical violence towards she who had contradicted them. Debate over. Some people are just nuts.

But then I got to thinking: ‘am I not on the same spectrum?’ Putting aside the utter nonsense that you cannot recognise quality without information about age, which makes whisky sound like ‘The Antiques Roadshow’ or geology, did I not argue a couple of months ago with the Macallan 1824 Series that justifying a three-figure price tag for a whisky with no indication of maturity carried substantial risk? If age is not the handmaiden of quality, then it is at least possible to estimate what sort of liquid lies within. A standard 18yo from one distillery will carry a similar fingerprint of maturity to one from another distillery. But NAS? What can we glean from Talisker’s Storm that might enlighten us regarding the Glen Garioch Virgin Oak? Next to nothing. With NAS, distillers are asking for a leap of faith.

Perhaps Mr/Mrs Furious had heeded the NAS sirens in the past and come to grief as a result, or perhaps distillers are just that little bit opportunistic when it comes to determining an RRP for their NAS products. Or then again, maybe I am out of touch somehow with how whiskies are valued. On the same whisky blog, one gentleman took exception to The Glenlivet Alpha, calling for summary execution – Jeremy Clarkson-style – of those who release anonymous whisky with such a steep asking price.

Is there a tipping point, a sum for whiskies without an age statement beyond which companies are taking the piss? Let’s begin with the NAS monicker itself which, for Scotch whisky, isn’t the full story. Every dram you buy, whether it claims to rest within a particular bracket of maturity or not, has a nominal age statement of 3 years and above. As we have seen with Kilchoman, whiskies at this stage in their development can be mesmerically intense, assured and satisfying. The vast majority of NAS whiskies will contain whiskies fractionally older than this – maybe 6-8 years of age – but with a proportion of significantly older spirit added to the mix. Look no further than the Glenmorangie Signet for a highly-acclaimed example of this style. More often than not distillers are demonstrating creativity with their stocks, bottling liquid with a USP but harmonising this with more conventionally-matured malts. They are not trying to con you.

Problematically, however, the customer cannot be certain whether they are purchasing the marketing or the more costly malts included to support the flavour profile. The press release may gush about the 26 year old whisky included in the new product, but that number cannot be shown on the label. The only figure the customer has to go on, therefore, is the price. As Scotch whisky once again captivates the global drinker, those in the more traditional markets must accept that 10 year old this and 21 year old that will become harder to find, and they must also accept that this is a direct result of the industry’s new economic position. If distillers cannot play a variation on a theme with their NAS products, then the standard age brackets will have to satisfy greater demand, and command even higher prices. In time, companies with the best track records for releasing tasty whiskies without any age statement will have distinguished themselves from the rest, however, inspiring consumer confidence in this regard.

My message to the ‘quality cannot be appreciated without age’ brigade is this: you’re wrong, and set to endure prohibitive prices for your favourite drams unless you have the courage to shop around and discover something new. Crouched in your little bunkers taking pot shots at NAS whiskies will ensure gems simply pass you by. Some bottles may write cheques their contents cannot cash (Macallan Ruby) but others might just boast genuine character, complexity and dynamism (Macallan Sienna, Ardbeg Uigeadail, Dewar’s Signature, the Compass Box range of blended malts). Frequent the whisky blogs, use the Drinks by the Dram service from Master of Malt, inform your purchases, and stop railing against a reality you cannot change. In ten years’ time I suspect the NAS trend will have taught us that age is a luxury, but certainly no guarantor of a great whisky.

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Nose on the Line – Beginning Blending

Is blended Scotch muscling in on single malt’s limelight? When Whisky Magazine publishes two supplements devoted to the aggregated Scotch whisky product in fairly close order, the Caskstrength.net boys choose to release a blend on the route of their A-Z bottling marathon, and Johnnie Walker creates such a song and dance about their swanky yacht experience through big whisky retailers, maybe the huge bias in single malt’s favour amongst professional and amateur commentators is beginning to dissolve. For so long, blends have been explained in terms of economics with single malts scooping all of the column inches for provenance and craftsmanship. Perhaps the tide is turning…

Of course, I am only being flippant. The blogosphere’s infatuation with the singularity of malt whisky is going nowhere fast: let blends make all the money and we shall maintain our vigil around our beloved copper pot stills. Aberfeldy, Strathisla, Cardhu – these are the distilleries we wish to venerate, rejecting their statuses of blend brand homes as so much peripheral marketing.

Paraphernalia...

However, I for one have changed my mind. Maybe it is the proselytising of Compass Box’s John Glaser, perhaps it is the duo of Meet the Blender evenings I have attended, the ardent penmanship of Dave Broom, or perhaps it is the smattering of articles detailing blended Scotch to be found on other blog platforms (such as this excellent Ballantine’s expose courtesy of Miss Whisky) which have piqued my interest, but I am no longer prepared to ignore blended whisky. It is instrumental in allowing for the diversity of the single malt category which we presently romanticise; it has a history and cast of iconic characters, and it can taste breathtakingly fabulous. I want to write a lot more about it here on the Scotch Odyssey Blog.

...vs. provenance.

I’ll start today with a few tales from my encounters with Master of Malt’s Home Blending Kit (£49.95), the mother of all procrastination tools for the whisky-loving student with exams to prepare for. Upon receipt of my sturdy package, I did indeed turn my ‘once tidy home into the chaotic, bottle-filled, peat-rich laboratory that is a blender’s workshop’, as the introductory letter put it. I could not wait to commence with the combinations, and appreciate just how dramatic the effect of adding tiny portions of this to that could be. MoM’s advice: begin with the grain whisky base and mild malt whisky, build complexity with a marriage of ‘mid-range malts’ and then season with the older samples they had supplied. Only so much blending could be done in theory: I needed to dirty some glasses and measuring cylinders.

Initially, I wanted to make a Dewar’s 12yo-style blend. I love the bold fruit, abundant vanilla and rich yet clean barley flavours of this whisky, but found that I couldn’t replicate it with the profiles of the Speyside and Lowland malts provided in the Kit. I was, however, hearted by the quality of the grain base. My tactic had been to create a ‘mid-range’ malt sample and a top dresser sample, then combine proportions of both until the flavour was right. This is Mr Glaser’s approach, as explained in this videofor the 2012 edition of Flaming Heart. Nosing constantly, I began to suspect that my palette of liquids ought to be confined. I was using my packer malt, the Lowland, Speyside and Highland for the mid-range, while the top dressings attempted to coalesce the better qualities of the Old Highland, Old Speyside Very, Very Old Grain and Very Old Islay. Just because leading blends use 30+ malts did not mean – I gradually conceded – that I should, too.

The building blocks of my blend.

Using the three tier approach of grain, mid-range, and top dressers, I struck on a system of using no more than two malts for the mid-range and a maximum of three whiskies for the blend’s ’seasoning’. I also changed tack, preferring an earthier, richer blend which might make greater use of the Islay offerings.

My specification read: ‘A smoky, rich blend. Money no object!’ With one fifth of the recipe grain, 50% became a Highland and Islay combination, with Old Speyside, Very, Very Old Grain and Very Old Islay creating genuine intrigue on the richer spectrum. Computing my blueprint for future blended whisky world domination onto MoM’s calculator, I was rather crestfallen to discover that my highly drinkable blend which boasted light and smoky peat, allied with fresh and vinous fruit and a building creaminess would cost somewhere in the region of £60. Master of Malt launched the Home Blending Kit in tandem with a blogger’s blending competition and the eventual winner – dubbed St Isidore – had been priced at closer to £45. Even if my blend carried the infinitely superior title of the Elisha Cuthbert Select Reserve, would customers tolerate the premium cost?

I’m not saying a lively, pretty blend cannot be put together from the core ingredients on a lower budget – I just haven’t been able to find the killer marriage yet. John Glaser, Colin Scott, Richard Paterson, Joel and Neil… You’re safe for now.

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The Best of Blends

Revision, I have come to learn, is an exercise in segregation. No matter how often professors bandy about the word ‘holistic’, post-colonial readings of Shakespeare’s King Lear and the crisis in Victorian masculinity as Marxist resistance really ought to be cognitively kept apart. At least, such unholy mixtures seldom earn the better marks in examinations. However, feminist issues in the plays of Middleton persisted in forming unhelpful fusions with sexual subjection in Jane Eyre and I decided it was time for a break, and to muse on the best results of blending.

The pre-eminent panel of master blenders.

In April, I had reconvened with the International Spirits Challenge judges at Edinburgh’s Scotch Whisky Experience, a body of men and women towards whom I feel something like hero worship. For the second time, these illustrious master blenders – from Scotland, the USA, Japan and Sweden – had kindly agreed to an evening meet-and-greet, despite the demands of assessing some 200 whisky samples during the day. I start to tire after about eight whiskies (and that number decreases concerning new human acquaintances) so my admiration for their effort, energy and wisdom reached precipitous heights.

Brian Kinsman takes us through the SWE 25yo blend.

Prior to roaming the MacIntyre Gallery, we were treated to an on-arrival dram of the 25yo Scotch Whisky Experience blend. Put together by William Grant & Sons’ Brain Kinsman, this lush, mature offering contains whiskies from every shareholding company at the Experience, and commemorates the 25th Anniversary of the venue which is very much Edinburgh’s chief whisky tourism and education facility.

Upstairs, I wished to right a wrong perpetrated in the summer when I had failed to visit Billy Leighton at the Irish Distillers stand. At a given time of day, I am rather fond of Jameson, and at approximately 19:55 on Wednesday April 25th I was deeply impressed by the Jameson Gold Label Reserve. Apple, cinnamon and unctuous honey led the way on the nose, with an abundance of fresh grain. With time, the nose became buttery, with a trace of salt. The palate delivered: a big nectarine and barley punch, before vanilla led me into a drying finish.

Angela D'Orazio with the very special Mackmyra #10.

Billy revealed the economics behind the 100m euro Midleton expansion, which will push capacity up to 60 million litres of alcohol per year. In addition, he told us how crucial cask selection is to Jameson’s success, and that he remains central to cask monitoring, and ensuring no sulphur enters the system. Recent marketing meetings have focused on ‘creating craic’, and the warm, welcoming and loquacious Mr Leighton certainly ensuring there was a surfeit of that at his stand over the course of the evening.

Another omission from the previous Meet the Blenders line-up was Mackmyra. Here I shared in Chris ‘Tiger’ White’s wonderment at Angela D’Orazio’s latest creation, the Mackmyra Special #10. A Swedish exclusive for the time being, this whisky has been part matured in casks that have contained coffee bean-infused spirit: the beans macerated in whisky, casked for two weeks, then turned into a liqueur. I was stunned by the obvious coffee notes on the nose, but also marvelled at the crushed strawberry and fudgey malt character which was equally prominent. Add a glug of this to a short Americano and there can be no complaints.

Next door, I was drawn to the latest Balvenie, the 17yo Doublewood. The expression of the same name but five years its junior is something of a cult, and I was fascinated by this. Oppulent oak and stewed fruits surrounded a candy cane thread of fresh barley sugar for a whisky of admirable richness and engaging liveliness. As I said to Brian Kinsman, this is a whisky for which ‘effortlessness’ is the only adequate descriptor.

The beautifully simple Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition bottle.

Elsewhere, Caroline Martin presented the Johnnie Walker Gold Route, and Gordon Motion’s two bottles of the Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition vanished very quickly indeed. This was the first time I had seen the packaging for this impressive, feisty blend, and very taken with it I was, too.

Finally, the congregated whisky fans appraised The Dalmore Custodian – vibrant orange, vanilla and clove, with the distillery’s classic coffee overtones (although that could have been the last of the Mackmyra sitting in my nostrils), this was a fine final pour. Afterwards, the panel fielded questions from the floor, with one barbed comment concerning the lack of innovation in Scotch when compared with the likes of Mackmyra and the Japanese blends wringing an impassioned defence of Scotch whisky in the 21st century from Richard Paterson. While acknowledging the duty of care he and his colleagues shared regarding the proud heritage of the blended category in Scotland, Richard assured us that every possible permutation of whisky-making that is permitted by legislation is being presently investigated.

Progress and innovation is very much at the forefront of the Scotch priority list in response to committed global competition. John Ramsay, ISC chairman, related something Diageo’s Caroline Martin had said to him over the course of judging the Japanese expressions earlier that day: ‘this is getting a bit scary, John’.

A thoroughly convivial evening confirmed that blended whisky is very much leading the charge for flavour, personality and craft at the moment.

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The Macallan 1824 Series

The 1824 Series at the Pompadour by Galvin, Edinburgh.

I suppose my attire told much of the story. One does not simply walk into a Macallan launch event in jeans, a t-shirt and flipflops. On some level, you sense that a little professionalism – a touch of seriousness – is your due to Scotch whisky’s foremost luxury brand. Somehow the suit, the waistcoat, the polished (ahem) brogues are all required if an audience with the spirit of Easter Elchies is to be granted. You won’t pass muster if the packaging isn’t right.

With the Pompadour Restaurant by Galvin, part of the 5* Caledonian Hotel, Edinburgh, The Macallan certainly succeeded as far as their packaging was concerned. The new 1824 Series fitted snugly – and beautifully – into a colossal Art Deco sarcophagus of a cocktail cabinet, in front of which two neat and polite bartenders prepared the brace of on-arrival malt whisky cocktails with unhurried efficiency.

Sipping my Amber Glow, I pretended I was mingling with some of the whisky celebrities in the Pompadour room itself. The incongruity of encountering a living, breathing Charles Maclean in the Pompadour - a combination of place and person I had last seen on Ken Loach’s film ’The Angel’s Share’ – threw my composure. Reality and Macallan’s magic dust seemed to have parted company.

The beautiful cocktail station.

Ken Grier, Director of Malts at Edrington, and Peter Sandstrom, Marketing Director of Maxxium UK,  cordially invited us to venture down the rabbit hole. For tonight, colours are flavours.

To provide a bit of background, The Macallan 1824 Series comprises four expressions: Gold, Amber, Sienna and Ruby. They replace the long-standing 10yo and 12yo in The Macallan age range, together with the Fine Oak expressions up to 18-years-of-age. In the UK market, The Macallan wish to champion the quality of the oak casks they deploy, as well as the dexterity and skill with which their Whisky Maker, Bob Dalgarno, selects the single malt that results irrespective of age. Care and craft – rather than calendars – decide The Macallan.

The Edrington Group who own The Macallan, as well as Highland Park, are proud – justifiably – of the epic and expensive supply chain over which they preside in order to guarantee oak casks fit to mature their spirit. From harvesting the wood to coopering it, loaning it to the Sherry industry, and returning the casks whole to Scotland, the distillery have elected to trumpet their pursuit of excellence in this sector.

Macallan ambassador, Joy Elliot, who presented the new range to us.

My press release states: ‘The casks chosen for the range deliver a gradation of colour from light to dark, with the wood character defining each expression’s flavour, moving from lighter, lemon citrus to richer, dried fruit notes’. At the event, a chart accompanied each whisky on its display stand allowing us to see which industry-recognised colour tint corresponded to the citrus or the dried fruit flavours. In this way, we could see the cross-section of colours/flavours chosen for each expression.

These charts hinted at the kaleidoscope of Macallan characteristics at Dalgarno’s disposal. Why, therefore, settle on only four expressions of them? Why homogenise all of that natural colour variation into a few choice hues? There is another clue in the press release: ‘As the whiskies become darker and richer, so the pool of casks able to deliver this character becomes smaller and rarer’. At the sharp end, this refers to the £120-per-bottle Ruby which showcases the darkest whiskies of the range. Implicitly, the Macallan message is that darker whiskies are rarer whiskies. When priced to coincide with their premium expressions, sold with a strident age-statement such as the 18yo, I fear that the consumer will assume that the darker whiskies are akin to the older expressions in The Macallan stable. ‘But you and I both know that, with a first fill Sherry butt, you can get that depth of colour [ruby] in five years’. The words of Charles Maclean.

Some of the countless glasses ferried about the room on launch night.

I believe in Scotch whisky using its limited assets intelligently, but – to build an analogy out of Macallan ambassador Joy Elliot’s recent experience at a bi-partite London event – it strikes me that there are two messages circulating around The Macallan brand at the moment. When Dalgarno is quoted as saying: ‘the key thought in this range is that a great single malt doesn’t need to be a 30 years old to taste like a 30 year old’, that rather begs the question of why The Macallan 30yo needs to be 30-years-old. When Ken Grier talks about ‘challeng[ing] perceptions about bottling at arbitrary ages’, I agree with him. However, I would also suggest that he has been hoisted by his own petard, given that the £860 price tag demanded for the Fine Oak 30yo (Master of Malt) is anything but arbitrary.

The whiskies ought to be the star subjects of this post, however, but sadly they cannot overcome the marketing speak. I rate the Gold quite favourably (see here), but on the night I found the Amber to be disappointingly inconsistent. Occasionally dazzling on the nose, the palate yielded a big oak grip with final suggestions of marmalade, but little else.

The Sienna was, I must confess, superb. Essentially a combining of Gold/Amber styles of spirit with richer Ruby-esque liquid, the abundance of spice (especially a seductive sandalwood), fruit and vanilla on the nose, together with the sweetly velvety mouthfeel which allied insistent grape and dried fruits with honey, vanilla and bold barley hit the brief. ‘Persistent yet not overpowering’ sums it up nicely. At £66, though, I will need a strong Macallan craving to make the purchase.

The Ruby confused and disappointed in equal measure. It was at this point that Ken Grier chaired the age debate, fending off Charles Maclean, Vince Fusaro and Darroch Ramsay who all took exception to the £120 asking price. As the pinnacle of the range, the embodiment of the European oak narrative, it simply did not have the depth, finesse or richness I was expecting. Some pleasing autumn woodland notes, as well as aromas of chocolate truffles and candied orange emerged, but I longed for the old Sherry Oak 10yo on the palate. Rum and raisin ice cream could best sum it up. Why, I asked Chris Hoban on the night, why would you not buy three bottles of Aberlour a’Bunadh instead?

I sped away from The Caledonian to catch my train north, my brogues pinching slightly and my waistcoat uncomfortably constraining. The look had been achieved, but with one or two niggling drawbacks.

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The Best Foot Forward

Stride out into the wilds of whisky.

Travel and whisky would appear to be a pairing that underpins much that is thought and written about the spirit; for example, this very blog would not exist without whisky’s power of suggestion when it comes to converting an emotional response to a dram, experienced in stillness, into a coercive scheme of bodily movement and exertion.

When Tommy Dewar and the Walkers dispersed their whiskies throughout the world in the late 19th century, they provided a taste of home to those serving the Empire on foreign soil. Today, travel retail positions whisky as a purchase for the adventurer or pioneering businessperson, and it stands as an embodiment of Old World industry and craft which – to the emerging markets of Brazil, Russia, India and China – must carry its own air of exoticism, too.

One whisky brand firmly on the side of adventure is Scotch blend, Cutty Sark. For them, travel is as much about continued motion as it is seeking out new territories over the seven seas. From their international film competition, searching for new creative talent to tell the story of the brand and capture its personality, to paraphrase the website, to sponsoring the Travel Photographer of the Year initiative (see here), a certain restlessness ripples the sails of the famous clipper on its iconic yellow label. In stark deviation from the norm as far as my whisky post goes, they sent me the latest compilation of entries to the competition. This handsome coffee table book is entitled ‘Journey Four’, and manages to combine both processes I mentioned above: captured emotion as studies of stillness, and a global trek.

What I ask myself when I browse ‘Journey Four’ is: who is doing the travelling? Is it the photographer, who has proof in pixels of their own intrepidness, or is it me? By looking at these photographs, surely I’m seeing what the person who took them saw – I absorb a little of their panorama, their outlook, their biases. It is a kind of empathy of the eye. In these silent stills, travel becomes a gaze, or form of consumption. Travel photography induces a kind of awe and perhaps a series of urges. Protracted exposure to it breeds the same consequence as too much Cutty Sark: a sense of intoxication. Heady limitlessness is something I have been fortunate enough to experience through travel, and now and again with the help of a whisky or two, as well.

A wealth of travelling companions.

But if travel can be blockbuster in scope and sentiment (to quote a recent film release: an ‘unexpected journey’), it can also be particular, personal and even – perhaps – pedestrian. Still, however, the unexpected element renders it supremely precious. I have a part-time job not a mile away, serving all manner of single malts as well as cocktails. This has done more to expand my horizons concerning whisky than anything since the Scotch Odyssey and I haven’t had to get nearly so sweaty. It is providing me with new perspective on old favourites, and adding a sense of theatre and experimentation to a beverage. Drinks like the Manhattan and Martini have as much history as some distilleries, and so many fascinating contexts and occasions. Cutty Sark has a section of its website devoted to a selection of cocktails: ‘Launched at the height of cocktail culture, Cutty Sark became an instant hit in mixed drinks, whether as a whisky and soda in the Gentlemen’s Clubs of London’s West End or in the fashionable concoctions being created in glamorous bars – and homes – the world over’. Cocktails bring a world of creativity into your glass.

As far as my own creations are concerned, I more often than not get it wrong (who would have thought that Kilchoman, Cointreau, reduced yerba mate tea, lemon juice and soda wouldn’t have worked?) but this is hardly more serious than taking the wrong Highland road, and can be equally as instructive.

Realising what is at your fingertips - on your doorstep, even - and viewing it in new ways would fall under my definition of travel. A spirit (or spirits) of adventure ties together diverse communities and projects while keeping life interesting. Explore the boundaries of your whisky cabinet, and be surprised by the personalities you discover.

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Whisky Quality Emigrating?

Will we eventually have to leave Scottish shores in search of whiskies with personality?

Perhaps by way of compensating for the wheezing, frigid wind, and rain that strikes with an assassin’s stealth and ferocity, whisky companies have always released some jolly nice specimens at this time of intractable, dismal decline. Whether it is Diageo’s array of Special Releases - and the salivatingly tempting (if soberingly-priced) Lagavulin 21yo in particular, or the fourth rendition of Compass Box’s iconic Flaming Heart expression (want passionately), some whisky gems always appear at this point in the year.

However, today I intend to discuss not just new whiskies, but New World whiskies. A very interesting article appeared in the Scotland Sunday Times last month entitled: ‘Aussies scotch claims to best whisky’ (News section, Sunday September 16th. In fact, the debate surfaced on connosr.com in March, and continues to rage here). I stashed the piece to one side because I knew I wanted to discuss the matter it raised once I had finally put essays to bed.

Put simply, some voices from the recent distilling operations – notably in Australia – have attacked the ‘dumbed down’ malts some parties within the Scotch whisky industry are allegedly producing. As the category swells to encompass the globe, the argument is that quality and ‘personality’ are sacrificed. To meet demand and make profits, Scotch isn’t being made as it used to be, and is suffering as a result.

Tim Puett, an Australian independent bottler, asks whether the Scotchs of yesteryear are being ‘driven out by rationalisation, basic resource availability, and financial return?’ These questions are valid when bottles of Ballantines or Dalwhinnie pop up on the back bars of establishments from Sao Paulo to Shanghai. How could they maintain a given standard when chasing new markets so aggressively?

I intend to produce a defence of Scotch one the one hand, but a rallying cry for all whiskies more generally. I don’t believe Puett has set the right tone for his inquiry, or acknowledged as fully as he might have done that the category of Australian whisky could not have taken the form it has, or enjoyed such an immediate and largely positive reception, were it not in part for the ground broken by the industry based in Scotland. He talks of the pimple on the elephant’s back in the connosr piece, but the implications for this are far greater than a naturalistic metaphor. Though based on radically different business models, Scotch drove consumer curiosity in single malts while still maintaining chief focus on its blended products to crack new markets. This was not achieved with sub-standard juice, as the present continuing boom in single malt whisky surely attests to decades of fine bottlings. These Scotch whiskies were what inspired drinkers to explore the unexpected outposts of single malt hailing from overseas. Scotch is – and in blended form always has been – a spirit with a global personality, by which I mean certain flavours have always travelled the world and will continue to do so.

Not enough good examples of these kicking around?

Of course, I have not been drinking Scotch whisky for that long (it will be my five-year anniversary on Thursday), and so I cannot compare the likes of Highland Park 12yo or Talisker 10yo through the ages. I would expect their precise characters to have changed, although I naturally dislike the notion that this may well be for the worse and that I shall never sample spirit from those golden Halcyon days. But this nostalgia may be more romantic than apparent, and what I have come to accept is that for the last fifty years at least, the Scotch I enjoy has been made – and made possible as a varied product I can feasibly purchase - in large part thanks to volume and scales of production. The best of what is now a far more consistent product has charmed and inspired me: I do not look at a £30 bottle of Balvenie and rend my garments in anguish that it would be a superior dram were there a million fewer examples of it. And let’s not forget, when discussing whether producing more whisky more speedily and at a reduced cost makes for a poorer whisky, there is an interesting comparison to be made with start-up distilleries. Their costs will be necessarily higher and the need to bring a product to market is just as - if not more – pressing. This is the 21st century: these distilleries are businesses, too, and cannot survive on a philosophy.

Puett’s remark about ‘basic resource availability’ is most curious, however. If there are shortages in grain and casks, surely this ought to affect all distillers equally? Indeed, shouldn’t it prove a greater hindrance to the new guys, who don’t have these networks of resource acquisition quite as finely-honed as the established powers? Quality oak is a global, finite commodity, and everyone wants some. Surely those with bigger budgets and longer-standing relationships (e.g. Scotch) will muscle in ahead of the queue? I don’t buy the claim that start-up distillers work best from a supposed dearth of materials.

My final quibble is with the implicit contrast between Scotch as a category of mass-production and shareholders, and the New World as the home of boutique enterprises. Amongst the behemoths in Scotland, there are independent companies passionate about making themselves distinct, and harnessing centuries of distilling know-how to best effect. The number of Australian distilleries numbers 18 (see here) and not all of these can boast a mature product available outside Australia, although distribution of this exciting category is improving all the time. I can list just as many small or independent Scottish distilleries concentrating on producing a unique, high quality spirit without the primary focus being volume, of which Bladnoch, Daftmill, Kilchoman, BenRiach and GlenDronach, Benromach and Springbank are the most prominent examples. As one commenter beneath the original connosr post correctly stated, this is a prime period for unusual and exciting products emerging from Scotland. The entire category ought not to be slighted as ‘average’ (a potential future suggested by Dominic Roskrow in the Sunday Times article) because of its multifaceted activities. To boast the most vibrant and diverse blended whisky category in the world, iconic frontline single malts and small-scale producers is a singular achievement in a style as closely legislated as Scotch.

I can understand the more recent distillers trying to create a fuss about themselves, to make points of distinction and appeal to customers who maybe want something new. Scotch, however, assumes a dual responsibility in trying to keep the commercial aspects of the spirit healthy (which benefits all distillers internationally) as well as the connoisseurs happy. The former is not something the Larks, Bakery Hills and Amruts of this world have to worry about. I am not denigrating the up-and-coming distillers. I will always seek out new whiskies (I have an independently-bottled Lark to review later in the week), and I firmly believe that there is room for more exciting single malts on the shelves. I like it, too, when people shout about what they believe they are doing well but my point is that attacking the old guard is not the way to go about it. As Puett concedes, Scotch has had 1000 years to work out what its magic formula is: considerably longer than this - worthy but still nascent - movement in Australia.

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