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March 23, 2010

Notes on ‘The Mark Scheme’

I want to clarify my thinking behind the criteria I have set out and against which I shall judge the 49 standard tours on my itinerary. Some of it is rather idiosyncratic and whilst I have tried to limit this, it is important that you, the reader, understand where I’m coming from. If you’re going to take my advice and visit a distillery I recommend, it is only right that I should explain to you as clearly as I can what it was about that particular tour that impressed me, and most importantly, what I am impressed by in the first place. There are certain aspects of the whisky industry that particularly inspire me, and these may be different to those which motivate you. Stars don’t really tell you very much at all, for all that I have gone in to some depth regarding the distinctions between each of my star ratings. I want you to know what I set especial store by and why I have weighted my scoring the way I have so you may draw your own conclusions. If only all whisky writers advocated such transparency in reference to their personal tastes!

‘Appearance and Location’

This is a stand-alone score. Whilst the distillery’s aspect and character, and especially its place in its landscape, are of massive significance to me, and why I am using a bicycle to begin with so that I may feel first-hand the unique micro-climate of each one – the terroir - they do not in any way give clues to or indicate the quality of the tour on offer. Therefore, the score for each distillery in this regard shall remain seperate. After all, it would be wrong to allow the wilful ugliness of a distillery to skew the representation of what may be an outstanding tour by dragging the overall score down. Equally, it wouldn’t be right that the beauty of a distillery should cover up any deficiencies of the visitor experience in the final rating.

‘The Running Commentary’

The input, level of expertise and assurance of the guide and the monologue they have to work with will of course be present and under scrutiny at every stage of the tour. However, I have chosen to isolate my judgement of it, to give it its own direct overall appraisal here, instead of giving separate ratings for how well each individual facet of the tour was directed and evoked. By treating the tour as a whole product, I can better separate the merits of the key individual components which I feel make up a tour. My understanding of ‘The Process and the Equipment’ is obviously dependent on the guide’s performance, but I have deliberately distinguished this latter category to indicate and deal with other, completely separate, qualities than those displayed by the guide.

‘The Process and Equipment’

In this section I am only interested in the range of whisky-making processes that can be seen on the tour; not – as I said above – the guide’s ability to explain and contextualise them. In these modern times, with malt being bought in and increasing amounts of spirit being matured away from the distillery in the parent company’s central warehouses, I shall reward the effort made to keep these practises on-site, and hence provide a more interactive, immersive and complete experience for the visitor. And here I get to my real gripe which influences in a major way how a distillery can attain more stars in this category. I don’t care how shiny or unusually-shaped the stills, how ornate the worm tubs, whether they have Saladin boxes or whether it is the distillery cat that separates the middle cut, if a visit to the warehouse isn’t on the tour then it cannot achieve a second or third star in this section. My justification? Quite apart from the fact that warehouses represent, in my view, the most atmospheric and alchemically mysterious stage of the whisky-making process, and are some of the most wondrous-smelling enclosed spaces in the known universe, until a distillery shows its visitors real, live, sleeping casks, it has not technically or legally shown them whisky. As the law states, a malt distillate must spend a minimum of three years in oak casks before the word ‘whisky’ can be added to the label. If the tour drifts back to the gift shop after a quick glimpse of the stills, it has missed out the very process that legally creates the drink they will then attempt to flog you and you, the paying public, have just plain missed out. As controversial as it may be, because of my warehouse initiation at The Glenlivet and the ardent mysticism it conceived, I would argue that a distillery that doesn’t mature on-site, whose only stock of legal whisky is in natty packaging with a price sticker on it, is stretching my definition of a single malt whisky distillery. Beyond the law, I have another reason for being incensed at the denial of a warehouse visit. For all it hasn’t been proven scientifically (but what does science know about it, anyway?), myself and a number of other people hold that the atmosphere a cask lies in affects the liquid within it. ‘The Angel’s Share’, which has a dramatic effect on the industry accounting for millions of lost bottles of Scotch per year, is brought about because oak is porous and allows alcohol to evaporate out of the cask. So why shouldn’t it work the other way? Why shouldn’t casks breathe in, too? And if they do breathe in, the composition and character of the air must then dictate some of the personality of the finished whisky. I don’t believe that cask/air interaction can only result in a net loss for maturing spirit. Caol Ila may be my favourite dram but I can’t help, nevertheless, wishing that the contents of my bottle of the 18-year-old had spent those 216 months sipping from inside its oak the briny air whistling between Islay and Jura. Terroir-wise the drink would damn near hypnotise me. Distilleries make such bold statements about the locality and uniqueness of their water sources, and I believe they should value the singularity of their air just as much and not sacrifice the more inexplicable and romantic claims to authenticity and provenance for the sake of the economic bottom line. So, no warehouse: no star.

‘Generosity’

How subjective a point can you get? I’ve tried to make this as objective as possible, however. By using the admission price as a core variable, this section can pass comment on ‘Value for Money’, too. However, this category deals solely with how liberal the distillery is with samples of the drink they have been explaining and selling to you for the last half hour. On this last, commercial, point: I have not forgotten that visitors’ centres are wonderful for revenue and that the complimentary dram is often a try-before-you-buy with the general deal being that the price of the tour is redeemable against the purchase of a 70cl bottle. I’m discounting this side of the coin, however, in judging this section. Having neither the money nor the space, I shall not see my fiver go some way towards buying a full bottle. So in other words, my admission fee has paid for the experience of being in the distillery, the expertise and guidance of the staff, and the “free” sample at the end. And I want to be well-wetted. I’ve settled on a ratio of one dram for every £3 asked for in the tour price. One dram for an outlay of up to £3 is “generous” and will merit one star. If the tour costs more money, I think you have a right to more drams. I shall state the precise number of drams on offer beside the star (if there are any) given. It is becasue there are free tours out there (and these will automatically receive two stars should they serve up any drams at all) that £3 is my benchmark, for all it may appear low or grasping at first. For those that charge I think you have a right to a nip or two.

‘Value for Money’

This is a tricky one to elaborate on, especially when you again take into account those free tours. We know in our gut if we have enjoyed value for money, and indeed so minimal is the cost of a tour that the vast majority will receive a star. However, I have tried to differentiate and award those tours that provided an experience of far greater worth than was asked for an additional star. Most free tours will get the maximum, but it would be wrong to imply that just because you haven’t paid for it, the experience on offer is unempeachable. In reality, one mash tun is a lot like every other and so the bare bones of a tour won’t change whether you have paid nothing or £25. Everyone should be obligated to make your visit unique and enjoyable, however, and if some distilleries with no entrance fee just don’t try hard enough then one star is all they shall receive. It doesn’t all boil down to money, after all.

I have decided that a maximum of two stars is appropriate for each of the last two sections. Any greater emphasis on generosity would penalise the smaller distilleries that maybe only have one official bottling. Likewise, the ‘Value for Money’ score is more a re-iteration of my findings, an overview, and so it could be expected to follow that a tour which has scored well in the other categories will score well in this, and the same correlation for the poorer tours. A third star would just be overkill and create an unrepresentative gulf between the good and the bad tours.

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The Mark Scheme

Here it is: my means of distillery tour evaluation, my tablets of bronze hammered in to which are my criteria for revealing the very best tours on offer. It has been devised entirely by me and reflects the expectations and needs of this very keen and relatively well-informed enthusiast (by no means am I a connoisseur). In general, what I would hope to find in a good tour is a thorough and logical presentation of the production equipment and a sincere communication of the passion, conviviality and complexity behind the Scottish people and their drink. So, how am I going to go about judging in a standardised fashion the extent to which my love of Scotch is vindicated, redoubled or even subdued by a visit to their places of birth? I’m about to show you.

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION

*          A derelict nuclear silo buried in the grunge and grime of a city.

**        The complexion of heavy industry still prevails. Cannot quite escape the urban sprawl.

***      Classic distillery facade in pleasant rural Scotland.

****    Striking architectural features or particularly pretty in the heart of a truly beautiful landscape.

*****  The most romantically-situated of distilling enterprises. Iconic appearance.

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY

*          Provides the basic information but nothing more. The spiel is generic and overall quite lacklustre.

**        The basics are thoroughly covered with an engaging, even noteworthy delivery, maybe using non-traditional techniques and resources. Something new was learned.

***      A fascinating, inspiring and pleasurable experience: the visitor is left in no doubt as to what makes Glen X Glen X. Previously unknown facts about the distillery itself or process in general are divulged with all questions answered. The guide is your new best friend.

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT

*          Mash tun, washbacks, stills.

**        Mash tun, washbacks, stills and warehouse.

***      Maltings, mash tun, washbacks, stills and warehouse. From barley to whisky before your eyes.

Notes: [Details provided of any unusual or rarely-seen equipment or practices.]

GENEROSITY

[N/S]  Admission price divided by the number of complimentary drams provided equals more than 3. Bad form!

*          Admission price divided by the number of complimentary drams provided equals precisely 3. Generous.

**        Admission price divided by the number of complimentary drams provided equals less than 3. Very generous!

VALUE FOR MONEY

[N/S]  Very disappointing. I should have cycled on by.

*          Value for money was had. A good tour that justifies travel time, costs and any other potential inhibitor.

**        A superb tour during which the knowledge divulged and the experience gained might just have completed the transition to whisky expert, and for which you would have been happy to pay a lot more.

Score: [The final score out of a possible ten stars.]

Comments: [General musings about the tour, summarising my feelings, listing anything noteworthy not already covered and making a recommendation about whether to visit or not.]

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