Helensburgh Charity Whisky Tasting
Happily, all our fears were unfounded. We had a good turnout of around 60 people - some whisky enthusiasts, some novices and some that didn’t even like whisky but had come along because Rhona asked them to and it was for a good cause - We even managed to convert one of our non-whisky drinking friends! (Yes, we do have some!) The joint tasting thing seemed to go okay too, at least after the first dram or two, and, between ticket sales and the raffle, we raised a fantastic £1640 for Macmillan. All in all, a pretty successful evening.
We had a pretty good tasting line up too thanks to Mark’s current employer, Cadenheads, and my previous employers, Springbank and Glenfarclas, who very generously donated all of the whisky for the event.
Huge thanks to everyone that provided whisky, raffle prizes and came along to support the event. Who knows, we may even do more joint tastings in the future!
Today is an exciting day - I have finally managed to get my hands on some of the new Springbank Local Barley! Now, I must admit, my expectations are fairly (unreasonably?) high for this one as one of my favourite drams of all time is the 1966 Local Barley, which I first tried way back in 2003 at the Vienna Whisky Fair when the lovely chaps from the Austrian Whisky Society very kindly gave me a dram from their bottle in the bar after the show. I remember being absolutely blown away, not just by the whisky, but by the fact that a group of people I had never met before that weekend would share such an old, rare whisky with me, just because they thought I would like it and be interested to try it.
Released this month, this is retailing at around £95 a bottle, although I have seen some bottles sell at auction (yes, already!) for more than double that. Which brings me on to a rant that I have now and again when the subject of escalating whisky prices comes up. As consumers, we often complain that whisky is too expensive, that prices just keep rising. Which is true, but look at it from the producers point of view. How annoying must it be to see someone (or many someones in this case) buy your bottles, not to drink and enjoy, but to immediately flip at auction, making themselves more money per bottle than both the producer and retailer combined? If the market is willing to pay that higher price, then it is totally understandable that the producer would want to increase their share of the profits to allow them to reinvest in the business.
Using this Springbank Local Barley as an example, if Springbank were to charge an extra £20 a bottle (equating to an increase of about £50 on the retail price I would think) they would net themselves an extra £180,000 on a limited release of 9000 bottles such as this one. That’s a whole lot of man hours or casks or tonnes of barley that they are missing out on. In a way then, I think it is quite admirable that Springbank are only charging £95 a bottle for their latest Local Barley Release. I never thought I’d see the day when I considered £95 quid a reasonable price for a bottle of 16yo whisky but considering the price they could be charging (at least if auctions are anything to go by) and the increased costs associated with the local barley releases (small batch, lower yield, higher production costs etc) I think they’re doing pretty well.
With France being such an important export market for scotch whisky (it’s been the biggest export market by volume for the last 10 years at least) there are many, particularly in the mainstream media, who, on reading such figures, would be wringing their hands in despair and proclaiming the end of the Scotch whisky industry as we know it.
And that, dear readers, is what I want to discuss with you; the production methods, raw materials and history behind these numerous new distilleries in a country that I know extremely well as a scotch whisky export market, but have only a passing acquaintance with as a whisky producer in their own right.
When you think about it, it shouldn’t really be surprising that the French are producing whisky. After all, they have just as long and illustrious a tradition of distilling as we do in Scotland, maybe longer. The first written record of distilling in Scotland dates back to 1494 when Friar John Corr bought 8 bolls of malt with which to distill acqua vitae. The first recipe for distilling wine in an alembic appeared as early as 1300. The French have been producing top class spirits for centuries; Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados. If anything, the question should be not, ‘why have they started producing whisky now?’ but ‘why did it take them so long?’.
A recent article by Christine Lambert on slate.fr suggests that whisky was in fact produced in France some 300 years ago but the practice was lost in the mists of time because of an Icelandic volcano. Yes, you read that right. A volcano. Bear with me here. Apparently written records show that an ‘eau-de-vie made from grain, matured in wood’ (and if that’s not a description of whisky, I don’t know what is) was consumed at Stanislas’ Court in Lorraine in the mid-18th century. However, the volcanic ash clouds resulting from the eruption of the Laki volcano in Iceland in 1783 caused all sorts of meteorological chaos across Europe (particularly in France and the Netherlands) which in turn affected crops. A sort of rationing was put in place, and grain distillation was subsequently banned to preserve food stocks. Fruit distillation, however, was allowed to continue as it was a means of preserving the fruit.
It does seem crazy that the eruption of an Icelandic volcano in the 18th century could perhaps have shaped an entire country’s distilling history but then, an Icelandic volcano also managed to ground the entire European aviation fleet for several weeks in the 21st century (and I should know, I was in Paris at the time and had a very, very long train journey back to the North of Scotland), so it’s maybe not that crazy.
Yes, French whisky is relatively new compared to Scotch, but they are not totally new kids on the block either. Ironically, at a time when age statements are disappearing from many scotch whiskies, they are just starting to appear on French ones. The first 10 yo French whisky came out in 2012 (Armorik) and the first 12yo in 2013 (Wambrechies). Philippe certainly thinks the future of French whisky looks rosy; “France has all the skills necessary to make her mark on the whisky market, both in France and abroad. In France because the French want to rediscover local products (locavore movement - Yep, I didn’t know what it was either but I googled it and apparently a locavore eats local, seasonal produce - Ed.) and today there is at least one distillery in each region of France. Since the terrorist attacks in 2015, they have become very proud of their country. (Bourbon sales exploded in the US after 9/11. It’s not a coincidence). Abroad thanks to the quality, luxury image that French wines and spirits already enjoy.”
There are challenges ahead as well though. There are no big players and no one big blend brand so that means budgets are limited. (See, Diageo has its advantages - Ed.) Another potential problem is ‘fake’ French whisky. Since there is no legal definition, anyone could import grain spirit from Germany, India or Scotland, mature it in France and then sell it as French whisky.” The creation this month of the ‘Federation du Whisky de France’, a trade body similar in scope to the Scotch Whisky Association, will hopefully help to protect and build the reputation of true ‘Made in France’ whisky though.
Certainly where food and drink are concerned my experience is that when the French do something they do it well so I, for one, am very excited to see what the future will hold for their many different whiskies. We may have to wait a wee while til we see a ‘French Whisky’ shelf in our local booze shop here in Scotland, but until then, I will just have to content myself with a spot of whisky tourism next time I’m in France (if there’s a distillery in every region, I shouldn’t be too far away from one, no matter where I go on holiday!).
As to whether the Scots should be worried, I’ll leave the final word to Philippe; “Brandy is made all over the planet but everyone knows that the best brandies are French with Cognac and Armagnac. It’s the same for sparkling wines - they’re made everywhere in the world, but the best is Champagne. Today the best whisky is Scotch. And that’s great. French whisky just wants to be that little bit better. Like we’ve done with Cognac and Champagne. Give us a bit of time!”
…I think he’s joking. Cheeky Frenchman!
Whisky - the great leveller
I have had many great conversations with total strangers about what whisky is in my/their glass - I don't know whether drinking vodka or gin would provide quite the same opportunities for striking up random conversations.
Oh, and by the way, if you haven't yet discovered the joys of the EUVS Vintage Cocktail Book library, you really should! (Assuming you are into cocktails that is. If not, you probably won't find it quite so interesting). They have loads of old, presumably out of print (and copyright), books available to read and download, and not just in English. I particularly like the description of the anglo-american bars in Paris in one of the French books (1927 Petits et Grands Verres). Some of the cover designs and illustrations are fantastic too!
Old vs New, A Comparative Taste Test, or 'I got love for you, if you were born in the 80s'
I have just discovered that, unbeknownst to me, my husband has recently been buying lots of random old bottles at auction. The most recent purchase being a bottle of Bell’s from the 80s.
What’s a wife to do?… Suggest a comparative taste test, naturally!
I was very excited to discover that not only has he been buying whisky from the 80s but also other spirits, including a bottle of Ricard from the 80s that he picked up for the bargain price of £4. Now I must confess, I have a huge soft spot for pastis, Ricard in particular, after spending a year living in Aix-en-Provence when I was a student. I felt terribly sophisticated, at age 19, sitting sipping (ok, slugging) Ricard and chain smoking Gauloises in the pavement cafés of Aix, instead of necking pints and shots in the student pubs of Sauchiehall Street. Nearly 20 years on (eeek!) I am still very partial to a wee glass or two of Ricard as an aperitif, even in the depths of Scottish winter (although it does taste much better on a sunny terrace in the South of France)
Anyway, enough nostalgia. Back to the matter in hand, the comparative taste test, which was now to include the1980s Ricard vs the current Ricard as well as the 1980s 12yo Bell’s vs the current NAS Bell’s. After a quick trip to Tesco to pick up a bottle of Bell’s (since we didn’t have any in the house) and a detour via Mark’s office to pick up the 1980s Ricard that he had secreted there (doubtless along with a few other bottles he hopes to sneak into the house at a later date) we were good to go.
We started with the Ricard since it is traditionally an aperitif. In the interests of fairness, we decided to do the tasting blind so I would pour Mark’s drinks while he was out the room and vice versa. Our efforts were thwarted though when the current Ricard turned out to be much darker than the 80s one, so it was immediately obvious which was which. No matter, we pressed on regardless.
So, on to the whiskies. Bell’s bottled c.1980s vs Bell’s bottled c.2015. Around a 30 year age difference in terms of bottling date. In terms of actual declared age, our 1980s bottle carries a 12yo age statement, whereas today’s one, as with many whiskies, is NAS (Bell’s having dropped their most recent 8yo age statement a number of years ago). This one was better suited to a blind tasting as the colour is more or less identical. That said, it was immediately obvious to us both which was the old bottling and which the current one. We both preferred the old one. The current one, to me, seemed much more one dimensional, although to be honest, it was still much better than I expected!
Conclusions then. The generally held belief is that, unlike wines, spirits do not mature/change once bottled and yet in this taste test both the pastis and the whisky are markedly different. Why is that? I’ve always been very sceptical about the so-called ‘old bottle effect’ in older (as in bottled a long time ago rather than matured for longer) whiskies, but this may have changed my mind. However Mark (who has tried many more old bottlings than I have) doesn’t find it in all old bottlings so maybe it is down to changes in production or maturation rather than the whisky/spirit continuing to evolve in the bottle? Or maybe it is a case of evolution, as in, there are tiny, imperceptible changes in character/flavour each year; when you compare this years bottling against last years they are virtually indistinguishable but if you compare this years bottling against one that was bottled 10, 20 or 30 years ago then the differences are much more marked.
I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ll definitely be seeking out more old £4 bottles of Ricard at auction - much cheaper and just as drinkable, if not more so, than the current offering. Not so bothered about the Bell’s, past or present, though!
Surprising results? Maybe, when you consider them from the consumer’s (ie, our) point of view. However, when you look at it from the point of view of a self-proclaimed whisky guru trying to shift copies of the 13th Release of his ‘Bible’, it is perhaps a little less surprising. After all, controversy generates publicity (as we have seen today!). And as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity! Had his Top 5 contained for example; Highland Park 18, Talisker 18, Glenfarclas 21, Springbank 12 Cask Strength and Lagavulin 16 (just plucking some random, good, solid whiskies (in my opinion anyway) out of thin air here!) then would the mainstream media still be writing articles about this book? I would guess not. After all, ‘Scotch Whisky Best in the World’ is not quite as attention grabbing (read, book selling) as ‘Scotch on the Rocks, as Canadian Whisky Crowned Best in the World’.
And anyway, regardless what the results are, the fact remains; this is the opinion of one man. Key word here: opinion. Just because he describes something as the ‘Best Whisk(e)y in the World’ does not mean that it is, or that other people think it is (even though the press seems to think his word is gospel - I think the title of the book goes to everyone’s heads.)
Finally, as far as I am aware, Jim Murray only samples whiskies which have been sent to him for his Bible, so only companies that send him whisky are in with a chance of winning the ‘Best Whisky’ accolade. (When I worked at Springbank and Glenfarclas, his researcher would get in touch asking for samples of anything we’d like tasted. I imagine this is the case for everyone.) Bigger companies probably have a much bigger sample budget than wee ones so therefore are in with a bigger chance of getting the coveted title.
I should point out at this point that I have not tasted Crown Royal Northern Harvest so have no idea whether the accolade is justified or not. I’m almost temped to get myself a bottle to find out, but that would mean they have won darnit!
The Whisky Shop Dufftown celebrates its 10th Anniversary next year and when Mike (Lord, the owner) approached me about designing a commemorative t-shirt for it, I jumped at the chance. For several reasons, but mainly because I know Mike, his shop and Dufftown very well indeed!
You see, the first whisky tasting I ever attended was in that very shop (in its previous incarnation). This was back in 2002 - I had just started working at Springbank and as part of my ‘training’ was at the Dufftown Autumn whisky festival to learn about other distilleries. Coincidentally that first whisky tasting was hosted by my now husband, Mark Watt, although obviously neither of us made a very lasting first impression on each other on that occasion since we both remember the whiskies from that night, but not each other!
Who would’ve thought then that a handful of years later, I’d be living in Dufftown, with the man holding the tasting, sharing a house with the guy that was to buy that very shop?
Did you follow all that? Suffice to say that that tasting was the first of many, many Whisky Shop Dufftown tastings that I have attended over the years and the first of many, many evenings that I have spent drinking with Mike!
Anyway, enough of the back story, let’s get back to the 10th Anniversary celebrations. So, the deal was Mike wanted me to design a commemorative t-shirt building on his ongoing ‘Dufftown whisky region’ gag. He even helpfully sent me a list of all the Dufftown distilleries (maybe he thought I’d forgotten them all since moving back to Campbeltown) and a rough outline of the Dufftown urban area (if you can call any part of Dufftown ‘urban’) courtesy of google maps.
Then, inspiration struck again (I was on a roll that day) as it occurred to me that I could do something like the London tube map (cause Dufftown is just like London) with distilleries instead of stops. After all, Mike used to live in London, so it tied everything together quite well I thought. This then, is the final design;
So, Dufftown as a whisky region, what's all that about?
Dufftown is a small town but it is the beating heart of the whisky industry. It has 11% of the whisky production capacity. It is home to some of the biggest single malt brands like Glenfiddich and Balvenie. Also, it is difficult to see how the blended industry would survive without it. Even the mighty Johnnie Walker would struggle to survive without the whiskies from Dufftown, Glendullan and particularly Mortlach distilleries. Why should it not be a recognised whisky region? But it is often just a mangled blob on most whisky maps with all its distilleries overlaid over each other. This is about giving Dufftown the space on the whisky map it deserves.
What made you decide to leave the high flying city life in London and buy a whisky shop in Dufftown?
My love of whisky is the simple answer but it was more complicated than that. I had not really planned the change. I had been coming up to Dufftown for many years and knew the shop well. I was told it was up for sale and was likely not to continue as a whisky shop. The next thing was that I was in the local pub and being congratulated on buying the shop and saving it so I thought why not.
In the (nearly!) 10 years you've had the shop, what do you think are the biggest changes you've seen in the whisky industry? Any predictions for how the next 10 years will go?
It would have to be price but that’s more of an indication of how long I have been drinking whisky than anything else. The rise of the no age statement or more precisely the dropping of age statements is a biggie. We have gone from being told every year counts to being told that putting an age statement on a whisky is an unnecessary restriction.
What I have been talking about for the last year or so is that the boil must come of the whisky market and that has started to happen with the sale of blends which has caused a few nerves in some areas of the industry. All hail the continuing success of the single malt but the very big brother is blended whisky and even a small down in that market has a big impact. So we are going to see more and “better” whiskies becoming available to the Independents again as the distilleries won’t need to keep such a tight hold on their stocks. But maybe that is already starting to happen with single malts becoming available from distilleries you would not have expected even 12 months ago. May be then my prediction for 10 years time is a massive up-turn in the sales of whisky and a race to expand distilleries and build new ones. It’s all very cyclic anyway.
Favourite thing about running the shop?
The best thing is finding a new favourite whisky for a customer and the look on their face when they try it. There is nothing else that comes close.
Least favourite thing?
There’s a list and maybe people asking for discounts should be at the top but a real frustration is people coming in to the shop and asking for directions to a distillery because they must go to the distillery shop to buy their whisky. The couldn’t possibly buy it from me. “Which way do I go again?”
What are some of the best questions you have been asked by customers? (I know you have a list!)
Another list you mean. One that really stands out is the couple that came in to buy a train whistle and could not understand why I did not sell them. I was recently asked the way to Jameson distillery – I did start my reply by saying the first they had to do was go to Aberdeen Airport and fly to Ireland. I have been asked to fix some ones glasses. I was once asked by a group to organise for them a day trip to The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival. They were staying in Brighton. This is a very long list.
Anything you can tell us about what your anniversary year has in store for us?
There’s a fantastic commemorative T-Shirt! (Thanks Mike! - ed) A special single malt which was distilled in the first place I ever stayed in Scotland. A special Glencairn. These are all in the bag or virtually so and a few more things that are not quite finalised yet. Hopefully there will even be a spirit made to my own recipe that has no need to go in a cask– the trial sample went down very well at our bonfire party! We also have a few upgrades in train for the shop.
Playing his cards quite close to his chest there about what else he’s got in store for the Anniversary year but I’m certainly looking forward to finding out more in due course and hopefully joining in the birthday celebrations with Mike, Val and the rest of the Whisky Shop Dufftown team. Congratulations on the first (nearly) 10 years guys - here’s to the next 10!
A Christmas Gift for Whisky fakers?
It would appear that McTears are selling three separate lots of old whisky labels, all in pristine condition, at their upcoming auction. At a time when old and rare bottles of whisky are selling for vast sums, surely this is just a gift for whisky fakers?
I'm sure there are still some genuine label collectors out there and I would imagine the labels are being put up for sale by someone who came by them legitimately through some kind of connection to the company or the bottling hall. That said though, it still doesn't sit well with me. You would think that McTears should have a moral obligation at least to withdraw these from sale. After all, fake bottles are not good for their business or reputation.
To me, the SWA would be much better employed focussing their attention on this type of legal grey area rather than producers who are too transparent about what is in their whiskies! Maybe that's just me though.
Hopefully this has served as a warning to anyone who sees any 'old' G&M bottles coming up at auction over the next few months and not an advert to whisky fakers as to where they can get a good stash of old labels!
I love Christmas. I love seeing all the Christmas decorations going up in shop windows and Christmassy gifts appearing on the shelves (as long as it’s before Halloween - earlier than that is just taking it all too far, even for me!). I love the family get togethers, the santa stockings, Christmas dinner, the whole bit. What I have not felt the love for, until now anyway, is the Christmas jumper!
It seems that Christmas jumpers are now practically obligatory though, for work Christmas dos, family get togethers and anyone working in a retail or service environment in the run up to Christmas. So going on the theory, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”, I have decided to create my own Christmas jumper for this festive period. But, it’s a Christmas Jumper with a difference, cause all of the elements of the design are related to whisky! A hommage to the other ‘spirit’ of Christmas, if you will!
And yes, I know the Peated Cask is part of their NAS Vintage Reserve Range, (which Glenrothes describes as, ‘Exceptional Vintages from different years, married together in perfect harmony”), but even so, it is still comparatively cheap with the Elder’s Reserve (which is at least 18yo) and the Minister’s Reserve (at least 21yo) both coming in at £108 a bottle.
And that’s without comparing it to any other distillery bottlings in the same vein (Macallan Rare Cask Black anyone? I think I saw that with an RRP of about $450 USD)
Assuming that price is not a typo, since I have seen it from multiple sources, then firstly I would like to congratulate Berry Bros on their sensible NAS pricing, even though we know it is actually from 1992 (says something about today’s whisky market when £45 is a sensible price for a bottle of NAS) And secondly, I suggest getting to your nearest M&S sharpish and picking up a bottle, before someone decides they could probably get away with charging an extra £100 a bottle for it!
I’ve not tried it yet, but at that price it’s got to be worth a punt! If only my nearest Marks & Spenser wasn’t 140 miles away…
Whisky Impressions is run by Kate Watt. Previously at Springbank and then Glenfarclas, I now design some whisky related stuff and write about it, and anything else that takes my fancy, on this blog.