What does Christmas taste like? And stemming from that - what does Christmas in a glass taste like? Depending on where you live in the world, Christmas can taste remarkably different. In Poland, Barszcz (beetroot soup). In Denmark Julesild (spiced, pickled herring). In the Philippines, Bibingka (rice-flour cakes). But here in the UK, outside of the traditional roast Turkey, the rich, fruit-laden Christmas cake has been synonymous with the holiday since the 16th century.
Life is all too fleeting – and there’s nothing like a whisky release countdown timer to reinforce that sense of ephemerality. Urgency and scarcity are powerful motivators. Particularly it seems, this year when that clock is striking both at 6am on The Whisky Exchange as normal, but also in an act of complete marketing replication, six hours earlier at 12am on Master of Malt. I’m totally unconvinced that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery here.
If I tear you open wide, take a look inside Are you pretty? Can I get inside your mind, see what I can find? Are you pretty? So just take off that disguise, everyone knows that you're only Pretty on the outside
I’ve written before about why I don’t believe that the growth of whisky is a bubble – at least not one analogous to the well documented crashes of financial markets and certainly not in any way comparable to tulips. Just stop. But, regardless of whether I’m right or wrong, I’m here to suggest to enthusiasts that the viewing the whisky market as some form of boil that requires lancing is an immense mistake.
The entire distillery workflow is usually framed in linear terms. Afterall, whisky making is the very definition of a process - a continuous, planned and predictable movement from ingredient transformation and distillation through to maturation, bottling and finally on to the point of sale. A constant and consistent conveyor belt. Rinse and repeat. But this one-dimensionality is not always the case in reality. There are many variables, junctures and difficult decisions involved in the creation of whisky that do not take place on production floors. Distilleries as businesses are faced by an ever-changing array of assessments and choices. Outside of “what are we making and how?”, there are other pertinent calculations that need to be made – least of all “how much are we making, when are we making it and how long are we planning on keeping it?”
The old adage suggests that there’s no accounting for taste. But the psychology of why people actually like things is unquestionably complex. Taste is just a method for filtering the world. Of attempting to apply order to chaos. Perhaps the original thing that humans applied the notion of personal discernment to was food – once sustenance moved from being purely a mechanism for survival, choice suddenly came into play. Apparently we now face upwards of over 200 food decision each and every day. Blimey. Whisky is in essence no different to any other taste decision – it’s a combination of exposure (I.E. awareness), culture and individual personality. And like all other choices, none of these are inherently static or fixed.
The trouble with writing about whisky is that it’s not easy to do well. Those that excel have both the technical knowledge and the innate ability to take their readers on a journey of discovery. They stimulate conversation and illuminate explanation through a seamless amalgamation of entertainment with education. However, not only are these individuals increasingly in short supply – in some quarters the need for them is being questioned. 240 characters or a well-framed photo is now apparently deep enough for many folks. But contrary to diminishing attention spans, I would strongly posit that whisky requires conversant observation and grounded analysis. When a drink takes a long as it does to create, it shouldn’t then fall purely into ephemerality. If you are proclaiming a spirit (and the industry that crafts it) as complex then surely its scrutiny can and should be equally multifaceted.
Barley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Barley was as dead as a doornail.
The core motivation behind independent bottlers has never been to sell whiskies at prices considerably discounted over distillery’s own outputs. That fondly remembered scenario of inexpensive IB releases is now steadily moving out of focus of current day drinkers – but at the same time perceptions that this pricing disparity was *always* the case are actually something of a distortion. And indeed, down the line I suspect we may well all look back on the period of time when IB bottlings were relatively ‘cheap’ as something of an oddity – a gilded age unlikely to be repeated.
Whisky’s intrinsic relationship with the concept of the passage of time is a deeply-rooted yet oft-times rolled-out trope. Outside of the obvious physical requirements of making something and then for all intents and purposes leaving it alone – the industry has perennially gathered around the notion that ‘good whisky is worth waiting for’ – at least for three years. Whilst nowadays time is all too often wrapped up into the idea of the age statement – its application and its historic utilisation cuts far deeper. If you look back to the earliest whisky advertisements of the late 19th Century (all for blends and many that you’d nowadays mark as NAS), you’ll see the regular employment of words such as “old”, “slowly”, “patiently” and “unhurriedly” – all to some degree of truisms of the whisky making process itself - and none having left the modern-day lexicon. But nevertheless, throughout the spirit’s long history the idea of time has been repeatedly deployed to plant the acorn of an idea that it is synonymous with whisky.
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that throughout the course of today you’re going to hear one thing repeatedly said about this year’s TWE Black Friday release - “It’s just a Caol Ila.” I’m also going to go out on a limb and tell you why I believe that this all too regularly intoned, throwaway dismissal does a disservice to one of the world’s most versatile distillates.
Whilst the longer established whisky producers continue their relentless drive toward ‘making more from less’, AKA premiumisation – newer distilleries are waiting in the wings ready to garner a noteworthy market share from the gulf that is increasingly developing between preliminary/introductory bottles and the upper strata of ‘aspirational whisky’. The big players seem hell bent on racing to the top – of positioning as much of their whisky as possible as somehow more than just a drink. I.E. as a luxury lifestyle statement. But once this has all inevitably been played out, it could well be those racing up from the bottom who reap the rewards longer term.
Whilst an array of indy bottlers have slowed down their release cycles due to the struggle that is accessing suitable casks and acquiring increasingly hard to obtain (and progressively more expensive) dry goods such as bottles, foils and corks - the Scotch Malt Whisky Society is showing no signs of letting up. And in all honesty, I’m now starting to wonder if I need to find some shelter from their storm of bottles.
It sounds oh so simple. Collect some samples. Taste them. Then pick the ‘best’ one and bottle it. If only. I’ll tell you straight off the bat - bottlers deserve a whole lot of patience and respect from whisky enthusiasts. More than they often receive. The life of an independent bottler in 2022 is both laboured and increasingly challenging. Whilst the bottled results might feel like newly welcomed members of an extended family, the conception, gestation and birthing process itself is to my mind closer to a drawn out pregnancy that culminates in a traumatic, PTSD-inducing delivery. If I had my time again, I’d have the gas and air on standby.
Back in March I opened my SMWS outturn review with “Goodness - has it really been a whole 6 months since our last SMWS outturn review?” And here we are….another 6 months on <sigh>. A few of you have messaged asking where The Dramble’s outturn review have got to (two over 12 months is super slim pickings) – but despite some amusingly left-field suggestions, our inability to bring you Society reviews has been purely down to the continued buggeration that is logistics. Simply put - Greville Street in London has not been getting outturn bottles until right up until the wire of the release itself. Not nearly enough time to taste, note, collate and write up.
Despite the staggeringly broad compositions that are possible when combining multiple, sometimes disparate casks into a single, unified expressions – the attraction of whisky geeks to single casks is as predictable as moths to a flame. It matters not a jot how many pieces are penning championing either the necessity or the art of blending – the perceived ‘purity’ of single cask whisky is just as, if not more, revered than it has ever been. And there are times when I find it a particularly odd state of affairs to see enthusiasts venerating whisky makers, but at the same time clamouring for bottlings with the least amount of intervention from them.
The ‘rule of three’ is an age-old writing technique that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying and more effective than any other number. Veni, vici, vidi. The Three Wise Men. Of the people, by the people, for the people. Once you start to notice it – you’ll see threes absolutely everywhere. Beginnings, middles and ends. Past, present and future. Mind, body and soul. This prevalence isn’t anything mystical – it’s simply the smallest number that allows the human mind to recognise a pattern. And as such, it is also a perfect threshold for the packaging and marketing of products – whisky included.
Even the most superficial of look-backs into the history of whisky will reveal a remarkable, constantly alterable spirit diversity - and this should serve as a reminder that there is no end point for whisky style and no ultimate manifestation of whisky evolution. Whisky changes. Whisky *needs* to change.
Despite waiting years, decades or even generations for a whisky to mature, it seems that patience is far from a virtue when it comes to getting that whisky to people’s doorsteps. I still remember as a much younger man feeling somewhat privileged to receive a package within a couple of weeks of ordering it. Waiting for things was simply a prerequisite back then. But, oh how times have changed. Immediate access to anything and everything all of the time and same-day deliveries might be steadily championing the democratisation of our right to laziness – but at the same time, should whisky ever be viewed as an ultra-convenience?