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Interviews Spirits

Booze interview with Ian Buxton

I am delighted and honoured to have Ian Buxton as guest on my blog. His new book, Whiskies Galore: A Tour of Scotland’s Island Distilleries, comes out this month. It’s an idiosyncratic and often very funny stroll around some of Scotland’s most romantic distilleries. There’s some autobiography, some history and a whole lot of whisky but what I like the most about it is Buxton’s constant questioning of the sheer amount of bullshit that surrounds Scotch. And yet for all the iconoclasm not for a moment do you doubt Buxton’s deep love for Scotland’s greatest export.

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When did you first realise that whisky was something special and can you remember the whisky that triggered this feeling?

Many of my fellow whisky writers appear to be able to recall this with blinding clarity as some sort of Damascene moment.  I fear I cannot offer any such startling revelation, though it was a happy day when working in the whisky industry paid the mortgage and put food on the table.

What was your first job in the whisky business?

It was in the late 1980s for Robertson & Baxter the blenders, now more or less subsumed into the Edrington Group.  They were, though I didn’t realise it at the time, whisky royalty and behaved accordingly.  I thought it all rather stuffy. As they had come to the conclusion that food was the way forward they had an ill-starred project to buy food companies and, to my chagrin, I was involved in that side of the business more than whisky. It was not a happy time, and I left after a couple of years to join Glenmorangie as their Group Marketing Director.

That offered more whisky but even less happiness.

Do you have a favourite whisky?

Would it be too optimistic to suggest it’s the one you’re about to buy me?

I am a great fan of Highland Park and older Glenfarclas.  But I have taken a great partiality recently to better American rye whiskies, such as that from Michter’s.

Do you have a least favourite whisky?

Can’t say I do.  But I completely fail to see the point of vodka.  Will that do?

Which whisky country are you most excited about?

Curiously, almost everywhere, but especially the new wave of ‘world whisky’ producers in countries such as Iceland, Finland, Taiwan, France and so on.

And which distillery?

I was an early fan of Kavalan in Taiwan and I’m delighted to see how far and how fast they have developed. Teerenpeli in Finland make whisky which surprises all who try it – and I have very high hopes for the English whisky due any day from the Cotswold Distillery.

What is it about island distilleries that make them so romantic?

I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of this in my new Whiskies Galore book.  There is an inherently romantic appeal to islands, especially the Scottish ones, that seems to draw visitors from all round the world, and the more urban and congested their home environment the more the isolation and open spaces attract them.  But it was not always thus, and in the book I recall a time, not so very long ago, when island distilleries were closed and virtually abandoned and their whisky all but unsaleable.

Does the salt air really affect the taste?

I doubt it, especially as most of the whisky made there spends most of its life far from the sea.  But, then again, Highland Park and many Islay whiskies have an undeniable, indefinable salty tang to them.

You have in the past been quite vocal in your criticisms of the conservatism of Scotch whisky, what do you think they could do to be a bit more innovative?

My consultancy services are available at very reasonable rates.

What’s the most you’ve ever spent on a bottle of whisky?

This information is classified, particularly from Mrs Buxton.  But actually, not a great deal.

What do you think of the prices of say old Macallan? $25,000 for a bottle of 50 year old.  

They are certainly beyond my pocket.  In the near future I doubt they will come down as demand evidently exceeds supply.  But I fear this is a bubble, driven by fashion and spurred on by those with a vested interest, that will eventually end in tears.  And not to pick on The Macallan particularly, but I cannot help notice the vulgarity and excess of the packaging of many so-called ‘luxury’ whiskies and wondering how much of the cost is accounted for by the hand-blown bottle; silver decoration and undeniably lovely oak boxes and so on, and how much by the whisky.  And that is before we mention the percentage margins applied all through the supply chain to the retailer’s shelves.

What’s the most memorable whisky you’ve ever had?

That’s a score draw between a very old Bowmore drawn directly from the cask in the No. 1 Vaults (a most atmospheric space) and a cask-strength Glenfarclas from 1953.  And, thinking about it, the very old expressions Glenglassaugh were quite special.

Which writers do you think write well about drink?

Those who have served a proper apprenticeship in the industry – on whisky, Charles MacLean and Dave Broom come to mind; the late Michael Jackson pioneered writing on both beer and whisky; I enjoy Alice Lascelles’ journalism and the trenchant, cutting commentary of The Whisky Sponge.  Will Lyons happily avoids the pretension that accompanies quite a lot of wine writing and Jonathan Ray’s column in The Spectator offers excellent buying pointers.

And there’s a new Henry Jeffreys fellow who can be quite droll.  I like what he’s doing these days.

Did I mention that I’ve got a new book out?

Ends (tearfully)

Thanks Ian! Buy the book here

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Wine articles

Fortified wine masterclass at the Restaurant Show

I’m giving what’s being very grandly billed as a fortified wine masterclass at the Restaurant Show at Olympia (London) on Tuesday 3rd October at 12 noon which is the perfect time for your first glass of something over 17%.

It’s really an excuse to talk about some of the more obscure fortified wines that I love and wish more people did as some are very much on the endangered species list. Everyone knows about port and sherry but similar wines are made all over the world. I’ve picked a few from the south of France, Australia, Sicily and near Lisbon. The great thing about these wines is that for the quality, the prices are absurdly low. Look at the age of some of these wines! This is what I’ll be talking about:

Marsala vergine 2001, Terre Arse, Cantina Florio – regular readers will know about my deep affection for this Sicilian wine and my never ending amusement at the name. This is one of the very few unsweetened marsalas available in Britain, though saying this it’s actually becoming quite hard to get hold of.

Rivesaltes 1998, Frères Parcé – think of this as a sort of southern French tawny port though made from white grapes, grenache gris/ blanc and macabeu. It’s aged in old casks that are left out in the heat and the rain so that it gently cooks and takes on nutty dried fruit flavours. It’s a real crowdpleaser.

Maury 2005,Cuvée Aurelie Pereira de Abreu, a Préceptorie de Centernach – if the wine above is a tawny then this is a southern French vintage port. I mean that it’s immensely fruity, quite tannic and needs time in the bottle to soften, though it is drier and lower in alcohol than its Portuguese cousin. It’s mainly made from grenache noir and despite being 12 years old still has tonnes of primary fruit.

Bleasdale, The Wise One Tawny, 10 Year Old, Langhorne Creek – the Australian wine industry was built on wines such as this which were until quite recently called ‘ports’. Nowadays they are very much a minority interest and all those old vines, mainly grenache, shiraz and mouvedre, now go into excellent dry wines. But you must try an Australian ‘port’ because they are like nothing else on earth.

Moscatel de Setubal, Adega de Pegões – made near Lisbon this is made from ultra sweet late harvest muscat grapes (muscat of Alexandria and moscatel roxo) which are fermented briefly and then fortified with spirit to stop fermentation leaving masses of unfermented sugar. The grape skins are then left in the wine for about six months which gives this particular wine a unique richness and bite. I had a bottle from 1980 recently which was superb.

Stanton and Killeen Rutherglen Muscat, 12 Years Old – an Australian classic from Victoria. This is made a little like the muscat from Setubal but then the wine is left to age in a solera system in hot sheds where the flavours concentrate.  It’s one of the sweetest wines in the world with about 282g of residual sugar – most Sauternes has about 100. Despite being as sweet as molasses it still has acidity and a haunting floral taste, I find it immensely drinkable.

Please come along, try some unique wines and listen to me prattle on. If you can’t make it most of these wines are available from the Wine Society except the marsala which I had great trouble tracking down and the Maury which is from my own cellar.

Here’s a picture of an old barrel from the Baglio Florio in Marsala:

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