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.

200415_Glenfiddich_0412

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

Image result

 

Don’t be snobbish about blended whisky

January 25 is Burns Night, Scotland’s annual feast to celebrate its greatest poet, Robert Burns. Whisky is an integral part of the evening, and Burns, a famous whisky lover, has for years proved a useful ambassador for his national drink. So much so, in fact, that a recently re-launched whisky called Usquaebach uses a quote from the Burns poem Tam O’Shanter in its marketing: “Wi’ usquabae (sic), we’ll face the devil!”

For whisky lovers in North America and Britain, Burns Night is a good excuse to crack open a decent bottle of single malt whisky—which has long been seen as the gold standard for the drink. But Usquaebach, like many other excellent whiskies at the moment, isn’t a single malt—it’s a blend. In fact, this is how most people take their Scotch. Single malts, which come from one distillery and are made entirely from malted barley distilled in a traditional pot still, make up less than 10% of global whisky sales. Blends, which are made of different malts and usually blended with grain whiskies, comprise the rest.

Don’t be snobbish about blended whiskies. The best blends contain a high percentage of quality aged malts. And blending several malts with some lighter grain spirit can enhance a whisky’s depth of flavour. Big brands do not mean bad whisky. In fact, without the big brands, most single malts would not exist—because many Scottish distilleries were founded to provide malt whiskies for blends. The backbone of one of the world’s bestselling whiskies, Johnnie Walker Black Label, comes from three distilleries, Dailuaine, Mortlach and Benrinnes.

Blending together disparate whiskies into a consistent and harmonious whole is an art, especially as the brands are made in huge quantities. (Case in point: Diageo make around 20 million cases of Johnnie Walker whisky a year.) Whiskies vary in flavou

r and availability, so producers have to keep tinkering to keep the taste consistent. And woe betide you if you mess with someone’s favorite. Dr. Nick Morgan, head of whisky outreach at Diageo told me: “We have to get it right every time. If you get it wrong, there’s always an old customer who will pick up on it.”

Blends were created in the 19th century to be an easily enjoyed product for export around the world, and different whiskies sell better in different markets. “When in different cultures, brands takes on a life of their own,” said Morgan. Grand Old Parr, barely available in Scotland, is now so part of the culture in Colombia that there have been folk songs written about it. Another Diageo product, Buchanans, became popular in South America because its creator, James Buchanan, was a regular visitor in the late 19th and early 20 centuries to buy horses. It’s now America’s fastest growing brand—largely thanks to the Latin American market. Last year, Diageo ran a Spanish-language ad for Buchanan’s entitled “Es Nuestro Momento” (it’s our moment) during the World Series. It’s a long way from Tam O’ Shanter.

Blends aren’t just about big brands, however. There are blenders producing whiskies every bit as exclusive as the rarest single malts. The Blended Whisky company produce a Half-Century Blend containing whiskies with a minimum age of 50 years. It’s meant to be a taste of how whisky was before production techniques were modernized in the 70s and 80s, and it retails for around $1000. A snip compared with the Last Drop’s 50 Year Old Blend—which comes in at $4500 a bottle.

More down to earth are Compass Box, a small blender who have taken the whisky world by storm since founded in 2000 by John Glaser, an American. The company sources aged whisky from big boys like Diageo and John Dewar, but they also buy new make, i.e. clear spirit, and age it themselves so that they can control quality of the cask. Jonathan Gibson, their head of marketing, told me: “We’re fanatical about wood. It’s at the heart of what we do.”

Whereas there might be 40 components in a commercial blend, “our blends are much simpler,” Gibson told me. “After more than 10 whiskies, you can’t taste the subtlety. Put too many colors together and you get brown.” Most blends don’t tell you exactly what’s in them, but Compass Box provide as much information as they’re legally allowed to.

There’s no reason why a blend shouldn’t be as complex or stimulating as a single malt. Gibson pointed out to me that a single malt “is also a blend—a blend of different ages, casks, etc., to make a consistent product. The difference is we blend from different distilleries too.”

So how should you drink your blended whisky? Morgan told me that lighter whiskies such as J&B or Cutty Sark are designed to be drunk with mixers: “Look at old ads. When you see whisky, there is always a soda siphon in the shot. Many people miss the point and complain that blends aren’t that good on their own.” The best blends, though, can be drunk neat as you would a single malt, but their strong flavours also work really well in cocktails. At Duke’s Hotel in London, the legendary barman Alessandro Palazzi made me a special negroni with Grand Old Parr in place of gin. It tasted sensational—though perhaps not one to give to Scotch traditionalists on Burns night.

Click on the Food & Wine website for some recommendations:

The spirit that united Scotland

None more Scottish

This is a longer (and I think better) version of an article that appeared in Saturday’s Guardian:

In 2008 CEO of Diageo, Paul Walsh, referred disparagingly to how Scotch was marketed through ‘bagpipes, heather and tartan’. His point was that distillers had relied too long on cliched notions of Scottishness to sell their product.

Scotch whisky as we know it was invented in the mid-nineteenth century by blending the characterful Highland malts with cheaper Lowland grain spirits. It was a union of the two very different Scotlands. The Lowlanders spoke Scots, a Germanic tongue like English, the Highlanders spoke Gaelic, the Lowlanders were Presbyterian whereas the Highlanders were mainly Catholic.  Robert Louis Stevenson wrote ‘the division of races is more sharply marked within the borders of Scotland itself than between the countries. . . . ’

The growth of blended Scotch coincided with the birth of Highlandism. This was a  peculiar phenomenon where Scotland, a predominantly settled Lowland mercantile society, took on the trappings of the Highlander as a way of differentiating themselves from the English who they were now yoked to in the Union.  To a large extent this image of Scotland was created by Sir Walter Scott. Scott stage-managed the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822. Sir John Plumb, an historian writing in the 20th century, captured the ridiculousness of George’s visit to Scotland but he also sees its significance:

‘He paraded Edinburgh in the kilt, resplendent in the Royal Stuart tartan and flesh-coloured tights, and yet managed to keep his dignity. The Scots loved it. Quaintly enough George IV had struck the future note of the monarchy . . . be-kilted, be-sporraned, be-tartaned, riding up Princes Street. . . . to the roaring cheers of loyal Scots, he was showing the way that the monarchy would have to go if it were to survive an industrial and democratic society.’

It’s the model for the Royal Family today who never look happier than when pretending to be Scottish. Whisky showed how the two Scotlands could unite to sell themselves to the world. Sales promotion played on romantic Highland imagery of the kind that Paul Walsh was tired of. The London offices of Dewars whisky had enormous electric sign of a Highlander in a tam o’ shanter raising a glass of Dewar’s White Label. As he drank his beard and kilt swayed. Highlandism was particularly effective abroad. Before WWI Dewars had a cart pulled by Shetland Ponies that was driven by a man in full Highland regalia through streets of Berlin.

Last year a new whisky was launched with David Beckham called Haig Club. You’d think that the tattooed bearded Beckham would inject a contemporary feel to the product and yet there they are in the adverts, the salmon, the misty loch and the kilts. And who are Haig owned by? Why Diageo of course. If it ain’t broke. . . .

Is vodka’s highest calling to be tasteless?

Why does no one make vodka this good?, I thought as I tried the sublime colourless liquid. I was at the Glenfarclas distillery on Speyside sampling their new make spirit (it cannot legally be called whisky until it has been aged for a minimum of three years but in Glenfarclas’ case it will be aged for much longer in former sherry casks). I’d assumed that most of the flavour in whisky came from the barrels but this liquid had so much character. There was a bready, beery quality that is hardly discernable in the aged spirit.

Vodka’s highest calling, in contrast, seems to be absolute (or perhaps that should be Absolut) tastelessness.  Russian Standard vodka bills itself as: ‘ultra-clean, smooth & delicious’ and made from ‘pure glacial water from the frozen north.’ The marketing guff for premium vodkas always concentrates on smoothness, purity, and how many times they have been distilled and charcoal-filtered. It’s the adman’s dream, a product with no distinctive flavour to get in the way of the marketing.

Until the mid-19th century most Russian and Polish vodkas would have been made much like whisky. This changed in 1895 when Czar Alexander III made vodka a state monopoly. Distillation switched to the recently invented rectification column which produces a stronger, purer and blander spirit. This neutral industrial spirit, only a whisper away from pure ethanol, became the model for vodka around the world. Happily for the discerning drinker there are a few companies doing things the old way. One is Vestal Vodka from Poland who produce highly-distinctive vodkas from potatoes. You can really taste the potato but also distinct notes of spice, fruit, caramel and pepper with a creamy texture.  You must drink them cool rather than ice cold.  Most of their vodkas are not only vintage, ie from a single potato harvest, but also from a single variety of spud.  These are vodkas that can compete with wine for complexity and sense of place.

It’s interesting to see if whisky might go down the same route. The barley in Scotch can come from anywhere – the only terroir qualities come from the climate and the water – but some distilleries are returning to local raw materials. A new distillery, Ballindalloch  just up the road from Glenfarclas (full disclosure – the master distiller Charles Smith is my uncle), have just started distilling from barley grown on their estate but won’t have anything to sell for a good few years. Perhaps they should sell a little vodka until their spirit matures. Vestal produce a vodka aged in sherry-seasoned barrels which has something of the single malt about it. Soon we won’t be able to tell where vodka ends and whisky begins. These are confusing times for booze traditionalists but with spirits this good, who really cares?

This originally appeared in the Guardian. 

Sherry: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times

Twelve years ago when I would ask for a sherry in a bar, I would be greeted with a suspicious look as if I was taking the mick and then, realising I was in earnest, the barman would reach for a dusty bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream. He would pour a warm stale drop. It tasted disgusting and always such a small glass. In the late 90s nobody drank sherry except maiden aunts, vicars and a few people in the wine business. It was like belonging to a secret club which was just how I liked it. Now if you go to that same bar it might well have an extensive menu of sherries ranging from light, gluggable mazanillas to a super sweet Pedro Ximenez. One can go to specialist sherry bars such as El Pepito in King’s Cross, a note perfect rendition of an Andalucian tapas bar complete with excellent ham (though sadly with London prices.) In September I attended the largest sherry tasting ever put on in Britain with over 150 wines. It was packed not only with long-nosed wine bores like myself but also with trendy youngsters with fixed-gear bicycles and moustaches.  The wines were, almost without exception, exquisite. The VORS, very rare old sherry, category is attracting collectors rather as old bottlings of single malt whisky do. Companies have sprung up such as Equipo Navajos who don’t make any wine, they just bottle rare sherries that they find in other people’s cellars. They taste a bit like single malts too: medicinal, tangy, uncompromising. Actually that should be the other way round, whisky tastes of sherry as it is aged in barrels that contained sherry.

IMG-20120917-00014

From London it looks like sherry is in rude health but news hasn’t reached the sherry towns of Jerez, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria which have an air of faded glory and, in some areas, outright dilapidation. Sherry used to be big business, like the wool trade in Bradford or cars in Detroit. It was big business in Britain too. Some of the biggest names in Jerez have British names, Williams & Humbert, Harveys, Osborne and Gonzalez-BYASS.  Sherry used to sell by the barrel to every bar, pub, restaurant, hotel, club and large house in the world. A few thousand people in London drinking a glass of fino a week and then writing a blog about it will not bring back the glory days. In April 2011 the Tio Pepe neon sign was taken down in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol to make way for an Apple store. This advert had been in place since 1936 and was as much part of the Madrid skyline as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Though Gonzalez-Byass, makers of Tio Pepe, say that it will find a new home for the famous sign, one can’t help thinking its removal is an ill omen. It’s as if the ravens have flown the Tower of London.

Sherry missed out on the wine boom of the last 25 years. It doesn’t appeal to the modern drinker brought up on Shiraz or Sauvignon Blanc nor does it have the status to appeal to the newly rich in China and India. Yet it’s expensive to make and the wine cannot be sold straight after vintage. Producing good sherry relies on holding large stocks of maturing wine, as in most cases sherry is a blend of different vintages. The idea is to have a consistent product made to a house style, again there are similarities with whisky.

Most the famous names are now owned by conglomerates for whom sherry is a prestigious but small part of their business. Having a sherry bodega is like owning a racehorse, a labour of love rather than a profitable business. Any money to be made is either at the bottom end turning out supermarket own label wines – incidentally some of them are excellent*  – or at the top end selling rare bottling for £30 a go. The middle ground has gone. And there is no room for the small player either. Bodegas are going broke every year and are swallowed up by the big boys. Or they’re selling off their priceless old wines in a desperate bid to stay afloat. The growth in rare bottling is a warning sign. Most bodegas would prefer to keep rare old wines to add complexity to their brands.

So what’s the answer? Drink more sherry obviously and remember that 30 years ago Scotch whisky was in crisis with distilleries closing every year. What saved Scotch was canny marketing of the big brands in emerging markets and the growth of single malts at home, the US and Japan. Sherry could learn something from this. The quality is there and the interest is increasing. It may never rule the world again but it might once again make good business sense.

A longer version of this article appeared in Sunseeker Magazine.

*I’m currently drinking Waitrose Jerezano Dry Amontillado made by Lustau which offers absurd quality for £8.99

Click here for some more sherry recommendations.