World of Booze returns

Merry Christmas! Here’s a picture of what I drank over the festive period. Obviously, we drank a lot more than this but these were the highlights:

crop xmas

But I’m not writing to show off the fine booze consumed. Well, I am actually but I’m also writing to say that Henry’s World of Booze is back. The blog, which has been going since 2010 (which is at least 63 in terms of the internet which works like dog years), was getting very patchy when I was writing my second book, The Home Bar (which came out in September 2018). I then stopped updating completely in summer 2018. I had just got a job as features editor on the Master of Malt blog and then about the same time I was asked to write a book for Mitchell Beazley, The Cocktail Dictionary (coming September 2020).

So I got out of the habit but also it felt like blogging was sort of over. At least the personal, amateurish sort of blog that I wrote. Most people got their fix of interaction with like-minded individuals from social media rather than the comments section on blogs (or even met them in real life). I look back to the kind of in-depth discussions that used to go on in the comments sections and marvel; I know friends who met in the comments section! But then it was all about social media, why get into arcane arguments about who invented sherry or the correct way to fry an egg in the comments when you could do it on twitter?

Actual photo of recent twitter spat

And this was all great for a while but gradually the people who one used to have fun conversations with became obsessed with bigger issues. Which is fine. There’s a lot to get exercised about but twitter etc. stopped being fun around 2015 and seemed to be more about competitive frothing at the mouth than the good-natured banter of old. Naming no names. I now find that I spend less and less time on social media. During big events like elections, I don’t go on at all and it’s like taking a long hot bath with a glass of armagnac. Yes, there’s instagram which is great for showing off fancy bottles of whisky but I’m not really suited to it. There’s my complete inability to take a decent picture for starters but also I find I enjoy a bottle more if I’m not thinking about how to brag about it online. The sweetest meal is usually the unphotographed one.

So I’ve started blogging again. I’m hoping blogging will make a return in 2019 as everyone leaves twitter, realises that things aren’t so bad and get back to discussing more important matters. The reason I started the blog originally is because I had a head full of thoughts about drink that needed letting out. And once again my head is filling up and I need to relieve the pressure. I drink a lot of interesting booze of all sorts and meet interesting boozy people, and not just in the pub, so anything that won’t make a proper feature for my employer, Master of Malt, will work here.

There will be lots of good fresh locally-sourced content as well as some reheated articles. ‘Tis the season for leftovers after all. Or I might just draw people’s attention to things that I find interesting. It’ll be mainly about booze, naturally, but there might will be some food stuff and maybe some Kenty things, I have just moved to Faversham after 19 years in London.

Please do subscribe and comment or just email me at henry g jeffreys at gmail dot com (I’m writing it like that to dissuade spam though god knows I get enough of it. Mainly mature Russian lady dating.)

Here’s to a boozy bloggy happy 2020.

 

This week I’m drinking. . . . whisky & soda

It’s been a while since I did one of these and probably will be  a while before I do another one because I have been hard at work on a book which is due to come out in October this year (!) I’ll tell you more about it soon but it’s going to be a coffee table book about drinking and entertaining at home.

To fortify myself I’ve been drinking highballs. Well I’m not sure mine are quite highballs.  I was introduced to the joy of the highball by a semi-Japanese friend last month. Before then I’ve always tended to drink whisky neat or very lightly watered but the Japanese drink it heavily diluted with lots of ice to make a drink that’s as refreshing as a gin and tonic. In fact more refreshing because it’s much less sweet.

A proper high ball should be served in a tall glass with lots of ice and soda water. Mine are I suppose closer to an old whisky and soda like my nanny (my grandmother, not a lady in a starched outfit who was paid to look after me) used to drink. Mine are about 1 part whisky to 4 parts sparkling water with 3 or 4 standard size ice cubes.

But which whisky? I tend to use whatever comes to hand. There’s my heretical house blend which is tasting particularly fine at the moment thanks to an influx of Xmas whisky samples. Also the smoky Compass Box No Name whisky worked a treat as did Four Roses Small Batch bourbon. Whichever whisky goes in, a dash off orange bitters and a piece of orange or satsuma peel lifts the whole drink and gives it a liquid marmalade type quality.

You can drink them very weak indeed and they still taste marvelous. When I grow old and deaf, I’m going to be like nanny and answer every question after 12 noon with the word ‘whisky.’

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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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 mysteries of distillation

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The image above is on the distillery door at Delord in Armagnac. It shows the working of an alambic a continuous still used to make the spirit. Continuous in that the wine is constantly pumped in (where it says vin) and spirit comes out where it says ‘60%’ (alcohol that is) rather than made in batches as with a pot still. Most are built from copper to 19th century specification by a firm in Condom. To my eye they look like something from Victorian science fiction. 

Château du Tariquet #basarmagnac #copper #alambic #continousdistillation #woodfired #shiny #authentic

Some producers such as Janneau make some spirit in pot stills. The cellarmaster, Philippe Sourbes told me that the alambic produces a spirit with  ‘more personality’ whereas the pot still makes ‘a lighter spirit that needs less ageing.’ This is the exact opposite of what whisky distillers will tell you. Pot-distilled whisky is highly prized. Many Irish whiskies make much of being pot-distilled. Malt whiskey in Scotland can only be made in pots. The cheaper Lowland whiskies with less personality are made in a continuous still not dissimilar to an alambic

How do you explain this discrepancy? I don’t actually know. So as far as I can surmise, continuous stills used in Armagnac work less efficiently than those used in Scotland and Ireland. Certainly they are much smaller and the Analyzer, the column on the left, has less stages in Armagnac than in whisky production. Also the stills in Armagnac work at a lower temperature so that the spirit that comes out at the end will be lower in alcohol therefore it contains more impurities. Ian Buxton, author of 101 Gins to Try Before you Die, put it more succintly

“Fewer plates = less reflux = more impurity = more flavour. Also they use pretty short columns and don’t distil to a particularly high strength so will retain more character.
Base is wine so more inherent flavour complexity than beer base seen in whisky.”
A bit of a nerdy post but I find this sort of thing fascinating. I’d assumed that pot stills always produced a more flavourful spirit. In fact there’s a chapter in my forthcoming book, Empire of Booze, about the difference between Highland and Lowland whiskies, which looks at the two processes and pronounces confidently that pot spirit has more character. It makes you realise that it’s not the process that matters so much as the intention. In Armagnac they are looking for flavour above all from their traditional stills. Seek and ye shall find!

You can read more about my adventures in Armagnac here

 

House blends – booze purists avert your eyes now

I get sent a lot of miniature samples of whisky. This is much better than being sent a whole bottle because I hate to see waste so I end up drinking more. But what to do with all those miniatures once I’ve tasted them and logged them on my tasting database (I really do have a tasting database.) Well I could do as one whisky blogger does which is to sell off some of his collection in sample form (though his were paid for no freebies.) It’s probably not a bad idea when it comes to some of ridiculously-priced whisky that Diageo sometimes release but instead, Scotch purists look away now, I put them in my house blend. It started as the remnants of a bottle of Black Grouse, with some Cutty Sark and Tullamore Dew mixed in but it now contains minute quantities of some extremely swanky whiskies. It’s like a home-grown version of Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Some weeks it tastes extremely good, others a bit weird, but it’s always interesting and makes a distinctive base for cocktails and the like.

I thought I was the only  heretic but I had lunch with a well-known whisky writer recently, lets call him Ian, and he confided that he has three glass demijohns in his cellar, one for whisky samples, one for very peaty whiskey samples so as not to upset the house blend and one for gin. I have a house gin too but the most successful is my house brandy. It’s based on a Brandy de Jerez but recently I’ve added tiny amounts of cognac to it. That improved it no end making it lighter, fruitier and accentuating that oloroso sherry finish.

My mania for blending may be getting out of hand, last week I mixed some of my mother’s marmalade with some of my wife’s. It wasn’t a great success.

 

 

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. . . .