Turning from Whisky to Wine
Posted: 1st May 2018
Almost exactly a quarter of a century ago, on 4 May 1993, I was in Milan with Allan Shiach for the launch of the second tranche of the 1926 Macallan sixty-year old malt. Shiach was the major shareholder in the distillery then. As ‘Allan Scott’ he was a great name in the world of films too and he had a flamboyant style that not surprisingly outstripped most of the people in the whisky business. The first batch had been sold off in 1986 at £20,000 a bottle. I tasted the whisky, but I understandably I didn’t get a bottle, cheap as it was in those days! I was given a small lithograph by Valerio Adami of a bald woman instead. This was the prototype for the 1993 label. Allan said the woman in the picture looked like Mrs Thatcher.
We stayed at the Principe di Savoia and I had a jolly time wandering around the streets with the late Michael Jackson, while whisky-mad Italians genuflected at his approach. This, I hasten to add, was not the pop-singing mooncalf Jackson, but the beer and whisky hunter, a genial, paunchy, Jewish Yorkshireman who could not have been more different. I had time to interview Armando Giovinetti, the man who had made so many Italians fall in love with malt – and therefore Michael – and who sold his own hugely popular bottling of seven-year old Macallan on the Italian market. Armando didn’t speak much English, but we managed somehow in a combination of French and Italian (he was the owner of Janneau Armagnac) although he kept referring his favourite whiskies as being ‘morbido’, which I learned meant soft or tender, and not ‘morbid’ at all.
Last week two bottles of this sixty-year old whisky – one from each batch – sold for $600,000 a piece! A lot has happened in the whisky world since I hung up my hat.
There was a time when I was north of the border half a dozen times a year trailing from distillery to distillery from the Lowlands to the Highlands and the Islands. I would meet some strong silent type who managed the distillery, ask him a few questions, receive monosyllabic replies and then after a bacon bap and cup of tea, taste the distillery’s offering. That was two or possibly three bottles: a young age-statement, say eight or ten-year old, and an older one that was fifteen, twenty or twenty five. A bottle of the better whisky was generally slipped into my hand before I left. Sometimes we would wander around the warehouses and nose a few casks. Once or twice I was allowed to dabble my fingers in one. Every now and then there would be an independent bottler’s rendition to taste too. That was above all for the older age-statements which had long since fallen into the hands of Gordon & MacPhail in Elgin or one of the others who mopped up casks that had somehow come adrift from the blending process.
Whisky was in a bad way. There was a whole lake of it out there which they were desperate to foist on the Chinese, the Indians or the Vietnamese. Malt was a drop in the lake. No one took much notice of it. It was there to give its oomph to the proprietary blends of the various whisky companies. Then malt took off. Collectors (a lot of them Russian oligarchs) couldn’t get enough of it. They bought up all the old age-statements, and they bought any new whisky run off into cask as an investment. Very soon there was a dearth of malt, and really no really mature whisky unless you were prepared to pay the earth. Instead collectors had to make do with young malts dressed up with different sorts of ‘finishes’ (oak) to make them marketable. Sherry casks cost the earth now, but there are plenty of redundant wine barrels. The collection of malts that once lined my kitchen (and which I have now drunk), would have been worth thousands at today’s prices.
“Even blends have changed. It used to be that you put a number of different malts of different ages totalling some forty percent into sixty percent anodyne grain whisky. They all had their styles: some were Islay-based, some Speyside, some less easy to pinpoint. Compass Box started playing around with blends and omitting the bland grain whisky to combine a few interesting malts.”
Doug McIvor, working for Berry Brothers & Rudd, the former proprietors of Cutty Sark, did the same to make Blue Hangar. I met Doug McIvor last month when he talked us through some of his blends at the Whisky Lounge, a heaven for whisky-lovers upstairs at the pretty Punchbowl Pub next to the Jesuits in Mayfair. A sweet, almondy Speyside relied heavily on Glen Rothes, which used to be a constituent part of Cutty Sark; a Sherry Cask whisky that was principally Glen Rothes matured in an oloroso cask and two more unnamed whiskies (it was predictably sweet and raisiny); a peppery peaty whisky blended from Glen Rothes, Ardmore and Glen Garioch; and a pale Islay blend that was both smoky and grassy. McIvor was pleasingly frank when it came to the quality of whisky in old casks. At times it’s good, and at others it’s a disaster. When he started at Berry Bros he tasted his way through their 400 casks. Only ninety were worth hanging on to. A delightful old whisky is a proper rarity – most of it needs to be lost in some blend.
Doug’s whisky and some fascinating Antipodean whiskies from Starwood in Melbourne are all available to for sampling at the London Whisky Weekend which runs from 11 to 13 May at the Oval.
Whisky was not all there was to offer in April. I was happy to attend the tasting organised for the Savage Selection at 67 Pall Mall. Mark Savage remains faithful to some of my favourite Austrian growers like Erwin Tinnhof, Ilse Maier, Ludwig Neumeyer, Heidi Schröck, Reinhold Krutzler and Bernhard Ott. He has lots of other things too, as I discovered on my short visit: Schoffit from Alsace or Zoltan Demeter’s Tokays or indeed Robert Gorjac’s Dveri Pax wines from Slovenia. There will be more to report on these when I return from Vienna in June.
Finally there is Provencal rosé which seems to cause a groan within these old walls, but not from me. Mirabeau en Provence reminded me of their elegant sparkling Folie, although I would say I preferred the more gutsy still 2017 with its hint of spice and striking purity of fruit. Sensational, however is the 2017 Etoile, with its wonderful structure and length. This is a proper wine, and not to be sneezed at, and it proved just the stuff for that little burst of sunshine in the middle of the month. At the time of writing, whisky would seem much more suitable.