Whisky: The Connoisseur Guide
Written by Giles MacDonogh
For fifteen years or so I had the enviable task of writing about spirits for one of the world’s great newspapers. While I had plenty of rivals working on magazines, there were few people who touched the subject in the national or international press – just me, and occasionally the late and great Michael Jackson in the Independent (I should possibly add – he was the hirsute, corpulent Jackson, alias the ‘Beerhunter,’ as opposed to the svelte, diminutive crooner of the same name).
I went to Scotland several times a year, but insisted that I saw some of the rarer distilleries on my trips, in return for writing about whiskies pushed by marketing departments. Most of the time I drank tea and broke biscuits with monosyllabic distillery managers, many of whom had been drummed into the business from the merchant navy for no other reason than the fact they knew how to keep a tight ship and patch a leaking boiler: boilers and stills are sister contraptions.
There was very little spin, or indeed information. Most of the time your question elicited a short grunt and a long ‘dunno’. You were lucky if they could put their hands on a bottle of the current release. There was usually one – a 12 or 15-year old. Sometimes there were two: one old (16 or 20), one young (8 or 10). Gordon & MacPhail and some other independent bottlers normally offered a version but none of these other expressions would have been found in the tied distillery.
The manager showed you the stills and discoursed on their size and peculiarities (big bad, small good). You heard about the rummagers (they had generally been removed like tonsils) and the angle of the lye pipe, and there was further discussion of the source of the water – which was not always as romantic as painted. In one famous case it had even dried up, but no one had told the advertising agency. A warehouse visit was a must, and a sniff at a few old butts and hoggies, but Customs & Excise ruled the roost and the most you were allowed to do was nose or dip your fingers in a special cask. I remember a sign that things were changing when a distillery manager alighted on a butt from the drought year 1976. We nosed it, we even sampled it and we cooed – then the man said: ‘I’ll make this the Manager’s Dram – and I’ll fill a small bottle for you!’
Years later, almost all these places have visitor centres and no matter how far from the beaten track – they are permanently thronged with enthusiasts. The latter are easily identifiable; Flanders and Swann might have described them as the sort of men who lay ‘down the law about the habits of baboons, and the number of quills a porcupine has got.’ Their numbers have grown exponentially since the nineties. I used to call them ‘maltspotters.’ Having spoken to a few people on the receiving end I learn they were also called ‘bottle-strokers.’ Clasping one of Jackson’s or Jim Murray’s books in one hand and a beer gut in the other anyone who let them into the distillery would set off a stream of arcane trivia about whiskies and stills, swan necks and lye pipes.
That was what whisky used to be like – without going into blended whiskies, which featured a similarly stark landscape dominated by some mercurial blenders, as well as one or two who were about as intractable as the average distillery manager.
It wasn’t so hard to be an expert then. Matt Chambers, who writes about whisky in the Huffington Post and has a popular blog – http://whiskyforeveryone.blogspot.co.uk which he pens with his wife, estimates there were probably fewer than 500 expressions then. Now we are talking thousands with many more styles: luxury editions, single casks and batch releases. Where there might have been one or two versions of Talisker released then, there are now six or seven. The number of Laphroaig labels would be similar. There are festivals, events, shops, visitor centres and related products. A few distilleries, for example, make a bit of gin on the side – adding value to the new-make spirit – which cannot be sold as whisky before it is three years old. Blended whisky has also upped its game: there are many ancient, multifaceted editions selling for hundreds of pounds. There are even posh grain whiskies like Haig Club, a pallid little sweetie in a striking blue bottle.
Many distilleries previously lived only to provide fillings for blended whisky. They were faceless as single malts. Now these once obscure distilleries can run to five bottlings apiece. Previously disdained distilleries have been renovated in the public mind: Old Fettercairn, one of Jackson’s least favourite whiskies, has now become a much sought after luxury malt bearing the imprimatur of dapper whisky guru Richard Paterson.
The taciturn, Calvinist manager of yore has been purged. His modern equivalent has to be able to demonstrate his communication skills. The star would be someone like Alan Winchester at The Glenlivet, who could easily have earned his bread and haggis as a stand-up comedian. I had never laughed at Robbie Burns before – I had never even smiled.
New releases keep both market and the maltspotters on their toes. Take Aberlour’s ‘A Bunadh’ from Chivas: this is a sweet, sherry-butt style, honey-rich, after-dinner whisky released in small batches. Each release is subtly different leading to divisions among its many fans. Another speciality is the historical pastiche that endeavours to replicate a long-gone style of distilling.
It is not just new whiskies that keep the maltspotters busy. Connoisseurs, fans, nerds (whatever you want to call them) have more written fodder to chew on now than they had in the far off days of Jackson and Murray. There are websites and blogs, internet forums, Facebook and Twitter, not to mention volumes of information released by distillers and bottlers.
There are many more gurus about these days. One of these is Nick Morgan of Diageo, who was originally the company archivist and a former history lecturer at Glasgow. Nick points out that there is nothing new in ‘whisky snobbery’ and that the Bible might be Aeneas MacDonald’s Whisky. Although few single malts were bottled when it was published in 1930, MacDonald (real name Malcolm Thomson) made it clear malt was good, blended was bad, and that whisky was to be drunk pure and unadulterated. Morgan divides the whisky lobby into three ‘tribes’: snobs, collectors and connoisseurs. Whisky connoisseurs can be as good at recognising a whisky as some tasters are at identifying wine. He cites Serge Valentin and his friend the star Alsace-winemaker Olivier Humbrecht MW. Valentin not only offers the safest and most level-headed reviews of new releases at Whisky Fun (http://www.whiskyfun.com), he is also a collector with a cellar full of Clynelish and Brora.
Eighteen months ago I went along to the Diageo special releases evening held in the ultra-chic surroundings of the late Zaha Hadid’s Armoury restaurant in London’s Hyde Park. I had not associated whisky with glamour before, but the men (and a few women) sipping glasses of 32-Year old Port Ellen and 25-Year old Pittyvaich were all notably well-turned out; I saw no anoraks or bicycle clips. The polar opposite – I’m told – is the Limburg Whisky Fair where the relaxed dressed code could mark them down as IT specialists or military history geeks. Many of the new aficionados come from further afield: the US, Asia and Russia in particular. The rich ones tend to possess a cask or two maturing gently in the Highlands, and fly there from time to time to check its progress. They don’t all possess the finely-tuned palate of a Valentin – Morgan stresses ‘some collectors collect blindly.’
Isabel Graham-Yooll at www.whisky.auction separates the groups into collectors, investors and drinkers, and says that the three groups overlap. She thinks the days when whisky maniacs worshipped the likes of Jackson and Murray are long past. The self-appointed, internet-based experts of today are quickly subsumed into the corporate world. It doesn’t take long, she says, for a PR agency to tame a blogger. She works a lot with the Russian market and feels whisky strikes a particular chord with the Russian palate: having been brought up on vodka, oligarchs like strong drinks. Another promising market for her is China which has taken over the Japanese passion for ‘gifting’ very expensive whiskies in gaudy packaging. The luxury brands do well here: Royal Salute or the more fanciful bottlings of Johnnie Walker.
Chinese or Russian oligarchs are also a market for some of the more outrageously expensive bottlings of individual casks. I went to Scotland in August 2014 for the launch of a 1964 Glenlivet – and very good it was too, but at £18,000 a bottle? I sat in the distillery with a tumblerful and came to the conclusion I had about £300 worth of divine, marmalade-scented spirit. More recently the excellent Gordon & MacPhail – owners of the boutique distillery at Benromach – bottled a 75-year old Mortlach run off the still in 1939, and which was on sale for £22,500 a bottle (they throw in some glasses and a carry bag). Up in my bookshelf there is a phial of it, no bigger than a small syringe. I must drink it up! These sums seem outlandish to me, but they are very little to oligarchs. In both cases only 100 bottles were released, to keep the market keen.
It is not just marketing: investment is much more sophisticated now. Hedge funds will invest in some whiskies. If one is released at £50 a bottle, Isabel tells me, the shrewd investor waits for it to be worth £2,000 to buy – by that time the malt has proved its worth. It all seems a lot more complicated than it was in my day which could even deter people who are just starting out. Otherwise Isabel at Whisky Auction or indeed a hotly recommended Andy Simpson at Whisky Highland might be your man: http://www.whiskyhighland.co.uk/about.html. Specialists are available to tell you how to lay the keel of a collection large or small. The game has changed, however, and although the maltspotters are still a numerical force, there is real money in the market now, and the nerds have been pushed to the side.
Giles MacDonogh is an Honorary Stillman at Benromach Distillery.