Friday, December 24, 2010

All I want for Christmas...

It's that time of year where everyone creates a list and checks it twice, even people we are too old to still believe in.

In past years I have posted on the best Christmas whiskies and whisky-related gifts (Dr. Whisky's Christmas Picks 2007, 2008, and 2009) and it seems my whisky brothers and sisters have provided plenty of such recommendations and "best-of" lists already this year (Danish Whisky Blog, Whisky Wire (12 drams), Whisky Israel, Whisky 2.0, Scotch Hobbyist,, Jason, and the advert-riddled Whisky Boys).

It is Christmas and New Years is around the corner but before I can really get ready for 2011, there are I few things I need to leave in 2010.

Back in September John Hansell announced that he would dedicate a week of posts to "Things That Piss Me Off". The list was unfortunately cut short by a tragedy in the family, but John picked up where he left off earlier this week by listing his disappointments in the whisky world over the past year. As usual on Wha
t Does John Know?, Hansell's well-intended encouragement brought on a barrage of more than 120 consutructive comments, par-for-the-course cynicism, and asinine accusations, with comments ranging from the valid to the needlessly vitriolic.

It is not as if there is any shortage of opinion on WDJK, but this time all the negativity really upset me. With more than 15,000 comments over 1,000+ posts, WDJK is the most vibrant home of whisky opinion online, but I see it increasingly becoming an archive of anger, animosity and accusation on the whiskyweb. I am not saying there are not things that need to be critiqued or that there are not things that piss me off in the world of whisky as well, but I just feel that in this leading community things are weighted on the negative far more than the positive. Not in a single post that I could trawl were comments free from mention of some perceived evil imputed against some element within the whisky industry: marketing, Jim Murray, pricing, Diageo, the SWA, travel retail/duty free, and many, MANY more. Is the world of whisky really that bad?

I love the way Serge Valentin and the brains behind Whisky Fun register many of the same sentiments we see pop up on WDJK with humour and a light-heartedness that keeps it all in perspective. Their recent hilarious stab at whisydom HERE made me laugh and addressed similar criticisms in a much more endearing way without attacking any brands, any individuals, or getting anyone fired. Funny. And FUN. I suppose that's why it's not called What Does Serge Know?

So when making a list this season, rather than creating one about the THINGS THAT PISS ME OFF, here are a few THINGS I LOVE ABOUT WHISKY that no marketer, critic, or consumer can spoil for me.

The Taste and the Taste experience
With well over a hundred different distilleries' liquid available to drink, Scotch whisky is the most complex and diverse spirit in the world. Who could get tired of that?

Think of an amazing tasting experience this year. My guess it will be hard for you to pick only one.

Probably a hundred examples for me in 2010 alone, but I will share one recent experience. I was out in London with a small group of whisky friends/geeks and after hours of evaluatory tasting and then many hours of recreational drinking we thought it would be wise to indulge in some competitive tasting. We hopped a cab and headed to a bar we could be certain could recreate our own version of the Feis Ile blind nosing. We put together an ad hoc flight of 10 whiskies (including Port Charlotte and Jura), blacked out the glasses so colour was imperceptible, and began trying to discern which was which.

Having sex and playing pond hockey aside, this is one the most fun activities I can think of. But I am a fucking geek. The liquid spoke to our senses, played with our minds, created physiological reactions around the table while we sniffed and hemmed and hawed. The experience was so exhilarating, the aromas so diverse, the physical effects of the aromas and tastes so different from one another. I was reminded how piney Jura is, how distinct Bowmore is, how splendid a core expression Lagavulin 16yo is, how amazing whisky is.

The Industry-
I have always figured that because whisky grew out of an agricultural tradition rather than a commercial industrial one, it operates differently than any other industry in the world. And it does. And I love that.

Thirty Four - My age, yes, but more importantly this is the number of companies that own the distilleries of Scotland. Beyond that there are dozens of independent bottlers and blended scotch whisky brand owners. Last weekend around a few beverages, Mark Watt, Stuart Robertson, Mike Lord and I counted 101 operating distilleries. Find me another spirit or any single commercial export produced in a single country with that much diversity of ownership.

With this kind of shared market, the challenge for distillers is to show their difference. And we love this diversity, tasting different makes, different casks, different ages. Why then are we so critical of innovation? Sure, in one instance we criticise the SWA for upholding regulations based on precendent and tradition and in another we criticise distillers for trying new cask sizes, new cask finishes, new barley strains, etc., and dismiss these innovations as gimmicks. Isn't it exhausting being cynical on both sides of every coin? Spend 5 minutes with Jim McEwan, David Stewart, Bill Lumsden or anyone else with a track record of innovation in Scotch whisky and tell me you still believe they are more concerned with gimmicks than genuinely trying to make great whisky. I am open to being convinced otherwise.

Tours - I remember being quite surprised that distilleries, alcohol factories, allowed or even welcomed tours. Today more than 30 distilleries make a point of welcoming visitors to come see the ins and outs of their production line. Can you imagine this transparency from other billion dollar industries? The food industry? the automotive industry? the pharamceutical industry? the shoe industry? Sure, there are exceptions and some of these examples do welcome visitors but think of the adjustments they had to make before being able to welcome visitors. When Glenfiddich opened its doors to tours 40 years ago they didn't line the outside of their washbacks with oregon pine (I guess because they are already pine, but you get my point), build a fake "mini" distillery to give a false impression, or try to become a museum/science center rather than just be a production site. Now, the cynical among us only see tour guides reciting their scripts of marketing bullocks, but I see a conscious effort to ground the romantic in the real from Glengoyne to Glenmorangie, and feel fortunate to see inside any of these distilleries.

The Whisky Family
Scotch whisky is one of the most commercially competitive industries in the world but the further you get from the shop shelves/the closer you get to the folks making the stuff, the more imperceptible is that competition.

As a William Grant employee, I have colleagues who have been working here since they were teenagers, started as few as 5 to as many as 50 years ago. It's funny how some up at Glenfiddich say "I love the DoubleWood" and some down at Balvenie say "I love the Solera". But it doesn't stop there. I mentioned to a few of them that I was over at Glenrothes last week. Their unanimous response? "Aye, good dram." I was over at Macallan a couple of weeks ago and in chatting to a few of the employees mentioned I worked with Balvenie. Their response? "Love the DoubleWood." In my experience, I have never heard a wine maker speak of any wine but their own, in fact, I have been told funny tales from one international wine competition organizer of the hostility between them.

Richard Paterson- The Nose (or Dicky P as we affectionately call him, behind his back of course) gets a lot of flack but I wish this industry had more of him. Yes, he is a showman but if that is a criticism for you, then you probably also dismiss John Lennon as a protest songwriter and Hitler as a great public speaker. Richard is an absolute gentleman, generous, kind, supportive, and amazingly non-partisan. Employed by Whyte & Mackay and blending Jura, Fettercairn and Dalmore, Richard talks without hesitation about Johnnie Walker, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Glenmorangie and others in presentations, includes them in his 40 whiskies celebrating 40 years, and in his book Goodness Nose spends chapters on distilleries he doesn't work for and includes a forward by Diageo's Paul Walsh. Richard is just one of several examples of this kind of character in the whisky world and he is my favourite uncle in this whisky family.

Sport - There is the Malt Distillers' Football Cup, there are friendly inter-distillery golf competitions, but taking place over the summer months there is a rowing league on Islay with races held in the distillery bays and in Port Ellen with over 20 teams from around the island taking part. The "dream team," as they call themselves, is made up of distillery managers Mickey Heads (Ardbeg), Duncan McGilvary (Bruichladdich), Peter Campbell (Lagavulin), Graham Logie (Port Ellen maltings) and John Campbell (Laphroaig). With those clowns in a boat together I'd be suprised anyone could pull a stroke what with all the laughter, but even if they never crossed a single finish line I just love that these things exist.

Rant over, I think. I have no point. I just felt the therapeutic need to remember what is great about whisky.

And I think I feel better. But please do not read this as an attack on WDJK or its readers, in the same week as the disappointments post was a post about what impressed most this year where readers sang praises of the greatest achievements in whiskydom over the past year. We all bitch about how things could be better. I guess I just needed to remind myself what is so amazing about the world of whisky before I can say goodbye to 2010, or more accurately, so that I can start 2011 on a positive note. And I suspect that whisky makers, brand ambassadors, marketers, and whisky makers criticized could probably use such a reminder as well.

There are more amazing things in and around whisky, but I think this is all I can be bothered to get down here. Do you have any to add?

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all. Now to the aquavit!


Steffen said...

Thanks for the mention Sam

one line in your post just seem too hard to believe

"Last weekend around a few beverages, Mark Watt, Stuart Robertson, Mike Lord"



Karl said...

I have been reading your blog for a long time and although I still don't like whisky, I do still like your "rants" on it... even when I don't know what you talking about.
Merry Christmas

Anonymous said...

You're a gentleman, Sam.

Anonymous said...

Great post Sam. Unfortunately as with anything, there are some or sometimes many who can only find fault. Surely there are improvements that can be made to the industry, but that actually makes it all so much fun. If everything were "perfect", whisky would be in essence be quite boring. Blah blah! Glad you can see the positive, especially in these trying times. Keep it up! As much as the industry needs Patterson, it also needs champions such as yourself. Happy Holidays and many blessings!

David Bailey Jr.

Unknown said...

Brilliant post! It is a business after all and even some of the mistakes turn out to be others treasures down the road -

Keep up the great work Sam!

David Stewart (not your boss)

Anonymous said...

Terrific read, and spot on! Isn't it strange how we need to be reminded of the good in whisky/life?

Whisky2.0 said...

Whisky2.0 thanks you for the link! I loved the link to the 1990 vs. 2010 article on WhiskyFun -- classic! Keep up the good work, and slainte....

Joshua (Yossi) said...

Sam, thank you for this.

Unknown said...


I am a simple consumer in the USA. I don't go to scotland, I don't go to whisky festivals, and I don't shoot the breeze with distillery marketers.

My relationship is opening my wallet in the store and buying whisky and hoping it tastes and smells good to me. That's it. I don't give a rats bottom what the "story" behind the distillery is or who the people behind the product are, or how much their premium sold for at auction. All I care about is how much I remove from my wallet in the store to purchase whisky.

The more I have to take out of my wallet for the same bottle that yesterday cost x, but because the packaging changed while the inside contents didn't I have to shell out y, the more I am led to believe that some companies are using gimmicks.

I am not a negative person but I feel you are forgetting consumers' perspectives like mine, and are wearing the blinders that are being immersed in the industry. I do not fault you, as I probably would change my perspective if I worked with the people in the industry. I just hope you remember that there are people who just care about how much they have to spend to enjoy a dram and are getting pissed off by the (general) runaway prices.

I add that balvenie double barrel 12 year old is such a kick-ass great whisky, ESPECIALLY for the price. So, thank you, balvenie, for producing this amazing whisky that is better than older, more "premium" bottles, while at the same time kkeping the price down to what makes the DW one of the best buys in the industry.

This should not either be read as an attack against anyone; it's just a short response rant.

Oliver Klimek said...

I understand why you feel upset about the tone of some WDJK comments.

But nevertheless the whisky industry should listen to the sentiments expressed by the blog readers. Not everyone is a born diplomat or has the capability to pin down important problems with a joke like Serge does so brilliantly.

Some people simply have negative opinions about various issues and they express their sentiments because John Hansell offers the possibility to do so. I don't think the whisky industry should put this off as rubbish just because some statements don't display a big deal of eloquency or political correctness.

And I also hope that John does not suffer the "shoot the messenger" syndrome. I think he just felt the need to slam his fist on the table because of certain experiences he made with parts of the whisky industry that could not be settled by diplomacy.

Other than that, I like your effort to brighten up the picture by looking on the positive side of things. It's never good to get too grumpy about anything.

Unknown said...

Hi Doc,

I read your rant after I read what John made of it in reply to you and other - let's say - industry representatives on WDJK.

You are absolutely right in that there are so many great things in and about whisky which we should emphasize more and then there are other things we as customers should not take too seriuosly.


The whisky industry - I actually loath the term especially when it comes down to the Scotch Whisky Industry - takes things very seriously. Too seriously. Money in the first place, I think. You point to some subjects whisky bloggers are sore about marketing pricing etc. you named it.
I say they are right and have every right to feel this way because it is their money most of the time.

So do not wonder that whisky producers and everythig that is connected to the whisky sphere is under fire and the scrutinizing eye of layman critics.

It keeps the industry on their toes and probably prevents even more and freater marketing driven nonsense.

"Rant over, I think. I have no point. I just felt the therapeutic need to remember what is great about whisky."

You said it. Myself and others just feel the therapeutic need to speak out what is great about wisky and in danger to be destroyed by people who do not give a damn about it and would act the same if they sold noodles or shoes.

So let us say we just need each other and that is a good thing.