Whisky Myths Busted #3 – what is and isn’t a Speyside whisky.
In an effort to further cleanse my soul, we’ll start with a bit of a confession. I often confess on here, as it’s almost anonymous due to the fact I’m sadly not going to meet the vast majority of whoever reads this. However, as my readership slowly seems to go up and up, it can’t be a bad thing, can it? Perhaps people are just waiting to see what’s next. Sorry to disappoint the personality vultures, this time it isn’t salacious.
Confessing that I can be a bit of a pedant won’t come as a surprise for many, as some of you may already have guessed, but it’s not always the case. I haven’t been pedantic now for three weeks, 2 days, 17 hours, 22 minutes and 30 seconds. However there is one bit of pedantry that will not leave me alone; it’s the blurring of Speyside and Highland whisky regions, especially misidentifying Highland whisky as Speysides.
Those of you who have plenty of time to spend on whisky social media may be aware of a YouTube Channel called Aqvavitae. Run by Roy Duff, he runs a live stream mostly every week on his channel that is known as a v-Pub, where all sorts of people can drop in and listen to guests and get involved via live chat to discuss many various whisky topics. I often download the stream and listen to it in the car, as the fact I spend half the year at sea and the other half too busy to take part means I miss out. However, I do enjoy the quiz at the end (even if Menno is doing one of the impossible ones), and also the new(ish) section called “Is it a Speyside”.
The premise of ‘Is it a Speyside?’ is that a guest has to guess what Roy has in his glass. It’s always an available to buy core expression. The contestant then has 10 questions to find out what Roy is drinking. Sometimes they are against the clock. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but I have managed once to be the winner of this competition in the chat, but it was a Tobermory 12 Roy had, definitely not a Speyside. The prize is a channel Sniper Coin, which many use to top their Glencairn glasses.
One thing that I have noticed that during the chat, many people when thinking of Speyside whiskies suggest whiskies that are often not even near Speyside. It isn’t limited to this particular situation, there are plenty of examples of people calling whiskies from Speyside on websites, even bottlers get it wrong – my bottle of Ardlair (unpeated Ardmore) is labelled as a Speyside by German independent bottler Liquid Sun. Recently I’ve seen websites or social media posts describe GlenDronach, Ardmore, Glenglassaugh and Royal Brackla as Speyside, and Macallan and Dalwhinnie being called Highland whiskies and not Speyside. It is time to clear up the confusion.
The Speyside Whisky Region was according to my research not legally recognised as a whisky producing area until the advent of the Scotch Whisky Regulations (SWR) 2009. Anything north of the Lowland area is classed as Highland, but the enclave of Speyside has been recognised due to the high density of distilleries in that area. The regulations are very clear on what is and isn’t a Speyside. Regulation 10.6c outlines the confines of what is classed as the Speyside whisky region, namely which are the 8 council wards of Morayshire Council, plus the Badenoch and Strathspey area of Highland Council.
It’s not practical to publish maps here, as I don’t want to fall foul of copyright, but you can find access to PDF maps of Morayshire and Badenoch and Strathspey by clicking on the area title below.
To make it easier, here are where the distilleries are located. (brackets denote silent distilleries with surviving buildings or bottlings)
Because prior to the creation of the Speyside whisky sub-region, all distilleries would have been known as Highland whiskies, or in its older, less definitive form, the Glenlivet suffix would be applied. Therefore the saying that all Speysiders are Highlanders yet all Highlanders aren’t Speysiders couldn’t be more true. Yet there are some Speyside distilleries do still describe themselves as Highland whiskies – Dalwhinnie, Glenfarclas Knockdhu (An Cnoc) and Macallan are four that spring to mind. While it is quite obvious that Macallan and Glenfarclas are in the heart of Speyside, Dalwhinnie is located in the southern part of Badenoch. It’s location at the start of a mountain pass makes you think that it could only be a Highland distillery, yet it is closer to the River Spey than many of the distilleries often thought to be quintessential Speyside.
Even Knockdhu / An Cnoc is just within the Keith and Cullen ward of Morayshire. The boundary kinks out east just to the north of the distillery. I have been in this area many times to use my preferred Honda dealer which is close by and is in Aberdeenshire, so I just assumed Knockdhu was too. Proves we can’t always be right. Better still, my inner pedant got some satisfaction, the mental equivalent of having a hobnob with a cup of coffee. Ahhhh!
Finally however, the SWR forbid the mentioning of two regions on a label, so distilleries in Speyside have to choose one or another. Just to mix it up, Aberlour once labelled itself as a Highland whisky, but now identifies as a Speyside on some bottlings. That’s ok, as long as it’s not both on the same label at the same time.
I hope this is useful, perhaps check outRoy’s channel on YouTube and take part in ‘Is It A Speyside?’ I’m sure he will be glad to welcome you, and now you are armed with some more knowledge, perhaps you can win ‘Is it a Speyside’!
If you are a regular follower of my blog, (and if you aren’t, then you should be!) you will know that over the past four months I’ve been doing taste tests of drams that are generations apart. The reason for doing this is to confirm or deny the saying that whisky was better in the olden days.
It is often the habit of people of previous generations that proclaim things were better in times gone by in their era. I used to scoff at them, but now as I approach a certain age, I can tell you that this may be the case. When I look back on tales of my own job, this is certainly the case. I remember the days when a ship would dock and there would be a herd of ‘Gangway Gazelles’ leaving the ship to head to the nearest bar. Times have changed now, and these things are frowned upon more and more, probably because they got tired of police arriving at boats, people just not turning up at the boat on time, or people just not turning up at all. It’s always an immediately sobering feeling waking up to see your ship sitting at anchor in the bay wondering how on earth you are going to get onboard. Only happened to me once…..
Whisky seems to have the same process. So many times you hear of people reminiscing about drams of yesteryear, the claim of how Macallan isn’t as good as it used to be, or even the qualities of discontinued drams in comparison to their replacement. Everybody has an opinion, but I decided it was time to maybe look a bit closer at this thought, to determine if it was a myth or if the various opinions had some traction. Thankfully, after a time of buying batches of miniature whiskies at auction to get one of the bottles contained within, I’d been left with quite a selection of older miniatures which had prompted me to investigate further and compare them to their contemporaries.
Let’s look at how I assessed the drams.
1/ I endeavoured as much as possible to compare like with like. That isn’t as easy as it sounds as core ranges change. Even, as in the case of Auchroisk, the age may be the same, but the Flora and Fauna is upped to 43% and is exclusively bourbon cask maturation, unlike the Singleton’s sherry cask finishing. In the case of the Benromach, there wasn’t a comparable 12 year old in the modern range, apart from a cask strength, so I used a 10 year old. As far as possible I used a contemporary dram if like for like wasn’t available.
2/ I never tasted blind. I know this may seem to invalidate my testing, but I don’t have coloured glasses, and besides, having seen the bottles before I tasted, it was often easy to see what one was the older or younger sample.
The other thing that made blind tasting pointless was the fact that I was using miniatures for a lot of my tastings. Due to the seal area / liquid volume ratio, plus the older drams suffered on occasion from old bottle effect, which made the older dram easy to identify. I mitigated this in most examples by letting the dram rest for 30 mins or adding water. It has to be said the usual taste was a musty, cardboard taste. I think that is common for older screw top seals, as a Glenturret 12 y.o sample I’ve had from a full sized 1980’s bottling was similarly affected. So if I was always able to easily identify the old or new bottlings by taste or smell, being tasted blind would make no difference.
3/ I’m fully aware that I cannot say that one is better than the other. That is because taste is subjective. However, my plan was if I could perhaps establish a pattern across the 43 samples I tried, there would be more grounds for coming to a conclusion whether whisky was better in the past or not
4/ I tried as hard as I could to get at least one whisky from each region, however Campbeltown and the Lowland regions have had tiny amount of distilleries for some time. This means it is harder to get old and new samples without purchasing full size bottles. This was going to lead to expense that I just could not justify. The reason I tested more Highland or Speyside malts is solely because samples were easier to obtain. Plus that’s where the majority of Scottish distilleries with visitor centres are located, thus more likely to have a 5cl release.
Cost has been a limiting factor. Some of the older minis were expensive. I had seen the older Aberlour 10 retail at £40 for 5cl. The Springbank I had to pay £40 for a batch of minis just for this one and another £60 for a full sized modern bottle so I could have one Campbeltown sample. The Highland Park 1980’s sample was £46 all in, but being 10cl, I’m going to be able to share that with a whisky friend who probably hasn’t tasted much, if any early Highland Park.
The 10 year old Macallan wasn’t cheap either. I had planned to use my 70cl bottle from the 1990’s that was damaged in a flood at my storage locker. It is still worth about £350 as a drinking bottle. In one way, I’m glad COVID restrictions stopped me retrieving it from the locker, as I’ve been able to get a 1980’s 10 year old sample instead. However, that was the same price as the Highland Park and only 5cl. So my whisky loving friends are going to have to wait a bit longer before they gets a sample of my damaged bottle.
So, no expense spared.
You can get links to each review by clicking on the distillery name which will open in a new page.
It can be seen that if you read each review that there were 14 wins for the older drams, 2 for the newer drams, three draws and one void. However it is not as simple to say that older drams are definitely better just looking at tally marks, as we have to take into account the subjective nature of taste. In the majority of times I picked the earlier era of whisky, this is due to the whisky in the older sample being more accessible, easier to drink, more pleasant notes or a better mouthfeel or finish. In the cases where it was hard to decide, it was often a gnat’s knee cap of difference, but a notable difference at least that I feel I’d be able to pick out on subsequent tasting.
Whisky and its distillation does change over time; it’s almost inescapable. There is little way of guaranteeing absolute continuity when staff come and go, changes in barley or yeast, changes in the time to ferment or distill, or even the temperature in the worm tubs can all have subtle differences. An example which you may not find likely but is 100% true occurred in the heat experienced during the summer of 2018. Dalwhinnie distillery had to stop production not because they had a lack of water, but they could not cool the spirit properly in the worm tubs due to the warmer water source, making the spirit character change too much. It makes me wonder how the spirit that was created just before they decided to stop will show through in bottling, though most likely it will end up in a blend.
One of the things I really noticed was that a couple of the newer drams had a very thin mouthfeel, or less intensity of flavour. The Glenlivet 12 totally seemed to lack a finish. I was able to communicate with a distiller who was able to give me a few pointers. Being honest, this is not limited to one distillery and it is unfair I suppose to name Glenlivet who have produced and continue to produce some great spirit. The answer confirmed a lot of my thoughts, but was put in a more succinct way. I’m going to add a bit more meat to the bones of what he told me so this is not quoted verbatim, but is also reflecting a situation that hasn’t exactly been a secret.
It has been no great surprise to hear that the distilleries have been facing a rapid demand for stocks, and as thus older stocks have been depleted. Aged whisky just cannot be produced on demand, so brands have had to make decisions on meeting that demand with stock available. A source in the industry once told me last year that a well known premium brand had a 12 year old whisky that once had an average age of 14-15 years old when you looked at the vatting. Nowadays its average age is 12 years old, and lacks the richness that it once had. Clue: – it is one of the distilleries that I tasted as part of this series. It isn’t limited to that brand either, as the distiller I spoke to while doing a review of one of these spirits said that this is common throughout the industry; a detail that has been mentioned to me by a few people in the industry. This may explain why so often the new era whiskies don’t have the same depth of character that older whiskies can provide. Distilleries just don’t have the same catalogue of aged barrels to pull from, and may preserve the older and higher quality stock for their more premium releases.
In my research, it was hinted that the quality of wood used has taken a backward step. When tasting whiskies of previous eras, most notably the sherry cask ones, the casks are not the same as before. Sherry ceased to be exported in casks in the early 1980’s meaning that source of casks was no longer available. Solera casks are not suitable for whisky production, as the Bodegas want as little wood influence as possible. Distilleries have been forced to season casks with sherry, and while you may get the taste, it is my belief that it isn’t as successful as having the real thing. Of course, some distilleries spend a lot of money getting their wood right, but some also may not concentrate on this to the same level.
The cask quality issue continues when it was mentioned to me was the general make up of casks in a vatting isn’t as good as it used to be. In order to perhaps lower production costs and increase the amount of whisky available, there are probably not as many first fill casks in the vatting of single malts. There are probably a lot more 2nd and 3rd fill casks getting used in any vatting. This may not be noticed in some whiskies, but most notably I noticed that the newer Aberlour and the Glenlivet I had tasted seem to have very thin bodies and next to no finish. The distiller I spoke to mentioned the fact less 1st fill casks being used will probably explain it. The wood has less to give, with less and less flavour components being imparted to the spirit. Indeed, I was recently shown a 9 year old 4th fill cask sample from a well known Speyside distillery, and to be honest it wasn’t much more than dirty dishwater in colour. One can assume next to no cask influence unless it is left for a couple of more decades at least.
It often leaves me wondering if production times have changed too, with fermentation and still times being made shorter to increase the production capacity where physical alterations are not possible or too expensive. With the boom in whisky sales showing little sign of slowing at the moment, the pressure is on distilleries to produce or lose market share. The more traditional distilleries also have the burden of having to supply produce for blends, which are in just as much, if not more demand than single malts.
A Personal Choice?
It is obvious if you look through the results of my reviews, that I do think there are good grounds for suggesting that whisky from previous eras are better in some cases. Of course it could be argued that this statement is dependent entirely on my own subjective point of view and taste, but that is why precisely why I deliberately tried as many whiskies as I could across each of the Scotch whisky regions. I also tried to pick some malts that I was unfamiliar with, so any bias could be ruled out. As alluded to in some of the reviews, I have always tried to find an identifiable flaw or difference that I could recognise in a blind test, in order to try and reduce the effect of simple preference. It’s not perfect but the best I could do in that circumstance.
I knew that bias would creep in. I had made my mind up that in the last comparison I did of Macallan 10 that the older Macallan would easily beat the newer dram, but I had to be honest and say that this just wasn’t the case at all. I would be telling lies if I said that one was much better than the other and doing a disservice to the quality control at Macallan. But I’ve heard from a friend who is involved in the industry that Macallan 10 was one of those whiskies that had an average age significantly higher than the age statement, so that made it expensive to produce. It was a good decision by Edrington to withdraw the age statement rather than continue with what may have been a much inferior product.
What mostly drew me to the older whiskies that I thought were better was just the depth of flavour, the length of finish, the mouth feel or just the fact that I was instantly drawn to it – that the whiskies were just so easily drinkable.
One thing that I noticed that in some cases the distiller had changed the ABV when producing the newer edition. Both Bruichladdich and Clynelish increased their core bottling to 46%, which removes the need for chill filtering. Auchroisk only upped their core to 43% in the Flora and Fauna bottling, but this also was supplemented by a change to exclusively bourbon maturation. There wasn’t a lot in the drams, but I felt the sherry finished Singleton had more character and mouthfeel than the Flora and Fauna dram. Interestingly enough, Auchentoshan had dropped their ABV to 40% from 43% but lengthened the maturation period. I personally think this was a backward step, as while I didn’t mind the 10 year old dram, I found the 12 year old was nowhere near as good and eventually was so undrinkable to me that it went down the sink.
There is one issue that we have to take into consideration was that the old bottles often suffered from the ‘old bottle effect’. I found that by leaving the drams to breathe for a while and adding a drop of water often mitigated this phenomenon but never eliminated it.
Drams that I liked or disliked
The one thing that my blog was designed to do was to encourage me to try different drams, and in this series it has forced me to drink a few whiskies that I wouldn’t normally drink. It is important to know what has gone in the past so we have a yard stick to judge the future. But is that really important? Because when it comes down to facts, all that matters is whether WE like it or not and definitely not as a result of others telling us we should like it.
The top drams that I tasted as a result of this series would definitely be –
Glenfarclas 10 (old)
Clynelish 14 Flora and Fauna
Glenrothes 8 (2007 – The Malt Cask Co.)
The drams I did not really enjoy
Auchentoshan 12 – so bad I couldn’t finish it
Aberlour 12 (New) – no finish whatsover
Glenlivet 12 (New) – poor mouthfeel and no finish.
The Final Caveat
Of course, this cannot be the final word. We have to keep an eye on what is happening in the whisky world. As I type this out, Glendronach have reportedly already removed the Non Chill Filtered Statement from their 15 year old bottling. Why they would need to do this when it is not necessary to chill filter a whisky at 46% I don’t know, unless they are thinking about lowering the ABV or are actually going to chill filter at 46% which will result in a change in flavour. It is a backward step, so this is why I maintain it is always good to keep an eye on the past so we can know that we indeed have tasted good whisky.
The final caveat is that we cannot stop here; we need to compare the whisky of the future to the whisky we have now to see if there is a progression. I think it is increasingly obvious that the production of whisky is in the hands of accountants as much as it is in the care of Master Blenders. We have to see that producers maintain or increase standards, or we risk going down the route that Auchentoshan went or that Glendronach seems to be heading. The internet has made information much more easier to obtain and share, with the result that today’s whisky enthusiast is much more informed and will not easily accept a reduction in standards.
Whoever wants to do the comparison of the next era of whisky against this era is welcome to do it – I’m done!
I’d like to thank everybody who has helped or encouraged me to complete this series. It has been an expensive labour of love, both financially, on time and emotionally. If you liked this article, can I ask that you share it, so it makes my work seem more worthwhile. And of course I will welcome all comments about this; it would be great if this generated some discussion in the community.
In these dark days of lockdown, more and more people are relying on social media to fill in their spare time. I resisted social media until 2009 when a long standing offshore contract came to an end and I joined Facebook to keep in contact with the people that I worked with. I’d been avoiding it for so long as I’ve got a mildly addictive personality, and being hooked on social media wasn’t on my life plan but I signed up anyway once a plausible excuse to myself turned up. And that was the beginning of the end really, as social media can be anything but social.
You don’t have to wander far to see that social media is pretty much like nuclear energy, as in it can be used for good or evil purposes and when things go bang, they often go bang in a big way. This is especially true when people use the media to push their own objectives or opinions. I have to say, that in the past that I have been guilty of this in the past regards political matters and that was the prime reason for starting my blog to give myself something creative to do, rather than something that was leading nowhere.
The advantages of social media is that you can keep in contact with people that you may not ordinarily see, ‘meet’ new people and exchange ideas. Different social media platforms have their own uses – I used to use Instagram as a photo editor for the filters. I joined Twitter in 2010, for a similar reason to joining Facebook but never saw the need for really contributing, and Facebook is fine for reaching out to people you know but is a very limiting tool for reaching new people without using paid promotions. The curse of the algorithm strikes again. There are other social media outlets and messaging services which I am sure we all know about, each one being more appropriate for different things.
Then, of course as in many things, the good side is counteracted with a negative side. And this to me often outweighs the good things. First of all, it has to be said that the poor thing about social media is the amount of time that people spend on their mobile devices. How many times have you been in a pub and people seem to be having conversations with other people on social media and not engaging with people that are there with them. Or more to the point, how many times have you been sitting at home on your phone and your spouse may be a bit fed up that you pay more attention to that than your family? This is a pitfall that many, including myself have fallen into in the past.
It is easy to forget that unless you set filters, everything you post can be seen by anybody else. And it’s also easy to forget that nothing in life comes for free, and the price of free social media is our digital identities being used for marketing purposes. As social media consumers or even just internet users, we are targets for those looking to separate us from our money in exchange for their goods. How often have you maybe searched for something online, then minutes later, any targeted ads are suggesting what you’ve just looked for? It is constant and for me it is starting to get draining. It’s bad enough having my boss and wife look over my shoulder without retailers doing the same thing.
I’ve deliberately kept my social pages with regards whisky and family life separate. I personally don’t want my wife to find out what I am spending on whisky, or more to the point what I have spent on whisky! I think it is a good idea to have a social disconnect between the two things, and this works for me, as I don’t particularly want to have my private family life displayed for all to see. But with the time between looking out for family, my work offshore and my other interests besides whisky, I’ve had to adapt my social media habits and now tend to use Twitter a lot more than I used to. One really good advantage to Twitter is that it is almost like an instant chat service, with the added advantage it only limited photos and text in a single post, meaning the information you get is bite sized. The other advantage is that it is easier for all to see what you are posting, therefore getting more attention if you use it as a communication tool for your hobby, which is what many of you reading this will do.
But again, as I Iike to say after working with some of the grumpiest people in the offshore industry, “every silver lining has its cloud” and Twitter is no different. While I predominantely use Twitter for my whisky hobby, I try to use it as a social tool rather than an information gathering exercise. However others do use it as a vehicle to gather followers and spread their marketing message. The spirits industry has long been using social media to promote their products, and while it is good to be able to maybe see what is new on the market, the endless trotting out of new products is starting to wear a little thin. Indeed it often starts to feel that your social media feeds aren’t for socialising, but a field for marketeers to do their harvesting. And to me, that’s starting to encroach too much on my social world.
So, this week I decided to have a cull. I pay extra to ensure any of my blog readers aren’t exposed to advertising , so it was time to take steps to limit marketing for me. The list of whom I follow / like or who follows me was away to take a wee bit of natural selection.
Now that the fun of #WhiskySanta is over, Master of Malt were top of the list. So were TWE. Nothing personal, I do use both sites but I don’t appreciate the marketing. Next were a bunch of distilleries which to be honest, I’ve no real interest in their whisky. Sorry Jura, but I still haven’t forgiven you for Journey. The next on the line were the people who constantly post stuff that aren’t whisky related. Football is an exception, extra points being given if they are a fan of Aberdeen FC. Even then, if it’s excessive they get muted. Crypto-currencies and Elon Musk’s wittering; retweeting that nonsense instantly consigns you to a cull or if you do post whisky stuff as well, mute may applied.
My largest personal ire on social media is reserved for the shameless self-promoters or influencers. Those who just crave likes or follows. They are in a second place of my whisky dislikes behind flippers. You have to ask what their agenda is as it is often marketing again or personal enrichment. They shall begone from my list of followers, as these are snake-oil salesmen and should forthwith be consigned to the fires of Twitter or Instagram Hell. Indeed I had to deal with one recently, who’d become a bit spammy after suddenly coming onto the scene. Feel free to do what you want. I can happily sail past it.
Do you value your success in the amount of interaction you have or the quality of your interaction? I don’t really mind not having a massive following as it reduces any pressure to perform by continually having to output content. Decent articles often take a lot of time to write and require a lot of research. I’ve written articles on whisky topics for people in the industry, so you need to know you’ve got your facts spot on. You can bet your bottom dollar I prefer quality over quantity. As Robert Louis Stevenson said “Don’t judge each day by the harvest reaped, but by the seeds you plant.”
If I can say one thing; it isn’t how big your collection is, how large your knowledge or how amazing your palate is. The recent article about Whisky Community I wrote mentions how more appropriate it could be to think of what you can add to the community in order to build others up rather than taking for your own selfish means. If you have to beg for followers then something is suspicious or you are just an attention seeker. Desperation is never an attractive quality.
One of the Whisky Twitterati I spoke to during my research for this article mentioned that he’d rather only 100 followers he engaged with than 1000 he didn’t. Wise words indeed. What’s the point of that 900 cluttering up your feed if you have no real interest in what they say? There is no gold medal for the most followers unless you are promoting something.
Though let’s not forget that there is nothing wrong with a bit of recommendation in my eyes. A recent review I wrote and a couple of discreet recommendations saw around 10 sales of an independently bottled single cask whisky from an independent bottler / retailer. Given the massive drop in his trade due to the pandemic, he was very grateful for the extra sales and exposure his business got. Hopefully those who bought the recommended bottle will see the quality in the bottling and will look to this retailer in the future. Word of mouth is a powerful weapon to create a social media buzz and has a positive uplift to it rather than the slick words of a marketing dept. And there is always the pleasant, if not slightly smug feeling of making a difference.
I come on social media to relax, and have some banter. I’m even happier if I learn something new. I have made plenty of sincere friendships since I started using social media as part of my whisky hobby and that had been a bonus. I don’t welcome retailers, companies or individuals pushing themselves into my online space. Of course there are brands and brand ambassadors I do follow, as they are good craic and certainly not overbearing. Often you’d forget they actually represent brands. The skill of these people is to communicate in a way you want to look at their product or even try it. Being too forwards or not properly interacting with your followers just encourages people to switch off.
The weeding out of the items that aren’t focused on my interests have been a long time coming. Indeed I have found this social media cull quite cathartic and will allow me more space for the people and opinions I do value.
Being unsocial on social media often has its benefits
Yours In Spirits
p.s By the way, if you liked this article, feel free to share, retweet, like or follow. I’m not that grumpy. I’m sure you’ll get the irony.
It has always been my intention to keep this blog entirely non-political. I’ll try to keep it this way, however there is an elephant in the room. Usually when I hear this cliche I get up to leave but it isn’t me this time.
Brexit. The gift that keeps giving ‘Benefits’ that nobody wants, and that has fallen firmly on our lap as people are now discovering they have to pay extra fees to import whisky from the UK, although this is happening both ways for UK citizens using European auction sites.
What alerted me to this was a tweet, in which a bidder from the Irish Republic won goods at an auction to the tune of £79. Plus fees, that’s going to be around €105. He now has to pay €94.25 in taxes and shipping charges, almost as much as the cost of the produce he won.
Sadly this isn’t the only case. Another WhiskyTwitter user from France had a similar had a similar surprise in an event that will no doubt have been repeated several times over.
You don’t have to be a genius to realise that quite simply people within Europe are going to stop using UK auction sites. While I do not believe that this will cause a big problem for the bigger auction sites, it may certainly cause issues for the smaller ones. But there are a couple of greater implications for UK auction users.
Less people bidding in the auction could mean less demand for bottles. Less demand could mean falling prices. Ok for buyers, but poorer for sellers. Your little nest egg of bottles if they aren’t in demand may probably lose value.
Less EU people using UK auction sites will potentially mean less chance of seeing rarer bottles.
I use a European auction site, whiskyauction.com. I’ve been very happy with the service and to be honest I’ll still use them as there is one or two bottles I still seek. But what is in the back of my mind is that I cannot bid as high as I might for a UK auction as the spectre of shipping charges is going to be always present at the back of my mind.
Brexit has been proven to have been a self inflicted shotgun blast to both feet as the realist so called ‘Remoaners’ have been sadly proved right. With US tariffs of 25% still hanging over the UK whisky industry, now is not a happy time. If lockdowns continue and the economy stutters, people are not going to have the money to invest or buy luxury goods such as whisky, compounding the problem. If there is a rush to sell to realise cash but no buyers, then there is a problem. However this could be the reset the secondary market needs. There is a glass lake creaking on shelves throughout the UK; will Brexit be the dam-busting bomb that deluges the market?
You can’t be controversial all the time, or at least I’d like to think so. In the almost 2 years that I’ve been writing my blog I’ve attempted to put a metaphorical fox into a few chicken coops and am still living to tell the tale. Perhaps that is the benefit of being an under the radar blogger. My last article targeted a Malt-Official submission that fell short on journalistic standard, and to my pleasant surprise was received well by those who read it. Since then I’ve been musing about the existence of the ‘whisky community’ that seems to have been generated within social media, and whether or not we always act appropriately within it.
The whisky community we are in is a wide church, including everybody from occasional drinkers who have a few drams a week, to the whisky über-geek. There’s the bottle chasers, collectors or those standing on the sidelines just observing. Nestling in amongst us are those directly involved in whisky production which nicely completes the mix.
On the Scotty’s Drams Facebook page and Twitter Feed I asked the question ‘ What does ‘Whisky Community’ mean to you? I got a couple of responses on each page but received a few more private messages. It turns out that most answers were similar and to me they seemed more to focus towards the online aspect of the community. By a large margin, the main aspect was that people see it as a way to learn and share knowledge. In second place was friendship and sharing of drams. A couple of people said they use the whisky community as a source of entertainment. I can vouch for this, as I do too when working offshore. But there was a more worrying tone to two replies, which inferred that the respondents felt that some people needed to get off their pedestals, with one going as far to say that some need to practice what they preach.
One DM even went as far to question what it would be like if we were together physically when having our debates? I’d like to think there wouldn’t be a fight, but often I wonder. I’m probably as guilty on occasion on getting a bit overheated when something presses my buttons. Does the online experience make us braver or is it that we inadvertently feel freed of our social norms? With so many different levels of experience, like any community we live in there is bound to be the occasional clash from time to time. Certainly on Twitter where interaction is a lot easier than other social media (or so I find), we’ve seen one or two negative incidents which maybe made more traction than they should’ve. The ability of an instant response and the slipping of the clutch between brain and keyboard can often show a glimpse of what can be below the outer fabric of our community. Fortunately it is rare and I feel the general pulse is positive.
However, it doesn’t take much to start something off. From producers making incendiary tweets when responding to comments about their product, to the battlegrounds created when people take sides over the latest issue of the moment, it does seem as though our social media behaviour mimics that of a real life situation.
2020 has been a year in which behaviour and respect for others has perhaps been stirred within our consciousness. For me, as a newcomer to ‘WhiskyTwitter’, the first I saw questionable behaviour was the debacle over Terroir and the subsequent fall-out over differences of opinion, fuelled by an incendiary and unnecessary article attacking a bloggers opinion. It was certainly a very polarised experience with some people adding their opinions as though only they were right and nobody else was. People who contribute online using social media or their own websites have to remember the impact their writing can have within their readership. Even if they apologise after a lapse of judgement, the damage can already be done. I for one was put off of a certain Irish distillery’s products if that was what terroir supporters were going to be like. However in the interests of fairness, the instigator has posted an apology. I suppose in any community you’ve got to forgive and forget to be able to move on. We’ve all made mistakes I’m sure, with public ones often being the hardest to correct.
If we become a community, we need to ask if what we are contributing adds to the health of our clan. If it isn’t a positive change, then maybe consider not publishing it. Free speech is a right, but exercising our rights do not negate our responsibilities to others.
Can anybody fail to remember the next notable issue – the stance against some of the more lurid and often sexist comments in the 2020 Whisky Bible? This has been going on for a few years, but once Becky Paskin finally called the author out on it, it has been like a snowball rolling downhill, gathering size and pace. From there on in, the floodgates had been opened and many people within the whisky community have finally seemed to recognise that there is no place for sexism in the Whisky Community and it was time for things to change and not before time.
We’ll skip over the recent Malt article I blogged about a few weeks ago I previously mentioned. Click on the link if you want to be reminded. In more recent times I wish to draw upon two tweets to highlight the potential highs and lows of our community.
First was a tweet by @MaltMentalistwho asked people if there was a whisky or an experience that had put you off a brand. I was shocked by the amount of people who told stories of distillery representatives or brand ambassadors at whisky events who’s behaviour had put them off. It was also sadly unsurprising about the amount of ladies who had been disrespected, which does reinforce the point that the whisky world still has a sexism issue. I’ve since learned of other examples of how fellow enthusiasts can equally be dismissive of the fairer sex being involved in our hobby. Attitudes like this do not help shake of the image of whisky being an old man’s drink. A stuffy, sexist and insular old man at that.
When we think of people perpetuating these sorts of behaviours, what are they really trying to achieve? It does nothing positive for anybody, least of all them. Surely a true whisky community builds each other up, regardless of gender, backgrounds or knowledge? The fact that people who consider themselves connected to the industry are sometimes responsible for this behaviour should start ringing alarm bells and be highlighted. That’s the only way to effect positive change.
Of course, there is the other side of the coin. My next tweet will remain anonymous as I don’t want to draw attention to anybody, but the people involved will recognise themselves. Somebody asked on Whisky Twitter “What is grist?”. I’ve become so accustomed to the high level of knowledge amongst the Twitterati that I was really surprised to see this question in public. I was half expecting a flurry of antagonistic replies, but this did not materialise. Instead a basic answer was given in which the replier asked for confirmation that he got the answer right. This is a complete contrast within the whisky community compared to the examples given in @MaltMentalist’s tweet. And to me, that is what our social media based whisky community should and must be about. Just because you drink a lot of whisky doesn’t mean you have to know how it’s made to offer an opinion, but it helps greatly. It was good to see someone reply and not talk somebody down in a way that I’ve seen many others do on different forums.
It is easy to forget when you live in Speyside, or even Scotland that not everybody has access to a whisky distillery to see the whole process. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been in one. Sometimes I go as I’ve never been. Sometimes I want a particular photograph. Other times I want a bit of extra knowledge and sometimes I just want to be immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of the distillery to satisfy my senses. These are just my experiences. Many may have only been once to a distillery, some never. So let’s get three things straight –
1/ Lack of knowledge does not preclude you from being a valued member of the whisky community, as long as you have respect for others and are ready to learn. There’s a lot of knowledge and assistance out there. Just use it wisely.
2/ As a ‘community’ we have the responsibility to help along others who maybe don’t have the same experience and knowledge. If we fail to do so, then we have a dysfunctional community.
3/ Your idea of what is good content on social media may differ from others. A community is full of people happy doing their own thing.
Pointlessly antagonistic articles like the Masterclass one that was pulished serve no purpose in building a whisky community, and smack of elitism and isolate people. It just diminishes the effect of the article which did have some valid points. Nobody likes feeling a fool and shooting people down in public will only result in many people not wanting to ask for vital knowledge for fear of looking stupid. And in my industry, making people feel stupid by having a superior attitude is the quick way to get kissed in the Glasgow style.
Factions and cliques will always exist. That’s no different to any ‘real life’ community. But we can’t act as though we are only connected each other by Ethernet cable from our router. In my opinion, while the vast majority of people do, we need to be behaving better than we would within a physical community. All said and done, it isn’t whisky that should be the focus, but the people. We all do our own thing that makes us happy. If people like it, great. If not, then move on and let people do theirs as long as they aren’t hurting anybody.
If 2020 has taught us anything, it should be about how important ‘communities’ are, and we need to care about them more by being aware of how we and others act within them. I’ll hazard a guess that we’ve all relied on the social fabric the whisky fraternity provides more than we think over the past 9 months. It’s been a fantastic time where people have risen to the challenges of isolation with online tastings and the use of the internet to cement friendships built over the shared love of a spirit.
As we move into 2021, it is perhaps time that we take a moment to think about how we can continue to add something positive to the circle of whisky lovers around the world. We all have our part if we want to be true community members. There is so much positivity in our movement that we should be proud of and build on. Goodness knows we all need it.
Wishing you all a Healthy, Happy and Prosperous New Year. Here’s hoping it never gets as bad as 2020.
They say nobody makes a bad whisky. I can agree with that with taste being subjective. But in the last review I post for 2020, this agreement been challenged severely for I think I have found the exception. Of course you may like this whisky and I encourage you to try, but while my review may be entertaining, I’d heavily recommend you don’t.
This is a bottle that I managed to get in a group of whisky miniatures that I purchased at auction. It holds absolutely no value to me as a collector, though as a reviewer I thought it would be interesting to do a quick tasting to see if we can learn something from this old blend.
Passport Scotch was first blended in 1965 by Seagrams, which has morphed through the passage of time and big money takeovers to be part of Pernod Ricard, so you can imagine that there will be a good amount of their own products from their vast selection of blend fodder distilleries.
Incidentally, that’s what triggered my interest in this particular blend was the fact that I’m led to believe that there is a good level of Glen Keith whisky in the recipe. Now, as you may recall I didn’t think much of the Glen Keith distillers edition, although I have to confess that I need to perhaps review that again. As the bottle has oxidised a bit, the malt within has had a slight improvement. Maybe a blend made with this whisky will be ok, but I have my reservations.
The Passport Scotch does have its own website, and from the information I could glean from the internet it was the 2nd most popular blended whisky in Brazil. However that is probably because it is shipped in bulk from Scotland and diluted in Brazil to the required 40%. So technically, while this is allowed to happen for blended spirit, it isn’t as Scottish as single malt.
I’m going to skip straight to the whisky now.
Passport Blended Scotch
Region – Blend Age – NAS Strength -40% Colour – Amber (0.7) Cask Type – n/a Colouring – Yes Chill Filtered – Yes Nose -grain, citrus, straw, damp cardboard, vanilla Palate -Sharp and burning arrival. grain, biscuits, honey, vanilla, green apple, smoke, an overtone of bitter oak. Finish – short, sharp with bitterness, intertwined with a hint of sweetness in the background, smoke and vanilla
Well, thank God for small mercies. The finish being short meant I could get beyond this whisky quickly. I’m going to be quite brutal, but this was to coin a Scottish term – ‘Shite.’ This was an abomination that made me think that the one of the distilleries in the blend got their feints receiver and spirit receiver mixed up. I actually wondered if this was going to make me blind. This has to be brake fluid masquerading as Scottish Whisky. If you tried to use a real passport of the same quality, you’d soon be taken aside at customs for a wee chat with the guys who are getting ready to put on the elbow-length rubber gloves prior to a body cavity check. That experience would probably be preferable to drinking this.
This is a whisky that was never meant to be sipped, not even with water. I think a mixer of ginger ale, cola, sulphuric acid or arsenic would be appropriate to make this taste better. There is a good reason that this is a budget blend, however I’d need payment to drink this again.
What is really surprising that during my research, I found that Ralfy reviewed this on his vBlog YouTube channel. And he appeared to like it and give it a basic score of 81/100. See his review #514 to see it for yourself. As much I respect Ralfy’s experience and knowledge, given my experience I really wonder if he had magic mushrooms instead of teabags in the pot for his breakfast beverage. Of course, there could be batch variations, perhaps Ralfy had a cold or maybe my bottle had a severe case of old bottle effect, but if I was to give it a score, getting above 30 would be a challenge.
While this is a generic blended whisky that seems to have a lot of grain spirit in it, this reinforces why I am cautious to these generic blends that turn up in auction lots where I am bidding on the lot for one bottle. This is why I usually send these types of bottles back to auction. I don’t think there is a lot of Glen Keith in this, as despite me not taking to the Distillers Edition, it was nowhere as bad as this. Ah well, every day is a school day.
Let me tell you this. It is definitely this is a Passport you wouldn’t be unhappy to lose. Scotty’s Drams score? Drain cleaner.
Whisky blogging. It’s a total minefield. Whether your writing style is lacking, your opinion misguided, your patter is miserable or all three, there will always be somebody to bring you down with a bump. But regardless of your style, there can be some good points to remember while whisky blogging.
One of my fellow whisky bloggers IM’d me an article fromanother site (click link). I wished he hadn’t as my previous article had been a rant on why Black Friday is a bad for small retailers and I wasn’t wanting to spend energy on another emotional essay. However, something in the article felt wrong to me. The coin had been put in the slot and the rant button was pressed again for another go.
I’ve been following this site for some time now, but since an event in Jan 2020 which some of the Whisky Twitterati know as ‘Terroir Gate’ where there was a highly questionable article which attacked a fellow blogger who had the courage to question the relevance of Barley Terroir. I’ve had the website on Twitter mute since then. I’m sure they won’t miss me, but it was surely adventurous to challenge a farmer about growing barley. I’m sure the man has forgotten more about crop growing than they know.
The article on which I wish to comment concerns a writer who had the misfortune to have attended a disappointing virtual tasting. For one reason or another the event had come to be tagged a ‘Masterclass’, which ended up in disappointment for the reviewer, who went on to list some admittedly valid points. Despite the valid points, the rant didn’t sit well with me. Indeed, the whole page made me want to put on a tin helmet and go over the trench. I’ll admit to perhaps not following my own advice, but in this case, it is with good cause.
Advice Piece # 1. Don’t put people down publicly when trying to make yourself look good.
The whisky community is supposed to be friendly, isn’t it? Well, while the tasting was disappointing according to details provided in the article, anybody who knew about that event will be able to identify the host and the see the very public criticism of him. Pretty bad craic to run the event down then patronise the host afterwards. To write how “they might make a master one day if they keep on learning” does give the impression of the author looking down on this individual. It certainly seems to be a standard editorial policy for this site on a few occasions. The author seems to have forgotten even Masters can still learn daily.
Has the writer heard of the principle of “praising publicly, criticising privately?’ It’s a standard requirement in my industry, where failing to do so and humiliating a colleague in front of their peers not only sees the offender being ostracised, but also at risk of losing their teeth in a Glasgow style kiss. After all, the host himself didn’t call it a Masterclass, but regardless, I would say there is an onus on anybody attending these events virtually or in person to perhaps take such labels with a pinch of salt, unless you know the host, their experience and the drams involved. Quickly looking at these drams would suggest that these weren’t anything I’d associate with a Masterclass as I can get them straight off a supermarket shelf here in Scotland.
It’s a good point that you should be able to assume anybody with a Masterclass title connected would have an associated qualification – and I agree that it should, though there is still no guarantee of quality being present. The industry does lack regulation in many areas, but without casting aspersions on these titles just because some parade their being a Keeper of the Quaich or having a WSET qualification like a bull strutting his stuff in a field of cows, it still is sadly no guarantee of quality.
I’ve worked with some highly ‘qualified’ people in my industry that seem to have more degrees than a compass. While working in West Africa, we asked a guy to make the teas for the crew came back and every single tea or coffee was cold. As he’d never made tea or coffee before, he didn’t know you had to boil the kettle.
On the same ship, another guy couldn’t get the kettle under the tap of the small hand basin we had in our washroom. So rather than filling it with a cup like everybody else, he put the kettle into the toilet bowl and flushed. 10/10 for ingenuity, 0/10 for application – toilets on a ship often flush with filtered seawater.
The point is that you can still have a qualification but not be exposed to all aspects of the industry. Nobody knows everything. Doesn’t necessarily make you a w*nker. That leads nicely onto point 2.
Advice Piece # 2 – No Profanity
I’ve been in an engineering trade since I left school. Being a tradesman and Scottish means that swearing often comes naturally. The F bomb is not a big deal at all. The word w*nker hardly registers on the scale. But was there really a need to use it on a whisky review?
Does the author think are people w*nkers because they don’t know everything? We were all enthusiastic amateurs at one time, possibly overly so. Perhaps it would be better in the article not to be so rude but suggest that it’s better not to pretend what you know and when caught out, a simple admission should suffice coupled with a resolve to find out?
It’s not a crime to not know, especially when the host didn’t put himself in the Masterclass slot. As people with more experience, we should always build up and encourage in the whisky community rather than knock down those with less knowledge. Unless you want to look like a twat.
Advice Piece # 3 – Keep the Negativity levels low or non-existent.
I once spoke to somebody in the whisky industry about writing articles and one of the things I told them was that I felt that despite the amount of people in the industry and who follow it, it is a small world. Especially in Speyside where there are quite a few people involved in the production side. We discussed the website in question for this article and I mentioned the levels of negativity that often come out. The person just smiled, so I know I’m not alone in my thoughts.
While you should never be afraid of criticising a product or something that deserves it, there are ways and means of doing so. If you want a rant, at least make it entertaining. A regularly negative drone just gets boring. Far from challenging the industry or individuals, you’ll just start getting ignored. If you don’t like something, say it’s not for you, Don’t judge others for liking it and don’t constantly bang on about it.
I’ve never lived more than 15 miles from a Single Malt distillery. I can see one from my house. It has had its (fair) criticisms over the years, but nobody intentionally makes a poor whisky. You never know who will see what you write, and certainly running down a business in a small local community is definitely bad craic, regardless of who owns it. You only end up closing more doors than opening new ones.
Advice Piece # 4 – Don’t be hypocritical or at least admit it when you are.
Hypocrisy. We all do it from time to time. And I am aware in what I’m writing I’m not following any of my own advice apart from this one. It’s ok to be hypocritical as long as you acknowledge it. Sometimes the situation changes and you must go back on your word. Don’t worry about it, just be open. I’ve had to be when I got caught out in the past with Macallan Folio 5 being released in far larger numbers than before, and I was forced to flip it. And I don’t hide how much I hate flippers. Thankfully I wasn’t very good at it, making a profit after fees of £37.50, so that sweetened a bitter pill, and being open about it preserved my integrity.
Going by the tone of the article I was sent, it is extremely hypocritical to slate somebody for having an ego when obviously displaying one yourself. I don’t think I need to add more to that.
Plus, being funded to maintain your independence? However you do it, this has potential to undermine your independence, something this site seems to hold dear. Patreon use for recovering expenses is fair enough, but you can get unlimited hosting and bandwidth for under £300 a year. But unless it’s a job (I’m assuming it is), should you not keep a hobby self funding? That’s the only way to preserve total independence. I’m not suggesting any thing is improper by using Patreon, but if you are funded by donation, that’s because people like what you publish. Human nature being as it is, if people are going to pay you for what you publish, the likelihood of you continuing to put out the same kind of content continues. Hence the egotist ranting often seen on the site perhaps?
I certainly don’t expect others to pay for my hobby or whisky, unlike many Patreon funded Whisky pages.
Advice Point # 5. Have a clear point to the end.
Often when this site publishes a rant, it doesn’t always have a clear point all the way to the end. They seem to have the maxim of “why use one word when several will do?”. Some of their contributors seem to have swallowed a Thesaurus. But what gets me is in some cases, the bones of the article don’t always seem to support the review at the end. In my mind, the worst example was the review of The Lakes Distillery release of The One, The write-up before had nothing at all to do with the whisky being reviewed, and was just an ill-judged irrelevant rant. Had I been the owner of the Lakes Distillery I would have been furious that my product was tied into this negative publicity.
The day they published ‘No Masterclass’ it must have been a slow news day for the team, as even though the reviews were relevant, it still seemed to be tacked on. The reviews just seemed like an easy way to get more negativity in. Personally, I’d think it better to keep a rant away from products, unless the rant is to do with the product in question. You don’t want to necessarily bite the hand that feeds you. Far from challenging producers, you will just encourage them to ignore you while you feed your sycophants. And this will mean things are unlikely to change for some.
As the site and people involved will invariably see this, what will be interesting to see is if I am subjected to a similar treatment that the other party in Terroir Gate received. Of course, they have a right of reply, but how it is done may be interesting and will certainly show their professionalism when it comes to responding criticism.
Unlike some, I’ve never felt the need to fly a kite with regards to my experience in the whisky world. I’ve been collecting since 2006, but that doesn’t make me an expert. Neither does living in a region heavily connected to the Scotch Industry, though I can say I probably know enough. But like tasting a whisky, our opinions on the same subject can differ. After all, some people think Bells is tasty, but that doesn’t mean they should be shot down for it. However, for this particular website in question, in their ‘About’ section, when they say difference of opinion is OK, do they really mean it, or are we dissenters “the poor little lambs’ condescendingly alluded to ?
It isn’t always Masterclass. Not always classy. As for the w*nkers, I’ll let you decide. But if you want a serious review site, Matt ‘The Dramble’ is a better bet in my humble opinion.
Yours in Humiliation, Hypocrisy, Negativity, Swearing and always in Spirits,
Do you ever get hung up on something that you want but can’t get? One of the downsides of whisky blogging is that sometimes you taste a sample of something and it just drives you to want more of that thing. In this case it was That Boutique-y Whisky Company’s Invergordon Single Grain whisky. Batch 15 at 42 years old was the oldest whisky that I’ve reviewed so far, although there are two older Invergordon samples waiting in the wings plus another 4 stretching between 9 and 25 years old, hopefully enough to slake my new found thirst for this distillery.
Try as I might, a bottle of aged Invergordon kept eluding me. At auction, each new sale seemed to see the prices going higher and higher, leaving me wondering if it was really worth the chasing. Common sense me said it wasn’t but the devil on my opposite shoulder told me the whisky-nomics were all ok and I should press on to achieve my aim. Of course, the devil on your back was never going to leave it like that and he also suggested I could look at other aged grain whisky.
Thankfully, the common sense took over and I began to look at other distilleries. It was while I was perusing the website of The Speyside Whisky Shop in Aberlour that a 30 year old bottling from the North British Distillery appeared, bottled by Dramfool, a company started by Bruce Farquhar in 2015. I’d seen Dramfool produce before but didn’t know much about them, though I’d been recommended their whiskies before by Matteo the shop manager.
I knew even less about the North British distillery, other than it was a grain distillery in Edinburgh. However a little research on the internet reveals that it is one of the largest distilleries in Scotland, according to its website it is capable of producing 70 million litres of grain alcohol a year. Now thats a lot of spirit! Lets not forget that the distillation of grain alcohol has a different process from malt whisky, the former not relying on the batch process of the latter, but utilising the continuous distillation method of a Coffey Still.
The distillery was founded in 1885 by Andrew Usher, a pioneer of blended whisky when it became legal for single malt and grain to be blended together. The distillery opened in 1887 and has been going ever since. Its grain product forms the backbone of many blends. The current owners of the distillery are Diageo and the Edrington Group, owners of The Macallan and Highland Park. There isn’t really a lot to say about the distillery apart from there are occasional original bottlings available, but mostly any output as single grain seems to be the forte of the independent bottlers.
North British 30 year Old (Dramfool Bottling 30th release)
Region – Lowland Age – 30 Years Strength – 48.2% Colour – Old Gold (0.6) Cask Type -Refill Bourbon Colouring – No Chill Filtered – No Nose -Solvent; polished wood, candy floss, pineapple, vanilla Palate – the character of the nose carries over into the palate with the addition of chocolate sponge, walnuts. Slight lemon note. Finish – medium to long. Solvent continues with hints of coconut, wood spices.
This was my first ever go at a single grain from the North British distillery. Did I enjoy it? Yes. It had a lot of the notes that I remember from my TBWC Invergordon. The devil on my shoulder was right, it is right and proper to chase aged grain whisky. While this might not be of the same age as the Invergordon whisky, I don’t think that matters. The taste and ease that this whisky was able to be drunk, even neat made me very happy with my selection. Even happier as I bought two….
Furthermore, now I have another independent bottler to keep an eye on. This is exciting and I cannot wait to see further releases, in particular single grain.
This bottle cost me £90 from the Speyside Whisky Shop. It is now sold out and isn’t available on the Dramfool website either. Was it good value? Yes, I believe it was. It’s not a distillery you see a lot of releases from, it was cask strength and 30 years old. NC and NCF means that it has a perfect spirit presentation. If I had only bought one bottle I would have been watching the auctions for another but I have one in store just waiting for the day I crack it open or sell it.
I would say if you see this bottle for under £120 and you fancy trying aged grain whisky, this is a good start.
I have to apologise from the very start of this article. Of course that is not like me at all, no Sir-ee! Mainly because the title of this article is from the a song on the Cypress Hill Album ‘Black Sunday’. Ok, wrong day I suppose for what I had in mind for this article. And while it is NOT like me, I actually own this album and listen to it on a rare occasion and enjoy it. You can’t listen to shoegaze all the time (apparently). What is at least accurate to some degree in my opinion is the topic today does have a slight whiff of insanity about it, although probably of a type we may not be aware of and suffer from in varying degrees. It’s about how we allow ourselves to become blind to the obvious.
Once again my conscience has been pricked to write an article in defence of a body of people that have been undera silent attack for quite some time and since March 2020 this has been intensified. Unfortunately it is whisky drinkers that seem to be the people who allow it to happen, albeit not doing the attacking themselves. Given how friendly the whisky community is, I’m surprised that there seems to be little promotion and concern to people that are vital to our hobby, passion, or more to the point – obsession.
Independent whisky shops have had a tough time of it for some time now. This is something I raised on my blog Facebook page back in March of this year, going as far to break my anonymity and release a couple of videos. Use the Facebook links below to navigate to the page if you want to see the videos. In most cases these smaller retailers cannot compete with online retailers such as Amazon and don’t have the collective buying power of chains like The Whisky Shop, Oddbins or Majestic to name one or two. And you can forget any hope of being able to complete with any of the supermarkets.
What triggered this was the amount of people who seemed to be upset that there seemed to be not very many Black Friday deals on Amazon this year. I’m not having a go – in full disclosure I’ve bought booze from Amazon when I’ve seen a bargain, but usually it is when I cannot get a bottle anywhere else at that time. An Old Pultney 17 was my first bottle that I did this with just after it was discontinued and latterly when Glengoyne 18 was slashed to £70, though that was just before the change of packaging and it was bought for stash. Maybe for later of course…
In a quick moment of research, certainly here in the UK are a myriad of places that do online only retailing. Drink Supermarket, Master Of Malt, Drinks Direct, 31 Dover, and Spirit Store are just a handful and I’d be sure that this would be replicated overseas where specialist whisky retailers may be thin on the ground. Even Whisky Exchange which does have a couple of shops probably makes the vast majority of its profits from online trading.
Look. I’m not trying to make anybody feel bad about seeking a bargain. It’s been a tough year for everybody with many people locked down for long periods of time; people losing their freedom, contact with family and friends, their jobs; people possibly losing a lot more. And I can hardly hold the moral high ground as I have made the occasional purchases from some of these retailers, especially Master Of Malt as the Drinks By The Dram give me a chance to taste older or more expensive whiskies without having to cough up for a full bottle. However let’s look at this from a slightly different perspective.
While online shopping may be very convenient and cheap (as an Aberdonian I can assure you this is very close to my heart!), let’s look at some very plain to see facts that often get ignored and I see no evidence to the contrary that we seem to be suffering selective blindness to these issues. Amazon does not need your money. Tesco, Asda, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s do not need your booze money. Let’s face it, despite the fun of #WhiskySanta, a company giving away £250,000 of drink does not need your booze money. However the hypocrite in me is very happy to promote the company by making my #WhiskySanta wishes. If they are generous enough to ‘pay’ quarter of a million quid for over a month of free social media advertising I’m taking my chance. You can bet your bottom dollar that an independent retailer of Whisk(e)y would probably wet themselves if they thought they could make £250,000 of profit, let alone be able to afford to give it away. And they certainly do need your custom.
Speaking of local experience here in the Highlands, I can think of at least 4 local-ish (50 miles away still counts as local!) independent whisky retailers that have suffered the double whammy COVID has delivered. Not only were they forced to close their businesses when COVID first took hold, the businesses concerned were also in tourist areas, so once they’ve been allowed to open, there’s a lack of the normal crowds to sell to. I’m thinking of shops in Aberlour, Dufftown, Tomintoul, Pitlochry, Tyndrum, Inverary and Skye to name a few. The cancellation of the Spirit Of Speyside festival this year hit our region hard and without the same footfall, the whisky retailers in the area have had to rely on online sales to generate income. It doesn’t mean independent whisky retailers in large towns and cities aren’t suffering too – at least they have more chance of local footfall than one in the middle of the Cairngorms.
The majority of independent retailers have not got the same profit margins to reduce stock prices and remain viable. Some are forced to deal with wholesalers as they cannot buy directly with the distilleries or bottlers, further reducing competitiveness with online only businesses. To be fair to Amazon, there is plenty of independent traders use Amazon market place, but this is still not perfect as this still involves selling fees that further reduce margins. And therein could be the reason that there wasn’t so many Black Friday deals – perhaps the majority of them in the past have been supplied not from Amazon but small traders. They certainly cannot afford to be giving massive discounts at the moment.
The greatest benefit to dealing directly with an independent trader is that you’ll receive something that you’ll never get online – by buying over the phone or in person you’ll receive a personal service. Think about this when you next shop with an independent whisky retailer. They can tell you what is new. They usually have a great knowledge of the whiskies they sell. If you can visit one, you may get to try before you buy; something that has often seen me buy more than expecting to. You can build a relationship where the retailer may be privy to information that maybe of interest to you and they may tell you first, or at least keep a hard to find bottle back for you. At least one Whisky Twitterer has said he enjoys this type of situation and I have also found myself in this pleasant position too.
This whole subject brings me back to a similar situation in a different retail environment; music. As I alluded to at the start of this article, I’m heavily into music, especially indie / shoegaze / post rock. There used to be a shop in Aberdeen called One-Up, of which I was a very regular customer. I always used them as the chances of finding something new, exciting and possibly undiscovered was high. But the ultimate draw was the service. The staff were excellent and one in particular, the well known shoegazer in local circles, Yogi Duncan used to recommend bands and albums to me so I could listen to it before making a decision. This was music I’d never have heard otherwise and would not be likely to see the suggestion on iTunes. You just don’t get that specialist service online and are at the mercy of an algorithm to suggest what you might like in the future. Just because some tracking cookie sees I’ve bought one album, doesn’t mean I’ll like the whole genre though it’s certainly cheaper to take a risk on a £10 CD than a £70 bottle of whisky.
It came to pass that CD buying fell out of fashion. People turned to downloads and with large overheads compared to online sales and a desire of one of the business partners to retire meant on the 18th of January 2013, One-Up closed for good. Since that store has gone, I’ve gradually fallen out of buying music. Perhaps it’s my age having an influence as well, but in the past 2 years I’ve found myself downloading more and more; my once proud music CD collection all but stagnated. For me nearly 8 years on, I and many others from the North East of Scotland still mourn the loss of One-Up
Regardless of my feeling, while digital retailing doesn’t mean we’ll fall out of love with whisky (goodness no!) it does mean we risk slowly falling out of touch with a more intimate way of connecting with the industry. If we only see what is advertised on line or by who we follow on social media, to me it just becomes a cacophony of marketing noise and other people’s opinion. The lack of personal contact within the whisky retail industry really means to me we are all perhaps following around on each other’s coat tails and are at the mercy of anonymous algorithms and advertising budgets which pigeon-hole us and see us getting targeted into purchasing blandness.
Let’s be clear however, as there is more we can do. It isn’t just spending our hard earned cash at independent whisky retailers that helps. Many of us on social media have our own blogs. Why not give one of the independent retailers a shout out on your blog? Review a bottle bought from them. Better still, if they bottle their own or have exclusive bottles to their shop, review one. I recently did, and the email that I received from the owner was one of pure gratitude. Not just because I genuinely enjoyed the whisky he had bottled, but because as an independent retailer in an area highly dependent on tourism it had been a tough year and he was over the moon to see his products promoted in such a way.
My blog is tiny and insignificant. However due to my review of his whisky, I know of 7 confirmed bottle sales as a direct result of what I said. Maybe only 1.13% of the bottling run, but that is sales that put money into a local business and a local economy; not into the bottomless pockets of CEO’s who don’t care a jot about whisky but just want your cash. If you don’t spend your whisky money at Amazon or get a Black Friday deal from an online only retailer, they aren’t that likely to go bust. Of course not everybody has the funds to avoid being frugal when it comes to whisky purchases, this year especially. The Mr Grumpy in me understands the situation and there is nothing wrong with that. Note: I’ve seen some whisky cheaper in an independent shop than on Amazon. Some retailers do promotions on free shipping if spending over a threshold amount. Shop wisely.
2020 has a lot of negative things to look back on. Don’t let it be the beginning of the end for a friendly independent whisky shop. Perhaps make an effort to reduce or let go of our building dependence on cheap online only sales. Once lockdown is finished, be sure to pop into one of the independent spirit retailers close to you. They’ll thank you for it.
Feedback is welcome on this subject. My aim isn’t to offend but highlight the smaller businesses that struggling on an already uneven playing field. What’s your opinion?
After One Up closed, Yogi Duncan was working in an Oddbins in Aberdeen. He could have become my shoegaze, wine and whisky guru, but sadly I left Aberdeen the same year as the lights went out at One Up forever. Then the nearest independent music shop was Imperial Records in Inverness, but sadly this closed the following year in 2014. Another store with a stunning customer service lost to the digital shopping paradigm, a service made more special due to the owner Mark and I having some great conversations based on initially realising a shared love of the music of Galaxie 500.
Whisky Myths Examined – Whisky of a Different Era Tastes Better – Or Does it?
This week coming sees the start of an occasional series in which I start to turn my attention onto one thing that has been niggling me a wee bit. Each person has their own opinion on this matter and I am no different, yet I feel with a building collection of miniatures that I need to get rid of, it is time to investigate this potential myth a little bit closer. Do whiskies of a different era taste any better?
This is a subject that could open a whole new carton of worms, as everybody will be adamant in their own belief whether or not this will be the case. I’m sort of already convinced I know the answer, and I believe the myth is true but this is based on my experience of the old style Macallan versus the newer releases. I’ve also been tasting more whiskies from a different era on account of purchasing a few whiskies from Cheaper By The Dram, the company that enables you to be able to drink whisky from the bottles of a different era that would otherwise be unobtainable due to high auction or retail values.
Let’s be up front. This series will not be strictly scientific. As far as possible I have chosen to compare whiskies from individual distilleries with the same age statement and cask types. However in some cases there has been a need to compare a 12 year old from the 90’s to a 10 year old of the up to date version; but I have checked they use the same cask types. I’ve made sure that I’m not just comparing varying batches; there will be at least a 10 year gap between the releases to help assess if there is a significant difference between the two.
As far as possible I have tried to get at least one sample from every region and to vary the styles a little. I feel I don’t have to keep you in suspense and I can reveal the distilleries I am reviewing in a list below. The list may get added to if I am able to source other samples but as of the end of September I currently held pairs of whiskies of differing eras of
Springbank, Glendronach, Glenfarclas, Glenfiddich, Macallan, Bruichladdich, Auchentoshan, Clynelish, Auchroisk, Highland Park, Glengoyne and Glen Keith.
My aim is to do 2 comparison reviews a month, so I can continue to review contemporary whiskies, but this will depend very much on my work schedule. However if I have no article for a weekend, a whisky challenge may be in its place.
I’m pretty excited about this. My first review will be released this following Wednesday, it’s already written and I can’t wait to share this with you. Of course, I’d love to hear your views on this matter or responses to my review, on any of the social media platforms I use – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or even a comment directly on the blog. Maybe you have whisky you could do this with as well? I’d be interested to hear your experiences in the matter.