Whisky Advocate

Guest blog: Dominic Roskrow on the “Micro-distilling revolution”

June 8th, 2010

I’m happy to introduce Dominic Roscrow to to WDJK readers. He is kind enough to write a guest blog. Dominic is a freelance writer and regular feature writer for Malt Advocate. (And doing a great job of it, I might add!) He just finished researching for his new book, and is using this knowledge to talk a little bit about the micro-distilling (aka craft distilling, artisan distilling, etc.) movement occurring worldwide. Here’s your chance to discuss the issue and ask a question (or two).

(Oh, and for those of you who are wondering about the special whisky, whiskey, wine, beer, etc., that I drank on my 50th birthday last night, well…I didn’t. I woke up with the stomach flue and was in bed all day. I’ll do it tonight, hopefully. If so, I’ll report here tomorrow.)

Whisper it quietly but we might be on the edge of a micro-whisky revolution – and America is at the forefront of it.

I’ve spent the last six months researching my new World’s Best Whiskies book, which is published in the Fall, and on my travels I’ve been amazed by how much great whiskey there is out there, not just from traditional whiskey making countries but in Germany, France, Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands and even Taiwan.

Not all of it plays by the rules – spirits made using buckwheat or with chestnuts in the grist fall outside the recognized definition of what constitutes whisky. But without exception the spirits – whiskey or otherwise – are extremely well made and of high quality.

And nowhere is this more so than in America. Across the country there is maturing malt spirit which has the potential to turn the conventional world of whisky on its head. There are 100 per cent malted rye and wheat mixes, and spirit made with sweet corn and with pure malted barley. Some of it’s maturing in hickory, some in maplewood,  and some of it is in casks which have previously been used for an array of different drinks. Some of it has already reached the market place of course – Woodford Reserve and Buffalo Trace are among the companies which have launched whiskeys that cannot call themselves bourbon – but there is much, much more to come. Across the States micro-distilleries might be set to do for whiskey what the micro-breweries have done for American beer.

What interests me most, though, is the confident way these craft distillers are breaking the conventional rules and throwing down a challenge to Scotch whisky in particular, which they claim has sacrificed quality for quantity.

I addressed this in the last issue of Malt Advocate, and in the main this view is nonsense. But there is a fascinating subtext here – this new wave of producers are breaking the traditional rules of whiskey-making while claiming the quality moral high ground and accusing the rule-abiding Scots of putting out a potentially inferior product.

And this in turn raises the question: if you can put together a high quality drink by breaking the rules which traditionally govern Scotch, are those rules too rigid?

This is dangerous territory. A few years ago a speaker at the World Whiskies Conference dared to entertain the idea of flavored whisky and while it would be an exaggeration to say he disappeared soon after and his body has never been found, he was removed from his post and doesn’t get to speak about Scottish single malt any more.

So let me make this clear. I fully respect the work the Scotch Whisky Association has done to protect what can be termed whisky, and to ring-fence the category to ensure its purity. No-one should dispute that a line has to be drawn in the sand somewhere.

The issue is, though, where that line is drawn. It’s not a black and white issue at all, and although the rules are strict, they’re open to interpretation. So you can’t add anything to whisky except some caramel and yet this week I tasted a malt finished in an Italian red wine cask which was the same color as a good quality ruby port.  It’s okay to replace damaged staves with new virgin oak ones, or to replace cask heads with new wood, but it’s against the rules to introduce extra staves inside the cask as Compass Box originally did with Spice Tree.  Loch Lomond distillery has fallen foul of the new laws and yet it’s okay to mature single malt whisky in an exhausted cask used previously to mature wine made with a lab-created grape variety for three years and a minute in Scotland and then to call it Scotch.

When John Glaser of Compass Box debated these issues with the SWA and pointed out that he was using fine and aged single malt he was told that quality wasn’t an issue. But shouldn’t it be? What’s the point of protecting a genre if your purpose isn’t to send a message to others about the values your genre stands for?

These questions will become more important as the micro-revolution grows and the traditional distillers find themselves in competition with an exciting new wave of  flavorsome and baggage-free spirits drinks.

Many of them won’t be allowed to use the term whisky in some parts of the world, but as Compass Box showed with its ‘whisky-infused’ Orangerie, they’ll be able to get mighty close. There’s nothing to stop them inventing an entirely new malt spirit category with the potential to pick off the next generation of drinkers.

You could argue that this doesn’t matter. Traditional whiskies have survived and prospered in the past when challenged by new and innovative drinks categories. But I think it does. This time the threat may well come from within the family.

For the time being Scottish single malt is doing just fine. Barely a week goes by without an exciting new whisky from somewhere. The likes of Benromach and Arran may be small but they’re coming up with great new malts. Laphroaig’s Triple wood – Quarter Cask finished in sherry wood – is an example of a company making some of its rarest bottlings affordable to pretty much everyone. Ardmore has a whole warehouse  of  experimental malts. But for how long can the traditional markets hold of the new boys?

Nobody’s arguing that we throw away whisky’s unique selling points or ‘dumb down’ to battle it out with untested drinks which have no pedigree, provenance or history.

But shouldn’t there at least be a debate over whether we can preserve all that is good in our world while at the same time allowing genuine, quality-driven innovation?

There’s a revolution coming – shouldn’t the established markets be allowed to be part of it?

No Responses to “Guest blog: Dominic Roskrow on the “Micro-distilling revolution””

  1. sam k says:

    Excellent, excellent take, Dominic! You have hit the nail on the head here, and I really hope someone in a position of authority begins to take notice. No one wants to see the major players left behind on this curve, and your last line sums it up brilliantly.

    Many thanks!

  2. Red_Arremer says:

    Really nice post, Dominic. I just wish more of these new distilleries were following Arran’s example and laying down whiskies for the long term from the very beginning.

  3. A great post, Dominic and I am 100% with you on this topic. I hope you don’t mind being pointed to a blog article I had written earlier this year that basically is a brainstorming on whisky experiments like the ones you mention.

    I am convinced that the legal definitions of whisky serve more the purpose of protecting the big players in the industry than to keep up whisky quality. Yesterday’s Tuthilltown discussion comes into mind…

  4. two-bit cowboy says:

    Thanks, Dominic, for your vision here and in the latest MA. You’re beginning to bend my mind’s rigid rule.

  5. Hi Dominic,

    I’m with you on the benefits of craft distilling, although I am not as inclined to go with more freedom in SWA rules. I understand their position of the protection of whisky.

    Like the staves inside the cask. I’m glad they stopped it, since the very next step would be maturing in stainless steel with oak bits loose in it, like what happens in the wine industry. I understand the bad feeling it left with Compass Box, and the feeling Loch Lomond has about the still shape rules, but I think it is really important to protect whisky and its craft, just to insure that whisky will be whisky in 25 years time and not some chemically/technically enhanced drink based on what used to be whisky.

    Of course, there should be more of a defined grey area in which experiments can take place, and I wouldn’t mind at all as long as says on the label. I’m interested in sherry finished bourbons or new make spirit matured in non-oak casks. ‘whisky based’ seems an interesting way to go!

  6. B.J. Reed says:

    Thanks Dominic for the comments –

    This ends up being a means/ends argument to a great extent – Should Quality/Outcome be the measure here or should process/inputs be the measure – The Assumption underlying the Scotch industry approach is that the two are linked and that by controlling inputs (e.g. only barley, only oak casks, has to be in that oak cask three years) you ensure that quality has been maintained and that integrity of the product is protected.

    We know for a fact that quality is not guaranteed through controlling these inputs but you also know that the controls maintain some integrity to the process. What is the balance between being too control oriented on the one hand and a free for all, anything goes lack of integrity on the other? The answer so far as been to hold the line on inputs for fear of innovation getting out of control – As with all things here where the line is drawn is what the debate is about.

    • B.J. Reed says:

      Good management practice would tell you to focus on outcomes not inputs and to require producers to meet minimum outcome standards – The problem is that there is little agreement about what the “quality” of the outcome is with whisky (eye, nose, and/or taste of the beholder) so no one wants to try and set up those kinds of standards- The result is a focus on inputs.

      Sort of like pornography and community standards – We will know it when we see (or smell or taste) it but we cannot tell you how to define it 🙂

      • Red_Arremer says:

        Your comment about pornography is very intelligent, B.J. And it suggests another way of handling this problem– If it’s something that ordinary people can’t agree on simply create a society of experts to make rulings. It would be like the immortals of L’Académie Française– We could have John, Serge, Dave Broom, Fritz Maytag, Jim McCewan, John Glaser etc. They’d meet and asses the “output” blind of any knowledge about the “input” and make their ruling about what the given drink could or couldn’t be called. Blind justice. They’d be like the supreme court of whisky appelations.

        Actually, it’s a pretty distasteful idea– not one that I’d support, but a possibility nonetheless.

  7. John Hansell says:

    This is a great post by Dominic, and I am hoping that he can join us again in the near future.

    Like BJ says above, finding that balance is key here.

  8. Thomas W says:

    Dominic, just in case you read these comments: I think your tasting notes in the Whisky Yearbook are absolutely terrific, and I also like your articles in those. I very much hope the future editions will contain some more of your work!

  9. JC Skinner says:

    I met the man behind a small distilling firm in Ireland who came from the spirits industry in Ireland and Europe then struck off on his own.
    They make a coca leaf liqueur, a tea liqueur and a number of other buzzy, clubby drinks ideal for making colourful cocktails in bars.
    That said, the quality is also extremely high.
    I asked him why he hadn’t thought of entering the whiskey market, given his roots in the industry and his passion for innovation, and he said he wanted to interest drinkers in something genuinely new, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel by tinkering with whiskey.
    I found it an admirable and honest answer.
    Much as I am fascinated by experimentation such as multi-casking or soleras, I get very nervous at the thought of flavoured whiskeys and whisky-infused spirits and whatnot.
    Too often in these latter instances, the purpose isn’t to innovate the tradition so much as to find cheaper production methodologies and drive cost-price down.
    I’d like to direct such innovators towards the burgeoning tea liqueur market, while retaining within the whiskey industry those people whose love for whisky remains paramount and whose desire is to improve whisky rather than replace it with something cheaper.
    If anything, I’d like to see the SWA’s rigour repeated in Ireland and the US to protect indigenous appellations.
    But I agree a balance can be found to ensure useful experimentation and innovation continues across the board.

  10. mongo says:

    (i apologize for posting this here, but it seems most likely to be read by john here: is it possible to change the blog settings so that the “recent comments” tab expands to list more than the 15 most recent comments? i ask because when there are very popular new top-level topics that garner a lot of responses quickly it is not possible to see if there’s been any new activity in other topics without scrolling back and checking each one–especially for those of us who check in only once or twice a day. maybe expand to 25 instead of 15? thanks for considering this.)

  11. Tony Bagnall says:

    hi, Dominic has just started writing his own blog for the whisky tasting club.

    he has been madly busy lately but has posts in the pipeline on his trips to Laphroaig, Arran, Glen Livet and St Georges to name just a few, so please look back for these in the following weeks. Also we have just tasted the new English Whisky Co. peated chapter 9, review is here

  12. Thank you for the kind words and the support above – much appreciated. I’m looking to reading your blog, Oliver.I think there are some very considered observations and some very valid points.The key seems to be: is it possible to move this on without realising Sjoerd’s concerns? This is a very difficult and sensitive subject but I’m encouraged that others feel as I do – that we should at least put some thought in to how to innovate and progress without sacrificing what we hold special in whiskey. I’m not sure about the supreme court of whiskey, though. Who would choose the judges? And the whole point of whiskey is its individuality. Perhaps the way forward is to leave everything as it is and create a new category for good quality ‘rogue products’.

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