Another in our occasional series of Tweet-style interviews. As always, it’s 140 characters or less (we don’t count the spaces) in the answers from Georgie Bell, Diageo’s luxury brand ambassador (Mortlach’s her main focus). Georgie’s boundless enthusiasm ran us close to the wire on some answers, but we managed.
Where are you based and what’s the view from your office window (if you have one)?
The center of Edinburgh; I have been for the last 8 years. The sun is streaming through the window (a rarity for August) and I have a cup of Vietnamese coffee to hand.
Sounds good: explain Vietnamese coffee, please. And the view from the window?
Picked up some incredible coffee from a Saigon market: very strong, extremely aromatic. View: cobbled streets, old town houses in the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town.
Cocktail industry! Worked in Edinburgh bars for 5 years. Found I had a particular interest in whisky. When I graduated from university I thought, why not give it a go!
Good woman. Career path to here?
Firstly the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (similar to the other Diageo Georgie!): worked with them for 3 years as a bartender, then their global brand ambassador.
Fueled my ‘geeky’ interest by gaining IBD* diploma in distilling. Then joined Diageo in January 2014 as luxury malts ambassador, looking after rebirth of Mortlach.
Quite intensive. Congrats on the IBD diploma, that’s commitment. It’s been less than a year on Mortlach. Enjoying it so far?
7 months, still standing! It’s been fascinating working on the launch of a whisky – no 2 days are the same – and everyone in the company and out has been very supportive.
Very varied. Working with markets on launch plans; both at a distance and in market (off to China soon). There’s more…
Okay then: fire away.
Spending time with the whisky creation team, in archives researching the distillery history, special Mortlach tastings & dinners. It’s a lot of fun! I’m very lucky.
You have my dream job. What are your most and least favorite aspects of it?
Least…I’m not a huge fan of hotel laundry services (I prefer to wash my own intimate apparel!), everything else is fantastic.
Love traveling, new cultures, seeing overseas friends, breaking stereotypes, introducing people not only to Mortlach but whisky as accessible & versatile spirit.
You’re so right on accessible/versatile. The “new” Mortlachs taste great. Any quick insight into how those 4 were arrived at to offer to consumers?
To show distillery character at its best: highlighting unique 2.81 distillation process. All 4 so individual and decadent but a common strain of flavor throughout.
And those characteristics and common flavor strain are….?
A distinct umami note (savoriness), rich, ‘thick’ in body and viscosity and muscular with an underlying succulent fruitiness.
I think it’s easier if someone explains it to you. I spent 4 days working there and it wasn’t until the final hour that I actually ‘got’ it; it’s quite something!
Does that system make it more expensive to produce? If so, how? Nothing wrong with expensive; just trying to understand.
Not at all! Just a different pattern of distillation from other places. Distilled it this way since 1896. We’re replicating the 2.81 process in the new stillhouse.
Will look forward to hearing more. Scotch generally: some lovely but expensive packaging for older or special ones. Going too far and overshadowing the whisky?
No, it’s giving the whisky the attention/care deserved. Think how pretty you feel in an extra special dress or coat. Whiskies ‘dressed’ as such are extremely special.
Good answer and, as a marketeer, I agree. In that case do you think industry pricing for such things is about right or do you not get much time to notice?
I try to focus on the whole category so if you take account of other factors (18+ years in cask is taking a gamble), the prices reflect the whisky’s rarity and specialness.
True: not everyone gets the high costs behind the long maturation process. You’re enviably slender and one interest is sport. Anything in particular?
Thank you, but beg to differ! Running (a half marathon soon, a great way to explore a new city); general gym work. Spin classes & bikram yoga: exercise keeps me leveled.
That’s not exercise, that’s full-on training. Is this because you also love food?
I do love food and also spend a lot of my life traveling. Being in shape helps combat any stress of traveling and keeps my energy levels high for presentations etc.
Any particular dish or style of cuisine?
Anything and everything! I love spicy Asian food. I tend to try and stay away from anything too rich though.
I understand you bake. Do you have competitions with Georgie Crawford at Lagavulin?!
I would love that! Although I’m sure she’d win: my attempts recently haven’t been too successful. ‘Freestyling’ a baking recipe isn’t advised…
Okay, maybe we have a bake-off challenge here. The Great Scottish Bake-Off!
You also love travel, just as well. Favorite country for a) work and b) leisure? Why?
What is leisure?! I’m joking – I’m a beach baby at heart so anywhere sunny – I also love to dive.
And for work?
The U.S. (specifically DC & NYC – lots of friends there); Sweden (incredible quality of living); Canada; Singapore – I haven’t yet been to a country I haven’t enjoyed.
What’s your desert island dram? You’re allowed to appreciate the work of competitors – others in this series have. Only one, mind!
Drams match memories. Had an incredible BenRiach 1988 after Victoria Whisky Festival; Mortlach 25; Monkey Shoulder; anything from Clynelish: I can’t just pick one!
It’s compulsory – one only, please!
Mortlach 25 – decadent, beautiful – for a luxurious desert island retreat!
And we’re done. Thank you.
* Institute of Brewing & Distilling
The fall issue of Whisky Advocate will hit the newsstands September 1st. It’s a great issue from cover to cover, and the Buying Guide contains more reviews than ever before. Today we offer a sneak peek at the Top Ten whiskies reviewed. (As always, if the price is not listed in U.S. dollars, the whisky is not currently available in the U.S. market.)
Smoke begins Jim Beveridge’s public replication of the annual Directors Blend concept, built around Johnnie Walker’s signature characteristics. Peat smoke harks back to Islay, but there’s wood smoke, tobacco leaf, and malt, with a salty richness behind it. The grain just gives it a lift of extra sweetness. Polished, with great structure; red apple, raspberry, and sweet linctus wrap up with a long, smoky finish of cigar stub and peat stores. Clear parallels with Directors Blend 2009, but better. (8,888 decanters released)—Jonny McCormick
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 91
#9 - Benjamin Prichard’s Tennessee Whiskey, 40%, $45
Although the Prichard distillery is located in Lincoln County, it has a special exemption from using the Lincoln County Process and isn’t charcoal filtered. The nose reflects that with bright aromas including caramel, cinnamon, and oak. The entry is sweet caramel corn followed by soft cinnamon and black pepper with a boost from some oak. A medium, slightly dry finish completes a very flavorful but still extremely easy-drinking Tennessee whiskey. This is the crown jewel of the Prichard distillery line.—Geoffrey Kleinman
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
#8 - The Feathery, 40%, £39
Chocolate-covered raisins scoffed on a heathery moor, leather riding tack, intense plain chocolate, malt loaf, mixed nuts, Medjool dates, and traces of wood ash. A gorgeous, unctuous mouthfeel with flavors spun around bright sparks of orange, dark toffee, and rich maltiness, melding to black cherry, stewed fruits, licorice, and charred oak. Named for the leather golf balls packed with goose feathers used in the early 19th century. Sink one for a birdie. From the bottlers of Sheep Dip. —Jonny McCormick
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
#7 - Glenfarclas Family Casks 1988 Cask #434, 53.4%, £345
Quite earthy, with orris root, burlap, and dunnage warehouse notes. Distinctly meaty—Bovril (beef stock)—then cedary. This untamed edge—think Mortlach or Benrinnes—dominates the palate, but the cask (a refill butt) isn’t overstating its presence. There’s espresso on the finish. Here’s Glenfarclas taking a ramble on the wild side. If your preference is for more robust styles, then look no further. —Dave Broom
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
#6 - Baker’s, 53.5%, $47
Rich, multi-layered nose: vanilla, cornmeal, berries (black raspberries, wineberries), and broad-shouldered oak. Powerful, but not overproof hot in the mouth; controlled. The berries sing a high counter-melody over the corn-oak beat as the whole experience rocks along. It’s powerful, sweet, authoritative, and finishes with a reprise of it all: berries, corn, vanilla, and stronger oak. Mature, complete bourbon with a 7 year age statement, and a real sleeper in the Small Batch Collection. —Lew Bryson
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
#5 - Lagavulin 1995 Feis Ile 2014 bottling, 54.7%, £99
A sherry-cask Lagavulin, this immediately shows a rich, mellow power with a touch of potter’s wheel, but it needs water to bring out sandalwood, beach bonfire, kombu, Lapsang Souchong, and bog myrtle. The palate is where it shows itself fully; resinous and thick, unctuous even, with that scented pine/juniper tea note shifting into paprika-rubbed ham, membrillo, currants, blackberry. I’ve a feeling that this period will be seen as Lagavulin’s golden age.—Dave Broom
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93
#4 - Glenfarclas Family Casks 1987 Cask #3829, 48%, £230
This is the bomb. Savory and lightly meaty, but sweetened by plum sauce; there’s even some strawberry around the fringes. You could see how with another 30 years this would end up like the ’54. Elegant yet powerful, there’s sandalwood incense, marmalade, even a little dried mango. The distillery’s density is balanced by this fruit. Lush with supple tannins and at its best neat. From a refill butt, this is an exemplary sherried malt. —Dave Broom
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94
Aged 11 years, this year’s single barrel release is a lively mix of caramel and bright, zingy orange on palate entry. Cinnamon, vanilla, and mint emerge mid-palate, leading to polished oak, baked apple, and a hint of leather on the finish. A lively bourbon, with crisp, clean flavors and nicely balanced. Another winner from Four Roses. —John Hansell
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95
#2 - Crown Royal Monarch, 40%, $75
Monarch, the 75th anniversary limited edition of Canada’s best-selling whisky, raises the already high Crown Royal flavor bar. Zesty rye from an ancient Coffey still is the throbbing heart of this blend, balancing cloves, ginger, cinnamon, glowing hot pepper, and that gorgeous sour bitterness of rye grain against crispy, fresh-sawn lumber, fragrant lilacs, dark fruits, and green apples. Butterscotch, chocolate, toffee, mint, pine needles, and sweet pitchy balsam enrich a luscious, creamy mouthfeel carefully tempered by grapefruit pith. —Davin deKergommeaux
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96
And the top rated whisky of the fall 2014 issue of Whisky Advocate magazine is…
Glenfarclas Family Casks 1954 Cask #1260, 47.2%, £1,995
A rich amber color and elegantly oxidized notes greet you. There are luscious old fruits—pineapple, dried peach, apricot—and puffs of coal-like smokiness. In time, sweet spices (cumin especially) emerge. Superbly balanced. The palate, while fragile, still has real sweetness alongside a lick of treacle. It can take a drop of water, allowing richer, darker fruits to emerge. The finish is powerful, long, and resonant. Superb, not over-wooded, and a fair price for such a rarity. —Dave Broom
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96
There will be no further Bonhams whisky auctions in New York for the foreseeable future. The auction house has canceled its planned sale for October 19th at its Madison Avenue galleries and will review the situation on scheduling further auctions next year.
Mariam Cebalo, director of business management at Bonhams confirmed to Whisky Advocate that the cessation of operations in this area was solely due to the whisky department’s profitability. In other words, the department may not have hit the targets set by the company to justify the resource required to appraise, catalog, store, display, and ultimately auction large consignments of rare whisky. Whisky auction houses must partner up with a retailer holding a liquor license, and that comes at a cost to the operation.
Therefore, this decision is not a reason to doubt the inherent value of whisky as a collectible or affect confidence in the secondary market. From the business perspective of an auction house, it is simply the commercial nature of whisky as a tradable commodity when compared with other assets in the New York saleroom. “The market is especially strong right now for Asian art, Californian and American paintings, jewelry, and motorcars,” Cebalo told me.
The legislation preventing whisky auctions in New York was overturned seven years ago. Christie’s held the first sale in December 2007 and Bonhams entered the fray in 2009. In recent years, Bonhams have been running biannual rare whisky and spirits auctions in Manhattan, with the last sale held on April 30th 2014.
Importantly, Bonhams have confirmed that the whisky department in Queen Street, Edinburgh and at One Pacific Place, Hong Kong are unaffected by this news and their full program of whisky sales continues as advertised. Bonhams have been expanding their operations in Asia-Pacific with the opening of a new Singapore office. This means that the highly anticipated Bonhams Hong Kong Japanese & Rare Whisky sale will take still place on August 15th 2014, and the next Edinburgh sale will occur on 1st October 2014. However, that may be little consolation for whisky collectors in the United States and Canada.
The Bonhams business is currently up for sale by its two majority owners, so would the reinstatement of whisky auctions be at the discretion of any potential new owners? Would there be any market conditions to be met first? “Bonhams’ evaluation of whisky auction scheduling for 2015 is based solely upon profitability,” said Mariam Cebalo. So if you are thinking of consigning your whisky or bourbon collection for sale, should you still approach Bonhams, New York, I wondered? Cebalo replied affirmatively, “With its international expertise, Bonhams is well equipped and happy to appraise large, valuable collections and discuss consignments with interested parties.”
Where does this leave the whisky collector in the United States? Bonhams were the only auction house running fully dedicated whisky sales in New York, so will other auction houses capitalize on this opportunity? As a collector, who else could you speak to? I took a straw poll of leading U.S. fine wine auction specialists and this is what they told me.
Acker Merrall & Condit
“We will continue to welcome and offer and sell whiskey at our auctions in New York,” said John Kapon, chief executive officer of the global company well known for its fine wine auctions. “I doubt we will conduct a ‘spirits only’ auction, as it is a niche market.”
Christies, New York
“Christie’s, NY led the way with spirits sales many years ago, in the first spirits auction since Prohibition,” remarked Charles Antin, Christie’s head of sale, associate vice president and fine wine specialist. “Since, we have always offered smaller, curated selections of scotch, bourbon, cognac, and rum in our fine wine auctions. On October 10th, in fact, we have a large selection of scotch including Black Bowmore and others.”
Hart David Hart Wine Co., Chicago
“We feel there is certainly potential to expand the fine and rare spirits segment of our business,” said Marc Smoler, their marketing manager. “Spirits categories such as bourbon, chartreuse, and Japanese whisky have drastically increased in popularity in the past few years. Hart Davis Hart has done particularly well with small production bourbons such as Pappy Van Winkle and older vintages of classic single malt scotches.
“As our business continues to grow, we would like to offer more opportunities to purchase and fine and rare spirits through both our retail and auction outlets and we welcome any collector to sell their whiskey collection with us,” he continued. “However, we don’t foresee a whiskey-only auction in our future.”
Morrell & Company, New York
I spoke with Jeremy W. Noye, Morrell’s CEO.“We’re always willing to look and consider a collector’s selection of whiskies or spirits.” However, he doesn’t see a dedicated whisky sale on the cards quite yet. “I won’t count it out, I won’t say never, but we will continue to have whisky within our fine wine sales. There is an interest in the market in vintage spirits looking at the distillation dates of different whiskies, bourbons and cognacs. In general, we don’t seem to see as much of the older bottlings here in the U.S. as you see in the UK and Europe. I know there are major collections here in the U.S. but they tend to hold on to them for longer than they do with wine.”
Admittedly, it is harder for a business that doesn’t handle large amounts of rare whisky to appraise and value whisky bottles. “It is labor intensive from our standpoint,” says Noye. “It does take a fair amount of research. My gut tells me there is less of a breadth of knowledge, the historical look and feel [of the bottles], and data out there as there is on wine at this time.”
“I think there is interest there,” he said encouragingly. “It is spread out across the country and globally. At least in the U.S., the Pappy Van Winkle craze has really spoken to that. We’ve seen more bourbon coming up to auction now, even the general release stuff. It’s the scarcity aspect.”
Skinner, Inc., Boston
After running a dedicated online auction of fine ales last spring, Marie Keep, director of fine wines said, “We see great potential for growing the exciting and dynamic marketplace of whisky and spirits, and believe we could become the auction house of choice for collectors on both the buying and selling side.”
Sotheby’s, New York
Sotheby have been known for their occasional spectacular sales of Macallan. Their press office said, “We don’t currently hold regular dedicated sales of whisky and there are no plans to do so. We don’t rule out offering occasional rare bottles or collections in the future though.”
Wally’s Auctions, New York
“Wally’s absolutely welcomes whisky collectors to sell their collections (and buy!)” enthused Julia Gilbert, Managing Director. “We have had great success with highly curated sections of spirits in our March and June 2014 live auctions in New York, and we frequently receive inquiries about offering spirits at auction. As the whisky market continues to grow both domestically and globally, a dedicated whisky or spirits auction is certainly in the realm of possibility for Wally’s Auctions in the future.”
Bonhams continues to be a major player in the secondary market for rare whisky, but this snapshot indicates that choice abounds, and the landscape may have changed in the U.S. by the time Bonhams are ready to come back into the marketplace.
I got a chance to visit two craft distillers in the Northeast last week: Berkshire Mountain Distillers and Catskill Distilling. I took a day off and drove up to Boston for the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Boston Beer Company (the brewers of Samuel Adams), and realized I could easily stop in to see some whiskey being made on my way back. It was a gorgeous day, and after I’d cleared the Boston traffic, a great drive west out the Mass Pike, past lakes, marshes, and forests, then into the rolling folds of the Berkshires. I got off the Pike, headed south, and watched as the roads my mapping app directed me onto got smaller and smaller, until finally the arrow pointed down a long gravel driveway through a meadow.
Nice work, mapping app: that’s where I found Berkshire Mountain Distillers and founder Chris Weld. Things were, as he put it, “a tad crazy,” as they prepared to move to a new building in nearby Sheffield, Mass. The grassy area around the barn where the distillery has been for seven years was littered with tanks, “totes” (the heavy plastic, roughly 1,000 liter container cubes this industry seems to run on), and a malfunctioning auger, all waiting to be moved or salvaged. It was also crazy because while they were mashing in for a run of bourbon, they were eagerly anticipating the first run of their new bottled gin-and-tonic product, due to be done at the new plant in mid-August. (I got a chilled sip: deliciously refreshing and dangerously drinkable at 26 proof!)
Berkshire runs on a pot still salvaged from Brown-Forman, an odd, capsule-shaped device with internal copper. The new make ages in a variety of barrel sizes; like many craft distillers, Weld is moving away from tiny 10-gallon barrels to larger ones. Too woody, too fast in the smaller ones, he acknowledged. That’s some of the reason they’re moving: more room for barrels. Another reason is that long gravel driveway and the barn. It’s hard for trucks to get back here, and once they’re here…Weld told me a hair-raising story about a parked truck starting to slide, wheels locked, down the snow-covered driveway toward his cottage. They managed to get it stopped, but started looking for another location.
Berkshire has done some interesting collaborations with brewers. I’d actually tasted one the night before at the Samuel Adams event; a whiskey made by distilling Samuel Adams Boston Lager and aging it in bourbon barrels. It was at barrel proof, and only two years old, but with a bit of water it opened right up and gave the floral, spicy hop nose the Lager is known for, without the bitterness in the mouth. It’s still young, and hot; in a couple years, it might be an interesting whiskey indeed. They did another one with Samuel Adams Cinder Bock, a smoked beer, which was aged in barrels that had held Samuel Adams Utopias. I tasted that at the distillery, and didn’t really get much of the smoke; the rich vinous wood of the barrel was more evident.
They’ve also done a series of small bottlings of their bourbon, finished in barrels used by other brewers to age their beers. I review the Samuel Adams Utopias edition in the upcoming Fall issue; Chris gave me a sample bottle of the Terrapin Brewing project at the distillery; there will be ten bottlings altogether. I found the Utopias bottling to be a richer, rounder version of the standard Berkshire Mountain bourbon bottling, and look forward to trying the Terrapin.
Chris had to run at this point, so I thanked him, and headed back down that gravel driveway and west toward the Hudson River. I crossed at Poughkeepsie, had lunch at a brewpub in New Paltz, and headed into another incredibly scenic drive, up over the Shawangunk escarpment and into the Catskills. After 50 minutes of roller coaster-like thrill driving on more two-lane roads, I found myself stuck in a solid mile of backed-up traffic…a mile from Catskill Distilling! What the heck was going on, a run on the tasting room?
My single-mindedness had betrayed me. I didn’t know that Catskill Distilling was just a couple hundred yards up the road from the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a performing space on the site of the 1969 Woodstock festival…and Jimmy Buffett was playing there that night. Don’t mess with the Parrotheads! I did finally get to turn off at the Dancing Cat Saloon and Catskill Distilling Company, where I was quickly greeted by the gregarious and friendly Monte Sachs, DVM.
That’s right; the owner is a large animal veterinarian. He made his money caring for racehorses in the Hudson Valley and at the track at Monticello, just down the road. I asked him how he got hooked on distilling, and he told me a great story about an Italian girlfriend who took him back to the family vineyard, where he decided to learn winemaking to impress the parents. “But after six months, I learned that winemaking is a lot of work!” he laughed. “What I really liked and wanted to do was make grappa.” The distillation of this Italian spirit fascinated him, and he decided he would make grappa. Someday.
Eventually the opportunity came along when New York passed a farm distillery law in 2008. Sachs jumped on it. He put in a Carl still setup, and got some valuable consulting help from industry legend Lincoln Henderson. (I first heard of Monte and Catskill from Lincoln, who told me that, among other things, he’d told Monte to “keep the place clean and open a gift shop; people want to buy things.” I can report that Monte definitely took that advice; the place was spotless, and there was plenty of merchandise.) Henderson advised him on his aging building, a former horse stable behind the distillery.
This little barrel house is heavily insulated, without windows, and when Monte opened the door for me, I could see it was stuffed with barrels. It was also eye-stingingly heavy with boozy aromas; the angels have to fight for their share of this whiskey! There was a concrete slab beside the building; another aging house is going in soon, and should be up by October.
Monte needs that barrel house, and new tanks, and more barrels (he says he’s got good barrel supply, but has to order in large lots to get it). Not only is the current barrel house chockfull, he’s ramping up production. Through a chance meeting at a spirits expo, he connected with a high-powered consultant with years of experience in major spirits companies who had just retired and was looking for interesting products to work with. Monte sent him his product line and, just as I did in this summer’s Rye Issue, he picked out the Buckwheat whiskey as the most interesting, the most different. There are plans to make the Buckwheat the forefront of the portfolio, and there may be a lot more investment coming in to make it happen.
He’s also doing a collaboration with a brewery, by the way. He connected with Brewery Ommegang, over in Cooperstown, N.Y., and they made a batch of ale for him that’s been distilled and is aging in the barrel house now, with the rampant Ommegang lion stenciled on the barrel head. Exciting times in the Catskills.
And the grappa? He’s still making it. “You see those bottles? They’re all hand-blown, which means they’re all a different size, so I have to measure the spirit going in at precisely 375 ml, and I have to use a tapered cork because all the necks are different, and then I have to wax the corks to keep them in. And it’s not a big seller.” He shrugged, and grinned. “I’m still going to make it! I really love the stuff.”
I don’t like grappa. I’ve tried it, repeatedly, and I don’t like it, or the similar slivovitz or pisco (though I do like marc; go figure). But I told Monte I’d try his, because he’d been so friendly, and because that Buckwheat was so interesting. You know? I liked the grappa (words I’ve never said before, or ever thought I would). It had much more to it than just hot rocket fuel character; it was subtle, intriguing, delicate. It was an interesting insight into how distilling is done here; each product clearly shows its origin grains or grapes, packed with flavor before it comes anywhere near wood.
I left Catskill Distilling, cut back half a mile to elude the Parrotheads, and two-laned it home, managing to make it a hat trick of pretty little mountain chains by driving through the Poconos during a gorgeous sunset. There aren’t any craft distillers in the Poconos yet, but who knows what might happen in a few years?
(Do you like the video? Do you want to see more? Or is it just annoying?)
Another in our occasional series of Tweet-style interviews. As always, it’s 140 characters or less (we don’t count the spaces) in the answers from Paul McDonagh. Paul is passionate about his Scotch whisky and the owner of Glasgow’s finest whisky bar, the Bon Accord. A man who’s enjoying the bar life.
What’s the view from your office window – if you have one?
I don’t have one but I do have some nice bottles of whisky to look at.
Good answer! How long have you been owner at the Bon Accord?
This is my 14th year but it seems like only yesterday that I took over. Am having a great time.
Good to hear. Customers & drinking habits—anything different now from when you took over?
We sell more whisky than before. 14 yrs ago we had only 5 malts, now we have 380; the trend seems to be for more sherried whisky.
That’s some increase! Any thoughts on why an interest in sherry matured?
I think it’s because they may be sweeter and easier to drink.
Fair point—easier than some Islays for some people! Years ago the bar was known for real ales rather than whisky. Still big on beers? Numbers?
We are still big on ales—800 different beers a year and we host 4 ale festivals each year.
Busy life. Noticeable whisky industry price increases in shops in recent times. Have these affected you much, or bars generally?
Not a bit. People who drink good whisky know it comes at a cost and the older, the dearer.
Scottish government keen to get minimum unit pricing for alcohol in shops. If it happens, how would that affect your business: good or bad?
Not at all—people will still want to go out to the pub to meet friends. Most shops don’t sell the range of beer and spirits that we do and I think the plan is a good thing.
Why a good thing?
We have a problem in this country and in others with alcohol that we should do something about. Pricing is not the only answer but it’s a start.
Fair enough. You’ve won many awards as a whisky bar. How important are they and do they help increase business?
It’s great for me, staff and customers. We take pride in the pub’s achievements. The more you win, the more new customers come, but it’s hard work keeping high standards.
Much to live up to! Your best selling whiskies? And the rarest / most expensive?
Best selling: Macallan, Bowmore, Dalmore. Rarest is 70 YO Glenlivet at £900 per 35ml measure.
That one’s not for my pocket. What info do you have in bar to help customers choose a whisky?
Whisky menu on iPad with tasting notes, whisky distilleries and region map…and great staff!
Good innovation. How important is staff training on whisky and what form does it take?
Staff get basic training from day 1 and for the rest of the time they are here. They go to whisky tastings, distillery visits, but most training takes place in-house.
Does that include in-pub training sessions from brand owners too?
Yes, we have a lot of tastings in the pub with brand owners; we also have 2 whisky clubs that I run—and staff can join in—and 3 other whisky clubs which meet here.
I was going to ask about the Whisky Clubs: what do they do?
At my two, we have dinner and a 6-malt sampling. I do most of the tasting but bring in brand owners too.
And the other clubs?
The other clubs don’t have a meal each time, but always a 6 dram tasting with brand owners. The 5 clubs have a combined membership of 320.
Wow! How much tourist business do you get and does any one country predominate?
We are a global pub in terms of brands and customers. We get a lot of people from the US & Europe as we’re in various guides.
I hear one outside interest is football. Any particular team and why?
It’s Glasgow Celtic. I was taken along to Celtic Park aged 8 and have been going ever since: 47yrs. It’s in my blood; just like the pub business.
Giving away your age! Another interest is dining out. Where’s the best place you’ve eaten a) at home and b) overseas?
Best place in UK, Roux at the Landau: 5 courses and 5 malts, private dining room with Albert Roux as host. Overseas: the Waldorf Astoria, New York.
Good taste. From any international travels, do you think issues for bar owners are pretty much the same everywhere?
Yes, we all want more trade mid-week and have too much at weekends, but we must always stay on the ball with new trends and products/producers.
Any ideas gathered or lessons learned from bars elsewhere?
You always pick up something. Every bar has a unique selling point. Was in an Amsterdam bar and they let me go behind the bar to get my photo taken. Been doing that 20 years.
Anything you’d like to do at the Bon Accord that you currently can’t?
No, I’m very happy with the way we are trading.
Any future ambitions there?
Ambition? Yes: to do what am doing for as long as I can. This is THE LIFE.
Lastly, what’s your desert island dram? Just one!
Old Pulteney 23 YO sherry cask. There’s a picture of a boat on the label; that could be handy! LOL.
Oh, very funny…
The other night I was sitting at a bar, a hushed, handsome space awash in wood and leather, tucked behind an unmarked door upstairs from a more raucous joint dominated by a flat screen blaring the World Cup and gals in too-tight dresses. I could have been in a speakeasy-style lair anywhere in the world, except I was in Taipei, at Alchemy, in the slick Xinyi district. It is here that I watched a large group of dolled-up friends, tipsy from a wedding, keep the party going by passing around a bottle of the Macallan and greedily sipping it like water.
Soft and sweet, the Macallan, I learned a few days prior, is the single malt of choice among Taiwanese imbibers. Instead of feeling fierce pride for the lovely whiskies being turned out at Kavalan, a little over an hour away from Taipei, many locals are skeptical of single malts from their homeland.
It is precisely this status-conscious demographic González Byass is targeting with its brand new whisky, Nomad. The Spanish wine producer, best known for its range of sherries, has decided to amp up its spirits collection—most notably marked by the London No. 1 Gin—with Nomad, a whisky crafted by Whyte & Mackay’s zany Richard Paterson.
Like any Scotch whisky, this cross-cultural creation is distilled, blended, and aged in Scotland. But then, in a romantic twist, it’s shipped off to balmy Spain, where it’s finished in Pedro Ximénez casks. For the debut of Nomad, González Byass first set its sights on Taipei, the world’s sixth-largest single malt market. The Taiwanese, I am told, have the power to turn their drink-swilling neighbors in Hong Kong and China onto new products and habits, making them an even more captivating audience.
For Nomad’s grand launch, González Byass brought writers from around the world—luckily including myself—to Taipei to taste the much-buzzed whisky, discover what makes it stand out from the bombardment of new releases on retail shelves, and give them a feel for Taiwanese nightlife in between dumpling runs.
Via Skype, Paterson, donning a suit in the middle of the night, UK time, walked curious attendees through the particulars of Nomad. For example, he told us he melded 25 single malt and six grain whiskies that are 5 to 8 years old for this blend, then aged it in oloroso casks for a year. Once shipped off to Spain, the whisky did time in the Pedro Ximénez barrels for up to another year. Although most bottles of booze boast 40 or 43% ABV, Paterson determined Nomad’s should be 41.3%.
I was almost scared to taste it. After all this anticipation, imagine what a letdown it would be to fly across the globe for a swig of something hot and one-dimensional. But it did not disappoint. Paterson kept emphasizing its heady raisin and marzipan notes, and the pastry buff in me was delighted each rich sip conjured a loaf of warm Christmastime Stollen and brown sugar-packed sticky toffee pudding.
He also encouraged us to resist the urge to plunk ice cubes into our glasses, and drink Nomad neat. This will not be a problem because it’s an approachable whisky, something I would have no qualms about opening on a Tuesday night while in yoga pants. At around $45, it’s not something you need to save for a white tablecloth feast, but guests will most certainly relish it when you bring it over for a potluck. They may even strike a conversation over how closely the flat, flask-like bottle resembles Knob Creek’s.
Perhaps the most interesting element of Nomad’s arrival is that it has given González Byass the opportunity to carve out a new category of whisky called Outland. The name exemplifies wanderlust and adventure, and it’s interesting to think of the future cross-cultural collaborations that will undoubtedly ensue. More whiskies making their way to Spain is inevitable— González Byass may have the audacity to take Scotland-meets-Spain whisky to a new level, but Paterson is no stranger to such international tinkering; he did this before with Sheep Dip—yet is Irish whiskey aged in Kentucky a possibility? Or maybe Japanese whisky will get sent off to Canada?
Lest bartenders be excluded from all of this intrigue surrounding Nomad, the González Byass folks asked local barkeeps to show off how they weave the whisky into clever concoctions. One of them even found Fireball a fine complement. With Paterson’s words warning us to drink it in as pure a state as possible, I only wanted to try it in an Old-Fashioned. Surely Nomad will make a splash on Taipei’s burgeoning craft bar scene—and New York’s when it hopefully hits the States in the fall. Dessert notes coupled with a European fairytale of a narrative might just get Taipei bar-goers to look beyond their beloved Macallan.
Truly the whisky gods have smiled on me. Great are their blessings, as I bring you tidings of five (yes, five: read it and weep) interesting new releases that I have tasted recently on your behalf. To be even-handed, I’ll mention them in alphabetical order.
First up, then, is the Balvenie Single Cask 15 Years Old expression, the second in Balvenie’s Single Cask line. Drawn from a sherry butt, cask number 16293 (not that any of us would know the difference, but it lends corroborative detail to the label), this full-flavored 47.8% dram drew me in with its rich, warming color, and then engaged my palate with an explosion of spices and sweet dark fruits (think candied pineapple and chocolate coated raisins) that lingered gently for minutes afterwards.
With a mere 650 bottles available worldwide, and a comparatively modest $99.99 price point, I don’t expect supplies will last long, but a further Single Barrel release, drawn from a refill American oak barrel and aged 25 years, will complete the range at the end of 2014. These Single Cask releases are another sublime illustration of the hand of a master; in this case, Balvenie’s malt master David Stewart. Grab one while you have the chance.
Straight on to another from the William Grant & Sons’ stable, this time Glenfiddich Excellence, a 26 year old from the world’s best-selling single malt brand that, a trifle worryingly, they described as a “luxury expression” (worryingly, because that’s generally bad news for wallets). All too often, such language from the PR folks speaks more to ritzy packaging than the quality of the liquid.
This is the first time Glenfiddich have released a whisky wholly and exclusively matured in bourbon casks. It struck me as a curiously subtle whisky, strangely pale for its age, and one that will slowly seduce you with its evolving complexity rather than make an immediately dramatic entrance. It’s none the worse for that, but I imagine buyers will need to take some time to fully get to know and explore its undoubted depths. (43%, around $600).
My third selection is from a distillery as obscure as Glenfiddich is well-known: Glen Garioch. Part of the Morrison Bowmore stable, it tends to be over-shadowed by its more famous Islay cousin. I rather fancy that if it was in Speyside it would enjoy greater fame and appreciation but, as it is, somewhat tucked away in rural Aberdeenshire with no near-neighbors, it languishes in obscurity as a result, with much of the output historically going into blends.
That’s a shame, but perhaps this latest release will win it a few fans. This is the Glen Garioch 1998 Wine Cask Matured which (the hint’s in the name) has spent the last 15 years aging in the finest ‘tonneaux de vin rouge’ (that’s red wine casks to you and me) from an anonymous Bordeaux chateau; annoyingly, they couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me which one. Never mind; while plenty remains of the distillery’s fruity and spicy Highland character, the casks have added loads more intriguing flavors: berries, chocolate, ginger, and coconut to name just a few that rolled over my palate. Bottled at 48% abv, the 5,400 bottles available will be shared between the UK, the U.S., and, fittingly, France. Look for them this Fall at around $170.
Next up is the only blended whisky of the five, but a notable one. This is John Walker & Sons Private Collection, the first in a series of limited releases from this Diageo behemoth. While the Johnnie Walker brand is huge, the folks behind it have also cleverly managed to introduce some variety with the Private Collection and, if this new release is anything to go by, there’s every chance they will even please single malt mavens. This is an exquisite blend specially prepared to highlight different facets of the brand’s character: master blender Dr. Jim Beveridge has showcased the smoky Highland and Island single malts in the blend, but introduced a delightful sweet note into the bargain.
Just 8,888 bottles will be available worldwide, and while that number might suggest Diageo have their sights set firmly to Far Eastern markets, their spokesman assured me that the U.S. will be their most important market. This isn’t a cheap whisky by any stretch of the imagination—expect a retail price of $750+—but unusually for products with this premium position, the packaging is relatively restrained, letting the whisky do the talking. As, in my view, it should.
Beveridge drew on some rare experimental casks for the blend and gave the whiskies a long marrying period to integrate their complex flavors. No age has been declared, as is the current fashion, but there are some very mature whiskies to be found in the blend, which will never be reproduced, so scarce are the constituents.
And, finally, back to William Grant & Sons (haven’t they been busy?) for a very rare and special release of their little-known Kininvie single malt, from a distillery opened in July 1990 essentially to supply the blenders. If you’ve ever visited their distilling complex at Dufftown, Kininvie is housed in the anonymous building behind the Balvenie tun room. If you didn’t know it was there, you probably wouldn’t have noticed it, and the guides don’t generally point it out.
They are offering two expressions, at 17 and 23 years old respectively, both with an identical cask mix (80% hogsheads and 20% American oak sherry; both at 42.6% abv). The younger whisky is reserved for travel retail, but the older version will appear in whisky specialist shops in domestic markets. With very limited quantities released and a price point of over $300 for a bottle equivalent (sold only in half bottle sizes), Kininvie is never going to be an everyday drinking whisky.
No doubt single malt enthusiasts will welcome the overdue arrival of this rarity, though, and will be interested to try what Kevin Abrook, Grants’ global whisky specialist for innovation, described to me as a hitherto “hidden secret jewel.” I found lots of vanilla sweetness, floral, citrus, and cut grass notes in my dram, finishing with a suggestion of fragrant sweet lemon mint.
STOP PRESS: As I file this report, Highland Park have sent me their new Dark Origins release. The whisky gods really are working overtime.
Another day, and another Scotch distillery project appears. No doubt funding will come from an issue of founders’ bonds or future cask sales, and a diverse group of private investors, while early income will be predicated on sales of gin and new-make spirit. You get the picture.
So we look at the case of Mossburn Distillers Ltd. with a slightly seen-it-all-before eye. We chat with chief executive Neil Mathieson, who outlines two distillery projects, one on the Isle of Skye and another near Jedburgh, in the Scottish Borders. Talk turns to likely expenditure; and Mathieson mentions that the Borders plans involve spending between £35 and £40 million ($60 to $68 million), and that no external funding will be required.
Did he say £35 to £40 million? More or less what it cost Diageo to build its largest and most state-of-the-art distillery to date at Roseisle? Yes, he did.
Clearly we need to know more about the man and his plans. Mathieson was born in Scotland into a family with over 100 years of involvement with Scotch whisky. Moving to London, he trained as a chef, also getting involved in law, accountancy, and hotel management. He then opened a restaurant with his chef wife.
For the past 30 years he has been running Eaux de Vie, which he set up in 1984, growing it into the UK’s leading independent importer of spirits. Eaux de Vie now in the hands of Marussia Beverages BV, which ultimately belongs to the privately owned Swedish investment company Haydn Holding AB. Marussia operates vineyards in Europe and a brandy distillery in Eastern Europe, while additionally working with Caribbean rum producers.
Neil Mathieson points out that, “We started looking at having our own involvement in whisky distilling in Scotland five years ago, so we’re not jumping on a bandwagon.” In order to further these distilling ambitions, Mossburn Distillers Ltd. has been set up to create and operate the two new distilleries.
“At Torabhaig on the southeast coast of Skye, more than £5 million ($8 million) will be spent building a new malt distillery in a listed farm steading,” notes Mathieson. “The aim is to produce half a million liters of spirit, using traditional pot stills made for us by Forsyths. The restoration of the buildings has commenced and the first distillates will be produced in 2016. We expect that the flavor profile will be confirmed over the next year as we work on the still shape and height, malt sourcing, and wood program.”
By coincidence, distilling guru and former Diageo production director Alan Rutherford already had an existing interest in both the Jedburgh and Skye distillery projects. He was involved with the Torabhaig distillery venture before Mossburn came along, when all permissions were in place ready for work to commence. At an earlier stage Rutherford had identified the Jedburgh site as an ideal location for whisky-making in the Borders. Joining forces with the Mossburn team as technical director, it was decided that both ventures should go ahead.
“At Mossburn, our aim is to produce up to 2.5 million liters of malt and grain spirit per year,” says Neil Mathieson. “The design of the distillery buildings is currently subject to gaining planning permission, although work has begun on the other buildings at the site we own, based around the former Jedforest Hotel. We hope to start on the production buildings next year with distillation commencing in 2017. As with Torabhaig, we have yet to confirm the flavor profiles for production.
“It’s going to be a unique, statement building, which will incorporate a malt plant, a grain plant and a ‘hybrid’ plant; three distilleries under one roof, in effect. Ultimately, there will also be maturation facilities, a bottling hall and 1,000 square meters of hospitality space. We aim to have the largest whisky shop in Scotland and conference space for a spirits academy. If all goes to plan, we are talking about a 2015 build, while in 2016 the equipment will be put in place, and during 2017 the distillery and visitor center will open.”
Given that both distillery ventures are being “internally” funded by a clearly cash-rich enterprise, there are fewer pressures to obtain short-term returns for Mossburn Distillers Ltd than in the case of other fledgling whisky distillers. “We are working on a 25-year fully-funded business plan, just as we would for our other vineyard and distillery enterprises,” explains Mathieson.
“There will be no founders’ casks or sales of new-make spirit. We will market single malt, single grain, and blends, and the aim will be to build brands and create international sales prospects. The first limited release bottlings will probably be of five year old whisky before a standard ten or twelve is chosen. This will depend on the flavor profile the team decides on, and the development over the first five years.”
Some observers of the Scotch whisky scene foresee problems when all of the emergent ‘craft’ distilling operations begin fighting for their slice of the market. After all, each is likely to be offering consumers pretty much the same product, namely three of four year old, ‘limited edition’ bottlings from a predictable variety of casks, all with price tags of $120 and upward.
It appears that Mossburn is in the position to avoid such a situation, but what does Mathieson suggest for others embarking on their whisky-making dream? “I would advise them to concentrate on the costs of grain, wood, and cask storage over their aging plan, rather than the initial outlay on distilling equipment, and not to consider unrealistic retail prices or expect them to continue increasing,” he says. “Also, forget the U.S., as our distribution and retail models are different. Perhaps if we all took the initial expected financial requirement, doubled it, and then doubled it again, we would all be securely funded for the future!”
Diageo officials explained their company’s distillery plans, including state-of-the-art fire protection measures, significant economic benefits, and environmental considerations that include the planting of 2,450 native trees and a bio retention basin. But at the June 17 public hearing, several citizens offered cynicism toward Diageo’s claims and raised several issues over odor, traffic, noise pollution, water usage, black fungus, and sewage.
At the center of the community’s issue is the Guist Creek Lake, a 317-acre reservoir five miles east of Shelbyville. Diageo plans to use 180,000 gallons a day from the lake and says feasibility studies indicated this will not impact local water supplies.
But Bill Roberts, a 25-year resident of the Guist Creek Lake area, says past droughts have impacted its usage. “I can remember twice the lake was so low Shelby County had to keep the farmers from pumping water for their crops,” Roberts said. “How can [the county] allow another company to take 180,000 gallons a day from that lake and use it?”
The water commission determined the distillery’s lake usage would take out less than two inches of level, said Guy. L. Smith, executive vice president for the company, who was the lead Diageo presenter at the hearing. “If there was a drought, we’d be a part of the community that would be sensitive to that and would not just carry on,” Smith said.
There’s also the issue of the lake residents tapping into the new infrastructure.
“For 25 years they’ve been telling us we’re going to get sewers and fire hydrants,” said Linda Casey Stevenson, a resident who lives two blocks from the proposed distillery entrance on Benson Pike. “Diageo is coming in and they’re building all this. But we will not be allowed to hook into that. Obviously, they have declared Shelby County is open and for sale.”
Stevenson says she’ll continue to voice her opinions.
But there’s little that can be done. Smith says Diageo plans to be breaking ground in three months and wants to support the community as “good neighbors.” Diageo is now pursuing approvals for building permits, but it’s met all county and state requirements to begin the project, Smith says.
In addition to the area’s tree plantings, the company says it went above and beyond the county’s newly adopted zoning requirements for a distillery, which required at least 25 percent of the property to be dedicated to agricultural use or preserved as a conservation area.
Diageo said it will have a zero waste to landfill and that at least 100 acres will serve as a natural barrier to the operation. Diageo also explained buildings will fit in the natural landscape and will contain fire as well as alcohol leaks.
Company officials said in the case of a fire or massive barrel leaks, the warehouse’s concrete dikes would contain the fire or liquid. The water retention basin would act as a secondary containment area, they said.
“The entire area of disturbance in the distillery area and warehouses is drained to the water bio retention basin,” said Kevin Young, a site planner working with Diageo. “All storm water goes through a filtration system before it exits the site. This is not required by [the zoning], but something we’re doing above [requirements].”
These extra efforts have not gone unnoticed. Outside of the Guist Creek Lake residents, Shelby County Tourism and residents expressed support for the new distillery.
“I appreciate the dilemma of [residents] and their concerns. However, this distillery has gone above and beyond what most companies try to do within our regulations and to support this community,” said Shelby County resident Katy Shabdue. “I’m very much in favor of this.”
Only one resident claimed to have an issue with the whiskey fungus. The young man presented the commission with a picture of black mold. The commission did not address him and later voted in favor of the distillery.
Construction is expected to be completed within three years, Diageo says. The company still has not named the distillery.
Another in our occasional series of Tweet-style interviews. As always, it’s 140 characters or less (we don’t count the spaces) in the answers from Laphroaig distillery manager John Campbell. (This was a special one for me, as the brand’s former marketing manager from some years ago.)
What’s the view from your office window?
I have a great view, looking out over Laphroaig bay and it’s a beautiful day today on Islay.
Lucky you. We know you can get all 4 seasons in one day! Did you always want to be a distiller?
Yes, we can have variable weather, and nope: I wanted to be a mechanical engineer first!!
Really! What was your career path to becoming Laphroaig’s manager?
Well, I started off on that path when I was 16 but it was too soon, became a lobster fisherman on Islay, then a distiller.
So did you ever expect to be Laphroaig’s manager, then?
No, not a chance. I started off stenciling the numbers on the barrels, but have just kept sticking my hand up as time passed.
A serial volunteer, then. Islay distillery managers seem to be more involved with consumers/visitors than the mainland ones? Would you say that’s right? If so, why?
I am not sure, we probably are and it’s because we have much more charisma. Oh, and we are nosy!
Very honest! You seem a very quiet person. Do you enjoy all the public facing part?
Ileachs [Islay natives] are very open too…I am quiet and understated, just like Laphroaig….but I enjoy meeting people and having fun. Who doesn’t?
True. Under Beam there were more new expressions of Laphroaig. Will this continue under Beam Suntory?
Not sure if the strategy will change under new ownership, we will be integrating shortly, then we will know.
Of which expressions, from your tenure as manager, are you most proud? Do you get involved much in the creation process?
Yes, sometimes involved.. so Triple Wood, PX or An Cuan Mor are the best. Had to choose all 3!!
What have been trade and consumer reactions to Laphroaig Select and An Cuan Mor (I prefer the latter)?
We generally get positive reviews. These 2 are for different types of consumers. Select is for novices, not purists. An Cuan Mor gives fantastic European oak effects.
And it goes well with food too. Friends of Laphroaig now has over 600,000 members and is quite an online community too. Are you aiming for world domination here?!
Yeah, whisky does work well with food. FOL has given us world domination in peaty whiskies, yes… Ha ha – you guessed!!
I was just thinking you might take over and run the world from Islay. What about John Campbell off duty. I hear you play golf – much time for that?
Islay is the center of the universe, right? I used to play a lot of golf, not so much now…run a little and muck about with my kids.
The running: just for fitness or marathons?
Just fitness right now, but I will see where it goes, never know… if my knees last.
I’ve just spent a week walking round Paris; no knees left. I’ve noted family and travel as other interests. What do you like to do as a family?
Well, I like to take my boys and do fun stuff, so live sport is always good, football, rugby, American football, and generally just have wee adventures.
Sounds magic. I have little nieces but they live overseas so we don’t see them often to do stuff. Favorite place to travel for a) work and b) leisure?
So, fave place I have been to for work is hard! I like the U.S. a lot and I will say Seattle and for leisure I love Portugal – food and weather are great.
I liked Seattle too. Lovely relaxed feel to the place. Where will the next Laphroaig Live online broadcast come from (if there is to be one)?
There is and I am not sure if I can say yet. It will be in Sweden tho!!! Whoops ☺
The frozen north! Any plans yet for the distillery’s bicentenary in 2015 or are those a secret?
Not secret, just not fully completed yet, but we’ll have stuff throughout the year to celebrate with.
So we’ll look forward to hearing more before 2015 and for next year’s Islay Whisky Fest. Social media – friend or foe?
Social media is instant, so can be both… but mainly positive I feel.
Lastly, what would be your ideal desert island dram? It can either be one of your own or from somewhere else.
Bit boring and maybe predictable with desert island dram, but it has to be 10 year old Laphroaig. It has a depth of flavor that you get in only 3 or 4 other single malts.