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?