Saturday, April 08, 2006


I have just seen a portion of a (BBC?) programme on TV1 called "Full-on Food". I am disgusted. Not because of the food, but because of their hipocracy (I'll get to this later), and their flippant attitude towards Scottish whisky.

In this show, one of the presenters did a section on the comeback of whisky and its rising poularity among the young 'bling' (uggghhh - I hate that word) crowd. She visits the Edradour Distillery to see how single malt whisky is made; from the raw malt and yeast, through the fermenting and distilling process, to the choice of cask for storage and maturing. With single malt, this maturing process takes 8 years, 10 years, 12 years or even longer. The cask imparts the spirit with its own particular colour and flavour, depending on what the cask contained previously, and also the wood it is made of. Where the distillery is located also makes a difference: the water that is sourced locally by a distillery will have filtered through the area's unique geography and picked up elements of the landscape. For example, you may have heard whisky drinkers comment on the 'peatiness' of a dram. The water itself may be hard or soft, depending of which rocks it has passed through. So, there she is, sampling malts straight from the cask, and gradually getting more jovially soused.

Cut to a flash new bar somewhere in London, where Glenfiddich are promoting their product to a new, young, affluent market demographic. They're mixing it with all sorts of other stuff, making cocktails. With single malt.

Not that many people know the difference between single malt and a blended whisky, or even that there is a difference. A single malt is exactly that - the product of a single distillery. All the things I mention above make each distillery's whisky unique, just like wine.
But not all whiskies are created equal.

Now. A lot of whisky is drunk in Japan. They have their own equivalent to whisky - sake, but they like the Scottish tipple as well. No problem. More sales of whisky to Japan is good for the Scottish economy, isn't it? Well, yes and no. It turns out they like Scottish whisky so much that the distilleries back in Scotland couldn't make it fast enough to supply the Japanese market. There was a move back in the bad old eighties by Japanese brewing and distilling conglomerates to buy up the distilleries in Scotland, to up the level of production. (This happened in the town I grew up in, Falkirk, just before I left the UK for NZ. The local distillery was Rosebank, and it was bought by a large Japanese conglomerate.) I mean, it takes a long time to make the finished product. Eight years. Or longer. But the Japanese market wouldn't wait. So the big international brewing conglomorates decided to take a few shortcuts in the distilling process. After all, what harm would that do?

First, they mechanised the whole process to cut staffing costs. Lots of people lost their jobs. It's worth noting that most distilleries in Scotland are in small rural communities, where job cuts hit hard and it's difficult to find other work. A lot of whisky making experience was lost in the process.

Next, they decided that the whisky could be used as soon as the distillation process was finished, cutting out the cask maturing process. Whisky that would have been transferred into casks was to be bottled straight away. This presented the Japanese distillers with a problem: the newly distilled spirit is clear. As I mentioned above, the whisky gets its distinctive golden colour from maturing in the casks over years. Before this step, it's not visually recognisable as whisky. Customers would be confused. To get around this, they simply figured out roughly what colour the whisky would have been, had it been matured, and added a mixture of food colourings to the batch. Yup. Food colourings.

After that, they decided that all whiskies taste pretty much the same, and so who would notice if whiskies from different distilleries were thrown together in a batch? This meant that not only had the whisky lost its colour, the flavour gained from the cask, but now they had stripped the spirit of any of its uniqueness, its character, by mixing it with that from other distilleries: Thus was born the blended whisky.

Because the Japanese had reduced the cost of producing the water of life, they could retail it at a lower - but still profitable - price than a single malt. This hurt the distilleries producing a single malt yet again. They lost revenue as sales shrank. Some went under entirely, or could no longer resist the offers to be bought out by the Japanese conglomerates.

Luckily, not all the distilleries in Scotland would sell themselves to the Japanese, and some continue to operate today producing single malts. The likes of Laphroig, Glenmorangie (my favourite), Lagavulin, and Oban are all examples - and rather good ones too!

The bit that really stung me as I watched this programme was that the rest of the show featured a chef making an authentic margherita pizza using hand-made pizza dough, plum tomatoes and real mozzerella cheese, emphasizing the Italian tradition of keeping it simple, and the result being 'the real thing', and also a feature on the difficulty of buying quality locally made produce in the UK. Isn't that what might be called irony?

Of course, what you drink is entirely your own choice. But I'd make this recommendation: If you're buying whisky with the intention of mixing cocktails, buy a blend. Once you have added all the other ingredients, you wouldn't be able to tell if it was blended or not, and you might save a few dollars. If, on the other hand, you actually want to enjoy the whisky for what it is, as it is, buy a good single malt. In this respect, whisky is like wine. If you're mulling wine, buy Chateaux du Cardboard, or Villa Bladerre, not a 1963 vintage red. Quality is worth paying for.

Beware that the whisky you're drinking may be 'imitation' stuff, cynically cobbled together for profit: hardly the real thing. Check the label. I'd strongly encourage you to try a dram of single malt any way that you can: as it is (the way I like it!), or with ice or water, and get to appreciate the subtleties of Uisge Beatha. Support locally made quality products, and everyone will benefit!


Anonymous Luc said...

What is the world coming to!

Actually it's been that way for quite a while. This same thing happened to tea [which I know you don't drink] many years ago. Now it is almost impossible to get a good teabag, most of what is in the shops is stale blended dust. blah.

8:28 pm  
Blogger J.L. said...

True, as E. informs me. She drinks Twinings Irish Breakfast tea when she can get it. Apparently it's a stronger blend than The English Breakfast.
Johnsons' Grocers on Colombo St. (Christchurch, NZ) is absolutely great for hard-to-find stuff, tea especially. They have almost an entire wall tightly packed with boxes of exotic and imported blends. They also stock Irn Bru and oatcakes, which are the main reason for my visits...
Don't know if you have any shops like that in Dunedin.

7:50 pm  

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