What is it about whisky that inspires such fervour? Robert Burns was so enraptured by the spirit as to once write: “Oh whisky! soul o' plays and pranks! Accept a bardie's gratefu' thanks!” Author Ian Banks loved the drink enough to travel the whole of Scotland in search of the perfect “dram”. People take their dram so seriously that in 1908, a Bill in UK parliament was passed which actually defined the process that makes a Scotch Whisky.
Ratified in 1988, the Scotch Whisky Act states scotch must be distilled at a Scottish distillery from water and malted barley, matured in Scotland in oak casks for no less than three years, and must be bottled at no less than 40 percent alcohol by volume. In short, you should know that you’re drinking the good stuff. It’s the law.
One weekend recently, more than 1200 people from all over the country gathered at the Christchurch Convention Centre to nose, taste and discuss the drink, as part of the second Dramfest whisky festival.
For the purist, there is only one way to consume whisky, and that’s the single malt: whisky made at a single distillery, from a single type of malted grain. If you’re a purist, the very thought of mixing it with anything other than perhaps with a dash of water is tantamount to sacrilege. Indeed, for this total whisky novice, the world of whisky seemed intricate and strangely involved.
You had to know the ages, the places where the whisky was distilled, the age of it, even the barrels it was kept in could make a difference. You had to understand terms like “peated” and “full-bodied”. When you nosed the whisky, you had to think about what the scents reminded you of- what foods would go best with it.
Apparently, the rule is that every sip should last in the mouth for as many seconds as there were years. Some of the whiskies were over 40 years old. That’s a lot of savouring. But I wasn’t going there just to drink. No, I was going there to learn, and observe. This was going to be an interesting two days.
Saturday, 2pm. Already, the crowds were stretching out the door and beyond. These people clearly wanted a drink. A cursory glance revealed there to be a substantial number of beards, moustaches and thick accents. Bagpipes from the Saint Andrews’ School battalion played throughout the hall. More than a few people wore kilts.
It struck me that — with its multiple stalls, its bustling crowds, and the overheard discussions about “who” to see next — this wasn’t so much a big day out for whisky lovers but the Big Day Out. Like the Big Day Out, there were marquee names — Glenfiddich, Johnnie Walker, Glenfarclas — alongside the niche products.
Just as well, then, that Dr. Bill Lumsden, master distiller of Glenmorangie, was present to provide some perspective on the whole event. Lumsden’s love for the drink began as a student, when someone handed him a glass of single malt, “which just happened to be Glenmorangie, so I guess it was fate that I would one day be their chief distiller.” An affable, well-attired individual, he worries that sometimes consumers don’t always have the right priorities.
“I think one of the biggest mistakes a drinker can make is judging the quality of the single malt by its age,” he says. “When I began my work as a distiller 24 years ago, I felt a lot of the whiskies I encountered were made in an almost ‘passive’ way. I’m a passionate believer that aging is one of the worst guidelines of quality. Some of the most painful places I’ve been to have been in the United States, where the customers will only ask about the age of the whisky. There are a lot of old whiskies that are very good, but there’s just as many that are just dry and tasteless.”
Finding the perfect blend is an art—and a science—so it’s no surprise that Lumsden’s doctorate is in chemistry. It’s something Lumsden and his team have to work on every day, even if, technically, they won’t see the true fruits of their labour until a good decade afterwards. “I’ve tried to take the whisky back to how I remembered it, when it was richer and more powerful.”
He’s also here, obviously, to drum up business. The whisky market has exploded in the Asia Pacific regions — Lumsden has just been at a similar event in Tokyo. Where once it was floundering behind the hated Cognac (in these circles mentioning the word “cognac” is like mentioning He Who Shall Not Be Named), these days whisky is an ‘aspirational’ drink for the affluent middle class of Asian countries, which see it as both a sociable, conversational drink. “One of the things that surprised me is the number of young people in countries like Thailand or Singapore who have moved to single malt, which was traditionally the drink of your father or grandfather.”
Whether the worldwide recession will put the brakes on this development remains to be seen, but right now, business is booming. The single malt, which is the choice for most of the discerning drinkers here, accounts for only ten percent of overall whisky sales. Yet Lumsden isn’t worried about how people drink their whisky, as long as they develop a taste, and find one that suits their own lifestyle and personality. Whisky, says Lumsden, must reveal itself.
“There needs to be smoothness and almost a delicacy that lingers as it stays in your mouth. Don’t go for whisky that’s too challenging, find something a bit softer, and do your research beforehand. And if you must prefer your whisky on the rocks, don’t be afraid to consume it that way—it’s no longer an offence punishable by death.”
Mixing whisky in cocktails is also no longer “punishable by death”, apparently, given the popularity of the stalls offering whisky mixers. Purist whisky- lovers may have been shaken, or even stirred by the stalls but there was no denying their popularity. However, the cocktails are merely a sideshow to the main event —similar to the Ferris wheel at the Big Day Out. If you consume the cocktails too quickly, it creates the same giddiness as the big Wheel. The wash of colour and noise continued, but now it was time for the more concerted part of the programme—the master class sessions.
As I walked up the stairs to the convention’s centre second floor, it became apparent that I was in a more rarefied atmosphere. I chose an audience with co-director of Douglas Laing & Co, Stewart Laing. Stewart’s father founded the company in 1946, and, Stewart is a man who can measure his history by the casket: Apparently, his father left behind a black book that documented dozens of yet to be bottled blends from obscure distilleries. He still hasn’t found it, acquiring it now would be akin to procuring the Holy Grail.
Speyside’s Finest was more than 41 years old, while Port Allen was a victim of the 1982 “night of the long knives”, when more than 25 distilleries across all of Scotland were closed for “economic” reasons. We were not just tasting whisky. We were tasting history.
What struck me most was the intense concentration of aromas. These whiskies were alive. And they were having a strong effect on us punters, who sat in quiet contemplation, together in a “friendly glow”. As each whisky seemed to hit with more effect than the last, I became thoroughly overwhelmed. I decided to settle down and prepare for the next day. It was best not to overdo things.
Maybe it was the fine weather, maybe it was the fact that some were still feeling the effects of the previous day, but Sunday began more sedately. Rather than beginning with a bang, the crowds accumulated slowly throughout the day, with people more inclined to amble from stall to stall. There were more younger people, specifically younger women, in the crowd too. If organiser Michael Fraser Milne wanted the event to demonstrate that whisky was no longer a grandfather’s drink, then today was the proof.
Whisky is a drink with a strong sense of place—the best tasters are able to determine not just the brand, flavour and type, but the actual location of the original distillery. Head of Adelphi, Alex Bruce’s job is to find the best of the best. Bruce explains:
“There’s a saying in the industry that ‘wood makes the best whisky’, in that the last stage, the actual distilling, and the casks it’s kept in is very important. However, there are so many variations that can occur in between—you notice that certain whiskies have a more peppery taste because of the wash that comes into different distilleries.” Bruce searches high and low for the best whisky. “We struggle to get more than forty or fifty different casks in a year, solely because we’re very particular about what we chose. A lot of people would think we’re mad to travel all over the world to search them out, but we’ve never been about selling in large quantities.”
But wasn’t everyone here at least a little mad? The search for the perfect dram is an obsessive quest, one that can take half your life, or longer, if you’re less fortunate. So we have to thank the organiser, Michael Fraser Milne, of Whisky Galore, for assisting so many people in their quest. He paid for many of the stars to come here out of his own pocket, and although he had the help of dozens of volunteers, he was the man in charge. Trying to catch up with him throughout the day proved a mission, solely because he had to be everywhere at once.
Not that you could miss him — even amongst the throng of people, he was a striking figure, with perhaps the most impressively artistic handlebar moustache on display. A short, stocky man, with boundless enthusiasm, he was master and commander
“If I were to do it again, I would get someone else to help me”, he chuckled. “But it’s been amazing. We got twice on the door sales that we expected. I’ve been to whisky festivals in London, Paris, Edinburgh, Glasgow, but some of them have been less about the whisky and more about the surrounding attractions. If I had any aims for today, it would be these: whisky is fun, whisky is not for old pipe-smokers, and it’s here to stay. And the crowd is here prove it.
“Nearly ten or fifteen years ago, there were several writers who predicted the demise of the single malt. They couldn’t have been more wrong, and really, it’s only going to get better and better over the next two decades, as the demand increases, and we find new ways to produce it.
“If we have any competition, it’s from the white spirits, such as vodka, and of course there are very good white spirits, but so much of that stuff is bottled one day and consumed the next. What this event is about, more than anything else, is to educate people how to drink whisky. You wouldn’t believe it, but I think people are drinking smarter. New Zealand whisky drinkers are particularly discerning. ”
As I walked out of the Convention centre on Sunday with the rest of the smart, discerning drinkers, dazed, bewildered and still buzzing, Robert Burns’s lines came to mind.
Fortune! if thou but gie me still
Hale breeks, a scone, an' whisky gill,
An' rowth o' rhyme to rave at will,
Tak a' the rest,
An' deal't about as thy blind skill
Directs thee best.