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    The Speyside Festival Part One

    May 8th, 2013

    I’m standing in the reception of The Craigellachie Hotel in Speyside and the receptionist who is talking to me looks suspiciously like Miss Hoolie from Balamory. Clearly The Spirit of Speyside has roped in all the big Scottish guns this year.

    “No I don’t know when the bus to the dinner is coming because they have told me nothing.” BIG smile! That’s a problem, I say, because I need to be on it.

    “Oh, lots of guests have been asking,” she says. BIGGER grin. Which begs the question: then why haven’t you found out?

    But I’m in a good mood as I’m back in Speyside, so I let it go, and head to my room. I have been travelling for 11 hours and want to pour myself a wee welcome dram in my room, toast the river (as I do), have a shower and prepare for a battle with my kilt.

    Five minutes later the phone rings. I am still struggling with a broken suitcase zip. “The bus is here,” says Miss Hoolie, who I know is smiling. “Give me five minutes,” I say.

    Seven minutes later Miss Hoolie waves to me as I stagger towards the bus, having showered, semi towelled, and kilted. I am applauded on to the bus. and spend the rest of the night being introduced as the ‘five minute kilt man.’ I am harassed, dishevelled, humiliated, embarrassed, entirely blameless and without a whisky. Ah, so the Speyside Festival hasn’t changed after all!

    If you want to find an emblematic representation of the Speyside Festival, it’s the Craigellachie Hotel. It is old and traditional, an imposing manse embodying the huntin’ fishin’ and shootin’ nature of the river and the region – and a strutting, rutting fortress of dead stags’ heads and dark wooden panels, where the food is rich and rugged and they expect you to eat your steak bloody.

    And then there’s the Quaich Bar, a whisky bear pit, intimidating to even the most hardy whisky souls , more quake than quaich, and home to any number of bare knuckle fighting whiskies. If you’re brave enough you can go up against them, growing in confidence as the whisky flows round by round, until you hit the early hours and a knock out blow sends you reeling to bed. It’s no place for the timid – and traditionally it hasn’t been great for anything but the old school of single malt whisky ‘no water Scotch single malt whisky lovers either.

    How can you change that, and should you? Can you move on without sacrificing the generations of tradition? It’s not as if the Craigellachie hasn’t tried. It has changed hands more than a rugby ball in an All Blacks attack. And yet here we are – for good or bad, same as it ever was.

    Which bring us to the whisky festival. A few years back the May festival was in a civil war with an Autumn whisky festival in the region and it was fragmented, disorganised, closeted and, dare I say it, more than a wee bit dull. The lasting memory I have of it from a few years ago was standing in an empty whisky museum in a driechy Dufftown with a whisky writer who had a face like a basset hound as he waited for someone – anyone – to sell a book to and sign it.

    We live in a fast moving whisky world. So is there any future for a festival so tied to the past but which needs to feed in to the cosmopolitan, increasingly female and young whisky consumer? Can it find a place in the new whisky world order without throwing the old barley out with the bath water?

    simple answer? Yes it can. Welcome to The Spirit of Festival Whisky Festival, a four day celebration which has doubled the number of events it stages since 2011, has even more ambitious ones for the future, and has turned the region in to a whisky Disneyland around all the region’s traditional iconic places and sights. It’s instantly recognisable as the Speyside Festival but it’s like finding that the old Rolls Royce now has a Formula One engine.

    How has it happened? Meet Mary Hemsworth, festival manager and the Karen Brady of whisky – a sexy powerful bundle of energy who combines a a fun girly side with a business brain and a steel backbone; the sort of person every journalist would love to ply with Riesling and listen to bawdy and irreverent anecdotes from her no doubt colourful career, but is sharp and just a little scary. You wouldn’t want to cross her. And if you did, you suspect you’d come away smarting. You suspect that over the years many have tried to cross her, rule her or patronise her. And yet here she is, with the great names of Speyside on side with her and moving the festival forward at a rate of knots.

    Couples stroll by, laughter echoes round the streets, motor cycle groups wave as they drive by, a steady stream of buses move visitors around the region, information points provide tickets and information. The sun helps, too, though Friday is a nightmare and still great.

    You feel the elation from happy whisky lovers in the whisky capital of the world. It’s impressive stuff – and perversely, though I managed to completely miss three of the five major things I wanted to do, wasted two hours standing in a corridor waiting to be an extra in a VisitScotland film and was then told I wasn’t needed, and had no more than a veggie kebab for lunch on one day and a cheese toastie on another, it was the most enjoyable visit to Speyside I can remember.

    How did that happen? Read part two tomorrow and hear about a bawdy and utterly hilarious whisky comedian, meet some Speyside legends and hear about two rarely seen distilleries – Tamdhu and Mortlach.

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    Craft distilling has got to be about quality

    January 4th, 2013

    Horror upon horror – I think I’m in danger of turning in to a policeman.

    The last piece of work I did before the Christmas break was to highlight the case of a Norfolk brewery which claimed its eau de vie would become whiskey (sic) in three years due to splinters of bourbon cask added to each bottle, and to take it to task for breaking the rules.

    And then over Christmas I appeared on the Connosr video blog defending editorial standards and acting as if I’m the high sheriff of journalism tasked with bringing down the bad guys.

    How did it ever come to this?

    I’ve thought about it a lot over the holiday and have concluded two things. One, somebody’s got to defend standards and the more doing so, the better; and two, it sort of became inevitable when my wife and launched the Craft Distillers Alliance in September.

    For while it is true that the CDA represents the spirits industry’s new thinkers and innovators, and those walking the line and where it’s permissible, pushing the line back or even crossing it, for me craft distilling is still all about quality over quantity, about artisanship, diligence and pride. And for this reason quality must underline everything we do.

    The question is, how do you square off the need to preserve quality and craft but encourage innovation, new thinking and the development of new products which will put the noses of the establishment well and truly out of joint?

    Distillers across the world are already thinking out of the box, asking big questions and refusing to accept that statues and totem poles can’t be knocked over. That’s going to undoubtedly cause the CDA headaches in the future. It’s easy if you’re the Scotch Whisky Association – you build your castle and defend it to the hilt. We don’t have a castle. We don’t even have a nissan hut. We’re a sort of metaphorical travelling circus working on our acts as we go.

    But the first marker has been set, and that marker is quality. We will not succumb to the temptation to compromise for more members. To do otherwise would be suicide. Over the coming years we’re going to be challenged constantly on what we do and don’t support and we’ll be asked big questions, many of which don’t have answers yet.

    Sally and I agree that we must represent the very best of the world of spirits and must encourage innovative and exciting boutique distilling projects created through love, skill and care. And we must distance ourselves from the rule breakers and short changers operating on the margins and seeking to make a quick profit from the spirits business.

    So quality. Trouble is, how do you define it? Finding new ways to do so may well be The CDA’s first major challenge. Some spirits have defined it by age, but does that mean there are no good young gins, grappas or vodkas? Course not. And even in the sectors where age has been important such as whisky, new world distillers are proving regularly that youth needn’t be a barrier to quality.

    These are unchartered waters. The Norfolk brewery mentioned at the start of this article is a case in point. The brewery had one of its porters distilled in to an eau de vie by a Cambridge distillery which in 2013 will be collecting wort from various English brewers to make a range of malt whiskies. This is new thinking and on the face of it should be encouraged.
    But on the other hand the distillery allegedly advised the Norfolk brewery on the misleading ‘whiskey’ label and is yet to explain what it means by worts – because you can’t make whisky with wort once hops have been added.

    We shall see soon which way it’s headed. This is the sort of example which asks big questions of us, but it’s not the only one. On the Connosr interview I expressed my view on the three year whisky rule and Scotch claims on quality, and some American craft distillers are already asking where The CDA stands on the issue.

    Some also want support for a campaign to have American whiskey recognised in the same way as Scotch is, and are offering to back us if we challenge the US rules which state that whisky must be matured in new oak. This is obviously ridiculous for single malt whisky, and made the more so because Scotch and Irish whiskey are exempted so their whiskies can be finessed in quality sherry and bourbon casks while English and Australian single malts must be unnaturally tempered to meet legal requirements that are detrimental to the spirit.

    As we evolve we will seek advice and help from distillers associations across the world, particularly in America, purely because they are years ahead of us and there are hundreds of them.

    But we have to be cautious.

    The Americans are facing up to some big issues of their own. For instance, there are craft distillers in the US who are making great whiskey, and there are plenty that are not. But there are also some buying in spirit and rebranding it as their own, often to a high standard, but who are falling out with the genuine distillers of new spirit.

    So the question is, should we side with the distillers, even the bad ones, against those who rebrand spirit that already exists, or should we stand up for quality products from any source against poor ones, even ones created artificially from someone else’s whiskey? And if a company in America makes a great spirit using bought in stocks, can – or indeed should -we differentiate between it and any British independent bottler or whisky maker which buys in Scotch to make its drinks, more than one of which we include as members of The CDA?

    Across the world there are small distillers taking spirits production in new and exciting areas. They are making new drinks which don’t sit within existing categories and they are creating diverse and often challenging tastes. I consider this to be a good thing. We have welcomed world distillers in to The CDA with open arms.

    But there is murkiness on the margins. There are gaps in existing laws, and there will always be unscrupulous operators who will seek to take advantage of them. And equally, there will be well meaning people attracted to the spirits sector who will step outside the rules through naivety and ignorance.

    I recall a few years back an affable businessman dipping his toes in to the Irish whiskey market and declaring that he could call all his whiskey ‘pot still whiskey’ because all of it was distilled in a pot still. Technically true, yes, but he was unintentionally proposing a damaging dumbing down of a unique Irish whiskey style and opening of floodgates to every malt whisky producer in the world, offering every one of them the right to describe their whisky as ‘pure pot still’.

    There are other issues which are linked to the quality argument and which are potentially massive for us: one, the issue of how long a grain spirit needs to mature before it can be considered a quality whisky; two, whether territories such as the United States should have their own legal definition of whiskey, recognised internationally, as Ireland and Scotland have; and linked to that , three, whether the association is prepared to support sister distillers in other territories who make quality whisky younger than three years old and believe that the the European three year rule is nothing to do with quality and everything to do with barriers to entry and restrictions on free trade.

    My personal view is that we should not challenge the three year rule. Such a move would be interpreted as an attack on the high standards of Scotch whisky and would put us massively on the back foot defending ourselves on such a stance. It would damage our credibility and tie us and our American colleagues in to years of legal action and bureaucratic irrelevancies; and it would lead to a battle that would have no chance of success and would offer no great prize even if victory were attainable.

    Personally I love innovation and am drawn to those who probe and question any rules or boundaries. But I believe that it’s simpler to invent a new spirits category or come up with a name to suggest how the drink is made without using the word ‘whisky’ than to challenge directly the existing status quo.

    But I also believe that we need open minded thinking and new input as to how we judge quality. Because the European three year rule certainly isn’t it. Why? Because for Scotland the bar is ridiculously low. Nobody tries to market Scottish single malt at three years old, and very few do at five, simply because it isn’t very good – as any number of Scotch ‘works in progress’ have demonstrated in recent years. And how can that rule be about quality? How can it be legal under European whisky rules to take a three year old malt, matured in a tired and worthless cask for three years, to drown it in a large volume of grain whisky, matured in a similar cask for three years and a day, to add a shedload of caramel to turn it rich mahogany brown, and then to let it be bottled as blended Scotch whisky? That’s not quality Scotch – it’s coloured vodka.

    I find it amazing that the SWA seeks to impose its dubious and challengeable standards on whisky producers from countries such as America, Australia, and India who are devoting time and passion to creating new and high quality whiskies, when it endorses so many worthless and vastly inferior whiskies within its own ranks.

    The membership of The CDA should discuss such issues, and ask questions about any definition of quality that does not make reference to cask size or type, to regional temperatures, extremes of temperatures and humidity.

    Already some distillers are suggesting other ways of judging quality – chemical or molecular analysis might hold the key – and The CDA should welcome and encourage a discussion of their views. These are weighty issues and it makes the future challenging and exciting. It’s worth stating, though, that no-one wants to undermine or detract from the great whisky that has been produced for centuries in Scotland and elsewhere, and that our end goals – great whisky produced to the highest quality – are the same. But it is about ensuring that those who deserve to be at the high table even if they have got there by an unconventional route, should be allowed to do so. And that those that put all new distillers at risk by undermining the high standards that exist or by stepping outside the rules, should be challenged and stopped.

    No pressure then. But hey, wouldn’t life be boring without a challenge? In this letter I’ve given my opinion on some of the issues ahead – but it must be stressed that they are my opinions only and have nothing to do with The CDA at this point. The CDA’s views must reflect the views of our members – so this month we’ll start reaching out to them for their input.

    As we start to explore new terrain we need to gather in information from a wide number of other sources, too. In the coming days I’ll be contacting all the founding members with a questionnaire, and at the end of January we’ll be hosting a lunch in London which I would like to turn in to an informal policy forum.

    In the meantime we’ll be focusing on more practical day to day issues for The CDA – and to some extent we’ll be playing catch up a little. December ran away from us – doesn’t it for everyone – so the next priority will be to finish off the membership packs with badges and wall plaques, and get them out to members. We need to finalise our plans for the format of our e-zine Still Crazy, which will feature members and reflect their news as they develop. I’m excited about this because in many ways we’ll be recording history as new businesses emerge hand hopefully a new industry is born. Later this month we should be able to publish details of the first two events we’lI be exhibiting at, and we’ll be exploring other events for the future. And in the coming days I hope to reveal news of a sizeable and exciting media initiative for The CDA.

    So onwards and upwards with PC Roskrow – and Happy New Year to everyone. Here’s to exciting and dynamic times ahead.

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    Still Crazy Launch

    July 4th, 2012

    New online magazine

    From September I am delighted to announce yet another new project – the launch of a new on-line magazine. Still Crazy will be the officials magazine of my newly-formed craft distillers’ association and will be published six times a year. As with my World Whisky Review, it will be produced in conjunction with Connosr and will publish every other month in the months when World Whisky Review is not published. Still Crazy will include feature on member spirits producers and provide the latest news from the world of craft distilling, taste and review new boutique spirits, and include analytical pieces on issues such as still size and the law, the main obstacles to craft distilling, how to distil, and the costs of distilling spirits. There will also be special features from our associated trade groups The American Distiling Institute and the Australian Distillers’ Association.

    The new craft distillers’ association has changed its name after consultation with potential members and with companies House, and is registered as The Craft Distillers’ Association, or CDA. Recruitment starts next week but we already have 10 committed members and through overseas associations, about 400 associated members. The CDA will have four main aims:

    * To lobby on issues relevant to members, particularly on a local level to help distillers launch and establish themselves

    * To promote the positive image of craft distilling and focus on issues such as responsible drinking, quality over quantity, job creation, tax generation and tourism generation. This will be done through the bi-monthly magazine and trade press releases

    * to promote craft distilling products through tasting events, mini packs of members’ products sold through The Whisky Tasting Club, and through promotions with associated bars, restaurants and hotels.

    * to offer advice and support on anything from where to source equipment and grains to labelling, naming and tax and bonding issues through a website and members’ discussion forum

    The Association will go ‘live’on September 1 – at the same time as the first issue of Still Crazy is published.

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    Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2002 43.3%, 86.6 proof

    November 15th, 2011

    Every year at about this time some of the American bourbon producers release an annual release. Almost without exception they are excellent.

    This is the 2001 version

    Among them is Evan Williams Single Barrel and this release, distilled in 2002, is the 17th in the series. The whiskey was taken from a single barrel matured on the south side of the fifth floor of Heaven Hill’s Rickhouse R and proofed at 129.8 (64.9% ABV) before being reduced for bottling at 86.6 proof (43.3% ABV).
    This new release, bottled at the start of the month, will be available from January in the United States and in very limited quantities elsewhere, but was this week trialled at the Bardstown Whiskey Society in Kentucky. Amazingly, despite being a single barrel offering and nine years old, a mature age for a premium bourbon, this will retail in America for just $25.99.
    Here are my tasting notes:

    Nose: Rich and perfumed, perfumed leather handbag, lilac, fig, brandy snaps, blackcurrant and wispy smoke. All delicate and floral.
    Palate: Not as sweet, cloying and full bodied as the nose might suggest. Indeed there’s an astringency to it. And little influence of oak for a bourbon as old as this. Candy stick, apple pip, Autumn fruits, particularly apple and pear, blackberry Berry Fruits and some cocoa and menthol notes. Very drinkable but not particularly complex or rich.
    Finish: The finish is deceptive, with the whiskey seemingly fading away rapidly but a faint but distinctive and insistent sweet candy flavour lingering. Very more-ish.


    Rest in peace Dave Kilner

    June 27th, 2010

     You don’t expect to hear about the death of an old friend while reading a national magazine but that’s how this weekend I heard of the death of Dave Kilner. 

    Somewhat ironically I had been reading the tributes feature to legendary rock vocalist Ronnie James Dio in Classic Rock magazine when an interview with Def Leppard frontman caught my eye. And there it was: “That this interview takes place in Elliott’s home city Sheffield before the group play at a benefit concert for the late Radio Hallam DJ Dave Kilner..” it said.

    Bang. Just like that. Dead at 48.

    Obviously I was no longer close to Dave or I’d have known months ago of his passing. I lost touch with him, and indeed Sheffield, when I left the city more than 20 years ago. But back in the mid 80s Dave was a good friend and an inspiration. I was the music critic on the Sheffield Star, he was the breakfast DJ on Radio Hallam. We were very different: I was all lanky long hair and scruffy denim and leather, he was bleached blonde hair and naff 80s silk jackets. But we had two big things in common: a love of rock music and Sheffield United (actually I’m a Leicester fan but lived in the shadow of Bramall Lane and rarely missed a Blades game at that time).

    In the mid 80s Sheffield was on fire musically, and Dave was the enthusiastic siren caller at the centre of it. He would champion any local act and was a regular judge for the Sheffield Star’s Battle of the Bands which I ran. I loved his enthusiasm and boundless energy. A door linked The Star to Radio Hallam and I loved the days when he would burst in to the newspaper offices first thing in the morning and beckon me over to the radio station to hear a new single he had been sent. He’d chat away and fiddle with coffee and milk while the hourly news was being read, seemingly oblivious to the seconds ticking away. Then with a second to spare he’s swivel in his seat, flick a switch and launch in to some radio trivia in his trademark Smashie and Nicey  voice, never once missing his cue.

    I remember vividly the day when he called me through and played me Def Leppard’s new single Animal, the first release from what would be the band’s mega-seller Hysteria, and the excitement and pride at the realisation that the band was about to become the biggest on the planet.Over the next couple of years I was given access to the band because of Dave and it was he who facilitated one of the best stories of my news reporting days, one that I have repeated a thousand times since because it shows what great blokes Def Leppard are.

    It’s hard to imagine now just how big Def Leppard were in the mid 80s. In America they easily filled football stadiums and were mobbed wherever they went. Hysteria just about sums it up. But in Britain they were accused of selling out, and they faced unfair criticism at home. When they announced a big UK tour beginning and ending in Sheffield, the stakes couldn’t have been higher.

    The day before the first show Dave rang me up and told me that a lifelong American Def Leppard fan had contacted him to talk about the band. A blue collar worker from Detroit,  she had saved all her money to travel to Sheffield as a pilgrimage, unaware that the band were playing live. Could I get her a ticket, asked Dave? So I rang the public relations company and told them that I would do a story on the girl, whose name I think was Cynthia, and her love of the band. They said they would sort a ticket out and told me to bring her down to the sound check at the City Hall the following afternoon.

    There’s no diplomatic way to say this, but Cynthia was no slinky blonde teenage groupie. This is relevant to the story because had she been a stunner, what happened next would wouldn’t have been surprising.

    Cynthia was beside herself with excitement. Not only was she going to see the band live in their home city but she was going to have access to a soundcheck. And sure enough, the band were in full flow in the empty venue when we arrived. As soon as he saw us singer Joe Elliott signalled to the band to stop playing. He went to the side of the stage, picked up a bunch of flowers and presented them to a dumb-struck Cynthia.

    “Welcome to Sheffield,” he said, and handed over the flowers, a ticket and a backstage pass for the show.

    I didn’t go backstage that night but the next day Cynthia called to say that not only had she met the band but they had invited  her to travel to the next date with them.  For whatever reason the girlfriends of the band had taken to her and she was adopted as a sort of mascot. The long and short of it is that not only did Cynthia attend every show on that tour as an official guest of the band, but she hooked up with them when they toured the stadiums of America, giving up her job and living her dream. Many months later  she wrote me one of the nicest letters I’ve ever received, thanking me for my part in her story. But all the credit should go to Def Leppard, whose generosity went way, way beyond the norm and was motivated by nothing more than kindness.

    It says much about Dave Kilner – and come to think of it Def Leppard – that the band was prepared to play at a memorial benefit for him. He was a special guy and I’m devastated to hear of his death at 48 – the same age as me – and my belated condolences go out to his wife and daughters.

    At the risk of sounding morbid, I’ve been thinking a lot about death this year. A number of people on the peripheries of my life have died this year, and although my father is still alive, he’s lost to Alzheimer’s and might as well be dead. In Kentucky I spoke to Jimmy Russell, who spoke movingly about Parker Noe who died a few years back,  and he told me that he realised that he he would probably never see the whiskey he was laying down now put in to bottles.

    And then on the last night I was there I went to the Maker’s Mark bar in Louisville with Beam whiskey professor Bernie Lubbers, Steve Camisa, who used to work for Buffalo Trace and is now in events management, and Susan Dallas from the Kentucky Tourism Bureau. Bernie ordered three Old Grand Dad 114 Proofs for us and the waiter went to get us some water.

    A minute later Susan alerted us to the fact that our waiter had fallen over and seemed to be drunk.

    “Probably had a heart attack when we ordered three Old Grand Dads,” quipped Bernie.

    As the minutes passed, though, it became clear the waiter was in trouble. Paramedics arrived and tried to revive him, but without success. By the time they wheeled him out of the restaurant he had turned blue was almost certainly already dead.

    The manager told us that he had complained of chest pains before but hadn’t been able to afford medical help. He was in his 30s and had two young children. And the day before he died a Democrat had lost Edward Kennedy’s seat because of a protest vote against President Obama’s universal health care Bill.

    All of which gives you a sense of perspective. Or as Spinal Tap’s David St Hubbins would put it: “Too much f…ing perspective.”

    I was going to write this blog on Ian Buxton’s 101 Whiskies To Try Before You Die, which in a weird sort of way fits in with the theme of this blog, but I’ll keep that for another time.

    Inexplicably and indefensibly Mr Buxton has omitted George T Stagg and Weller from his list. This is a bit like leaving Chelsea and Manchester United off your list of good Premiership football clubs. This weekend I poured a large Stagg and drank to the memory of Dave Kilner and Ronnie James Dio. Platinum pass whiskey for two platinum class guys.

    Not too old to rock and roll, but too young to die.

    Way, way too young to die.

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