The Whisky Tasting Club

Israel special part one – Whisky Live Tel Aviv

Israel special part one – Whisky Live Tel Aviv

Whisky Live Israel’s organiser has a a poker face – almost impossible to read. If I had to guess, though, I’d say he was worrying.

Quite why, though, only he knows. Because the plain facts are that after three days of Whisky Live in Tel Aviv, he can reflect on an event which attracted thousands of people, was marred by no negativity or demonstrative signs of excess, and which almost certainly will provide a platform to take the event on to a bigger and better level next year.

 

Not that this was a small show – far from it. Now in its second year, the event saw a 50 per cent rise in attendance from about 4000 to 6000, and it attracted more stands. Many of the master classes were sold out.

The knowledge of whisky for most Israelis is still at an infancy stage, but those who do know what they’re talking about, really know what they’re talking about. There is a healthy blogging community here, a whisky society, and a whisky club. Two distilleries are up and running in the country, more are on the way, and most intriguing of all, some are distilling at home.More of that later.WHISKY LIVE

The show itself has a good cross section of leading whisky brands, the majority from Scotland but with a smattering of bourbon, too. Moat brands are represented by the companies that import them, and there are only a handful of overseas representatives, including Jura’s Willie Tate. But the number will rise as the word gets out about the quality of both the show and the visitors, who, typically it seems for Tel Aviv, are vivacious, passionate and very keen to learn more about whisky. Next year there’s talk of Whyte & Mackay’s legendary live showman Richard Paterson putting in an appearance and that in itself is a serious step up for the show should it happen.

The sizeable presence of Diageo this year no doubt will help as well. The staff were mainly pouring The Singleton and Talisker ranges, including an absolute favourite of mine, Talisker 18 Year Old.

One thing absent – and it’s due to economics – is the presence of much independent whisky bottlings. One stand that did catch the attention, however, was Vom Fass, a German company which traditionally offers vintage wines as well as premium vinegars, oils and spirits all direct from the cask.

VOMFASS

I tasted two of my favourite whiskies here, a 22 year old Bunnahabhain to die for, and a 21 year old malt from one of my favourite distilleries, Glen Garioch.

A good event, then, but made special by what was going on around the edges.

First there were the master classes of Patsy Christie, Macallan’s ambassador for the Middle East and a whirlwind force of nature who presents her brands in a totally irresistible and unique way. She’s irreverent, direct and extroverted and she has an amazing back story.

Originally from Canada, she was working in a bar when a group of men asked her to make them whisky cocktails. She did so to such great effect that one of the group returned to the bar to offer her a job with the company the group worked for – which just happened to be global drink distributors Maxxium. She got the Middle East post via a spell with Maxxium and Edrington in the United Kingdom and now lives in Dubai, which she says is “like living in the future.”

Then there are the unusual takes on whisky that people brought for me to try: a couple of very palatable Israeli Whisky Society whiskies which were brought over from Arran and then matured in Israel. And best of all, a sample made at a home distillery by Nimrod Rosenblatt.

Israeli blogger Gal Granov has written about the Rosenblatt brothers in World Whisky Review before, some three years ago. There are fermenting and distilling enthusiasts in the extreme, with Nimrod focusing more on the distilling side and his brother making a wide range of beer and wine.

He has distilled everything from star fruit, passion fruit, mulberries, peaches, port, sherry, hopped beer and even cinato style wine, prepared with desert herbs. The brothers have experimented with different yeasts and have made peated whisky using peat dug from the Hula Vlley in Northern Israel.

The whisky I try is called The Attic and was distilled in March 2011 and bottled in July 2014.

“To my knowledge it is the first Israeli single malt matured for more than three years,” says Nimrod. “It was distilled from a mash which included Maris Otter barley from the United Kingdom, along with beechwood-smoked malt from Germany.”

It was fermented for two weeks with beer yeasts to make it fruity and for one year it was in a cask that had contained rum also made by Nimrod.

Given its age, it is amazing. There are no young sappy notes at all, and it has a rich smooth orange taste, along with buttered corn, straw, toast, and a delightful and highly unusual strawberry mousse note.

Nimrod is promising further samples. I can’t wait.

All in all Whisky Live Tel Aviv was a triumph, but theres plenty more to come.   I was proud to play a part in an evolving show that could rival London Tokyo, Capetown, Paris and Taipei at the top of the whisky show tree. I hope to be back again next year.

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We’re talking about a revolution – Whisky Live Israel

I’m not sure what I was expecting but it certainly wasn’t this.

I’m at the opening of Whisky Live Israel, standing in front of 20 members of the Israeli press – and it’s like a scene from a recurring nightmare. I have introduced myself, stated how delighted I am to be in Israel and thanked my hosts for their warmth and generosity. And now I am waiting for the first question.

Dom EDITORIAL

And waiting. And waiting. But all I see iin front of me are 20 blank faces, just staring at me.
I have not prepared a speech but I am forced to ad lib, so I waffle on for a few minutes. Then I again invite questions. Nothing.

And with that the press conference staggers to a conclusion. I don’t know what to think.

“Don’t worry about it,” says event photographer Shai Galboa, sensing my unease. “It’s because they know nothing about whisky.”

Now they tell me…

Thankfully the same level of ignorance and indifference is not repeated by the hundreds of event visitors over the next three days.On the contrary: Tel Aviv provided one of the noisiest, happiest and most enthusiastic backdrops of any whisky event I’ve been to. Two things were abundantly clear: one, that Israel is at the start of a whisky revolution. And two, Whisky Live Israel is set to grow in to one of the best shows of its kind anywhere in the world.

You can’t talk about Israel without mentioning politics, and some people were surprised I went. My support for Palestine and a two state solution is well documented, and I believe strongly that disproportionate bombing of any people will create resentment and bitterness for generations to come.

But I also believe that no group should live under the constant threat of death as Israelis do, or have to go through constant security checks to avoid the very real possibility of indiscriminate killings by suicide bombers. I believe firmly in the rights of Israelis and I despise the people who bring terror to Jewish people anywhere in the world.

More than that, I relate totally to the energy and enthusiasm of the people I met in Tel Aviv, and was overwhelmed by the kindness and hospitality of everyone I met in Israel. Just as I was when I held tastings in a Jewish home and at a Jewish law firm.

Let’s get one thing clear: Israel isn’t some dictatorial po-faced Jewish state imposing religious doctrines on its people: on the contrary. At least in Tel Aviv there is a relaxed liberal attitude to life. On my first night I was offered pork sausages, and I met several people who told me they were non-religious. Tel Aviv is a multi faceted, complex and raucous mash-up of views and opinions, and everything is up to debate. Even whisky is subject to debate as to whether it is kosher or not. Something I wore on-line about No Age Statement whisky was even described as ‘non kosher for Passat.’

In the April issue of World Whisky Review I review Whisky Live Tel Aviv, visit new distillery Milk and Honey, and meet a home distiller who is making some fine whisky.

Later this month another Israeli is flying to Paris to buy a new still. And he’s popping over to London to film me for a crowd funding video.

These folk mean business – and I for one am proud to be playing a bit part in their whisky revolution. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

 

 

* A special thank you to Shai Gilboa, who not only provided all the pictures used in my Israeli special edition, but along with Ran Latovicz. kept me out of trouble and made me feel welcome in Tel Aviv. Also to Tomer Goren for treating me so incredibly well and ensuring that I had a comfortable and trouble-free stay in Tel Aviv

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NON AGE STATEMENTS – A MASSIVE CONSUMER CON? PART 2

Dom promised a second piece on Non Age Statement whiskies. Here it is. sort of.

 I sat down this morning and tried to write the second part of my Non Age Statement whisky blog. But I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know where to start.

For two hours I wrote nothing, staring morosely in to space and stared in to a dark  abyss where my words should be. And I couldn’t find them. This occasionally happens when you’re manic as I am, and you come down from a particular high, which i did after Tel Aviv. So I gave up and wrote a couple of unrelated pieces for The W Club (www.thewclub.co.uk), one of them on three whiskies with very old age statements.

But these things tend to niggle at me, and I needed to work out why I couldn’t write on this topic again. So I went back to the original article as I was urged to do and it dawned on me. It wasn’t really about Non Age Statement whisky was it? It was about whisky bloggers who are regurgitating public relations nonsense without challenging it to ensure they continue to get free samples. And all the nastiness, criticism and bullying I received was because I clearly touched a raw nerve.

Let me make this clear from the start: I certainly have no axe to grind against the blogging community. I meet and talk to on-line whisky writers who I like and respect, and even asked some of them to contribute to my 1000 whiskies book. I think it’s great that they offer a younger, more dynamic approach to the world of whisky. I don’t even mind them criticising the old dinosaurs like me. That’s as it should be. I learned many years ago that if you can’t take it you shouldn’t dole it out.

What I detest, though, is that group of people who are freeloading, self-appointed experts, on the take for free whisky, who challenge nothing, regurgitate everything and then feel compelled to personally attack anybody who sees through the bullshit and take issue with them. And worse still, by writing endless pretentious and utterly boring tasting notes, no doubt with a dictionary in hand, they seek to pass themselves off as experts when actually they know jack shit.

What has provoked this blog is a comment by someone on Facebook today who has dug up a four year old blog of mine where I stated that I don’t consider what whisky writers do is journalism. it’s closer to marketing. Am I a critic or a marketer, he asks?

That was written when I was at my most ill and I don’t really remember it. But it’s very well argued and I stand by every word. Whisky writing is a public relations exercise. There is too much good whisky to waste a lot of time on bad whisky. To do so would make the writer sound miserable, ungrateful and whinging. Naturally, then, we are doing the PR person’s job for them – helping to sell whisky.

The question is, if  a whisky was bad – say a Non Age Statement Whisky – would all the whisky writing world say so?

Nobody could doubt that I would. This is all about me taking issue with bloggers who swallow the lines on Non Age Statement whiskies that are churned out by PR companies and are just plain wrong.

Actually there is another question. Do they do so because they want free whisky and haven’t learned how to ask challenging and fair questions without pissing people off. Or are they incapable of recognising a bad whisky at all? This isn’t about personal taste or preference. You might like your chicken roasted. I like mine grilled.

But  raw chicken is raw chicken and I don’t want to be served by a chef who just can’t tell that.

Getting free whisky is fine. Writing positively about good whisky is fine.  Saying good things about badly undercooked whiskies isn’t. Accepting payment from a whisky company, not declaring it with openness and transparency and then writing about its whiskies – as SOME bloggers (and indeed professional whisky writers) do, is wrong.

This isn’t about experts versus amateurs. I don’t consider myself an expert and anyone who knows me will know that there is a gram of arrogance in my approach to whisky.  But I am opinionated, honest and direct. if you think these traits are out of place in a writing environment, you shouldn’t be writing at all.

Nor is it about professional writers against bloggers. It’s about challenging the dumbing down of whisky, and siding with a process that leaves bad NAS whisky unchallenged. This is damaging Scotch whisky and should be opposed.

The irony of this is that even most of the bloggers I know agree with all of this. Certainly no-one would deny it exists. Every person i meet who has been in the industry for more than 30 years says the same,  Sadly 90 per cent of bloggers have never met any of them.

 

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Living the whiskey dream: an interview with Bernard Walsh

Bernard Walsh is the man behind The Irishman and Writer’s Tears but now he’s building a large whiskey distillery in the South East of  Ireland.

People talk a lot about the luck of the Irish, and it does plays a major role in the country’s culture.

So you can forgive whiskey producer Bernard Walsh for feeling that fortune is smiling on his distillery project after an excellent six months of building work.

“Yes, Walsh Whiskey Distillery has got the perfect start” he says. “We had a mild Irish Winter. The weather has been very kind to us here in Ireland and more particularly where we are, at Royal Oak, County Carlow, in the South East of the country. It has been the driest and warmest spot on the island.”

Walsh is known for two unique whiskey products, Writer’s Tears and The Irishman. These are made for him at Irish Distillers’ huge Midleton plant but they are special because they combine traditional Irish pot still whiskey with single malt whiskey, bought under agreement from Bushmills in the North. But it has long been Walsh’s dream to have a distillery of his own, and the current boom in Irish whiskey has made it possible to seek international backing.

“Building our own distillery, in a beautiful rural location has been our long held dream,” says Walsh.
“Since 1999 we have aspired to create a very special distillery. Even as far back as 2008 we were exploring with Forsyths the feasibility of building our own distillery.
“However we knew we needed three things: a fully financed project, financing not just the construction but the working capital for those early years (first 10); a strong whiskey brand long before whiskey from our new stills starts to flow; and a global distribution network, because once that tap is turned on in the new distillery, we will require a tried and tested route to market.

“Having Illva (owners of Di Saranno) as our preferred partner has enabled us to enter the distilling industry fully financed, while at the same time we now have the ability to tap into their truly global distribution network. The cream on the top is that Ilva like Walsh Whiskey is a family run business where we both share the same values.”

The plan is to have the distillery built by the end of this year  and production to start in 2016. But a lot has been achieved already, as Walsh explains

“There are two parts to our project,” he says. The first is the restoration of the old mansion on site known as Holloden House. It was  built in 1755. Unfortunately the house was in very bad condition when we found it.

“However for me this house represents the soul of the property. For centuries this house was alive with children running its stairways, roaring fires and parties that were the talk of the town.

“Now a deathly silence has befallen this once magnificent house. But we vowed to restore this old lady to her beautiful self so our friends could join with us in sharing a whiskey by her fires. So we have set about saving this old property, keeping the rain out by reinstating the roof and weather-proofing it.

“Contractors moved on site at Royal Oak on September to start the restoration of the old house. Now several months into the restoration the roof has been fully restored using 90 per cent of the existing slates and timber beams.

“The second part is the building of the new still house and ancillary buildings is located on a beautiful park land setting. By the end of January , the foundations were all dug out, foundations poured with concrete and rein-forced steelwork in place. In February already the steel girders are going up as the first crane ever appears on the Royal Oak skyline.

“I have just returned from the site today where the biggest concrete pour in the history of Royal Oak is taking place. We have to pour 800 tonnes of concrete (that’s 50 truck loads) in one day to create a single float or raft which sits above the reinforced steel foundations. It was amazing to see.”

Walsh has signed a new agreement with Irish Distillers to continue to pro-duce The Irishman and Writer’s Tears at Midleton but unsurprisingly he in-tends to use the new distillery for new, exciting and innovative whiskeys, with an eye on the region’s history.
“ The whiskey from Royal Oak will have a different taste profile,” he says.  “It will be one representing the South East of Ireland which historically in the eighteenth century was one of the country’s biggest distilling regions. This new whiskey will allow Walsh Whiskey to create new expressions for both The Irishman and Writers Tears. Equally we will create a whole new line of distillery reserve whiskey.
“We will be producing all three styles of Irish Whiskey – pot still, malt and grain whiskey. Uniquely, however,  we will be producing them all under one roof in the same still house. Although it is normal for each distillery to focus on one specific style and then trade with other distilleries our aim is to be self sufficient. By controlling the production of the three styles we inevitably give ourselves more room to innovate.”

The total capacity of the distillery will be two million litres per annum, making it the fifth largest distillery in Ireland, and the largest of all the new entrants.

Walsh can hardly contain his excitement at the months ahead, believing he is playing a part in a whiskey revolution that could take Ireland back to the very top of the whiskey world.

“We are really relishing the challenge to push the boundaries of what has gone before us,” he says.  “There is so much work to be done over the next 10 years as Irish whiskey rediscovers what made it great in the 19th century.

“Irish Whiskey is a category representing the whole island and this is something we are all proud of. More than 200 years ago (during a time of great expansion in Irish Whiskey) one of our great revolutionaries, Wolfe Tone, commented that he longed for the day when he would be known not as a Protestant nor a Catholic, but  just as an Irishman’.

“Irish Whiskey has gone from domination in the19th century to almost wipe out in the 20th century. The 21st century represents a rebirth and we must learn from our mistakes. The addition of possibly 20 or 30 new distillers in the next few years has given rise to new optimism. It’s breathing new life into the industry. The future is bright, The future is Irish.”

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NON AGE STATEMENTS – A MASSIVE CONSUMER CON? PART 1

Recently a feature appeared on line about Non age Statements. the writer had swallowed e dry line thrown to him by the Scotch whisky industry and it was poisonously wrong. Dom isn’t happy…

A couple of weeks ago I read an online feature on Non Age Statements and wrote that it was complete tosh and the person responsible for it should have been ashamed of himself. Every single line the big companies defending the category would want us to swallow, he swallowed.

I was asked in a private message why I had a problem with the article, and I told the person that I didn’t really know where to start. But in retrospect I think it comes down to three outrageous and erroneous statements made by the writer:

1. That non age statement whiskies allow the whisky maker to work from a bigger ‘palate’ of flavours and he is released from the chains imposed by not being able to use anything younger than 12 years or 18, or whatever the age statement is. What a load of old piffle.                                        It’s up there with the line that the distillers use better casks and know more about maturation now so they don’t need to age the whisky so long. Really? Then why does so much Non Age Statement whisky taste sappy, ready, raw and under-cooked? And with a price tag higher than the age statement whisky it replaced, also over-priced? BECAUSE IT IS.

2. That there is nothing new about Non Age Statement whisky and there are lots of whiskies that have no age and don’t get panned. Like some Ardbegs, Aberlour A’Bunadh and Johnnie Walker Blue Label.
Oh dear. That’s because they’re excellently made, value for money whiskies, you idiot. Johnnie Walker Blue Label may have some young whisky in it, but I’m willing to bet the average age in it is about six times older than the average spirit in a Travel Retail No Age Statement whisky.

3. And that most of the criticism comes from on-line experts who have different taste needs to the entry level drinkers who are attracted by Non Age Statement whiskies and who don’t have developed whisky palates.
This is an argument in defence of selling rubbish whisky at inflated prices on the premise that the new drinker is ignorant and gullible, and is absolutely indefensible. I’d love to know if the writer came up with this all on his own or whether it was a line fed to him by a whisky marketing chappie. And whether the logical conclusion would be for the critics to all shut up and stop rocking the boat.

And anyway, it’s untrue that the critics are expert bloggers on line. Hate to break this to you, son, but many of the online bloggers are only experts in their own  minds, no better than many of the marketing people now working for some whisky companies (who are, indeed, often recruited from the world of blogging). With some notable exceptions, online bloggers are too busy trying to get free whisky samples to criticise the hand that’s feeding them. The critics are people Murray, Malt Maniacs and me. And we’re only the public face of it. Find anyone who has been in the industry for more than 10 years and they will say exactly the same thing.

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room now. The big increase in the number of Scotch whiskies without an age on them in the last few months has nothing to do with creativity and innovation and everything to do with economics and making money. Non age statement whiskies are more often than not a cynical marketing ploy, wrapped as innovation and evolution, but in reality laced with disingenuous opportunism and a big dollop of greed.

The simple facts are that the demand for Scotch whisky has led to shortages, prices have been going up, and the industry has responded to demand by bottling younger whisky at higher prices. After years of telling whisky drinkers that premium Scotch whisky should be 10 or 12 years old, it’s a big ask to tell them that now it’s as good at six or seven years old, and to charge them more to drink it. But they’re trying. And if that feature is anything to go by, succeeding.
I can’t help thinking that some Scottish whisky producers have lost the plot, and that marketing people with little understanding of, or empathy with, malt whisky have taken over the asylum. As the great guardians retire whisky’s equivalent to New Labour move in, finding a third way that is bland and out of touch. They are still  great people in Diageo, Pernod Ricard et al, but you can’t help but feel that they’re being marginalised.

Trouble is, they’re actually not really getting away with it, and although the best Scotch leaves pretty much everything else dead in the water, people are noticing that many of the Non Age Statement whiskies are not fit for purpose. at my tastings I often take a vote, with each guest having three votes. Last week at a tasting of six whiskies and with a total of 75 votes up for grabs, I had a No age Statement score a big fat zero.

And what’s worse, when  Scottish single malts slip down to six to eight years old, they cannot match the competition of whiskies from emerging territories such as England, Wales, Sweden, Australia, India and Taiwan. At some levels Scottish whisky is doing itself great harm and it’s content to shoot the messenger, and carry on fiddling. It can’t last.
So are the new wave of non age statement whiskies just one big con?

Actually, no they’re not, or at least they need not be. And if you want to find why I think that’s the case, watch out for Part Two of this feature.

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Irish whiskey is liquid gold

You know the landscape has changed a lot when an Irish whiskey maker welcomes investment from a Scottish whisky company.

Go back through Irish whiskey’s history and you will discover a once very healthy whiskey industry that was taken to pieces. Back then Scotland did a lot of investing in Irish distilleries – so it could shut them down.

And you don’t have to go that far back to find the most recent example of overseas interference in the Irish whiskey. When John Teeling had the audacity to launch whiskeys that did not conform to the standard Irish whiskey style, Irish Distillers – at that time a combination of overseas giants Diageo and Pernod Ricard – tried to stop him selling whiskey.

But that was then and this is now. And today several multi million Euro deals have provided the Irish whiskey industry with the chance to build new distilleries, to grow the overall category, and to take advantage of strong and established routes to new world markets.

Now there is a cautious but optimistic hope that the new international investors will put the interests of Ireland first and repeat the experience of the past and encourage small domestic Irish distillery projects to thrive.

To some extent it has happened already. For a long time now Pernod Ricard and Diageo have provided independent whiskey maker Bernard Walsh with whiskey to allow him to sell his own unique range of products. Suntory Beam’s purchase of Teeling indirectly allowed Stephen and Jack Teeling to take some whiskey stock and form The Teeling Whiskey Company, and Diageo allowed the sale of one of its old breweries to be sold for conversion in to an independent whiskey distillery.

Perhaps most significantly of all, Scotttish family-owned William Grant & Sons once again showed how switched on it is by buying Tullamore DEW, little more than a brand name and a museum, and set about turning it in to a working distillery. YOU try and tell brand ambassador John Quinn, for some years a brand ambassador with no distillery behind him, that William Grant’s is anything but a good thing. He points out that the people at William Grant understand whisky, what makes it special, and how important it is to create unique and relevant to its geography and culture.

“With William Grant we have a company made up of whisky people, people you can talk to and understand.” he says. “They do not want to impose a Scottish view of whiskey on Ireland, they want to reach back to our heritage and provenance.

“Everything they do is about quality. They want to check every penny but they are getting outstanding value for money. They want to recreate the stills as they originally were.

“I heard one of the Grant family discussing something for the outside of the distillery and he said it wasn’t good enough because it wouldn’t look good in 100 years. That made my heart soar. They are thinking about the heritage for a future generation.”

There is a very strong case for a similar level of care to be made for Pernod Ricard, owner of Irish Distillers, too. Having failed to shut down Teeling, it finally took the decision to expand its definition of what Irish whiskey should be, and to push different styles of pot still whiskey. It is committed to 20 new pot still releases in 10 years. But more than that, it has invested in an education centre to further the development of pot still whiskey, it is at the heart of the Irish Whiskey Association, and all the signs are that it is actively encouraging new distillers.

Finn O’Connor, a young whiskey expert and author of a forthcoming book on pot still whiskey, is happy to pay credit where credit’s due.

I think Irish Distillers Limited have certainly been a force for good in the big picture,” he says. “ Firstly, they make some fine whiskey and the category wouldn’t really exist without them.

“They made it a financial contender with Jameson and that financial success has both encouraged would-be distillers to take the plunge, and provided Irish whiskey with a global market. Redbreast, Green Spot, John’s Lane– these kinds of whiskeys are the spine of Irish whiskey and it sounds like they have plenty more on the way.

“Large as they are, I think IDL have a long memory going back to their roots in Irish whiskey’s dark ages and an even older memory of the heights that irish whiskey fell from.

“I’ve had plenty of talks with them about single pot still in particular and, although they certainly are the large and international players of the irish whiskey family, they really do care about the heritage of the category. And I’ve heard countless stories from new distilleries about the help they’ve received from IDL, especially in the case of distilleries like Dingle and the Dublin Whiskey Company which want to make single pot still whiskey themselves, i’ve hear nothing but good things about the encouragement they’ve received from IDL.”

Since 2013 more than one billion Euros has been invested in Irish whiskey. This will allow the industry to double capacity over the coming 10 years. So is there a danger thatIreland is at the mercy of overseas companies?

Bernard Walsh, who is building the Walsh Distillery at Royal Oak, county Carlow, thinks not.

“Firstly it has to be said Ireland is no stranger to foreign direct investment in whiskey,” he says.  “As it currently stands 98 per cent of Irish Whiskey is owned by the big international drinks corporations. The positive here is that all those currently involved in Irish Whiskey are global brand builders.

“Almost 100 per cent of Irish Whiskey produced is for brand building versus private labelling/bulk sales. This compares very favourably when you look at other whiskey producing nations. When Walsh Whiskey was looking to raise money we could have sourced it locally in Ireland but we strategically went after global brand builders in the drinks industry. Distilleries don’t just need funds, they require a route to market.”

But there is some disquiet at grassroots level, and among the more serious traditional Irish whiskey enthusiasts.

Whiskey expert Peter Mulryan is a former journalist and now master distiller at Blackwater Distillery at Cappoquin, West Waterford, wants to ensure that the big companies don’t reintroduce a definition of Irish whiskey that stifles innovation and diversity.

“It’s good to see all the investment,” he says. “However the industry will only be healthy when there are operations coming from the grass roots. As far as I can tell, all players are now chasing the same market – that is mass production, international sales. That means bland. The industry here is very poor on innovation and you know when you are in long term trouble when the most exciting thing is a new expression of Redbreast.

“Overall it’s all good right now as long as we can wrestle the definitions back from the big boys. It’s proving hard as the Government Minister is in awe of multi-nationals. However I am involved in planning some direct action that might win the day!”

The fight’s on for the soul of Irish whiskey – but so far, so good. watch this space.

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Interview with Heartwood owner Tim Duckett

Independent bottler of the Year: Heartwood, Tasmania, Australia

World Whisky Review has featured Heartwood and its irrepressible owner before and although it’s nearly impossible to get its whisky (due to the size of the company and the demand for the malt Down Under), I am a big fan. But Heartwood’s releases are the Mitchell Johnson of whisky and will take no prisoners – a love it or hate it whisky that doesn’t shirk from coming hard and heavy.
Heartwood started acquiring whisky barrels in 1999, and commenced bottling in 2012. At any one time it only holds between 7000 to 10,000 litres. It owns whisky from Tasmanian distillers only – Sullivan’s Cove (Convict Series) Lark (Release the Beast, and several peated Oloroso casks) and new additions for Redlands and Belgrove. Heartwood just pipped Berry Brothers & Rudd to the title. the London-based company was awarded a Highly Commended citation by the judges.

Interview with  Heartwood owner Tim Duckett

tim

Q. What is Heartwood trying to achieve?
More bam per dram
More throttle per bottle
More pleasure per measure.
Our aim is to produce whisky that is ‘tasty’. Simple really. Being a little self centred. we also produce whiskies I like.
Q. You go for big flavours. Why?
The big bold flavours are a characteristic of Tasmania conditions. We have massive fluctuation in temperature, humidity and pressure within 24 hours. The whisky and the wood interact in overdrive. Generally our barrels are exhausted after one use. We also lose water and our alcohol concentrate goes up from 63.4% to the low 70s in 10 to 12 years. We also lose between 4.5-seven per cent per year to the angels excluding constant sampling by the dark angel. Our spirit is really very good also.

Q. What’s special about Tasmania and how is the whisky shaping up overall?
Our industry, started by Bill and Lyn Lark, is in its infancy. We have 23 years experience, Scotland and Ireland have 400 years. There are more questions than answers, we are still learning about our conditions. However, isolation can lead to innovation.  As we (the Tasmanian Industry) learn more, our whiskies should get better or at least more consistent.

Q.Where to the unusual and often amusing names come from?
Heartwood has a large social media following and they help with the names of our whiskies. We made some big whiskies such as Velvet Hammer and Vat out of Hell, named through Facebook. Convict Release : named with Brian Ritchie from Violent Femmes fame. We had had a couple of drinks, seemed funny at the time. The Beagle : the evolution of whisky and a voyage of discovery. The Four Corners of Ross, an old township in Tasmania with the pub , the Town Hall, the old Gaol and the Catholic church on the corners of the main street: Temptation, Recreation, Damnation and Salvation. Everything that goes into whisky consumption.

Q. So what is coming next?
We are aiming to make high strength delicate whiskies based on Australian muscat casks, though we still have several barrels of Lark 100 per cent  peated whisky in oloroso barrels due in about three years. The delicate whiskies will be called Shot in the Dark (from a muscat barrel) and Smiling Assassin etc. We still will produce some big whiskies such as ‘Son of a Bitumen’ the first traditionally 100 per cent peat whisky from Redlands Estate and ‘The 72% Solution’ from Lark. We have also put down, through Belgrove distillery, a 100 per cent rye spirit into a muscat cask. All muscat , sherry and port barrels are sourced from Australia. Names may change if the whisky doesn’t work out the way we plan.

Q. Where are Australian whiskies headed next?
Australian whiskies are gaining a reputation throughout the world though recent awards to Sullivan’s Cove in the UK and Lark in the US. We will not compete with Scotland or Ireland and nor should we. We have had nothing but massive support from both countries. What we will do is produce something that is different and as the demographic for whisky continues to evolve, particularly younger professionals looking for variety, there will be a growing demand for Australian whisky. Unfortunately or fortunately we are unable to meet the demand for our whisky in Australia, let alone the rest of the world. Who knew 10 years ago?

Q. Given that you don’t need recognition up here, how much does this Wizard Award mean?
To be awarded Wizards of Whisky Independent Bottler of the Year 2015, is first of all, humbling, and secondly, helps identify Australia, particularly Tasmania, as a serious producer of high quality whisky. We will still make mistakes and produce some cr….,  rubbish, however we will continue in our endeavours to produce and improve our whisky and our consistency. This award will encourage us to continue, where quality is our priority. Onward and upward.  All good.  Thank you to to the Whisky Tasting Club and Dominic and to all those that take an interest in and support Heartwood Malt Whisky.

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WIZARDS OF WHISKY IRISH DISTILLER OF THE YEAR: BUSHMILLS

Northern Ireland’s Bushmills Distillery has held off fierce competition from Irish Distillers and Teeling to take the title of Wizards of Whisky Irish Distiller of the Year in what proved to be the closest contest of the Awards so far.
Seven gold medals and four silver medals were shared by the three main producers of Irish whiskey this year, with Bushmills picking up three golds for its single malt whiskeys aged 10, 16 and 21 years old.
An average of just three per cent separated the three distillers but all of Bushmills’ whiskey entries scored consistently highly.
The Bushmills victory means that over the three years of The Wizards Awards Ireland has consistently produced the tightest results. Bushmills is the third different winner in three years.
The award comes at a significant time for the distillery after it was recently sold off by Diageo to Mexican tequila giant Jose Cuervo, who described the acquisition as the ‘most important in our history’ and promised to nurture and develop the Bushmills portfolio in the future.

Reaction from Colum Egan, master distiller at Bushmills

Could you summarise the year 2014 with regard to Bushmills brands and how they fared?
2014 was another great year for us – net sales of Bushmills grew by seven per cent. This was really driven by our honey flavour innovation, Bushmills Honey, and strong performance in Russia and Eastern Europe, Germany and global travel, or duty free. Last summer we also hosted the third Bushmills Live, opening the doors of the distillery once again to stage the festival of whiskey and music, with a stellar line up – The 1975 and Tired Pony among many others.

What’s your reaction to receiving this Award and beating a significant number of other Irish whiskeys?
We’re thrilled and honoured. It’s a fantastic accolade for the team who work so hard here to ensure the consistent quality of Bushmills. We’ve been making whiskey at the Old Bushmills Distillery for centuries and the quality of our liquid is the foundation on which our success is built. So it’s fantastic to see these efforts recognised.

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Interview with Barry Bernstein, co-owner of Still Waters Distillery

CANADIAN DISTILLER OF THE YEAR:   STILL WATERS, ONTARIO

These are early days for Ontario’s first micro-distillery –  but all the signs are we’re seeing  the birth of another world class whisky maker.
Still Waters is the creation of two Barrys – Stein and Bernstein – and the distillery only bottled its first single malt whisky in 2013.
That’s right – single malt from Canada. And the distillery isn’t stopping there  – it’s also distilling a rye that has more in common with the bolder American versions than the Canadian take on the grain.
Canada observes the three year maturation rule so to fill in the time between distilling and bottling, Still Waters released its own blend, called 1+11 Canadian whisky. It’s very good indeed, an intriguing mix of citrus, spice honey and vanilla.
The single malt is released under the name Stalk & Barrel and is, unsurprisingly, very young and under-cooked. But it is extremely well made, has enough about it to capture the attention, and hints at greatness to come. It’s the whisky equivalent of young and untutored new singer – with bags of charisma, great pitch and tone, lots of power and style, but in need of harnessing and pointing in the right direction.
That will come with time, though. Still Waters has won a gold medal for its Canadian whisky and a silver for its Stalk & Barrel single malt.
A work in progress – but what a work!

Interview with Barry Bernstein, co-owner of Still Waters Distillery

still waters

Q. Please tell me the history and background of Still Waters
We commenced distilling in March, 2009 as the first micro-distillery in Ontario, a province notorious for strict (and restrictive) liquor laws. We (Barry Bernstein and Barry Stein) are two friends with a passion for whisky. We watched what was happening in the US with the rise of craft distilling and thought we could do that here. Our first whisky love is single malt whisky and as we broadened our horizons from Scotch to single malts from all over the world. We thought why not a great single malt from Canada? After all, Canada produces some of the best quality grains in the world.

Q. Why single malt, and why rye? Both are challenging to make aren’t they?
We started with single malt since that was where our personal interest was. After about 18 months we decided to experiment with some other grains, and created small batches of corn, wheat and rye spirits. We were both struck with the uniqueness of the rye spirit and thought that there might be an opportunity to introduce a unique whisky to Canadians most of whom typically think of rye whisky as something very different, i.e. Canadian Whisky made mostly from corn with a little rye flavouring. We find the rye much more difficult to work with than the malt given its tendency to foam (sometimes uncontrollably) during fermentation as well as distilling. We need to work with smaller batches and a little more slowly with the rye.
Q. Describe how 2014 was for you.
We actually didn’t have a great deal of whisky to sell in 2014 given our production back in  2010/2011. Our goal was to sell everything we had available for sale and we met that goal. It turned out to be a great year for us as we saw increased traction for our single malt whisky and fantastic recognition of our rye, released late 2014 (in fact, it won Best New Whisky at the Canadian Whisky Awards!). Coming of these successes, we have a lot more whisky to sell in 2015 and are very optimistic.

Q. What next for Still Waters?
We now need to concentrate on our marketing and sell our whisky! We are hoping to gradually expand our capacity so that we can double or triple our output over the next 18 to 24 months.

Q. For many, many years Canada was almost closed to the rest of the world and really only known for its big name commercial whiskies. Is that changing now?

We hope things will change for Canadian Whisky world wide. There is a growing craft distilling movement in Canada and some very interesting products being made. Unlike in the US, with hundreds of micro-distilleries but no legal minimum whisky aging requirement, there is a de facto quality mandated by law for Canadian made whiskies. It doesn’t mean all will be good, but it definitely raises the bar and we think we’ll see some extraordinary whiskies coming from Canada over the next few years, mostly from small producers like ourselves.
Q. What does this Award mean to you and how pleasing is it to get international recognition for what you are doing?
Being named Canadian Distiller of the Year is an incredible honour. First and foremost we consider ourselves craftsmen and this validation of our work is very meaningful and important to us. International recognition is wonderful and will hopefully bring more attention to what we are doing here at home, where consumers tend to look abroad when thinking about whisky and often not paying much attention to what is in their own backyards.

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Interview with Tom Holder, The NZ Whisky Co

WIZARDS OF WHISKY AUSTRALASIAN DISTILLER OF THE YEAR: THE NZ WHISKY COMPANY

This year sees New Zealand’s All Blacks defend their world rugby title -and 2015 will no doubt mark another significant step forward for the New Zealand Whisky Company.

When The All Blacks triumphed in 2011 Tasmanian Greg Ramsay, having bought up existing stocks of the old Willowbank Distillery,  was making his first tentative steps in his bid to put Kiwi whisky on the map. It’s hard to believe that it’s just over three years ago since that journey started. And it’s fitting that in 2015 The New Zealand Whisky Company should pick up the award for Australasian Distiller of the Year. In the past 12 months the company has made major strides in international markets, launched new products, repackaged existing ones, and improved the quality of its offering across the board.

I should at this point declare a vested interest – as an adopted New Zealand citizen I am proud of my association with this company and have worked with Greg and his team to promote this whisky to the world. And I am delighted to see its three entries do so well in The Wizards.
But I should once again point out that I was not part of the judging panel that scored the whiskies so highly.
The big surprise for everyone this year was another fruity delight, the Oamaruvian. It was one of three gold medals the distiller picked up recently.

Interview with Tom Holder, export and brand manager, The NZ Whisky Co

tom holder

 

Q. Please summarise 2014. what were your main achievements during the year?
Launching our 25 Year Old was the highlight of 2014. To be only the third nation outside Britain to have matured a single malt to that age, and enjoy the feedback and sales to date, is what we all go to work for. Obviously gaining LiquidGold for our South Island Single Malt in the Whisky Bible, a growing foray into Asian markets and becoming established among Australian whisky drinkers, gives us great hope going forward.
Q. How is your whisky doing?
We have enjoyed really strong sales growth, far more than we expected.
Q. Where is it selling?
Europe, Australia and New Zealand are our key markets. We opted out of a lucrative US distribution because we want to have our new-make maturing away quietly, before we tackle the expanse of the USA!
Q. What are the core brands you are focusing on?
With only 60 or so barrels of single malt remaining, we really have to ‘stretch’ out our single malt stocks. So we’re focusing on 50cl bottlings, and increasing the sales of hip flasks. We are launching more derivatives of our DoubleWood whisky this year; the ANZAC DoubleMalt (blended with Australia’s best malts) and Oamaruvian Cask Strength have already enjoyed pre-sales/orders through our sales networks, and we think they’re a lovely variation from the DoubleWood itself.
Q. Please tell me about your plans to distil and where you are with that?
We have now put down around a dozen trial batches of whisky with our production partners in Christchurch. Anthony and Douglas are emerging as two of the most talented distillers in New World Whisky, and we’re thrilled to keep developing distinctive New Zealand style and flavours through our new-make and the ensuing maturation.
Q. What are your plans for the coming months?
Celebrating BACK-TO-BACK distiller of year award with Wizards of Whisky and bowing-down to our framed wall-mounted picture of Dom Roskrow of course!!!  Launching the ANZAC DoubleMalt and the Oamaruvian are going to be SO exciting because i get great satisfaction from people saying “i’ve never tasted a whisky like that before…..AND I LOVE IT….where can i buy it?”

Q. How important will the rugby World Cup and the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli be to your plans?
With our partners at Gordon & MacPhail, and our tireless brand ambassador Erik Burgess, we plan to make the RWC our big platform for promoting into the UK market. The ANZAC has been in our portfolio for three years now, and the market has a heightened awareness of their sacrifice this year, but we just have it there to pay homage to what those young men and women gave-up, to let Kiwis, Aussies and Tasmanians, to enjoy the world’s ultimate lifestyle. I hope they’d enjoy the coming together of flavours and fun that the whisky embodies.

Q. How do you feel about picking up this award?
This is a serious honour for us. We work closely with the Larks, Keith Batt and the Lawrys in Christchurch, the men and women that make southern hemisphere whisky what it is today; so to be mentioned alongside is a privilege. We’re all flying the flag for New World Whisky and hope your readers all get to find some soon!

 

 

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