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The abysmal debility of the whisky business

I just finished reading a novel by Swedish author Kerstin Ekman, Witches’ rings (1974). Valfrid is having some problems with his brother Ebon:

– You moron! Valfrid  groaned, and put his hand on his forehead so as to imply that he became dizzy when leaning over the abyss constituted by Ebon’s debility.

When I read press releases about new whiskies, and articles about these new whiskies, it’s not unusual for me to feel like Valfrid. I become dizzy from leaning over the abyss constituted by the debility of the whisky business. The press releases and articles are swamped with the exact same words: hand-selected. Special casks. This whisky is inspired by [insert whatever marketers have thought out in order to sell as many bottles as possible]. Bespoke. Luxury. Limited. Rare. Craft, artisanal, innovation. Connoisseur. We gave our master blender complete freedom to pick the very best casks at the precise right time. (A few years back: we found these forgotten and mysterious casks at the back of our warehouse; our water runs over peat bogs/limestone/whatever on its way to the distillery. Those two are not as popular any more.) It’s moronic, it’s an abyss, I get dizzy.

Even worse, this abysmal debility then tends to move from the marketers on to reviews about the whiskies. When this happens, I feel like fainting.

Let’s take a recent example: Ardbeg Grooves. Words from Ardbeg’s homepage: ”for this Limited Edition Committee bottling, we’re rolling back the years to an Islay time gone by – back to village of Peat & Love”. The right corner of my mouth twitches ever so slightly. A light headache is spreading. A sour regurgitation threatens the back of my throat. I mean, come on – it’s just a load of BS!

The first page from the neck hanger of Ardbeg Grooves Committee Release.

In the press release and the neck hanger, things get even more confused. Back in the 60s, apparently, there was a ”thriving community” around Ardbeg. They had their own post office. There was a billiards hall. Two choirs. A football team. Alternative lifestyle. It’s very hard indeed to see what this has to do with the hippies-like Grooves. Is the whisky hippie-esque, two choirs-esque, billiards hall-esque, post office-esque? Or what?

Let’s move from the official twaddle to the world of whisky writing.

Most writers write about the grooves of the casks used to create Ardbeg Grooves, and/or skip the hippie play by Ardbeg in their presentation of the whisky. (An example can be found here, with a particularly thorough piece here.) Others question not so much the name but Ardbeg’s marketing spin (see especially here and here). That’s fine; that’s as it should be.

With other pieces, the half-baked stories of the 60s spun by Ardbeg make some kind of mark in the texts. The perhaps leading page of information for Scotch, scotchwhisky.com, has not removed Ardbeg’s inane connection to the 1960s, saying that Grooves ”is harking back to the 1960s ‘Summer of Love'”, and those words from the press release are quoted: ”The Ardbeg Village of the 1960s was a very different place – a groovy wee community, with its own post office, billiards hall, two choirs and even a football team”. At whiskyforeveryone, we are told that Grooves ”is inspired by the distillery’s community when it was a much smaller and local operation in the 1960s”; see also this post. Few go as far as Swedish renowned whisky writer Henrik Aflodal, however, who uses the heading ”Groovy Ardbeg in the style of flower power”. Then follow the words about a post office, two choirs, a billiards hall and a football team. And then the compuslory conclusion about ”inspiration”:

Ardbeg Grooves is inspiread by the alternative lifestyle and the unorthodox spirit of the previous generation.

Words of advice to those who have chosen to further this marketing flimflam: no, that is simply not true. Grooves is a whisky which has been given a completely pointless story, meant to further sales of the whisky. The ”grooves” are in the casks and have no connection to things like billiards halls, Flower Power or alternative lifestyles. The whisky, then, can hardly be inspired by either flower power or those two choirs. Or the post office. Or the billiards hall.

Let’s compare briefly with Old Pulteney and its Lighthouse series, where whiskies have been given names from lighthouses in the vicinity of the distillery. These whiskies are not inspired by lighthouses; they are whiskies which needed names, Old Pulteney does that whole maritime thing in their marketing, they had done some famous boats, they moved on to lighthouses. I would like to point out that I find absolutely nothing wrong with that. Indeed, it is a way of showing pride in your local heritage, in your local community. Whiskies and their names can absolutely pay their respects to things such as these. But to go from there to say that these whiskies are inspired by lighthouses, well, then you have completely misunderstood the situation. After all, Master blenders blend whiskies in order to create a specific type of whisky, not because the whisky is supposed to nose and taste like a lighthouse. In the same way, there is absolutely no connection between the 1960s and Ardbeg Grooves.

Let’s leave Ardbeg, and move on to another distillery which like telling rather extravagant stories about their whiskies: Highland Park. Now that their 12 YO is called Viking soul in order to connect to Orkney’s Viking heritage, does this mean that their new 12 YO is inspired by that heritage? No: it means they changed the name of their 12 YO. In fact, the name change of their age-statement core range is rather unusual. Normally, age-statement whiskies come without far-fetched and pointless stories. In fact, that’s yet another reason to be critical of NAS whiskies (or, more precisely, criticial of how they are marketed). By their very nature, they tend to demand some form of narrative. If you see a bottle of Ardbeg TEN, the story is already there: it’s an Ardbeg, it’s ten year old, end of story. With NAS releases, the content of the whiskies is no longer self-explanatory. This means that they are in dire need of stories which explain them. Since we rarely know what’s in the bottle, distilleries need to make us connect, somehow, to a given whisky, using this or that historical event, this or that mythical creature, or a train station, or a loch, or a…you get the picture. At times – not always! – this leads into a jumble of blather, a big pile of nonsense, a swamp of wish-wash.

Highland Park constitutes a prime example of this, not least now that they have increased the number of releases about tenfold in the last couple of years. Prepare for pointless yachety-yak from hell which will never seem to end, for we are now entering the domain of the Highland Park website. We kick off with their recent release Yesnaby:

YESNABY is the fourth release in The Keystones Series which explores and celebrates our five traditional keystones of production that have remained unchanged for 220 years.

YESNABY highlights the importance of location and the impact of the local climate. It’s named after the dramatic cliffs on Orkney’s Atlantic coastline, the final point on land before Greenland, and demonstrates how Orkney’s unique temperate climate – with lows of only 2°C in winter to 16°C in summer – shapes Highland Park’s intensely balanced flavour.

O…K…? So, all whisky that Highland Park bottles is affected by that particular climate, but of all these whiskies, Yesnaby shows it? Those three first-fill sherry casks filled back in 2005 which have been vatted together, in what sense do they represesent that ”unique temperate climate”? How does this whisky explore – an active verb, mind you – one of five ”traditional keystones of production that have remained unchanged for 220 years”?

Let’s move on. I bring you: Dragon Legend:

For our ancestors, dragons were both feared and revered, possessing mystical powers but representing the forces of evil. According to legend, the Viking warrior Sigurd killed the evil serpent dragon Fafnir in a battle of great bravery and cunning. Licking the dragon’s blood from his thumb, Sigurd was granted powerful gifts of prophecy and wisdom and became one of the greatest heroes of the ancient Nordic sagas. In DRAGON LEGEND we’ve created [a; HP really needs to hire a proofreader] single malt as bold and unconventional as Sigurd himself. Our local peat from Hobbister Moor delivers an intense aromatic smokiness that’s melded with a spicy sweetness from long, slow maturation in sherry seasoned oak casks.

Can you hold down that laughter? For me, I first start giggling. Then my brain wakes up and, well, not so much. Image it’s your first day of work, and this blather above is how your boss explains why you should be making an effort in your new workplace. No, it’s not funny, after all.

So what actually separates Dragon Legend from every other whisky that Highland Park has released? The Hobbister Moor is hardly unique to Dragon Legend, and neither are sherry casks, their most usual choice of maturing vessel. The long, slow maturation, possibly? But Sigurd wasn’t slow? Might it be those spices? It’s not altoghether crystal clear, is it?

Onwards, oh brave vikings! It’s high time time we cast our eyes upon Valkyrie:

Plunging down from the dark heavens, the Valkyries would descend like avenging angels on horseback to comb the battlefields for the bravest of the fallen warriors, heroes fit to enter the great Norse god Odin’s hall, Valhalla. VALKYRIE celebrates our rich Nordic ancestry here on Orkney, where we were once part of a vast Viking kingdom, and its packaging was designed by internationally renowned designer and Viking Soul, Jim Lyngvild. [What, the designer is 12 YO? Sorry, couldn’t help myself.] Exquisitely balanced and delivering wave upon wave of warm aromatic smoke and richly ripened fruit, VALKYRIE is the first in a series of three special Viking Legend releases and has just been awarded the Chairman’s Trophy in the 2017 Ultimate Spirits Challenge, scoring 99 out of 100.

I don’t even know where to start. With the packaging and the design? With the absolutely ludicrous 99 points? Or go for ”hit where absurdity is rifest”, and discuss the long yada yada about Nordic mythology? Oh, in case you hadn’t noticed, there is a Viking heritage on Orkney. How this heritage is expressed in this particular whisky, they don’t really say. Maybe they thought that they could plaster their press release and description with stuff from like 1000+ years ago, and no one would notice?

You getting tired? Oh no, not yet! We’re just getting started, people! Voyage of the Raven:

For our Viking ancestors, the raven was a powerful symbol of victory in battle, success on a voyage and loyalty to the god, Odin.

Intelligent and resourceful, ravens were the trusted guides of those those early voyagers as they left Northern shores in search of new horizons, flying far out across the sea until they found land. Highly prized for their navigation skills, ravens became symbols of good fortune on many a longship sail.

Matured in a high proportion of first-fill sherry seasoned oak casks, VOYAGE OF THE RAVEN delivers mouth-watering flavours of nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, black cherries and marzipan, overlaid with our distinctive aromatic smokiness.

So, ravens flying about the place meant stuff to people like a thousand plus years ago (am I repeating myself? Or is it Highland Park doing the same rounds again?), so that’s why there’s cinnamon flavour in this whisky? Or what? I also wonder about ravens being a symbol of fortune while being ”on many a longhip sail”. Wait: sitting on that sail, they were hardly a symbol of fortune, right? I mean, just sitting there, they clearly showed that nope, no land is close at hand? Or am I missing something?

When when when will Higland Park release a Ragnar Lodbrok? ”The deep legend tells of a mighty man who foresaw his own demise, but first he had to conquer the world, much as this heathen whisky will conquer whatever small pieces of rationality may remain among you whisky people of doom.” Also, imagine just how big a series of whiskies it could be. Look HP, I gave you your story, you’re free to use it.

Let’s conclude (although we could have picked more whiskies, many more, really many more, with this one perhaps stealing the price): Full volume:

For musicians, amps and equalisers maintain critical balance at high volume by fine-tuning musical frequencies – at Highland Park, our Master Whisky Maker, Gordon Motion, does a similar job.

FULL VOLUME was created using 100% ex-bourbon casks rather than our traditional sherry-seasoned ones. During [shouldn’t this be ”In”?] 1999, a combination of 481 casks – 200 litre barrels and 250 litre hogsheads – were filled at strengths of between 63.6% and 63.7%. The whisky was filtered at just over 4oC and delivers flavours of creamy vanilla and sweet citrus fruits from the bourbon casks, balanced by Highland Park’s characteristic aromatic smokiness.

Whaaaaaaat? No Vikings?!?! Instead, this connection between amps, equalizers and Gordon Motion’s work which certainly does not sound even the teeny tiniest bit far-fetched. Is that fine-tuning down to them trying such vastly different cask filling strengths as 0,1%, perhaps? No, it couldn’t be, since that would hold true of all of their casks. OK, but maybe it’s the finely tuned chill-filtering (although they stay clear of using that particular expression)? Well, no, since again, that would not differentiate Full volume from other HP:s, would it? Maybe it’s in the flavours? It seems unlikely. The last time I ate some amps and equalizers, they did not have notes of creamy vanilla or sweet citrus fruits.

I’ll be the first to admit it: I am shooting at easy game. Highland Park and Ardbeg are somewhat extreme in their narrations. But they are very, very far from alone (for a recent example, see here).

Seriously, whisky business: just stop doing this. If for no other reason, you’re embarrassing yourself.

As someone who writes about whisky, I’d like to add an even stronger admonition to those who are in that domain. Please, whisky writers, stop regurgitating whatever load of draff is spat out by marketing departments. In order to keep at least the shadow of an implication of the smallest crumb of credibility, can’t we all just work to not being complicit in spreading the nauseating dung that many of these narrations of whiskies constitute? Please? If we do so, maybe we can just taste Ardbeg Grooves, without saying stuff like this whisky is inspired by hippes – or if it was them choirs or the billiards hall. We can do tasting notes on Voyage of the Raven without blathering on about, you know, ravens. It’s not hard, just don’t do copy paste from press releases in the reviews. Or, do so, and then use a hammer to smack down on the narratives with all the summoned might of…er…Valkyrias, maybe?

If the whisky business makes you want put your hand on your forehead so as to imply that you become dizzy when leaning of the abyss constituted by its debility, do not forward these ludicrous stories onto your poor readers. After all, it’s the job of the business to sell whisky – but it’s the job of the whisky writer to write about whisky. It is not, however, the job of whisky writers to uncritically forward debility.

I can hear you murmur this particular objection: I don’t care at all about the stories. All that matters to me is what is in the glass. Well, good for you! And I agree: if a whisky is good, it’s good, no matter what stories were told to promote it, no matter if it’s a NAS or has an age statement, no matter is it’s Scotch or Dutch. However, I have two objections:

  1. If we only ever care about what is in the glass and if that were true for a larger audience, then why would those who sell the stuff talk of choirs, or Valkyries, or lighthouses?
  2. When following whisky aficionados on social forums online, what I see is not a bunch of people who only care about what is in the glass. Those beautiful hand-made cupboards for whisky with LED lighting; those mancaves with cask ends on the walls; the special Glencairn glass with the right company logo for the right whisky; the way aficionados worry about the tiniest damage to the box of a given whisky, don’t they imply (understatement of the year coming up) that the talk of ”I only care about what is in the glass” is…not always entirely accurate?

I am not saying that all whiskies need to carry an age statement, or indeed that no whisky should be allowed to called Yesnaby or Grooves. It is the dishonest and deceptive narrations about whiskies which upsest me, not their names per se. In the long run, I cannot see how these dead and completely meaningsless stories which have zilch and nada to do with the actual whiskies cannot do anything other than harm to the business. Compare with other markets. Let’s go with cars, a market I know very little about. Toyota releases a new car with a new name. Would they really describe it like this:

Toyota Avalon is inspired by the company’s community when it was a much smaller and local operation in the 1960s. Back then, there was a thriving community with its own post office, billiards hall, two choirs and even a football team – as well as colorful stories and an alternative lifestyle.

I think we can agree that that’s a no. And thus we have come, at long last, to the end of my critique.

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I usually blog in Swedish. For other posts in English, see here


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