Whisky People #1 – Serge Valentin

by Oliver Klimek on August 31, 2010

Fact Sheet

Name: Serge Valentin

Year of Birth: 1960

Place of Residence: Turckheim, France

Profession: Advertising agency

Whisky Involvement: Ratings, Tasting Notes, Malt Manaic

Portrait

The small town of Turckheim near Colmar in the Alsace Region of France is a place most people might associate with Gewürztraminer, Kirschwasser or Munster cheese. But it is also the home of one of the most prolific whisky aficionados on the internet, Serge Valentin.

Since 2002 he has been a member of the Malt Maniacs and he is responsible for updating the monstrous Malt Monitor – the cross reference for all whiskies ever tasted by all maniacs – as well as organizing the distribution of samples for the annual Malt Maniacs Awards.

Also in 2002, Serge started his website whiskyfun.com where he has been publishing all tasting notes and scores for the whiskies sampled by him. Intermingled with the whisky information are concert reviews by his friend Nick Morgan, CD listenting tips and occasional field trips into the worlds of cigars and wine as well as a few other goodies.

Whiskyfun is operated as a kind of chronological pseudo-blog without comment option. Over the years, a solid four-digit number of ratings and tasting notes has accumulated there – often very flamboyant and sometimes even crossing the line to maltoporn.

Serge Valentin’s site has become one of the premier sources for whisky reviews on the internet. His ratings are quoted in countless forum posts and blog articles. It seems that also whisky makers read Serge’s reviews very carefully. This became apparent recently when independent bottler Jack Wiebers from Germany released a Bowmore expression called Dead Mouse Eater referring to a not too charming tasting note by Serge about one of their earlier bottlings.

A particular interest of Serge is the history of Brora distillery. On whiskyfun.com he published an excellent set of pages illustrating the long and winding story of the legendary distillery that sadly is gone for ever.

Serge’s passion for Jazz, off-beat rock and world music becomes obvious by browsing whiskyfun.com. Another hobby of his is hitting the Alsatian roads with one of his motorcycles.

By the way, the name of his website is not just superficial, it reflects Serge’s credo: Not to take enjoying whisky too seriously.

Interview

You often stated that you regard your reviews and ratings only as your private tasting log. But nevertheless you are probably the most quoted whisky scorer on the internet. Do you feel proud or puzzled about that?

I don’t know if I’m the most quoted but it’s true that I’ve seen quotes in many strange languages ;-). Anyway, I think all that happened only because I started all this madness quite early and sometimes I feel I’d better have broken a leg on that very day. What makes me proud, or rather happy, is when some guys say that they bought/tried a whisky because of one review and that they enjoyed it. What puzzles me more is when people take all this too seriously. You’ll usually find as many people who’ll say that a score is too high as people who’ll claim that the same score is too low. Always remember, a score is always only one guy’s opinion. Also when clients, partners or other friends google my name and find booze all over the place. Not many people know that you do not need 25cl of each whisky to come up with reasonable notes and scores. No, I’m not Charles Bukowski’s hidden son!

Your reviews feature many rare and expensive whiskies. Can you still enjoy a simple entry level dram or has the bar been raised so high that you constantly need new “kicks”?

It was, and still is one of the concepts behind the Malt Maniacs. Quaestio Aqua Vitae Perfectum Per Ardua Ad Nauseam is what’s written on our emblem! We all look for rare whiskies (expensive is another matter) and our ultimate goal is to taste ultra-rare malts, Parkmore, Malt Mill, Stromness… One day, one day! Note that we probably already tried them, but as constituents in old blends. As for new kicks, exactly, you are right, but those new kicks can also come from a new ‘mundane’ bottling that’s particularly excellent, or in true progress.

Could you explain why you are so fascinated by Brora?

Oliver, did you ever try one of the 1972s Rare Malts or DL Platinum? Or these old Clynelishes pre-Brora? I don’t know, it’s a style that just clicks with me. Wild, complex yet austere, mineral, waxy, phenolic… Also the story is quite fascinating. Maybe they were also the malts that were closest to the best dry white wines, which I enjoy tremendously.

As someone who works in the advertising business, what is your professional view on current whisky advertising, packaging and marketing?

You know, most makers are large companies, they have very skilled marketing people and I always find it a bit funny to read some individuals’ comments on what they do (including mine!) It’s as if the distillers didn’t have sales figures, studies and statistics and were acting completely at random. I’d bet they do not! Yet, I believe they are facing new challenges and each brand is trying to move as smartly as possible and to find its niche – or to keep it once it found one that seems solid. Then you have the old chestnuts (younger consumers, richer consumers, more loyal consumers, premiumisation) plus a few new ideas that usually rotate around another funny concept called ‘innovation’ (“you go first!”, said Dilbert.) That’s the tricky part: they all seem to be willing to innovate in a market that seems to be dominated by concepts such as tradition, heritage or even terroir. Probably not easy.

You live in Eau de Vie country. Many fruit brandy producers in France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland have now tried their luck in making whisky. What do you think about these Eau de Viesky distillers?

I’m afraid they are rarely to my liking. Wrong beer and wrong stills, and sometimes even wrong casks. Eau de Vie stills are usually designed to make very pure, very clean and very fruity spirits, which is exactly what you do not want with malt whisky and probably other whiskies. You can make a great new make but it’ll become dull once aged and by the way, the old Scots used to say that ‘when the new make’s too good, the whisky will be bad’. I think they just shouldn’t try to age their distillates in oak, or maybe use beech. Alternatively, they could buy a pair of nice wee Scotch-style post stills but that’s expensive! More globally, I believe there are many misconceptions around the concept of ‘craft distiller’, ‘small is better’, ‘we do it by hand’ and all that jazz. Like it or not, whisky’s an industrial product, it’s not wine or even beer. I never tried to find a relation between the size of a distillery and the quality of its aged whisky but I’d bet there isn’t any, or at least that the maxim ‘the smaller, the better’ is plain wrong and a myth. Hem, didn’t I just lose even more friends? ;-)

France (just like Italy and Spain) is a major importer of Scotch whisky, but the people there seem to prefer cheap blends to single malts much more than in other countries. Any idea why?

That used to be the case a while ago but France is by far #1 importer in volume these days and there are more and more malt aficionados in our country. Proportionally, we aren’t yet up there with our friends the Swedes, the Germans, the Belgians or the Dutch but I think it’s coming. The reasons behind the ‘malt gap’ are probably multiple… Among them the fact that we always made several well-known aged spirits ourselves (Armagnac, cognac, calvados or rum on the islands plus a few lesser-known spirits such as aged prunelle, genièvre or marc) and the fact that we have a wine culture, like many Latin countries. But again, it’s changing fast… As for Italy and Spain, let’s not forget that the Italians pioneered the whole malt whisky thing and that both countries are huge rum drinkers. But Spain remains a huge Scotch importer, even if it’s dwindling down. And didn’t the Spaniards own Lochside?

In wine making, the grape variety is a very decisive factor for the finished product. Most whisky makers don’t seem to care about barley varieties. What are your thoughts on this issue?

Yes, they don’t seem to care anymore, even if Bruichladdich and a few guys such as Michel Couvreur did some interesting experiments. Also Macallan I believe, not to forget Springbank’s Local Barleys, those were fab! I’ve seen in old distillery books that the Scots did actually use and track down various origins in the 19th century but I guess yield became the ultimate goal. Remember, it’s an industry! Now, would using different varieties make sense? Bruichladdich’s experiments with varieties and origins did taste rather different as new makes but they were unpeated, of course. Add good layers of peat and/or heavy newish oak on different barleys and I doubt one would detect much difference after a few years, but I could well be wrong. Now, we’re talking about fairly ‘regular’ varieties, chariot, optic, chalice… Bere barley is different, I’ve tried some aged bere malt whisky and it was very singular indeed, even after quite some years in active wood. One thing that may offer more variety is yeast, but I’ve heard it’s tricky to do as some yeasts tend to dominate and kill other yeasts, so I think it’s hard to handle different kinds of yeast on the same location at the same time.

Common Questions

1. Please share a memorable whisky moment with us. This might be a fantastic dram, someone you met or any other situation that left a deep impression in your memory.

There are so many of them! The first one maybe, that was around 1979 in Scotland, we were at a friend’s place and were expecting to taste our very first, very genuine single malt Scotch whisky. The guy, a true Highlander, pulled a bottle of ‘fiddich (of course) out of his cupboard, poured large measures into high tumblers, went to the fridge, came back with a bottle of ginger ale and… Well, no need to tell you more I guess. That taught me that all that isn’t serious. Other than that, I think the greatest moments always occur when you crack open a rare old bottle of whisky with some good friends and you pour the first drops into the glasses. Watch your friends’ eyes, Angelina could be in the room, they wouldn’t even notice her!

2. What percentage of your life do you dedicate to whisky (sleep ignored)? Do you think it should be more or less, or is it just about right?

Why sleep ignored? ;-) Do you never dream about whisky? Seriously, except in high seasons (three to four festivals), I’d say six to seven hours per week, usually during the weekends, plus ten to fifteen minutes a day to update the website. Please note that I very, very rarely go to tastings or whisky hops and never do any press trips or such. Whether that’s too much or not, I don’t know, but as I always say, an average westerner spends between three and four hours a day watching stupid TV shows…

3. Your three tips for whisky novices

Taste, taste and taste as many different whiskies as possible! Make friends, share bottles and samples, swap impressions, keep learning, form your taste, visit distilleries with real whisky people (avoid tour guides if possible, especially in summer)… Yet, do not take all this too seriously! Hem, that’s more than three…

4. Your three tips for experienced whisky lovers

Keep learning, don’t think you hold the truth, don’t try to impose your views. Guilty as charged! Oh, and just the same, do not take all this too seriously!

5. What was the last dram you had and how did you like it?

Oh, a great one, just two hours ago: a sample of Laphroaig 1965/1981 Berry Bros that Régis, a good friend of mine, had sent to me. Absolutely amazing!

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

sku August 31, 2010 at 11:00 pm

Great interview! Really interesting. Thanks.

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WhiskyBrotherSA September 3, 2010 at 8:41 am

Well done Oliver. I love Serge’s quote on tips for whisky novices: “Taste, taste and taste as many different whiskies as possible! Make friends, share bottles and samples, swap impressions, keep learning, form your taste, visit distilleries with real whisky people”! Great stuff.

Reply

Gal Granov (whiskyIsrael) September 5, 2010 at 8:46 pm

I love Serge. his reviews are always witty, funny. and like myself, He loves jazz.
Serge, chapeau!
and oliver, great interview.

keep it up!

Reply

Mark C September 24, 2010 at 1:19 pm

Great interview. A good read with a dram!

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