If you are followonig the Malt Maniacs – which is always a good idea, by the way – you will probably have read my recent E-pistle about various trends in the whisky industry. It turned out that one of the fellow maniacs, Davin de Kergommeaux, was not too happy with some of my points, so he summed up his thoughts in another E-pistle that has just been published. If you have not done so yet, please head over now to the Manaics and read the two pamphlets. I will refer to them in this article. Actually this is a “two in one” post, but as both are followups to Davin’s E-pistle I prefer to publish them together.
Caramel and Honesty
A few drops of caramel can turn whisky into an explosive substance, so it seems.
Along with the practice of chill-filtration, E150a has been a key element of industrial whisky production for many decades. Things had been going on smoothly until some pesky online comentators discovered the dynamic duo as a new pet peeve a few years ago. After all those years of being happy with what they had been served, they suddenly yearned for whisky that hadn’t been tampered with after maturation. They wanted whisky to be treated as a craft product instead of an industrial commodity. Even a “Campaign For Real Whisky” was launched.
Although I agree with the intentions expressed by the initiators, I don’t like the term “real whisky” at all. It only supplies ammunition to the defenders of the industry practice. Davin is absolutely right in his assertion that whisky has been changing so much over the past centuries that it is virtually impossible to sort out what kind of whisky you could call “real” at all.
I much prefer the term “honest whisky”, as expressed in my E-pistle. It may look equivalent to “real” on first sight, but it isn’t. Yes, “finishing” whisky in a wine cask may be called dishonest because it masks flavour and color of the whisky with that of wine. But this is not the point.
The honesty I am advocating is about giving the consumer a product of the highest achievable quality using only natural ingredients with as little “post processing” as possible while being absolutely transparent about it.
If wine finishing makes a mediocre whisky better, no problem. Just be honest about it. If barrel aging had been only invented now, I would not have complained because it is benefitial for the taste of the final product.
Caramel colouring and chill-filtration are not used to make whisky better. They are used to maximize sales. Of course this is legitimate for a commercial venture, so I am not calling for a ban. But this does not mean that there is no room for whisky that has not been treated like this.
I can buy “factory bread” at the supermarket. Utmost care has been taken that all loaves on sale have exactly the same shape, exactly the same weight and exactly the same degree of browning. I can also buy my bread at the bakery around the corner where all loaves look different and may be even a bit too light or too dark every once in a while, just because they haven’t been “optimized” with additives. Would you call me a fool if I preferred to buy at the bakery?
I also need to return to Davin’s comment about the Fettercairn 40 which I used as an example for unnecessary colouring in my E-pistle. The fact that the entire Macallan Sherry Oak range right from the entry level 10 year old is not coloured – this may come as a surprise to some readers but it is true – clearly shows that potentially inconsistent colour is not much of an issue with single malts. If it’s ok for the Macallan 10, why shouldn’t it be for the Fettercairn 40? I am positively convinced that no member of the blogosphere who would have had the chance to sample an uncoloured version of this malt would have complained if it were only “bright gold” instead of “dark amber”.
Industry vs. Consumer vs. Blogger
Let me quote a core passage of Davin’s E-pistle:
“We know that overwhelmingly, the core customers for official bottlings of malt whisky value colour consistency. Certainly some smaller distillers and independents can afford to pander to a vocal segment of the blogosphere that demands an end to colouring. In doing so these distillers reap the rewards of glowing word-of-mouth. But for the most part, whisky’s most reliable customers may never visit a whisky blog in their lives. So those who make their living selling whisky might want to know if those who protest so vociferously are likely, in their whole lives, to purchase more than a couple of bottles of standard OB whisky. Or, are they more likely to drink independent bottlings (the more obscure the better) and samples picked up at whisky fairs, clubs, and exchanges, along with their aggressively sought-after review samples.”
Is this the state of the whisky world in 2011? Do distilleries only drop colouring to please those pesky online commentators? Are distilleries blogger whores or are bloggers distillery whores? Are consumers just a herd of manipulated sheep?
Of course this is an exaggerated, if not distorted picture. But yet it is not entirely imaginary. The relationship between bloggers, consumers and the whisky industry is very complex. I have the feeling that when speaking out positive about the industry bloggers in general are embraced as multiplicators, whereas they are seen as a loud but unimportant minority when it comes to criticism. And of course not all bloggers are alike, just as the whisky industry is no grey and uniform mass. Press trips and freebies are a valuable commoditiy in some blogger circles.
Being a whisky blogger automatically brings you in a position where you are a middleman between the industry and the consumer, not to mention your relationship with other bloggers. The blogosphere is full of geeks like me that don’t represent a statistical cross-section of the whisky market. But you must not underestimate the number of blog readers who are significantly less geeky than the bloggers themselves. And even those have their own opinons. There are plenty of ways how to cope with this situation, but sometimes you just can’t help the feeling of falling between the stools.
Neither have I ever been an industry insider, nor do I have close contacts to the industry, so I consider my blogging to be consumer oriented, well knowing that I am not an average consumer myself. While trying to be as objective as possible, I don’t see the need to defend the industry. The marketing budgets they have should be sufficient to make their points clear.
Sitting between the stools may not always be the most comfortable position, but it can give you some interesting perspectives at times.