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Whisky Blogging From Between The Stools

by Oliver Klimek on March 21, 2011

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.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

DavindeK March 22, 2011 at 12:30 am

Difficult to respond, because I see that I am not being heard. Defending the industry? Not at all. Not in the slightest. Rather I am defending the consumer from well-intended but uninformed bloggers who want to tell whisky makers how to make whisky. As a consumer, and a blogger, of course I think we have a key role in holding the industry’s feet to the fire. We need to tell them what we like and what we don’t like. We need to be their vocal critics. But to be beneficial, we need to stick to what we know. As we saw with the Macallan Fine Oak range, when we do, sometimes they listen and the quality improves.

Where I take issue is when bloggers and many others who really don’t understand the fine details of making whisky not only tell the whisky makers what they want to taste, but also tell them HOW to achieve it. Presumably we want whisky that tastes the best it can. We only ask for uncoloured whisky or non-chillfiltered whisky because we think it will taste better. We ask for these despite the fact that we don’t understand the processes in fine enough detail and we assume that everything else will remain as it is. We assume these changes will boost quality, but there is no assurance that is the case. It may, in fact, create an opportunity for some distillers (or the bean counters back in head office) to dumb down our whiskies – exactly the opposite of what we want.

Caramel colouring is a pre-industrial process. It has been around for centuries, not decades. It could be said to be part of the process of making whisky. Macallan is not alone in not adding colouring to its sherry cask whisky. Colour consistency can be achieved much more easily in sherried whiskies by using more or fewer dark casks or light casks. I think many, though not all distillers forgo colouring in their heavily sherried malts.

Some bloggers want an end to chill filtering. Well, this IS an industrial practice and frankly, I can see their point. But the assumption here is that distillers will continue to use only their best casks for single malt. But at a time, when some distillers can sell all the single malt they can make, won’t this sudden boost in flavour tempt some of them to start bottling as single malt, whisky that was only fit for blending in the past? Will the new super-flavourful unchillfiltered prime casks now be used to hide a lot more sub-standard casks in the vatting? Will the threshold for sub-standard casks also be lowered? If so, suddenly a lot more whisky becomes available to be bottled as single malt without any meaningful change in quality. Bonus, if you make your best profits selling your whisky as single malt. I am not saying this has happened yet, only that it is a possible unintended consequence of a well-meaning, but uninformed campaign to end chill filtering.

And if distilleries get a lot of good word of mouth from their initial batches of non-chillfiltered, non-coloured whisky, they can get away with murder later when the bloggers have moved on to something else.

As for the Fettercairn, they are going to sell it all. Probably the best strategy is to do whatever they can to minimize returns.

Reply

Oliver Klimek March 22, 2011 at 6:12 am

Thanks for sharing your view, Davin. I can understand your fears, especially concerning chill-filtration. But as most of the the malt whisky still goes into blends, doesn’t your “only fit for blending” agrument imply that a large part of produced whisky isn’t actually very palatable on its own? After all many distilleries are producing primarily for blends.

Does this actually mean there isn’t enough malt whisky of decent quality to sustain a market share of over 10%?

Reply

kallaskander March 25, 2011 at 10:42 am

Hi there,

to answer your last question Oliver… there just might not be a market share of 10% for single malts. Yet.

I grabbed some figures from 2009 “…an industry which exports 90 percent of production
worth an annual 3.13 billion pounds to the Scottish economy. Single malts only account for just over 6 percent of 2009′s 94.4 million 12-bottle case scotch market by volume, but the
malt industry has grown volumes by 23 percent in the 2005-2009 five-year period compared to 10 percent for the whole industry.”

10% of let’s say 3 billion pounds for easy calculation should be 300.000.000 pounds but in 2009 it was only 6% or 180.000.000 pounds. That is a long way to go in spite of our best efforts and to claim 10% oft the blend dominated world whisky market is just too big a bite to take for us single malt lovers.

In relation 23% increase in single malt is nothing compared to just 1% increase or decrease in blends if you take absolute figures.

The other thing where I would take side with Oliver Davin is that malt whisky more and more not only is an industrial product but designed to specific tastes and purposes.

It follows from whisky becoming an industry the last 200 years.

Before that you had a product and you had followers. You make more because what you distill is in demand. You grow and at one point demand is still bigger than what you can supply and you grow again – and one day the ratio turns completely round and you have more production than demand because your production has outgrown the demand for your product or the market has just changed.
What do you do? You have to create new demands to sell what you make with a production line that has to produce large quantities. At some point – like in 1983 – your market might just crash and you have to stop production.

You look for new markets and you are “innovative” and under that process your product becomes an industrial commoditiy and you have lost your soul. Nobody minds – well almost nobody – as long as you can keep the managers and shareholders satisfied. If not…

That is the problem(s) that I see for the “whisky industry” and their product.
Overdemand and overadapting your capacities leads to more industrialised production – and products.
Monsters like Roseisle Glenlivet Macallan and others produce soul-free products most of the day for blending and because of that it might become more and more difficult to find the best casks to bottle as single malts. Or even just casks good enough.
You are right Glenfiddich is a monster as well but I think they managed to keep their soul until now.

I just returned from Islay where we learned that Caol Ila will shut down in Summer – to install two more giant washbacks.

Not only is production industrialised – maturation is progressing in step of course.

So it is not unreasonable to assume that when more casks are filled in industrial style more resulting casks will turn out uniformly in style and quality.
That is not bad if you produce ball-pens lighters or parts for building cars. It is not bad for blending, no way.

But it does not sound like a single malt lovers heaven, does it?

Greetings
kallaskander

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