Whisky People #13 – Dave Broom

by Oliver Klimek on August 23, 2011

Fact Sheet

Name: Dave Broom

Year of Birth: 1959

Place of Residence: Hove near Brighton, England

Profession: Writer

Whisky Involvement: Books, magazine articles, masterclasses etc.

Portrait

After several months of rest, let’s kick off the Whisky People series again. I’m very happy that Dave Broom agreed to be interviewed by me.

Actually there is no real need to introduce Dave Broom. He is one of the most prolific whisky writers out there, and chances are that you already have read at least one of his books or magazine contributions.

Originally from Glasgow, Dave is living now at the south coast of England in Hove very close to Brighton. For over twenty years now he has been a freelance writer, focussing not only on whisky but also on other spirits. So far he has written eight books, two of which have won the Glenfiddich Drinks Book of The Year Award. His latest book The World Atlas of Whisky explores the whisky world not only by geography but also by flavours. Other works include Rum or Sprits and Cocktails.

Dave Broom’s primary journalistic platform is Whisky Magazine and its international subsidiaries. But he is also a reuglar contributor to Malt Advocate, Imbibe and other publications. Furthermore, he is chairman of the judges for the World Whiskies Adwards (WWA).

Another important part of Dave’s activities is to travel the world to offer his expertise in masterclasses at many whisky festivals. It was at the 2010 Spirit of Speyside Festival where I met Dave in person, hosting a walk up Ben Rinnes and a memorable subsequent whisky tasting in the still room of Benrinnes distillery.

A very special honour came to Dave only rather recently, when he was invited by Whyte & Mackay to taste the original ‘Shackleton Whisky’ recovered from Antarctica and to compare it to the replication created by master blender Richard Paterson.

Dave Broom has also been a member of the Malt Maniacs since 2005.

Interview

What aspect of your work do like the most?

That’s as hard (and tricksy) a question as ‘what’s your favourite whisky?’ (which I am very glad you have steered clear of). I’m a writer, so the greatest enjoyment I get is from putting words on paper (or on screen) and more importantly trying to find new ways, new approaches and new angles in which to explore the world of whisky and to show that while the science is fascinating there’s a world of creativity, philosophy and history behind it. The longer I stay in this game the more I’m interested in how whisky relates to people and place – and vice versa. I’m replying to this from New Orleans where I’m about to do a class on Japanese whisky and the philosophy of wabi-sabi.

That said, I love tasting and also getting out to shows or doing training sessions as well as going to distilleries. You never stop learning in this game and every visit will reveal something new, or a gap in your knowledge.

To score or not to score? What is your position on this crunch question among whisky lovers?

I hate scores. I can see how they can give consumers a guideline, but the numbers always obscure the words. Read the notes! The danger with scoring systems is that we could end up with a similar situation to wine where the only wines which are allegedly worth buying are those achieving 90+ which is patently absurd.

Whisky has too many variables, it has too many different ways in which it can be enjoyed to be reduced to a simplistic scoring system. Can you assess a blend which has been made to be mixed against a rich mature single malt? It’s like trying to compare a curry to a pizza. If I had to give marks I’d prefer a star rating system which gives bands of quality. Why then do I use numbers? Editors insist on it and they will say that that’s because the public insists on it.

You are not afraid of using whisky for mixing. How can you explain this to purists?

I’d take issue with the word ‘purist’ because that implies that they are somehow the arbiters of taste. In this context ‘puritans’ might be more appropriate!

Whisky is a drink. It’s a great drink, its a complex drink. It’s the most complex spirit in the world, but it’s a drink. It is there for people to enjoy (responsibly). If that enjoyment is derived from consuming it in different ways then I’m fine with it. I’m constantly amazed by ‘purists’ who refuse to even put a drop of water into a cask strength whisky and then listen to them gasp “my, that’s good!” when I know that they can’t smell the nuances of aroma and their palates and throats have been incinerated because of the high alcohol.

The dominance of the purist (or puritan) line about no addition of water has done immense harm to whisky. The majority of people find it too strong, the flavours too bold, yet we are saying that this is the only way in which to drink it? What kind of way is that to try and encourage people into the whisky world? Why can’t whisky be diluted? Why can’t it be mixed? Why can’t it be used in cocktails? Who are these rule makers who deny people enjoyment?

As an “old school” whisky writer, do you regard the growing number of whisky blogs as competitors?

Old school! I knew this day would arrive. I’m in the business of passing on information and commenting, so how could I object to others joining me? I do however have some issues with my blogging colleagues. First is, this is my job. Writing pays my mortgage and it is becoming increasingly tough financially because of the assumption on everyone’s part (mine included) that these days all information can be got for free.

I’m not moaning, simply pointing out that professional writers are considering what changes they need to make to their working practises in order to survive.

The second thing is now that I am allowed to be considered old school I’d gently suggest to the members of the blogosphere that it’s alway best to think before you write, always consider the other side of things and try to be a writer and not a fan with a grudge sitting at a keyboard. Always ask the question ‘why?’ Opinion is easy, informed opinion is harder. This is a big and complex subject and no-one – not even the top distillers – know everything, so be humble and never, ever, call yourself an expert.

Whisky is made in more and more countries. Will they remain exotic or will we see an and of the Scotch and bourbon dominance in the long run?

This is a fascinating issue. The quality of the ‘new whiskies’ is improving all the time. That said, I don’t see them challenging Scotch’s hegemony given the sheer volume of whisky which Scotland produces, the strength of its brands and the brand owners, their global distribution systems etc etc. But by Scotch I mean blended (which don’t forget is 92% of the Scotch whisky sold globally – and pretty much always will be).

Single malt however is a different issue. If the top-selling single malt is the world sells 1m cases, it will be easier (though not necc easy) for the “new” whiskies with sufficient capacity (and let’s face it there’s not that many of those) to make inroads into this category. Once the stock issues surrounding Japanese malt are resolved I’d expect a Japanese single malt to be in the Top 5 global malts. [and I know Japan is hardly new but you get my point]. I’d also say that local/national pride may well see whisky lovers in, say, France or Holland, begin to buy their local single malt as an occasional alternative to Scotch. Small scale I know, but you could see them nibbling away at market share.

So, single malt Scotch needs to look carefully at the challenges it faces from other whiskies, certainly from bourbon – which is a hugely exciting category at the moment – and also from aged rum. It’s not a time for complacency.

How do you see the increasing trend of distilleries issuing experimental bottlings, especially in regard to maturation?

I welcome any innovation which tries to extend the flavours of whisky but which does it without contrivance – ie quality must always be paramount. Finishes? Great idea but how many are being used to either cover up an immature whisky or end up dominating the whisky? Too many IMHO. That doesn’t however invalidate finishing as a technique.

New wood? Of course it should be investigated, but only used in a fashion so as not to obscure totally the distillery character or simply give an immature whisky a surface sheen of maturity but which is in effect just oak extract. Inner stave? Yes. Casks moving around the world? Sure. etc etc.

What surprises me is how few distillers experiment with yeast, kilning techniques, or play tunes on column stills. Without wishing to belabour the point, innovation and freedom of thinking is essential if the industry is to move forward, but all distillers be they micro or massive must always look at the end quality. If it doesn’t work, then bin it. Don’t release it with some fancy marketing spin. Consumers are not daft!

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.

This is the most recent one. I’ve just finished a 3-week filming trip around 44 distilleries with a bunch of South Africans none of whom had ever been to Scotland. The whole trip was memorable, just some astounding footage of great people and great memories: such as doing a tasting of Springbank on the beach with Pete Currie as the sun was setting, Russell Anderson in the malt barns at Highland Park, Ian Millar in the Glenfiddich warehouses sharing ancient samples.. I could go on.

It was clear however that as the trip went on so the guys were getting deeper into process and forgetting the big picture, until we arrived on Skye in a squall. Just as we arrived at the Sligachan turn-off to Talisker the clouds lifted, the ridge appeared, a shaft of golden light shot down the glen illuminating a rainbow. As an example of the big picture: of location, of scotland, of what roots whisky to my soul it was unsurpassable. hairs on the back of the neck stuff. Tears in the eyes.

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?

I’m coming off the back of pretty much four months of continual travel so I’d say less of this peripatetic lifestyle would be good. It can get you down at times – there’s not enough hours, there’s too many samples to taste in not sufficient time, books and features to write, deadlines to try and meet, editors to placate and a family not getting the time I want to devote to them, but then I realise I do have the best job in the world. I mean – New Orleans?!

3. Your three tips for whisky novices

Trust your own palate. Taste as much as you can. Enjoy.

4. Your three tips for experienced whisky lovers

Trust your own palate. Spread your wings. Never think you know everything.

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

Last dram, quote honestly, was a Cutty Sark and soda in a bar about half an hour ago. The perfect drink for the moment.

Related Post

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Oliver Klimek August 23, 2011 at 9:47 pm

I’m sorry to say one interview question had sneaked in from a previous portrait. It has been deleted now to avoid confusion.

Reply

Patrick Leclezio September 9, 2011 at 9:39 am

Great interview. His approach and attitude really resonate with me.

Reply

Jim Dram November 10, 2012 at 3:51 am

Great article Oliver! Just a heads up though–your Malt Maniacs link leads to a dead end advertisement. The site is a “.net” not “.org”
Cheers!

Reply

Oliver Klimek November 10, 2012 at 6:57 am

Thank you for pointing out, the link is now corretcted.

Reply

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