Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke



So a man who was Prime Minister not three months previously, and has an achievement to  his name that equals that of Lord North, announces his immediate retirement from Parliament and it makes a very small ripple. The news  is swamped by the bombshell that the production company who make the Great British Bake Off will take the show from the BBC and sell it, for a higher price, to Channel4. Outrage! Feelings of betrayal. David Cameron’s going  elicited a shrug but a well loved TV show – well that’s a totally different matter. You can see why: an ex Prime Minister becomes yesterday’s man as soon as he leaves office but some TV shows can become part of the fabric of the nation, a marker of our identity. Not only that, with Bake Off there was almost a merging with what we valued about BBC itself. It seemed fitting that our national broadcaster would air a show that celebrated adventurous home baking in a way that showed the better nature of the participants who would be cooperative and friendly to each other. But the BBC did not own the show, it had been an idea pitched to them by an independent production company and they had just leased it for a time and the production company made a commercial decision. In business these things can happen.

Why though am I talking about this on a whisky blog? Simple: the news happened on a day when I went to a Glenrothes tasting and there is a very slight parallel. Berry Bros & Rudd first leased the brand in 1987 and the bottles we see in the shop and the way they are marketed and developed are their responsibility, whilst the whisky itself is produced and matured by the Edrington Group, who own and operate the distillery. If Edrington had been as fickle as Love Productions it would have been a disaster because whisky is always a long term project; but any hypothetical risk was removed when Berry Bros bought the the brand outright in 2010 (in part of a swap deal with Cutty Sark) so the relationship is fixed. I can think of no other case where the distillery has relinquished control its official bottling to a third party. But in this case, why wouldn’t it? Berry Bros have been in the same shop since the Seventeenth Century and are the epitome of stability. They have been marketing wines and spirits for longer than anybody else and so know a thing or two about continuity, building a brand, and being able to adapt to the subtle changes in the tastes and demands of their customers. Adaptability whilst maintaining a sense of identity and purpose is a seriously clever trick as there aren’t many firms, worldwide, who have been able to do it for over 300 years old (and most that have  are Japanese).

The venture itself only takes 2%  of Glenrothes output and so hardly interferes with the main purpose of the distillery, which is being a powerhouse for blends, but it has the benefit of raising the distillery. It also illustrates (once again) that there is no divide in quality between distilleries with a primary reputation for single malts and those  highly regarded for blends. Any whisky which is valued for bringing flavour and cohesiveness to a blend will almost invariably have a the character to make an excellent single malt. This is also true of Mortlach, which makes an interesting comparison. Its reputation as a spirit is such that at some board meeting or other, a couple of years ago, Diageo decided to turn it, overnight, into a premium whisky by putting the price up and redesigning the bottle. With one bound they expected a whisky with a low public profile to become an international star.  I am not sure it has quite worked out as was hoped. It is difficult to make a big leap forward. Far better the Glenrothes approach of building slowly by gradually expanding the character of the range with the idea of it being around for a long time – project that can mature. But there again remember Berry Bros can afford a fairly relaxed concept of time. Take as an example  a paper they wrote in 2008  on the future of wine; it began with the statement: “Berry Bros has  been selling wines for 310 years and expects to be doing so for at least another 310 years” http://www.wineanorak.com/BerryBrosReportFutureWine.pdf . I rather like that sense of assurance – myself I’m not sure how habitable the planet will be in 300 years, let alone whether there will still be a place for wine and spirit merchants.  But believing you will  be there and planning for it is a wonderful thing. So when we drink Glenrothes we can legitimately think of both time past and time future.

And on that subject we should return to the tasting. Ronnie Cox bought along a range of samples including some of their single age vintages. All delicious but there was one that stood out: a cask sample from the 1970s. Something magical had happened and I don’t know what it was but I’m sure it was more than just the combination of wood and age. Did they do something slightly differently back then? I do not know. All I do know is that this whisky had a depth and complexity different to the others we tasted and when I sampled it I thought that that mystery was the reason I find whisky so fascinating and why I know I can never learn enough to explain it.

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