Interview with whisky writer Ian Buxton

Ian Buxton

Ian Buxton is one of the most well-known whisky writers in the UK. Among his titles is the ‘101 Whiskies’ series, the latest of which – 101 Legendary Whiskies You’re Dying to Try But (Possibly) Never Will – has recently been published. The format of the popular series is simple: Ian lists 101 whiskies of a particular category, which are worth your attention to drink or drool over. They’re great books to dip in and out of, and provide excellent homework for the more ambitious whisky drinkers out there.

Ian’s also written numerous other books, and co-written The Science and Commerce of Whisky, which is one of the most splendidly detailed books on the industry you’ll ever read. Ian was kind enough to answer a few questions, so read on to see what he has to say about his books and his thoughts on the industry…

Malt: Your 101 Whiskies series has been very popular with both new and experienced whisky drinkers alike. Each of those titles are making a bold statement: that these whiskies are what people should be drinking or dreaming about. Can you share a little into your decision-making process, and talk about the criteria that goes into selecting the 101 drams for each title

Ian: For the most part, the selections are based on the knowledge and experience that I’ve built up over more than 25 years in the industry. One or two brands are widely acknowledged within the whisky business as all-time greats, e.g. Johnnie Walker Black, so they were automatic picks. Then I looked at some of the major and credible award schemes. For the first book I ran a straw poll of folk in the business and asked them for their ‘desert island’ whiskies. That was more a control check on my selections but it threw up some great suggestions as well.

101 whiskies The whisky industry is a well-connected community in the age of social media. After your books have been published, have there been many people who contacted you in disappointment that their favourite whiskies haven’t made the cut, or do you view omissions to simply be a starting point for further discussion?

Really the latter. I’ve been surprised and delighted by the people who have been inspired by the books to go out and taste all of the whiskies – see especially Simon Seaton @somanywhiskies who has gone to immense trouble to track them down and blog about his thoughts and impressions. I think generally speaking that everyone has understood these are personal selections and that everyone has personal favourites – and whiskies they love to hate.

Given their popularity, do you have plans for any more 101 Whiskies titles?

101 Legendary Whiskies has only just been launched! We’ll have to see how that does first.

I recently read and enjoyed The Science and Commerce of Whisky, which you co-wrote with Paul S. Hughes. I was impressed at the level of detail that the book went into. How long did that book take to create, and can you share a little of the process involved between the two of you?

First, thanks for that. The book actually took 2 years to put together, mainly because Professor Hughes and myself move in different worlds and work in different ways. The life of a (salaried) academic at a major University and a freelance author and consultant vary more than you can imagine and that made collaboration a challenge. The fact that I moved house towards the end of the process didn’t help! Finally, the publisher (The Royal Society of Chemistry) is an academic as opposed to a commercial publisher and that too was a different world for me.

I was particularly impressed with how The Science and Commerce of Whisky showed just how many variables can influence the taste of whisky. Given the number of factors involved, I wondered what your views were on No Age Statement whiskies? Removing age statements on bottles seems a bone of contention in whisky circles, but I felt your book’s rigour in talking about every single variable rendered the discussion almost meaningless.

NAS whiskies are here to stay, that’s for sure and an inevitable consequence of the booms and busts of historic production levels and today’s unprecedented levels of demand. Ultimately, the taste is what matters (assuming the price is right): we shouldn’t get too hung up on numbers of a label. But as to the book, Prof Hughes wrote that section – I’ll take ‘rigour’ as a term of praise for his work! It’s certainly complex and perhaps illustrates my point, that age is only part of the story.

You’ve were working in the whisky industry in 1987, and have been writing about it for a great many years since then. What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed to the world of whisky during that time?

At its simplest, optimism about the future. Whisky wasn’t in a great place back then and it’s amazing to see the expansion, confidence and energy that characterizes today’s industry. I’d also contend that the average quality of the average whisky has greatly improved out of all recognition.

What impresses you most about the whisky industry in 2014 – and, on the other hand, what do you wish could be very different?

Again, it has to be that mood of optimism and the positive view of the future. That’s great. But I don’t care at all for the trend to ‘investment’ in whisky. I think that it is going to end badly with people getting their fingers burnt; it is pushing up prices to – in some cases – unrealistic levels and some brands are beginning to believe their own PR. That’s always a danger signal!

We should never forget that whisky, all whisky, was made for drinking – not showing off in a glass case or locking in a vault in the hope of a future profit. That denies its soul and depresses me.

Finally, what’s your most memorable whisky-drinking moment? This need not necessarily be about the quality of the whisky!

Can I pick two? Finding aged Glenmorangie in the warehouses at Tain and – from this – developing the brand’s first extra-aged expression, 18 Years Old. That was back in the late 1980s but it set that brand on an exciting journey, which still continues.

And drinking Bowmore – straight from the cask – in the famed No 1 Warehouse, with the sea washing against the outside walls. It brought the hairs on the back of my neck standing to attention!

Thanks, Ian!

You can follow Ian on Twitter here, and don’t forget to pick up one of his many books.

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