2017 on the whole was a good year for whisky related books. We’ve had a constant stream of publications from the biggest writing names in whisky, to the wannabes and the who exactly are you?
Stefan Van Eycken delivered his Whisky Rising Definitive Guide to the Finest Whiskies and Distillers of Japan. A text that will prove invaluable for years to come. The same applies to the Malt Whisky Yearbook 2018 that will have a shorter shelf life due to its annual lifespan. However, a word of advice to the Yearbook team; freshen up the format and revisit the website guide. We also had Ian Buxton returning to the realm of a decent drink with Whiskies Galore: a fun tour around Scotland’s island distilleries.
It seems anyone with an interest in whisky is able to suddenly become an expert and an author. Thankfully, my colleague here at Malt – Mark – is published in another realm. I don’t think the whisky world is ready for a text on soil and the value of 4th fill casks. Whereas if I was to attempt a publication, it would be for the love of whiskies from a bygone age and the passion that surrounds those involved within the industry and enthusiasts across the globe. Except with the release of My Name Is Whisky towards the end of 2017, that gap in the market has been firmly occupied.
It’s an opus of biblical proportions. A towering giant of a coffee table book featuring lavish photographs of bottles throughout the decades. Interviews with some of the leading names within the whisky industry and those who love to collect and enjoy Scotch. No expense has been spared with its presentation and after seeing a friend’s copy I purchased an English edition for my own whisky library. Available on Amazon UK at £78, it may seem steep in today’s realm of whisky books priced under £20, but seeing it in the flesh overcomes any inhibitions around its price point. The clarity of the photographs and the bottles across several hundred pages break down the whisky barriers than most of the aforementioned books reside within. You could easily set this on your coffee table and visitors would engage with the book – possibly not the text – but the art form of the bottles across its pages.
As you can tell, I’m sold on the book and a fan. However, whisky book reviews I find tiresome to write and deliver. Instead, I felt there was a bigger story beyond the book itself with various avenues of discussion. Reaching out to the My Name Is Whisky Team, I sat down with Davide Terziotti to discuss the concept and the themes raised. Hopefully you’ll agree this approach is far more enjoyable and informative than just a book review.
Malt: firstly Davide, it’d make sense to outline how you became involved in whisky and why you’re so passionate about it as a subject?
The sparkle was an Inter Rail trip to Scotland when I was 19 years old. I had the opportunity to fall in love with Scotland and to visit my first distillery, Glen Ord. It was really love at first sight. After that, it was a long trip that never stopped. For me, whisky without meeting places and visit places where it’s produced is quite meaningless.
What’s your current everyday whisky and a particular favourite distillery?
I have to say that it’s really a tough question because I have many and I like different whiskies in different periods and time of the day. Being not a collector, I don’t either have a common view or approach buying bottles, usually I buy what I like, and I’m not influenced by ratings. In the last period, I’m trying to promote underrated distilleries and highlight that the malts going into blends are not because they are bad whiskies, it’s the opposite. For that reason, in the last years I’m drinking quite a lot of whiskies like Glenburgie, Miltonduff, Dailuaine or Glenturret, also, for the friendship with the guys over there, my beloved distillery is Knockdhu (anCnoc). I have to say I like a lot to buy and drink old blends.
How did you first become involved in the project to create My Name Is Whisky? What was your initial reaction when approached?
It was an indirect approach, Simon had the idea of the book and approached Giorgio D’Ambrosio to have some help. Giorgio basically sponsored myself. The funny thing is that I found in the project by total accident, Fabio, that I worked with for another project (a gin book, The spirit of Gin). My first reaction was something like this was something that I was thinking myself since years and I’m lucky to have the right persons to do it.
Can you take us through the team involved behind the book and what each person brings to the group?
Simon Murat has an extensive experience in advertisement, photography and as art director for a lot of famous brands and companies. He fell in love with whisky and he started to read and became eager to know about whisky. Fabio Petroni worked as a photographer for several years in advertisement and fashion. He did a lot of books and has a lot of passion for animals, his work on horses is amazing. His view, as an external of this world, was really precious.
The genesis of the book apart from the love of whisky itself seems to be the love of whisky and that of collecting and exploring whisky – in particular, Italy – why do you think Italy is so passionate about whisky?
This is something I always tried to understand and, even if answers and explanations are more than acceptable, I found always something missing that looks like it’s not easy to catch. We can say that probably the Americans after the WWII were the importer of this passion, there are for sure some attitude for Italians to collect and for the design, many persons were fascinated by the labels, there could be the usual prototype of good taste of Italians for food and drinks, but probably that’s not enough. For sure we had some key and great persons, mentioned in the book, that put seeds in a fertile soil and in a period of history were, after the disaster of war, people had a positive attitude to excellence. I like to think also about non-rational reasons, particular connections between whisky and Italy: Justerini of J&B was an Italian, the Gugliermo Marconi mother was a Jameson and there is the wonderful Italian Chapel in Orkney with the great story behind that. There is also a strong Italian community in Scotland and one village in Tuscany, Barga, organizes every year a Scottish Festival because many people over there emigrated to Scotland in the late 19th century.
The book itself is a work of art with the sublime photographs and bottles from bygone eras but also more recent bottlings. How did you decide which bottles to include and were there some you couldn’t feature?
We tried to balance historical bottles, collectable bottles and to include also nice bottles that were good to show. We tried to do cover as much as distilleries we can, and we are lucky to have the possibility to choose between thousands of bottles few miles away from home. I have to say we have also chosen some bottles just for instinct and without any rational reason, we liked, and we felt that there was a particular connection with the collectors. We were conscious that was impossible to cover all possible shades of the argument, we tried to give some wide spectrum.
The main internal discussion between us what to do with bottles that are controversial about their authenticity. We decided to leave using a historical approach instead of antiquary approach: they are in collections and have some meaning, in any case, most of them, even if could be filled with fake whisky, has authentic 19th-century glasses and labels. I have to say the only one I would put, and it was not possible is the Atti bottle that was previously in Valentino Zagatti collection, now in Netherland.
It seems there was a desire to include as many distilleries as possible beyond the usual subjects such as Ardbeg, Bowmore, Macallan etc. such as Cragganmore, Dailuaine, Tormore, Tullibardine?
In this period, where the mainstream distilleries are so expensive, giving a view on less known distilleries I think it’s important and that’s why was a frequent question in our interviews. We want people looking at the book to dream but also to give them the opportunity to see bottles that were not that common to see and maybe give them the hint to start to collect or drink Tormore or Glendullan still buying great whisky at a reasonable price.
Also noticeable is the widespread focus not just on official releases, but also those from the independents such as Averys, Cadenheads, Samaroli, Sestante etc. How important was it to feature bottles from independents such as these and others?
Independent bottles and importers have been so important to bring some distilleries to the attention of consumers. Who would drink Dailuiane, Caol Ila, Miltonduff or Mortlach without Cadenhead’s, Sestante, Laing or Gordon and MacPhail? And without Samaroli, who would consider Glen Garioch? I think every whisky lover and collector should say thanks to Independents, but also distillers had a lot of free advertisement and brand building from them.
Thankfully the book touches upon the issue of fake bottles – a subject some collectors seem keen to avoid – however throughout each interview these seems to have been an openness around this topic. Was it important to the team to cover this growing sector and alert others to the dangers of fakes?
First, we should say without any doubts that fakers are criminals. So, there are no excuses or empathy for them to cheat. While the phenomena are getting bigger and worldwide, we asked people involved in the industry if they have technical countermeasures and if they are taking care of the problem. It seems the sensibility is growing, and people are getting more conscious of risks.
We have to say that Ian Millar brings back us to earth saying that there are other fakers much more dangerous that produce low cost poisoned spirit in poor countries and people get intoxicated by that.
Have you seen an increase in fakes and the complexity that forgers will go to? Macallan is the most prominent but I have seen in the last year Balvenie and Port Ellen forgeries. I thought it was very reassuring that even a collector such as Giuseppe Begnoni admitted he had been caught out recently with 2 online purchases. What advice would you offer to someone considering purchasing or bidding on a bottle as to confirm its origins? Do you think auctioneers should be doing more to combat fakes?
For old bottles, there are some checks that could make raise some doubts. Bottle and labels too clean, screw cap too bright, level too high. The other suspect could be for bargains: if the bottle is too cheap and it’s published on the web looks a bit suspicious. Other hints could be a very limited edition where many bottles are offered. Experienced and big collectors have a good database of glass codes in the bottle bottom, but a normal collector has limited tools. Spotting well done fake from pictures, as Begnoni said, it’s really hard. The suggestion is always to buy from well-known and trusted reseller where you claim in case you have issues. As you suggest, the networking between all people involved in collecting is one key point. I know that online auctioneers in UK have built an internal network where they exchange information and pictures about suspect bottles and sources. This is not enough but it shows that also sellers understand that fakes damage everyone. We should be conscious that where there are money and collectors there are fakes, and whisky looks just the last art market affected by that.
Reading the collector interviews, it struck me that there are different types of collectors. Those in My Name Is Whisky that has the passion for whisky and to explore its tastes. Then arguably there is a more modern breed, who collect whiskies for financial gain and do not engage with the liquid itself. Do you see a shift in reasons for collecting whisky now?
A financial approach could be a good reason. For sure following the money we see there are collectors that ride the bull and tries to make some money. This is bad for the drinkers, even if there is so much good whisky around in everyone’s pocket. Whisky producers are obviously feeding the beast and I see that quite normal in a market economy. It was interesting that almost all people drafted, there was a different collectors profile for Asia. Everyone confirmed that Asia it’s a healthy collectors place, where people do not buy just to put on shelves but also to drink and as a social glue. In any case, a good reason to start is by drinking and visiting distilleries and learning about this wonderful drink.
What is your view of those who immediately purchase a new release to immediately sell on – fondly referred to as flippers – purely for financial gain? Is this a problem in Italy as well?
We have for sure everywhere such speculation and I have a pragmatic view on that, I don’t see as the biggest evil, it’s part of the game of a successful market.
Being a bit nasty I have to say there are a lot of people eager about high prices only when they have to buy, but they change their attitude when they sell. Everyone that buys and sells whisky at high prices and flippers are involved in this craze and part of the problem. I think that the only people that must complain about this situation are the ones that could afford and access the whiskies in the past for drinking and now they can’t.
Moving on, the list of interviewees reads like a who’s who of whisky collectors and connoisseurs but also industry veterans such as Dennis Malcolm, Mark Watt and George Grant amongst others. Did you have a particular favourite interviewee and who’s answers surprised you the most?
First, I have to say that all people involved, even if sometimes they were super busy, opened the door to us and there was no reluctance to answer any questions. Anyone asked to drop questions they would not like to answer. We tried to catch in the pictures their real personality and we avoid editing of interviews, their language should reflect their personality as well. I’m lucky and I had the opportunity to speak or assist masterclasses of many of them and know their point of view, so the main surprises came from few people I never had direct contacts before. I was really impressed by the pragmatically answers from Ian Millar that comes from decades of experience. I was hit by simplicity and the emotion of Stephen Rankin talking about his grandfather (George Urquhart). I already had contacts with Dennis Malcolm, but when at the end of interview, where we were reordering our stuff before leaving and he said very spontaneously and with emotion: Making whisky is in my DNA you know, is not a job for me is a way of life he went really in deep touching our hearts.
There is a general lack of women throughout the interviews – is this a reflection of the collecting sphere and the industry itself? Did you approach any women in the industry for an interview?
This is something we regret a bit and we have to apologise but it’s not an editorial choice, it was mainly something that happened in the rush of the project. We had at least eight women in our short list but there were sometimes time constraints, sometimes they were not available and sometimes we did not have the right contact to reach them. But I have to say that they were in the list not because there were women but because they were high-level professional people in the industry. We will repair this leak for sure.
How would you answer – if you could change something in the whisky industry, what would change? It struck me as a good question throughout the book.
I still have more things I like than the opposite I have to say, especially as Scotch Whisky has so strict and respected rules that in any case product keeps his soul. Everyone that visits distilleries for many years does not like the power of marketing and the fact lots of functions, tasks and independence of the single distilleries have been a bit emptied and centralized. For instance, it was quite common to go into warehouses and sample casks without much problem, now things in many places are stricter and ruled by HQ.
There does seem to be a theme running through the book that whisky has changed and in some cases not for the better. Whether it’s the result of economic pressures, the wood, technology/efficiencies or even the climate. How do you view today’s whiskies compared to those of previous decades?
This is something that interested me a lot and that’s why I put a specific introduction on that in the book. I was trying to put some historical and social view. Even if we can blame the modern times, there are no food or drinks that remained the same. Even if we would go back to old days process we will never reproduce exactly the same flavours, all things around us are changed, the soil itself it’s different, climate, raw material and wood. We have our comfort zones, we have emotions and many people are really positive about the past, that in the imagination is the place of genuinely.
Spirits, accepting the approximation of the stability in the bottle, that of course could open a debate, are probably the only drink that it’s almost stable over the years. I think, instead of blaming the modern times, we have to say we are lucky we can sip for few pounds a blend distilled in the fifties or even before. There is also the perspective error sometimes. Let’s talk about NAS, it’s not a new thing, it’s not something invented now, lots of bottles in the past were NAS. Of course, what is bad is that the age matters only when distillers and bottlers need to charge more for aged whisky. In the past we had a lot of low ABV, chill filtered and coloured whiskies, now we have lots of single casks, unchill filtered, cask strength and a great attention about wood. I agree with Sukhinder Singh saying that whisky is better now than fifteen years ago, and we have so many choices for all palates and for all pockets. I don’t like when modern whiskies are built and I perceive them as artificial and done for specific palates. I think the biggest difference, in any case, it’s on blends, old ones were so good.
With a new generation of distilleries on the scene and soon to bottle their own whisky. As an enthusiast is there a specific distillery that excites you?
The Dornoch Castle project is great, trying to work with old yeasts, old barley breeds and long fermentations. It’s not new but what I tried at Daftmill with Francis, especially the bourbon cask, was really amazing. I would mention also Ardnamurchan and all distilleries in remote places that could bring some good benefits for the local economy.
At nearly 500 pages in length did you anticipate My Name Is Whisky becoming such a behemoth of a book?
We were conscious about the almost 4 kilos book and the number of pages. We worked a lot to select pictures and to design pages and decide how many bottles we should include. The nice thing is to see people when they take it in their hands, everyone says I did not expect a so huge and nice book!
There seems to be plenty of scope for a sequel – is this something you’ve considered? I notice there is a 1 on the front cover…
Well, being a self-financed project, we must consider how to move forward but our intention is to have a real project with lots of bricks. A number 2 is in the plan and to explore other whiskies such as Japanese or American. We have also video material taken during the interviews and we have some plans to do also a visual multimedia project.
The book itself seems a labour of love and a sizeable financial undertaking. Is this a limited print run or do you plan to keep the book in circulation and print as long as possible? Do you anticipate sticking with the coffee table book size or are you considering digital copies or a smaller more transportable size?
For the moment we are focused to promote this edition that was printed in a limited number of copies. Of course, if the book will be so successful that we must reprint we will think about that. We are looking also for some editors for having the book in languages other than English and Italian.
About a smaller format or the e-book format we fear we could lose some quality and we have put lots of effort on pictures. We are not totally closed to that, for sure talking with people will give more inputs and energy to correct our view. Our mind is also projected to the next one.
The book is now available via Amazon in the UK, do you have any other stockists in the pipeline should a reader wish to purchase a copy?
Working independently there are pros and cons, so we are leveraging only on our contacts and personal power. We sell also on our website www.mynameiswhisky.com and we ship everywhere. We are looking for other selling channels. We will try being present also in the major whisky shows and festivals, so would be possible to buy also directly on that occasions.
Finally Davide, thanks for your time and is there anything you’d like to add?
Thanks to you Jason and congratulations for your work. I just want to thank everyone helped to promote our work and I hope people will appreciate the book and they will promote as well to friends.
Our thanks to Davide for taking the time to answer our endless questions and we look forward to the sequel when it arrives. However, for now we’re digging into this epic debut. Any commission links help with our hosting costs and do not influence our views.