The Oxford Companion to Wine, with its tongue so firmly in-cheek that the tip has erupted from the face and caused one half of a Glasgow smile, begins its “Wine Writing” entry thus: “a parasitical activity”.
Perfectly correct, of course – and equally applicable to scribes o’ the grain. We are the ticks on the back of whisky’s water buffalo; the buzzing tsetse flies just out of slap’s reach. We are the leeches in the swamp; the owers-of-existence to a host which would get along just fine without us, and which could be forgiven for fancying a good scratch from time to time.
I imagine the industry sees unpaid online independents as the worst parasites of the lot – who’d blame them? I’m not talking about the contemptible mendicants who bleat to marketing departments for samples, you understand. Nor about the gun-for-hire bloggers and vloggers who retweet brand ambassadors so endlessly, and fire out turgid, anodyne reprisals of PR department press releases. As far as I’m concerned they’ve long since forfeited any claim to independence; they’re just part of the host by my reckoning – they’ve left their parasite badge at the door.
No, in my book you can’t be a proper parasite without teeth. Or at least a good pointed proboscis with which to needle and pinprick and irritate. We are the sayers-of-negative-things-where-necessary; the askers-of-follow-up-questions-where-the-first-answer-proves-unsatisfactory. We are the ones-without-whom-they-could-do-very-well; not big enough to cause them a real problem of course – we’re leeches, not lions – but annoying enough that they’d love to pick us off, if only they had the opposable thumbs.
You hear this in the language used by many a beleaguered brand manager, or communications executive, or head of outreach, or whatever other tag companies choose to velvet-pad “chief PR bod” with. Their jobs have become inestimably more bothersome since the rise of the digital age. Sure, we don’t make much – if any – difference to their bottom line, but let them stick a glossy new launch on social media, resplendent in romantic twaddle, and they’ll see us swarm with our raised eyebrows and our sneers and our questionings and our scepticism.
In short, they think we’re bastards. And so they raise the flyswat.
They question our knowledge and our experience. They swing the term “amateur” like a cudgel; they say that we lack understanding, circumspection, nuance. Last of all they label us the malcontents. The ghosts at the feast. The never-pleased. The haters. To listen to them – and often “them” includes professional writers, not just marketing departments – you would think us a pack of soulless, flint-hearted, miserly, love-bereft Disney-villains, all in an online pissing contest to see who can write the meanest thing. That we stand in front of digital magic mirrors asking “who is the most vituperative of them all?” and throw hissy fits if the answer doesn’t come back in the Second Person.
Now – hands up – we do our fair share of brand-bashing on Malt. Mark probably doesn’t find Christmas presents from Speyburn on his doorstep, for example. Jason might find something from Jura on his doorstep one of these days, but it sure as hell won’t be a Christmas present. I’m too insignificant a parasite for anyone to notice or give a damn, but the team at Grant’s aren’t going to message their thanks any time soon.
However, to suggest that the axe is swung purely for the joy of watching heads fly is erroneous, misjudged and rather unfair. Personally, I love whisky. E or no E. You’d have to be the nuttiest sort of masochist to do this otherwise; some of my posts go over 2000 words. (I know – I’m sorry.)
But when you taste, and taste, and taste, there’s no avoiding the simple truth that not all whiskies are created equal. And it only takes a quick glance at a few back labels and price tags to see that whiskies of wildly varying qualities are sold with much the same spiel, and often at much the same price point. And it isn’t just a case of everyone’s palate is different. It really isn’t. Some whiskies are worse than others. Some brands are worse than they used to be. End of. And we’re going to point that out. Otherwise people would stop reading, and fair enough.
But it’s just as true that certain brands have improved out of sight in the last few years. Bunnahabhain’s certainly one, though they could maybe stem the tide of random new NAS releases slightly. Glen Scotia is another. But for my shillings the most improved of the lot is Loch Lomond.
Loch Lomond has been distilling near the eponymous puddle’s bonny banks since 1966, and in that time it’s been passed from owner to owner like a naff wedding present. But in 1986 it was acquired by Glen Catrine Bonded Warehouse, who set about turning it into the sort of setup that Willy Wonka would go for, were he to branch into spirits.
There are the usual pot stills; standard issue in a single malt distillery. But Loch Lomond also makes grain whisky (with a wheat base, worse luck) and has the requisite gigantic columns. A smaller column knocks out grain whisky made from malted barley, and then there’s a pair of stills that are neither flesh nor fish; pot stills with rectifying columns attached at the top. Sort of like the ones Penderyn use.
Which means that Loch Lomond is able to produce all manner of aqua vitae, especially when varying degrees of peat are brought to bear. Weird and wonderful stuff indeed, but for the most part, and for the most years, off the radar of all but the nerdiest whisky drinkers. Multi-purpose blending fodder, generally speaking, with only intermittent appearances on few-and-far-between shelves.
What’s more, releases that did make it to the shelves weren’t exactly the stuff that secondary market millions are made of. Being honest, whilst perhaps generalising a tad, it was largely boring stuff from boring (read: “knackered”) casks poured into boring bottles.
But in 2014, the company that owned the distillery (as well as Campbeltown’s Glen Scotia and deceased Littlemill) was bought by then-newly-formed Loch Lomond Group, and things started to happen. Packaging was made less tired-looking. Cask selection for single malts was made more rigorous. Slowly but surely, cracks started to show in the cocoon. Quality got better.
And last year they released this. Inchmoan 12. It’s heavily peated (think Kildalton territory) and distilled in those peculiar hybrid stills. I actually got an advance taste when I visited the distillery last May (I’d been chatting to Ibon, the brand ambassador, at Whisky Live, and basically got an invitation off the back of being the only person using the spittoons) and I thought it was rather good. But it was a perfunctory taste amongst a number of others, and my notes weren’t especially full.
The whisky’s now been in general circulation for eight months or so, and I thought I ought to come back to it. So I bought my Drink by the Dram, and here’s what I reckoned. 46% ABV, and about £46 a throw.
Inchmoan 12 Years Old – Review
Colour: Undiluted Somerset cider. (Orchard Pig’s Hogfather, if you want to be specific)
On the nose: Peat immediately, but in such a floral – almost herbaceous – way. Nothing heavy-handed. Pine and bogmyrtle. Campfire ashes. Wilted rose petals and fresh mint. A touch of kipper. Behind the smoke there’s a smatter of nectarine and mango. They don’t specify barrels, but to me this is all about the ex-bourbon oak.
In the mouth: Slithers across your palate in seams of teasing woodsmoke beside juicy pear, tangy orange and more of that myrtle and lichen. Floral peat, à la back-in-the-day Highland Park. Finishes to bacon lardons and freshly-smoked barley husks with just a squirt of tropical fruit. Clean, clear, crisp, beautifully-expressed flavours. Like taking in a breath of fresh air in one of the less-wild parts of the Highlands.
Pound-for-pound, this is my pick of Loch Lomond’s current range, and certainly its most obvious point of difference. I can’t get enough of that floral peat; I think they’ve weighted it perfectly.
In fact I’d say this is one of the more interesting scotch whiskies currently available for under £50. I’d put it ahead of Benromach 10, that I reviewed in January, though the Benromach can be found for a tenner less. Come ye fans of Kilkerran and Springbank and Old Pulteney and Bruichladdich. There’s peat for the peat-heads too – lots of it – but it’s gentler, more floral, and all the more expressive for that.
I’m not drinking in March (this is one of a bank of reviews I made notes for at the end of Feb – vive la spittoon…) but I’m going to buy a bottle, and come April it may just be what breaks my abstinence. I’d love to see them bottle an 18 year old, as they do for Loch Lomond and Inchmurrin.
Make no mistake: this is a distillery on the up. And I, for one, am a happy parasite for it.
We purchased our own sample and if you decide to purchase a bottle of this then we’ll receive a drop of commission from the links within the review. This doesn’t influence our view on a whisky but helps with the costs of keeping Malt online.