So there we are in the Cotswolds, in a largeish building made of that Cotswolds stone that the locals say is golden but is actually the colour of dilute custard. It’s the same colour as every other structure for miles, but it couldn’t scream new build louder if there was a behelmeted construction worker trundling off with his bum hanging out. Inside, all is glass and chrome and off-white paint and sterility. Outside, a desolate rural moan sweeps across a rubbly, fallow field and rattles and thrashes through the jumbled loom of hedgerow. A lone, limp, tatty-white, impotent scarecrow stands senseless sentinel. Frail, isolated, exposed. I sympathise.
Inside are sixty-odd souls ranged from the breadth of the matured aqua vitae industry. Distillers, distillery owners, blenders, cask brokers, coopers, brand ambassadors, insurance brokers and hacks. And me. The not-even-proper hack. The karaoke hack who rants and scribbles for love. Right now I feel like the ghost at the feast at Dan Aykroyd’s house. I’m wearing a Leicester Tigers away shirt, for Christ’s sake. Albeit covered with tactical application of an off-red jumper that’s been car-back-seat-matured for months. I feel at peak buffoon. This is how Boris Johnson would feel every day if he were capable of feeling. Is that the wind outside, or is even the scarecrow sniggering? As my petrified gaze darts around from escape route to escape route I’m skewered by the internal question: “what the hell am I doing here?”
“Here” is the World Whisky Forum. A Swedish invention that, for 2018, has sailed Viking-like to England. At this rate the next iteration will be at Istanbul, and future scholars will debate whether the fourth was at Canada.
It’s a simple idea, on paper, conceived by Jan Groth of the Distillery Formerly Known As Box. Get a handful of people who ought to know loads of stuff about whisky to speak about it in a room for two days, and see if people want to come and be the beneficiaries of said speaking. It worked – phenomenally well – so they did it again. This time at the Cotswolds Distillery, which seems appropriate, given that they’re Craft Producer of the year.
Not that the World Whisky Forum is all about craft. In fact most of them don’t like the word. “Craft distilleries should just be called small distilleries,” said Colin Spoelman, of King’s County. But although several small distilleries are in attendance – King’s County, Chichibu, Cotswolds, Mark’s nudists from Kyrö – they rubbed shoulders with representatives from Diageo, from Irish Distillers Ltd, from Canada’s enormous Hiram Walker.
The theme, as introduced by compère Dave Broom, was “Whisky 20:20”. Not so much about time; more the need to be aware; cognisant. To know where whisky is, and what the opportunities and challenges are. Importantly, how to educate the consumer in a non-patronising way.
That definition of place was central to Ian Palmer’s talk on the challenge of establishing new distillery InchDairnie. “You have to have a plan,” he said. “It’s a business first and last. And you need a product that stands on its own merit. No PR fluff, no dogma. It has to be genuine. A thin veneer will be swiftly exposed”. That last sentence sounded so Jason-esque that I wondered whether Whisky Rover was Ian’s nom de plume.
Establishment of individuality segued nicely into the presentation made by Kalle Valkonen and Miika Lipiäinen from Kyrö. I will stop calling them ‘Mark’s nudists’. I will. I will. Though they did lead with thatpicture, so maybe I won’t. Their topic was on rye; on the need for it to be seen as a diverse grain capable of diverse styles of whisky. “People have seen it as just the stuff that MGP or Alberta make for too long”, said Miika. It’s not just about those two styles. “You end up with not much diversity … but lots of stories!”
They talked about the particular rye strain used at Kyrö; small-grained, big-flavoured. They talked about the use of pot stills, of malting, of long (six day!) fermentations. Not that Miika has any problem with American rye. His Damascus moment was tasting Thomas H. Handy at the Whisky Show in 2011. That’d do it.
Having heard a good deal about grains and processes, Joto Tanaka from Kirin Brewing gave a talk on “The Peak of Maturation”. This was where the scientific slides started emerging. Importantly, this was a discussion on maturation, NOT on “wood”. He addressed the lazy marketing myth that “longer ageing equals better”, with diagrams of curves of maturity. Factors in ageing were looked at: time, environment, distillate components, cask type, cask size, filling strength. His emphasis was on constant cask monitoring, and on the importance of marrying technical data with sensory analysis.
Simon Coughlin followed, telling the Bruichladdich story; an example to the many startup distilleries gathered of how to forge one’s own, independent, place in a world of “industrialisation, efficiency and marketing”. Grain, as you’d expect, was heavily discussed, but much of this talk centred around the “remember it’s a business” mantra that seemed common to so much of the Forum’s discussion this year.
Talking of “many startup distilleries”, itinerant distiller Lisa Wicker gave some insight into the scale of America’s craft whiskey explosion. Lisa’s from a wine background, so as you’d expect, there was much talk of grain, of provenance, of working with “her” farmers, and knowing who’s making your crops and where. We should get her on Malt! “People look at heirloom fields and ask ‘what’s wrong with your corn’”, she said. Supermarkets have trained us to expect all our grains and vegetables to be routine in shape, size and colour. Lisa pointed out that that’s where bland sterility lurks. “GM versus heirloom is like hothouse tomatoes versus farmer’s market,” she said. Supermarket fruit tastes of nothing … why would you want that in your whisky?
The challenge, Lisa proposed, was in creating a unique, quality-focussed brand that people can understand without being taken to a tasting room. That business thing again. This was where Tristan Stephenson stepped up, describing the way that his Black Rock bar and whisky-me business had made customer understanding easier by breaking whisky down by flavour. This clearly works where newcomers to whisky are concerned… but I wondered whether such simplification went too far for those looking to take their “next steps” of learning.
The day’s speakers then returned to the stage to discuss the themes that had arisen during the day. The need for a plan. The importance of taking risks and challenging boundaries… whilst being aware that fundamentally the aim is to sell bottles. “You have to know who you are”, asserted Miika. Ian Palmer split whisky into two markets: existing, established businesses who sell based on brand consistency, and newcomers who need to find their USP and fight for shelf space. “There are two definite camps, and I belong to the risk-taking camp.” Much nodding of assent.
A seventh talk was held after dinner by scotchwhisky.com’s Becky Paskin and Bacardi’s Georgie Bell, discussing their #OurWhisky movement. If whisky itself is to be forward-thinking and current, then so must its marketing . Of all the Instagram photos from the top 15-selling whisky brands in the world, they revealed, only 22% featured pictures of women. For one brand, pictures of dogs outnumbered pictures of women by 300%. Sheets were passed round with examples of clearly backward-thinking marketing campaigns. “Guess how many of these are real, and how many are fake.” Most people in the room suspected it was the old chestnut of “they’re all real,” but many of us (perhaps naïvely) were taken aback by how recent many of the campaigns were. “It’s time these stereotypes weren’t normalised”, commented Becky, admitting that the scale of the challenge was immense. “How do you eat an elephant? Bite by bite.”
Day two began at the Cotswolds distillery itself, where sixty of us crammed into the main distillery room in an impressive feat of human Tetris. Nick Franchino, the head distiller, kicked things off by talking about the four-and-a-bit year experience making whisky in the Cotswolds. Again, the importance of knowing who you are, and what your place is was highlighted. Transparency is paramount, said Nick. Be clear about what you’re doing and why. Know where your ingredients come from.
He emphasised the three pillars of the Cotswolds philosophy: “Courageous,” “Natural,” “Sophisticated”. Keep it simple, he suggested, pointing out that whisky is a fairly simple process. But within those strictures think outside the box and make the best, most “honest” whisky you can.
Colin Spoelman echoed many of those comments in his description of the King’s County experience, from five 20litre stills to their current location in Brooklyn’s Navy Shipyard. Again the scale of the small distillery explosion was touched on. There are more distilleries in New York State than there are in Scotland. In such a competitive atmosphere, uniqueness and quality is vital. Especially when you consider that 99% of the whisky is made by just 13 distilleries.
A quantum leap in size was then taken, with Irish Distillers’ Brian Nation stepping up to talk about innovation on a giant scale, as well as the second renaissance of the Irish whiskey category. There was a huge laugh from the distillers at the smallest distilleries when he flashed up a slide showing the size of the Midleton “Microdistillery”, but it only makes about 400 barrels a year. Brian also discussed innovating within Midleton’s biggest brands, describing Jameson Caskmates as one of the largest, and touching on the Method and Madness range. But his talk also referenced the need to communicate with other, smaller distilleries if the category is to flourish. “It’s a bigger threat to us if we don’t help other operations,” he commented.
The influence of place was returned to by Ian Chang, discussing the extreme conditions in which Kavalan has to make whisky. Sub-tropical climates, earthquakes and volcanoes being just three of them. Speyside this ain’t. Jim Swan’s influence loomed large, and it was astonishing looking around the room to see how many of the distillers there had been directly influenced or helped by him. Having mentioned the scale of Kavalan’s automation, Ian was asked the thorny question of whether and when a whisky might be fully automated from grain to bottle. “I hope not,” he said, stressing the importance of the human nose.
The next talk was possibly my favourite of the two days, and – as Dave Broom commented at the end – you could practically hear jaws hitting the floor. Dr Don Livermore of Hiram Walker took us through his research into flavour, into casks, into distillation and into maturation. But his particular obsession is with fermentation. “We’re all brewers”, he said. “Fermentation has to go right. It’s the heartbeat.” He expressed his sadness that consumers get turned off when they hear about yeast, and stressed the importance of blenders and distillers talking directly to their market. Particularly to explain why things are done. “All marketing talks about copper,” he commented as an example. “We need to explain why it’s being used”.
Don’s was a talk that was cemented in science. He talked about the chemical makeup of grains: “why do we love rye? Because of its lignin content. Lignin is the most underrated molecule,” was just one example. Or how about this: “I hate when people ask me about my rye content. They should be asking me about how much guaiacol there is.” He talked at length about his flavour wheel, which broke down flavours into grain, yeast and wood, the chemical compounds introduced by each one, and the resulting flavours and styles that were created. It wasn’t so much a talk as a masterclass. Everyone assembled could have listened for hours.
The final discussion was about as un-crafty as it’s possible to get. But, as had been clear from the start, this wasn’t an “us and them” event. Dr Matthew Crow stepped up to talk about his experiences with Diageo, particularly Johnnie Walker. As with Brian Nation, he stressed the importance of major brands looking to innovate, whilst admitting the need for a consistent product. It was interesting to hear that newer blenders tend to work on more premium products, as – by their nature – they involve putting together smaller batches, thus mistakes and inconsistencies can be seen and learned from more quickly.
It had occurred to me earlier, but struck me most clearly during Matthew’s talk, that we were hearing directly from the makers. The blenders. The distillers. That’s rare in whisky. We’re used to marketing gloss; to stories and heritage tales. But here, at the World Whisky Forum, we got it straight from the horse’s mouth. I’m not naïve enough to think that certain brand restrictions didn’t influence talks slightly – nor did I agree with everything that was said. But, even when hearing from the biggest brand representatives, the increase in transparency compared with what one reads on back labels and press releases was startling.
The burden therefore – and this was unanimously agreed – is on that sort of message reaching consumers. On increasing understanding and transparency. On bringing consumers to care about whisky for what it is, and is made of, rather than because someone slew a dragon or had a vision in the 19thcentury.
It all came back to awareness. Of competition. Of the consumer’s needs. Of whisky’s place and perception in 2018. “Should Scotch be worried?” asked Dave Broom. There was a certain amount of politeness and evasiveness before Nick Franchino spoke up. “I think anyone who makes bad whisky should be worried, wherever they’re making it.” Hear hear.
So what did the World Whisky Forum do well, and where is there room for improvement?
I was impressed with the amount of discussion of grain. This was clearest – naturally – from the smaller distillers. The Kyrö guys, Lisa, Nick, Colin, Ian. There’s scope to go deeper, but for that they may need a delegate from Waterford. The fact that so many distilleries could talk in depth about the farms they work with – and did so at the expense of time spent discussing oak – was a huge positive for me.
I’d have liked to hear a little more about fermentation. I’m with Don. It’s underdiscussed, and it’s the heartbeat. Fermentation is where you unlock the flavours of the barley, the rye, the corn, the wheat. Distillation is a selection of those flavours, but there won’t be many to pick from if you’ve a measly, unimpressive wash to begin with. Perhaps someone from Four Roses to talk about their five yeasts would be worth considering for next year? After all, there have now been two talks led by their sister distillery in Japan.
Education’s vital, and the approaches taken by Tristan only cover a portion of whisky’s consumer base. Of course a bar that works based on flavour and reduces intimidation is brilliant for neophytes and first-timers, but there needs to be more emphasis on going deeper. On how to get people excited about terroir, about yeast, about lignin, about grain varieties. This, to me, is “craft” whisky’s most significant challenge. “I don’t like gimmicks”, said Nick, and I agree with him. It’s not the way to appeal to consumers – certainly not at the price-points that economies of scale impose upon craft distilleries. This issue wasn’t fully addressed, to my mind, and it’s a thorny one. Honestly I don’t know what the answer is.
But perhaps, partly, that’s up to the scribblers. The parasites. The uncompromised communicators. Perhaps that’s where we step in. You might not read a press release; you might not have the chance to chat directly to distillers. But 50,000 of you a month might read an article on Malt. Even the ones by karaoke hacks in Tigers away shirts. Millions more might read what more significant, experienced writers come up with. And perhaps that’ll help people start to understand and care.
So perhaps that’s what the hell I was doing there, on the back (obviously) of a press ticket, for which I’m massively grateful to Zoë at the Cotswolds. Or perhaps she just assumed it’d be Mark who turned up, instead of timorous team junior.
Either way, in my jaded, cynical book, the World Whisky Forum works. There isn’t time to fit everything into two days, but what they do fit in is relevant, worthwhile and necessary. I hope that the third iteration is as much of a success. In the meantime, I hope they get the message out.
Thanks to Jan Groth, Dan Szor, Zoë Rutherford, all the team at the Cotswolds Distillery and everyone who spoke over the two days.