In annual tradition, we bring you our thoughts, grumbles and memorable moments from what we all know as 2019. Just before we put it collectively to bed and start in earnest on 2020.
What kind of year was 2019 for you? Too much whisky and whiskey nonsense? Not enough quality or affordability? Perhaps you thoroughly enjoyed these last 12 months and are looking forward to more of the same? Whatever your own thoughts, hopefully you’ll indulge our multi-talented and international team with their own impressions. We reached out to the Malt crew in November to cast their minds back and what theme they’d pick out for the year. The majority of the team are below and in alphabetical order. I suppose it’d be worthwhile referring to our 2018 edition to see if there are any trends? We’ll leave that to you and sláinte mhaith for the bells when they do arrive.
Getting to know you
Since I joined the team early in spring, Jason has been after me to write a review. I’ve held tastings and taken notes and prepared them, yet nothing would ever come to fruition. Rather, I prefer to peruse others’ words, carefully culling the weak and strengthening the good. It’s been a joy to be privy to others’ insights about all kinds of whisky and rum, to witness these previews of great palates and lives. Dora, Tony, John, Alex, Taylor and Phil, among many others, have enabled me to travel vicariously into worlds unknown, full of taste and flavor. It seems unnecessary to add my own.
Now, I have spent the days between Christmas and New Year’s in Busan, South Korea, with a friend I met through the whiskey community. We held a tasting in one part of town yesterday and I tasted 20-30 year old Blanton’s and Michter’s Bourbon at a tiny bar in a man’s basement the night prior—moments I should probably write up—and it made me reflective.
So much of whiskey for me is experiential, rather than qualitative. This doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate quality; rather, I form my opinions in a fully present context. Part of this leads to over-exaggerating the merits of certain whiskies, and to underappreciating others.
To put it in context, when it comes “Best of,” I entered 2019 an advocate of Full Proof 1792. The kind owner of the Grape and Grain Exchange in Jacksonville, FL elected to sample his bottle early in 2018 instead of selling it at a markup, thus affording me and similar customers a taste of a richly flavored bottle. Yet I would be remiss not to mention that I tried it in March, on vacation from my job then in Kuwait, where alcohol is illegal. I had not had much in months at that point apart from your basic whiskey on a plane, and I was aware even then that part of why it tasted so wonderful was that it was a newer, high-quality dram I lucked into trying during a very narrow time frame. Even so, it christened my new home near Hangzhou, China on my birthday in August 2018 after I’d stumbled across a bottle on a road trip with a friend. When it ran out, I was sad to see the bottle dry.
Fast forward to 2019. After buying several bottles from a wonderful little shop in Athens, Georgia, home of the Bulldawgs, 2.5 fun years of my life and some great whiskey, I smuggled two back to China after my US vacation in August before coming to a disheartening conclusion: I’d grown to like something else better.
China has a strange and disparate range of whiskey available for sale, much of it via tenuously legal secondhand dealers on the ubiquitous Chinese app Taobao. Through this venue, I obtained Jim Beam’s Signature Craft several times this past year, often as a reward for paying off debt in a laborious undertaking that has defined 2019. This $30 bottle, aged for 12 years, became a welcome treat just outside of my then-stringent budget. Paid off a credit card? Managed to sock away some actual savings? Hurrah! It was no Pappy or BTAC, but it was solid.
When I returned with the Full Proof bottles of 1792, I was able to compare it to the Jim Beam Signature Craft for the first time. I had also been made aware in the interim by a tour guide on the Bourbon Trail that this particular bottle is hard to find, and that he himself, a respected connoisseur, had not been able to try it yet in the US, heightening my curiosity. Lo and behold, while the Full Proof was still an explosion of flavor, the softer Jim Beam captured my slot as my personal favorite of 2019.
How does any of this meld with my reticence to write a review? Well, even as I’ve written these few paragraphs, my mind has traveled to the places that I’ve had these particular drinks. I got to meet Jim Murray at a whisky event in Chengdu, where I congratulated him on his good taste; I was able to meet the aforementioned Bourbon Trail guide (also a Phil) via a well-known podcast in the bourbon world; and I’m now sitting in a former stranger’s home in South Korea, all thanks to this remarkable spirit. So for me, it is about the people… And that is why I am so very grateful to have become a part of the team, and to have the honor of honing the insightful, witty takes of this amusing crew. I may prefer an America-centric spirit, but it is the way that my experience with whiskey has collided with other worlds that has heightened its value for me. Cheers to 2020!
Bimber Re-Charred Oak Casks
A little over a year ago I wrote a piece on Malt entitled “new distilleries are pricing themselves out of relevance”. It had been inspired by the discovery that some not-yet-whisky I had tasted was selling at up to £250 a bottle. A discovery all the harder to swallow because the spirit was, as I rather floridly described it, “eyebrows-on-trampolines, stardusty tingle-tingle, purringly, shiveringly terrific”.
The distillery that inspired this word-Waldorf was Bimber, and the deliciousness of their maturing malt notwithstanding I immediately filed them in the part of my brain marked “irrelevant” and didn’t think much more about them.
Until I received an email some eight months later from their new Managing Director, Farid, asking me whether I wanted to visit. Reader, I resisted. I had moved from the role of weekly contributor to that off strict-part-timer on Malt anyway, and I wasn’t sure that poking around a garage full of expensive craftiness was worth the hours I’d have to spend in London.
But then Farid referenced the new distilleries article, explained he had overhauled the old pricing structure and pointed me towards the newly-more-informative Bimber website. My interest stoked I trotted over to North Acton and the rest has been a history of straining for fresh superlatives.
Since my original write-up, Mark and I have reviewed two Bimber whiskies and have both rated each one 8 out of 10. It’s not just us, either. Venerable scribes of the whisky community have since fallen over themselves to lavish Bimber with praise. Even the fun-loving folk of the Hundred Point Club joined the paeans, in a five minute break from talking up their scoring system.
In a year when Cotswolds and Lakes have both released stellar new whiskies and the excellent Spirit of Yorkshire has bottled their first, Bimber has been my standout English distillery – and by some margin. Its processes and the flavours they create excite me. They deserve mentioning in the same breath as whisky’s most lauded proponents of craft and care.
But more than this; to me, Bimber represents a gradual rowing back from craft distilleries on the cricket score sums they had begun to demand. We’ve seen it from the Lakes too, and in the asking prices of many of 2019’s inaugural bottlings.
Bimber’s second whisky cost £65, as do the special editions from Cotswolds and the Whiskymaker’s Reserves from the Lakes. Not cheap at all, but a far cry from much of what we saw in 2018, and a price that the liquid quality, in those three cases, comfortably meets. You can buy any one of them with confidence.
So yes. Bimber – specifically their Re-Charred Oak Casks – gets my nod for 2019. Last year Mark described his choice of Kyrö as “symbolic”, and I think that’s what Bimber is, too. Not just of flavour trumping efficiency, but of distilleries listening to their drinkers. Of liquid leopards who can change their spots.
Friendships and community
Reflecting on 2019, I found it extremely difficult to summarise into a few hundred words. If I had to pick a whisky then it would be the subject of my first ever review for MALT; the Samaroli Glen Garioch. How obnoxious am I for making my chosen dram a ludicrously rare old bottling that you would have to pay an arm and a leg for at auction today?! But, there is a reason. It wasn’t my favourite whisky of the year but it was the one that kickstarted my whisky reviewing journey. Previously, I only put up tasting notes and photos for my Instagram as a record of what I had tried; I didn’t expect it to turn into reviewing whiskies for a well-established website.
I had the opportunity to meet not one, two, or even three, but four contributors for MALT at a charity tasting co-hosted by the infamous Rover earlier in the year. Jason had asked me in 2018 if I was interested in contributing but I declined. What would I even write about and, for that matter, who would want to read it? I still think all of the other writers, and most of the readership, are bigger whisky geeks than me. However, chatting to Jason, Justine, Noortje and Phil that day was really nice; I felt included even though, in short, I know jack all about whisky. Over time I am slowly learning more and more, often when visiting distilleries or chatting with new whisky friends. I am not going to lie, writing for Malt has obviously opened up more doors for me in the sense that people may now know who I am. I am always humbled and very surprised if they come up to me and say “you’re the whisky explorer!”.
I feel like the bottle I have chosen symbolises the friendships I have made. Malt has catapulted me into the whisky community faster than I had expected. It has been, and continues to be, a fun experience. With that I will end by saying kanpai, I wish you all a joyous Hogmanay and a happy new year…
I’m not going to talk about whisky, as I’m sure the others will have covered off 2019 in their own wonderful ways. Instead I’m going to focus on this battleship, platform, irritation – call it what you want – that we’ve created and nurtured. Yeah, I’m talking about Malt.
This year was all about momentum. Adding a few new voices to our ranks and bringing more honesty and transparency than ever before. I’m pleased that we’ve managed to do it and published something worthy of your attention everyday, including the numerous Bruichladdich reviews Mark produces.
We cracked 200k views in October for a single month, did 250k+ in November and we’ve eased past 2 million views for 2019. Clearly what we are doing is resonating with many of you out there from across the world. We’re not here to pander to the industry, or blow smoke up their ass, which frankly many of the hipster bingo winners love to receive. They should exist to make us, the general consumer, happy with a good product that delivers and matches the asking price. Instead, they’ve become lazy, self-centred and several don’t take kindly to fair criticism of any form.
I’ve had confirmation from industry friends that do believe in what we’re doing and support us. What’s been said internally and at some presentations. It is fantastic that you are watching because then you’ll realise 2020 is more of the same, but on a bigger scale. If you put out a poor product shrouded in marketing then don’t expect any favours or smoke here. We will call you out, because it is the right thing to do. Similarly, if you pull out an ace from the pack, expect lots of praise and maybe a high score – especially if you’re an English whisky.
A special thanks to our Patreons who continue to support us. This collective covers our bills, including hosting and technical gubbins. Our Patreon support is invaluable and after the demise of SW.com, shows the value in such an approach. Thank you.
As a spirits enthusiast, I have given up on being optimistic for whisky, for the most part. I’ve mainly given up on American whiskey and Scotch to be accurate. The big boys will continue to milk the masses who continue to fall for their shenanigans. Why should I stress myself out on whisky when there are other spirits to consume like brandy, mezcal and rum. In all things, there are always exemptions. There will always be little rays of sunshine amongst the dark clouds. These rays of light will be from the new and/or small distilleries. Despite no whisky has been officially released, I am looking forward to Waterford. While I have not tried any yet, the growing English whisky scene seem very promising. The opinions and palates of the Malt team are ones I respect and can count on. So, if they have high hopes on it, then I too shall feel the same.
I find that the older I become, the more cynical I get. I start to see everything in life as a double-edged sword. I identify myself as mainly a rum drinker these days. I drink my rum in many ways. They can come neat in a glass or in cocktails, preferably Tiki. While I can still see rum has a long way to go in terms of getting the approval of whisky snobs and getting passed the myths and misconceptions surrounding it, I am happy to see it has made great strides. Yet as rum gets become more mainstream, I fear 2020 will be another year for more companies to jump on the bandwagon just because they feel they can cash in.
If spirits are often seen as liquid gold, then another gold rush is starting. That kind of mentality just proves the saying “haste makes waste” correct. Not just in the way that rushing a product wastes the effort. But it also just makes the product trash. Smart marketing departments will always find ways to cover the faults with sweet glittery deceit. But because double edge means there is also an edge facing toward another, I feel like Sturgeon’s Law is very applicable here. There will surely be more awful to mediocre brands to come out. They will use packaging and whatever marketing malarkey to sway drinkers in their favor. Yet, the brands with great quality and integrity shall always outshine the muck. The more distinguished and open-minded drinkers know and will know how to pick these from the muck.
Am I being too cynical? Am I sounding like a broken record? Let us see. Even a broken clock is correct twice a day. Yet, throughout history the people who have seen too far in the future have been called crazy. But sometimes eventually proven right. Any cash cow will be like a beacon of newly polished pile of gold coins for the money men. We all know money ruins everything.
When asked to compile a list of whisky or whiskey highlights for 2019, undoubtedly, the most obvious response would be for MALT’s contributors to list their favourite drams of the year. And there have, indeed, been some great drams.
However, for me, the highlight of 2019 was distillery rather than bottle shaped. In the summer of this year, single malt whisky production returned to Scotland’s capital in the form of Holyrood Distillery.
Bringing distilling back to the city centre, Holyrood Distillery has set a precedent for the exciting times that lie ahead here in Edinburgh with a number of new Scotch whisky projects destined for the city.
Holyrood Distillery itself is housed in the old engine shed, situated at the end of the Edinburgh – Dalkeith railway, which, as a listed building, has provided many an obstacle. So, to see how this distillery has been constructed within the confines of walls which can not be knocked down, and which sometimes can not even be altered, is remarkable.
There has been a great deal of consideration into the layout of the distillery making it one of the most accessible I have seen; something which is at the forefront of my mind after this time last year.
This is an advantage that new distilleries have over older ones and admittedly the team at Holyrood have succeeded in making the most of this.
Having worked with the Holyrood team to develop their ‘whisky walking tours’ I’m also in the position to state, hand on heart, that they some of the fairest and most ethical folk I have met.
Malt started in the internet dark days of 2012, which was only 7 years ago but seems to me to be a lifetime. Back then it was me, a lonely old soul waffling into the ether about those very good value and easy to find Japanese whiskies.
After a revamp, a merger, and slowly adding a diverse range of writers from all over the world, we’re continuing to post daily throughout 2019 – and without too much interference from companies, thanks to Patreon. And yet there is still not much sycophancy to brands, either. Quite the opposite. I have noted in some quarters how the fact that one seeks to criticise – as in, to write criticism, critically, which is different to being nasty – is seen as slaying some sacred unicorn. Or worse still, that picking apart how a whisky is made and – worse! – perhaps explaining why it is not such good value, we are criticised as being miserable.
Which is fair enough – I am.
The whisky community is often constructed upon the sands of one thing, and one thing only: passion. But there has the be more than just passion, hasn’t there? Producers need more than just passion and a dream to knock up a very good tasting whisky, and drinkers need more than passion to navigate the pants-round-yer-ankle ‘premiumisation’. Malt’s readers are curious souls – which is to say, you have curiosity. You want to explore. You don’t take everything at face value. You have become our kind of people.
Now. I didn’t necessarily want to do a state of the nation address, largely as I think we’re about to enter a new golden period in 2020 onwards. The star of 2019 for me (and I dare say Adam, too) has been Bimber, based in London, but lots of good distilleries who want to make quality spirit, rather than bang on about some nonsensical story, are starting to release products. And I think it’s reaching critical mass. Those ropey old whiskies that are knocking about fifth-fill barrels will find little attention in the next few years. Brands who are hoping that passion will carry them over the line will find it very hard if they have not made good spirit to begin with, largely as I feel we’ve never had so many self-educated whisky drinkers as there are today. Yes we argue, yes we bicker, but I think we’re all working towards that same thing of making sure that the whisky we do spend our money on is bringing us pleasure.
I like to think, in some small way, Malt has been playing its part in that. About two million page views this, and our tub-thumping reviews are starting to filter through the community psyche. Indeed, what I like about Malt now is that, in the age of influencers the site appears to have influence – I see it all the time, the echoes of things we have said on here trickling through forums or on the cesspool of Twitter debate. That, I feel, is partly down to the fact that our writers strike a chord with people – more so because it is a site that is written by those who have come from the community. We don’t pretend to stand above it, we don’t march around demanding expensive treatment from producers (in fact, rather frighteningly Jason prefers to pay his own way on a tour and go incognito).
So, what I’m going on about his this: thanks to numerous other fine sites – such as this one, ahem – that drag themselves into the new decade, 2019 has been the year of the whisky autodidact. Knowledge is power, and in the long run it only bring us better whisky.
A whisky lifestyle
When I look back on the year 2019, I had many highs and luckily very few lows. It was a great year, a busy year even, with many beautiful festivals and other great whisky adventures. My personal highlight was being able to travel through Scotland for a month and visiting 4 different festivals and many distilleries, a dream I had for a long time. I feel blessed that since I left my day job a few years ago I have the opportunity and the freedom to actually do this. Every time I visit Scotland I learn something new about the process of making whisky. A full month has given me so many opportunities to talk to people involved in this industry. Learning about the production process, the maturation and seeing how many people are involved in this all amazes me every time. Another highlight was my recent trip to Taiwan. Where I’ve learned a lot about different (whisky) cultures. But I also got to know many new people and see a lot of old friends again. Something dear to me and what is one of the charms of the whisky community.
But something that was a low point for me and a shock for many people was the closure of scotchwisky.com. It’s a shame that a site like this had to close, but it simply wasn’t financially sustainable. It’s difficult to keep a website such as this up and running, which is well known in the media world. Many sites suffer from this, let alone a platform that completely specifies itself in whisky. The whisky world may feel big, but it is too small to generate steady income to pay the people involved.
And although I couldn’t always find myself in all articles, which is not surprising with such a diverse website, I visited the site with some regularity. It was a huge source of information and I think it’s a big loss for the community. Websites such as Malt or Scotchwhisky.com are only a fraction of the big industry but I do feel they really play a role, albeit both in their own way. They educate people about all things involved in the whisky industry, showing what to look out for and guiding people in their own journey. So hopefully, they will find a good home for all written articles soon and I wish everyone who was involved the best.
At Malt it is sometimes levelled at us that we are harsh, cantankerous and may in fact not love whisky at all. I get it…collectively we moan, we occasionally have axes to grind with either the industry or those around the industry and we are even known to throw out the odd low score on Malt. But we always give praise when due. In an act of reckless abandon I’m going to be positive!
Often we get irate over he flipping culture or the continued push to make substandard whisky and their associated brands ‘premium’ in an effort to relieve us of more of our hard earned cash. Sadly these tales of woe can often overwhelm the good news stories within whisky. So today I want to herald the superb generosity of the whisky community!!
This year what has stood out for me is the excellent charity work that goes on through whisky, especially here in Ireland. Throughout the year I was able to attend three charity tastings, one in Glasgow organised by some of the Malt team and two back in Ireland in July in Midleton and Dublin respectively. These three events alone managed to collect over £5,000 for various charities.
To top this off the Celtic Whiskey Shop in Dublin who organise Whiskey Live Dublin each year managed to raise €23,070 for Down Syndrome Dublin from the ticket sales and raffle held at the event. Top notch work there guys! This is not an exhaustive list of events either and there have been many other tastings or online auction style events that I don’t have time to mention but that also managed to raise significant sums for charity. It’s genuinely brilliant to see the whisky community be able to give back and all these efforts should be applauded.
On top of this is the great sharing ethic amongst the whisky community. It really is excellent to see so many willing to not only open their bottles but share them too. Sample swaps & sharing have been another highlight of my year. At times these swaps or indeed sample gifts, have enabled me to complete reviews I wanted to do or they have just been a mechanism to continue my own exploration of whisky or to introduce others to areas they may previously have feared to tread (by which I mean Ireland!). As Roy (@aquavitae) keeps reminding us….the days of relying on the industry to feed our whisky needs are over when we have a community that is so willing to share. Long may that continue.
Marketing and quality
It’s been quite a year for Malt, and I am once again happy to have played a small part in that success. It would be easy to look at everything the team has achieved and wonder: what more could we possibly say or do? Fortunately, (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective) Malt is more relevant and necessary than it has ever been.
The Scotch whisky industry continues to abuse consumers with decreasing quality products sold at increasing prices. Gimmicks get more ludicrous, marketing spiels get more unbelievable, and cash continues to fly into the coffers of those willing to most brazenly peddle less for more. In defense of your pocketbook and mine, Malt will need to remain among those few venues where the party line is challenged and where shenanigans are called on the main offenders.
On my side of the Atlantic, the shelves are brimming with increasing numbers of new expressions from established whiskey brands. At the same time, a surge in the number of craft distilleries (or those who would pretend to be craft distilleries while sourcing industrially produced product and slapping a label on it) means that Jane and John Drinker are at increasing risk of being hornswoggled.
It’s not all bad news, however. My recent interaction with Kentucky Peerless, for example, shows that there are still folks who care about doing things the right way. In addition, there’s a growing global community that appreciates what we do here.
Some are our Patreon supporters, and I’d like to extend an extra special “thanks” to those of you who spend your hard-earned money to support us. From a writer and reviewer’s perspective: the ability to exercise my independent judgment freely (without interference due to business concerns) is an invaluable luxury for which I am personally very grateful.
On that note, it’s hard for me to be anything but thankful: for old friends who have stuck by my side, for new friends who have joined me on the journey, and for some truly delicious whiskies that I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy this year. If next year brings more of the same, I’ll be very happy to address you again at the end of 2020. Cheers!
Photo credits: Bimber provided by Bimber, Bruichladdich by Mark and Holyrood from Scottish Construction now.