Malt Whisky Yearbook 2021

A year in whisk(e)y can be navigated by the landmarks that we experience throughout the 52 weeks. Right now, we’re on the verge of the festive build-up. Then after the excess come the dry months when many try to justify their over-consumption throughout the remaining 11 by going cold turkey. After sailing through the drought period and health kicks, we’re greeted by the promise of the festival season, and an avalanche of releases and theatre from distilleries and brands, before we loop back into the cycle once more.

I‘ve missed one annual event that many of us look forward to, and that’s the release of the Malt Whisky Yearbook edited by Ingvar Ronde. Now into its sixteenth year, it continues to offer a valuable resource as to the ins and outs of whisky, the events and details you may have missed across a global industry, and what awaits us in the coming 12 months, acting as a go-to resource when needed. It still comes as a surprise that not everyone is aware of this valuable publication; to give you some context of the esteem, recently Mark and I were asked by a New York magazine to pick out some essential whisky gifts, and there was only one book nomination on our minds…

I must admit that I didn’t refer much to the 2020 edition since its publication, and that wasn’t a reflection of a misstep in quality. Rather, the year has been scattered to the wind. A lack of travelling and quite possibly a subconscious desire not to look back led to this reality. We’ve all had to adjust, and Ingvar touches upon the difficulties faced in his introduction.

Even during a normal year, I doubt I can comprehend the work and drive that goes into each edition. The distillery pages give you a snapshot of the history, recent events and core releases from each producer, the majority squeezed onto a single page for each one, with Macallan and Springbank noticeable rulebreakers. The focus is very much on Scotch or whisky, with those preferring the “e” in their dram granted less space. I suppose the keyword is Malt, which explains the lack of grain distilleries. Knowing some who do work at grain distilleries such as North British, I can vouch for their pride and passion, so it comes as a shame that these giants are not represented in some form. I also question whether, with products receiving wider distribution, North American distilleries should soon receive more attention? A herculean task will become even more daunting, if so.

A new inclusion this year, and one that Ingvar is especially proud of, are the Whisky Legends interviews. These seven names within the whisky industry are titans. In theory, each interview could run into several pages and still not scratch the surface of the stories and experiences of each individual. As a result, it is a shame that they’ve each been squashed in smaller font onto a single page.

I understand that a handy feature of each edition is the portability of the book, a size that suits almost all and lacks any invasive density. There must be a constant conflict to make every page and every inch work. But it left me wanting more, including gems like this one from Ben Nevis distillery manager, Colin Ross:

‘My two greatest achievements during my career has to be keeping Tormore distillery producing, during the two haulage strikes during the 1970s when all around were closed and staff had signed on for unemployment benefit. Similarly, in the late 1980s when at Laphroaig the ferries went on strike and we managed to get yeast delivered thanks to the help from local fishermen.’

The main criticism or area of improvement I see regarding the format as it currently exists concerns the front section of the yearbook—specifically, the written articles. We have the same six writers in 2021 as the 2020 edition, and it all feels rather cosy and safe. I even checked going back several years, and with the odd exception, the lineup of writers is repetitive. Perhaps this is a reflection of how much we read and devour these annual releases? There’s a real opportunity in the front section to showcase new writing talent, rather than the established names who already dominate television and the mainstream print media. And that’s coming from a fan of what Charles and Gavin have done over the years.

Whisky writing, critiquing and the art of communication has been transformed in recent years; it’s a shame that the yearbook doesn’t harness or support this to some degree. I can throw out several names who don’t write for Malt such as Angus obviously, Billy of Whisky Exchange fame, Matt at the Dramble, Thijs at Words of Whisky or several writers who have appeared in Distilled magazine including our very own Adam, whom as you’ll know, I believe, devours anyone else out there – professional or otherwise. As a part-time editor myself, I really appreciate the new perspectives and enthusiasm that such writers bring to a rather cliquey genre.

The front section is the one area that should change each year. The distillery profiles, facts and figures will only modify so much, after all. Reading the 2021 edition delivers a sense of déjà vu that had me checking the year on the cover. You can read about floor malting, the overcooked debate that all whiskies from the past were superior (the clue being they all weren’t), or new distilleries searching for flavour. Instead, let’s freshen things up and turn them upside down. Why are some distilleries returning to floor malting? Why are so many whiskies nowadays predictable and a tad boring? Are new distilleries pricing themselves out of the market and taking the proverbial? Thought-provoking articles that prompt debate and capture the mood and opinions prevalent in whisky today would also add so much. It’s what the yearbook in my mind deserves.

In saying all this, the yearbook remains an essential purchase. For all the work that’s gone into this edition, the asking price of £11.96 from Amazon, Master of Malt £14.95, or directly from maltwhiskyyearbook.com, represents a bargain. I’m optimistic that we’ll travel again soon and utilise the worthwhile content on a more frequent basis. A new cycle is about to kick in, and good times are just around the corner…

There are commission links in this article if you want to purchase a copy of the yearbook. We should also stress that you’ll more than likely find this publication at every whisky shop if you prefer to shop and support local. Our thanks to Ingvar for the review copy.

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