Thursday, 8 December 2016

Whisky, poo, and you: Insights into the psychology of whisky collecting


If you were asked to write down twenty items in response to the question "Who am I?" what might you write? This is often a fun way to begin an exploration of the psychology of the self. When encountering this question for the first time most people will populate their answers with the various roles and relationships that fill their lives (e.g. mother, brother, accountant, nurse, writer etc). For many, the somewhat concerning next stage of this process is to discount those roles and relationships in order to reveal the core elements of who you are (e.g. I am a caring person, I am a loyal person etc). For many, the resultant list can be very small but worry not; the process is used to illustrate how we habitually see ourselves in relation to elements that don't necessarily offer accurate clues to who we are. However, in answering the initial question I wonder how many of you included the phrase "collector of whisky"?

The aim of this piece is to offer a few observations in relation to our relationship with and understanding of "whisky collecting". It is by no means an exhaustive exploration, indeed, whole chapters, even books, could be written on the topic. Hopefully, what we have here is appetising food for thought. In the context of this article the word "collection" refers to the act or process of collecting, an accumulation or an assemblage.

What's in a number? 

Do three bottles count as a collection? Are we talking about more than that; if so, how many? At what point do a certain number of bottles become a collection? It doesn't take long to recognise that there is no simple answer to these questions. One perspective would suggest that it is the process or act of collecting that is important, in that, if you set out with the intent to build a collection, and purchase your first two or three bottles, then that would constitute a collection (albeit somewhat minimal). So whilst for some, the number of bottles in a collection is fundamental, for others, numbers aren't necessarily important. How you view your collection (and indeed, how others view your collection) will be influenced by a range of factors e.g. the rarity of the vintages, the stories behind the bottles, the value and potential appreciation of the liquid and so on.

Insights into collecting behaviours.

The cognitive-behavioural perspective asks us to consider what we think and how we behave in relation to, in this instance, collecting whisky. The approach suggests that for any behaviour to persist there must be an association with some reward or the avoidance of some perceived negative consequence. If you are a collector, consider your motives for pursuing your collection (we’ll consider possible reasons later in this piece).

The Freudian approach on the other hand, has a particularly idiosyncratic interpretation of collecting. For Freud, our motives often lay hidden in the realms of the unconscious (we often aren't aware of why we do what we do). 

Our actions often have a readily accessible explanation that satisfies both ourselves and others that we are rationalbeings….but delve a little deeper and we might uncover the “real truth”, the drivers in our distant past that shape and direct what we do. The "show me the child and I'll show you the man" position is a clear indication that the origins of what we do in adult life can be found in our experiences as children; With regard to collecting, a Freudian might suggest that the origins of adult “collecting” behaviour might lie in our experiences of toilet training (yes, you read that correctly). A "fixation" at this time (either due to overzealous, rigid parenting or laissez-faire parenting) could result in what Freud called an "anally retentive" or “anally expulsive" personality. Many of you will be familiar with the term “anal” (in the personality context!). The anally retentive personality (or "anal" personality as it is more commonly known) is typified by a sense of order, collecting and retaining things (metaphorically holding your "poo" in during potty training) . Well there you go! It's all clear now isn't it?

There are many other possible understandings of “collecting” that I could explore but this is a blog post, not a book chapter so I’ll stop there.

Delving deeper.

So what possible rewards and other motives impact upon our collecting of whiskies? Let's pluck a few examples from what is a vast menu of possibilities (feel free to add your own). I've attached a tentative explanation to each of the examples.

· The thrill of the chase - that sense of satisfaction (reward) that one gets from tracking something down and "owning" it. There are possible Jungian "hunting" archetypal links here (the drive to survive embedded in our collective unconscious). How many of you have sat by the phone on the release day of a limited edition whisky? (Yes, it’s you I’m talking to!). Heart pounding, sweaty palms, furrowed brow…..”come on…..answer the phone…..don’t give me the engaged tone…..again…..and again…..and…..yes, I’d like to order….” ….and relax, wipe the moisture from your body and have a cup of tea. How many of you have risen early to hunt the “head of the queue” spot? You need to get your whisky prize “fix” don’t you? How many “auction snipers are reading this piece? There you sit, fingering your mouse (not a euphemism), waiting, watching, counting, “how fine can I cut this?” 10, 9, 8, 7……and NOOOOO! Some bastard has clipped you at the death! Ooooooh the adrenalin rush, and remember, revenge is a dram served neat!

· The completion of a set - the intrinsic satisfaction linked to the achievement of order. The joy of completing a significant piece in your whisky jigsaw. You are a completer/finisher, a lover of order, but it’s unlikely that, having completed the set you simply stop. The sense of satisfaction that you gained from both putting together the set and achieving your goal is infectious. The emotional high is often followed by the emotional vacuum that acts as a driver for the formulations of new goals, new collecting opportunities, new “sets” to own.

· The possession of a rare "thing" (the “my precious” approach) - owning something that by virtue of its rarity, others cannot own. It’s yours, not hers or his, you can touch it, stroke it, and dwell on it. It can be a secret that you hold, it can be a status symbol that you can use to enhance your position within the whisky community, it can be both a conversation starter and stopper, it can used as “credibility currency”……”oh my God, you’ve actually got a bottle of…..” Whichever way you consider it, this rare thing is a thing of power.

· Connecting to a piece of history

the intrinsically valued feeling of being connected to something of meaning. This requires a perspective on whisky that enables you to locate the dram within an historical context. For this reason it is confined to age-statement whiskies. A bit of self-disclosure here….I have a bottle of Glen Grant that was distilled as my mum was in labour with me! How poetic is that?

· The perception of "winning" - if you are aware that there are others in competition for the bottle that you seek, your successful acquisition confirms a sense of dominance over them. This has a close connection to the thrill of the chase.

· The avoidance of "losing" – the fact that, for the most part, no one likes to lose (see the thrill of the chase).

· Strengthening one's status in the whisky community - The perceived reward in receiving approval, affirmation and respect from one's peers. This could be an unconscious establishing (or maintaining) your position in a pecking order of sorts. A "boosting of one's ego" in a Freudian sense.

· A financial reward - a recognition of one's acumen and judgement. There's a possible relationship to "collector as provider" here in that, by investing wisely, you are establishing a more secure future for your loved ones.

· A strengthening of one's sense of identity. - If I see myself as a "collector" then each addition to my collection is an affirmation of my identity - "My collection says something about how I see myself".

· It fills a gap in my life - In this sense, collecting is a mechanism that provides both a sense of meaning and purpose

· I just like it! Of course you do! If you didn't like it you probably wouldn't do it. You might want to consider any combination of the above to gain some insights as to why you might like it.

In scratching the surface of this fascinating area I hope you may recognise that understanding ones underlying motives for collecting can be useful in relation to gaining a realistic perspective on the journey that you are on (or that you might be contemplating). I know that there are individuals within the whisky community that frown/wince when talk of collecting is aired. I’ve seen, heard and read many spurious, defensive and incoherent arguments against collecting and, whilst listening and learning, nothing has shifted me from my position that collecting is not a moral issue, it’s neither right nor wrong, it is what it is. Perhaps the most positive position that one can take on the collecting process is that, ideally, it is something that you enjoy and feel passionate about, and that you create time to share that passion with others.

  • This is an extended piece that was featured in Issue 6 of Whisky Quarterly magazine.
  • Freud image is taken from the site

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

What's in a list? - A review of "101 Whiskies to try before you die" (fully revised and updated) - Ian Buxton.

"The list is the origin of culture; We like lists because we don't want to die" - Umberto Eco.

What is it about lists? To do lists, bucket lists, New Year's resolution lists, things to do in the house lists, shopping lists, Christmas lists, baby name shortlists, and so on....and these are the lists we write, what about the lists we read; the top 10 of this, the 15 things you didn't know about that etc etc?

Let's consider the lists we choose to write. What do they signify? Well, they are written statements of intent; a declaration of our readiness to act, a document that shouts out :I'm motivated", "I'm alive", indeed, as the header states Umberto Eco wrote that "we like lists because we don't want to die" - powerful stuff eh? They signify something that can be on one level mundane and on another, indicative of a deeper sense of who we are. They are a written contract to ourselves that, at the time of writing, seems to be perfectly reasonable (and binding). However, list writers beware, they do have the power to evolve into a ransom note to our
procrastination, laziness, and lack of motivation. An unfinished task interferes with our current thinking, it directs us to fixate on what we haven't done to the exclusion of what we have done....the list may become a threat to our sense of stability....but oh, when they work!

List writing can be very, very satisfying don't you think? Let's consider why that might be. Well, lists allow us to prioritise in situations where we may be in danger of overload stress; they offer control, containment, and a way through the challenging present to a calmer, more ordered place. Not only do they offer us a sense of a more ordered future, they provide us with a map to that future, lists with deadlines even offer you a timeframe for the journey! The very process of making sense from chaos has it's own rewards,  in short, writing lists make us feel good. Of course this feeling at be a temporary salve to a more pervasive and longer term issue but, in that moment of writing, we are in control.

What else might lists do? They help us separate what matters from what is of less significance, to jettison the minor niggles on order to focus on those things that resonate and are central to our present situation. Writing a list provides us with a template for future encounters with our chaotic inner selves. It allows us to show ourselves (and others) that we are organised, resilient, and resourceful. Writing a list can be a nutrient that feeds your creativity (e.g. what things do I need for the exciting project that I'm starting work on?). Am I selling list writing to you? It certainly feels like it, I've definitely sold it to myself! It is no wonder that there are many who proclaim that writing lists is more rewarding that actioning the list once written!

But what of the lists we read? These have shared connections with our written lists but often inhabit a different psychological space. We may be drawn to read lists because they make our lives easier, they do the work for us, they are condensed "bits" of information that dwell on a certain category. There are elements of predictability in lists which lessen the demand on our overworked brains. Whilst having a sense of predictability they also offer the possibility of discovery, they might reveal something to us that we need to know (although this rarely happens). There may be a degree of compulsion to our list reading - What happens if I don't read this list? I may be missing out! 

I've seen lists referred to as "infosnacks" - in the context of our perceived, fast paced lives, lists are ergonomic, they allow us to process information quickly. Note to reader - there are studies to suggest that the average American man has between 6-9 hours more free time every week than he had 5 decades ago! Lists we read are finite, we know how long they are, they are generally easy to follow, we can dip in and out of them, they are easy to bookmark, and so on. They have the potential to serve a number of positive functions and with that in mind, let me present you with.......

101 things about the book "101 Whiskies to try before you die (fully revised and updated) (2016) - Ian Buxton -  Headline Publishing

Before I start the list.....I'm not actually listing 101's actually 12!

  1. The fact that the book states very clearly that it's 101 whiskies means that it's manageable, it has boundaries and a definite ending.

  2. The number 101 is seductive! The number 99 subconsciously speaks to us of cheapness and being undersold whereas 101 is fulsome, replete with possibilities, at a psychological level it's more than simply 100+1.

  3. You don't have to be dying to try the whiskies (although in an existential context, we are all dying).

  4. You can use it as a testament to your refined palate and existing whiskies choices (How many of you who have the earlier edition (or one of the variations) have not gone through the list and counted those that you have either tried or owned at some point or other?).

  5.  It's just about pocket size (in a kind of heavy winter overcoat, medium to large sense).

  6. It can be use to validate your sense of place within
    the whisky community as well as affirming your belief in your own critical faculties (e.g. in questioning or agreeing with the choices that Ian makes, you are demonstrating a level of both knowledge and insight into the world of whisky).

  7. It's pretty.....and has a reasonable "shelf aesthetic"

  8. It's got some great whiskies in it; it documents some quality drams.

  9. Following on from the last point, it documents the whiskies in an engaging and accessible way.

  10. It speaks to drinkers on limited budgets.

  11. It's affordable (£9.79 Amazon Books) and for those who celebrate Christmas, depending on your income, it could sit comfortably in the context of stocking filler or as part of the main course of someone's pressie pile!

  12. It offers a teaser for future whisky adventures - What
    are the ones you haven't tried? Where might you get them?

This book is not just a whisky "bucket list". It's easy on the wallet, easy on the mind, and a great "dipper" of a book. If you're short of gift ideas for your whisky loving man or lady friend, then this is a great option and one I would thoroughly recommend.



Sunday, 6 November 2016

Where to go when the whisky mojo is on the wane

It was a few weeks ago and there was a stillness in my breast, a lethargy that had me caught in its languid grip and I wasn't liking it; in short, I was getting bored. Boredom....not an acute experience, it creeps up on you, slowly infecting your enthusiasm, like a sniper firing "dull as fuck" darts into your "get up and go" gene, turning each day into the one before and laying the monochrome template for the coming tomorrows. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't depressed, not even unhappy, but I was slowly being sucked down into that void called "routine" and I needed to break free, to surface....and then there was the email.


We are looking forward to seeing you for our Whisky and Indian Tapas Tasting evening tomorrow. The evening will start at 6.30pm and we aim to finish by 8:30pm. We will be welcoming award winning Paul John Whisky from India to Bath to host our evening, in conjunction with Independent Spirits, and showcase some of their amazing malts. Indian tapas will be prepared on the evening to pair with these whiskies and show how versatile this single malt can be with food.

Having bought the tickets a few weeks before and having slid into my malaise, I had completely forgotten about it! Thank goodness that Demuth's sent the reminder, and thank goodness I'd checked my emails. A day later, a bus ride through the countryside, atop a double-decker bus for the first time in years (with all the childhood memories that go with it), wending a somewhat circuitous route through the South Gloucestershire/Somerset countryside en route to Demuth's in Bath. Anticipation had kicked in as soon as I'd received the reminder and it was now riding high (as was I). What would the tasting be like? What boozer might I venture into for a pre-tasting "palate cleanser"? Who would I meet? How would the evening be structured? Would it be "Here's an excellent dram to pair with a samosa", "How's the peat with the poppadum?" (I hoped that it wouldn't be a "pairing" type tasting). So many unanswered questions but a recognition that all those questions would be answered in the next couple of hours.

The second question was the first to be resolved. The Old Green Tree, a tiny boozer located on one of Bath's side streets about 100 yards from our destination. I write "our" as I was accompanied by my brother-in-law who had spent many years living in Bath and knew the "ale map" well. The pub had the look of the living room and took me back to my early drinking years when most of the pubs had a "snug" section. There were a good selection of ales on offer and a not unreasonable selection of whiskies to boot. We opted for a couple of pints and I added the whisky chaser option, a Connoisseurs Choice Ledaig. After the brief stand-off with the barman in relation to his assertion that they didn't have a Ledaig (Led-Chig) but did have a Ledaig (Le-day-g) we supped up and proceeded to Demuth's.

As we approached the venue we met Shilton Almeida standing outside, composing himself, looking both dapper and thoughtful before the performance. Up a short flight of stairs and into a light, airy room with views of Bath Abbey in the fading early evening light. A lovely setting populated by 20-24 whisky enthusiasts. The aromas from the tapas permeated the room but were in no way intrusive and I certainly didn't get the feeling that they were going to conflict with the experience of the whiskies, indeed, they created a warmth that felt as though it would complement the experience. Rachel Demuth and her able team were hovering attentively, putting final touches to the tapas. Rachel runs Demuth's Cookery school and it has an excellent reputation that stretches well beyond the postcard charms of its location in Bath (check it out here Demuth's).

A few reflections on "tastings"

So what are tastings all about? The easy answers to that would be the most obvious ones...."they are about the whisky", "they are about learning about whiskies" and both of these are true to a greater or lesser extent. However, my belief is that they are about more than that, they are as much about community; they are an opportunity to be around like minded people; they are about sharing an experience in a bespoke environment that is designed to enhance that experience; they are about connecting and sharing. Yes, they involve expanding one's knowledge and experience of whisky and yet learning will only happen if the setting conditions are in place. Those conditions were well catered for on this particular evening; a relatively small group of people (around 22-25), convivial surroundings, a selection of fine looking tapas on one of the tables, and the "orchestra" members i.e. Rachel Demuth (proprietor at Demuth's), Chris Scullion (owner of Independent Spirits Bath Independent Spirits ), and Shilton Almeida (Brand Ambassador for Paul John whisky) attentive and most importantly......good to go.

As a sport psychologist I often say to my trainees that one of the main challenges of working in a team context is the fact that the only thing that unites the people in front of you is their expertise at their sport. They have come to that room from different backgrounds, different cultures, have varying levels of experience and knowledge, varying levels of enthusiasm, in short, they are almost always a very diverse group. The challenge in that situation is how to engage them, how to make what you are presenting meaningful to each and every one of them regardless of what's brought them to this point. Those challenges are not dissimilar to the challenges of conducting a tasting. The use of the word "conducting" is particularly apt in this context. The conductor needs to be aware of the mood of the group, the levels of knowledge present, the attentional demands of the audience, and, having assessed this, he/she needs to "play" the audience to ensure that they feel included. It was clear from some of the comments that there were whisky drinkers with some experience in the audience, enquiries about phenol levels, maturation rates in India, and Paul John marketing strategies. It was also clear that there were others with oodles of enthusiasm but very little experience of whisky.

The tasting.

Since arriving on the UK whisky scene just a few years ago the Paul John range has gained a reputation as being a really good quality, good value brand. I'd had some of the range at various whisky shows and had a bottle of Brilliance on my shelves so I had no concerns over the quality of what we were to be presented with. Created in the shimmering gold, green and blue coastal Goa climes, another exciting whisky story is being written in India and it's a real privilege to be able to taste the journey (so to speak). What a setting for whisky production......maybe one day......

Shilton guided us through Edited, Peated, Classic, the Brilliance, and two single casks, fielding questions and adding both colour and context to each of the drams. It was a relief that the evening wasn't an attempt to "connect" the drams to particular tapas. Whilst I find food and whisky pairings fun and often interesting, I also find that there is a somewhat arbitrary feel to many of them in that, one is forced into a contrived position and asked to contemplate a particular foodstuff with a particular whisky (e.g. "This peated whisky finished in Oloroso casks goes so well with this salted caramel and pistachio Colombian Yak's milk chocolate")....Now don't shout at me! I know it sounds delicious, and I do like a bit of chocolate with a whisky now and then, but I don't want that experience to be diminished by feeling that I'm somehow "dumbing down". This evening wasn't like that. The delicious food was a sublime middle eight in the music of the evening.

The whiskies were, as expected, both high on quality and value. If asked to opt for a favourite, I confess to being drawn to single cask whiskies, it is what it is. For me, there's something about the fact that each cask holds a limited number of secrets, and that I can hold one of those secrets, taste it, spend time with it and savour it. It was no surprise then that I was particularly keen to try the single cask that Shilton had brought to the table  - Cask 1906 (a full on 59.6% abv beauty). One of the many stand out moments of the evening was experiencing the full blown glory of a whisky "opening up". Unbeknown to me, Shilton had poured me a drop of the two single casks 30-40 mins earlier and so I was able to taste the newly poured drams alongside the opened drams....and what a difference! Most of you will know that whiskies "open up", that is, the flavour profile changes after exposure to the air. These changes can be subtle, dramatic, more often than not positive and very occasionally, detrimental to the taste of the dram. 

It had been years since I'd carried out a side by side of a new pour and a fully opened dram so this was a timely reminder of the magical processes that continue to occur after liquid leaves the bottle. (I realise the whisky geeks will be shouting "It's not's chemistry" but hey.....I never liked chemistry at school and I'm not going to start now. Leave me to my romance and magic). The contrast was remarkable, what was initially pleasantly sharp lime, orange, chocolate and oak, was now a more unified whole, the flavours marrying together, softer, more gentle; what was a brash, arrogant and amusing adolescent had transformed into a subtle, refined individual dram; what was a lovely whisky was now something more, more elegant, richer, warmer, a whisky that had spent the last 30 minutes in finishing school!

The food.

Whilst this blog is primarily a whisky blog, it would be remiss not to dwell a little on the excellent accompaniments that contributed to the experience. You might feel that, due to the spicy nature of the food, Indian cuisine is not well suited to pairing with whisky due to problematic palate conflict (ppc); but that would be to underestimate the subtlety, variety, and refinement of Indian food. Allied to that, this wasn't an attempt to marry a particular whisky to a particular element of the cuisine but more of a demonstration of how a style of cuisine can contribute to the experience of whisky (and vice versa). After sampling three fine drams we took a break to enjoy the food. The buffet style fare consisted of the following:-

Aloo Chat: A Northern Indian street food snack made with fried potatoes.
Date and Tamarind Chutney

Squash Samosas

Khadi: A spicy yoghurt dip
Carrot and Courgette Pakoras

Masal Spice mix

What struck me about the food was the delicacy, subtlety, and richness of the different dishes. Indeed, sipping some of the drams between the tapas was a really pleasant experience - no ppc, no crossover interference, but a high level of complementarity. I'm no expert on vegetarian cooking but I know what I like and this was definitely a treat!

Some of the excellent selection of whiskies 

So, all in all, a great evening and a welcome boost to my whisky mojo. My thanks go out to Rachel Demuth and her team, and to the uber enthusiastic Chris Scullion (@indiespiritsbath), without whom this wouldn't have happened. If you get the chance, give Indie spirits a visit, support they're excellent tasting events and take advantage of a great selection of quality ale and top whisky and knowledgeable staff who are always willing to spend time with you.

Cheers Shilton!

Post script: The bus ride to Bath moved me to reflect on my childhood in Warrington and the ride to school on Winter mornings. Here's an extract.....

An early Monday morning bus journey to school (Warrington, circa 1970)

On that coughing grey, dull, damp, wheezy winter morning, top deck of the bus, ride to school; sat wedge tight next to lazy eyed, nodding unshaven shift workers not yet recovered from a weekend of pints and lost memories and fags and pints and rugby and chips, and pints; two years before Anais Anais, sat in font of Avon scented Susan and her Boots supervisor Chanel Carol; peering over the sodden heavy overcoat shoulders of smokers searching for their day lungs via muffled hacks and packets of baccy, Player's No 6, Woodbine and Park Drive; trying to see "Clarky", "Bradders" and "Elly", my schoolmates from earlier stops; breathing in the adult air, the miasma of cigarette smoke, stale sweat, failed Brut and Old Spice, mingled with last night's sleep in a working class fug that defined the Monday morning ride. 

Friday, 19 August 2016

Los Angeles: Part 3: Red whisky bar - a short story of dislocation and connection

I suppose it would be fair to call this part 3 of my LA trilogy; 3 posts that capture elements of my trip to LA 3 years ago. It's taken a long time to reach the page but the memories are still vivid! Parts one and two can be found here. 

Los Angeles Part 1: Seven Grand - An evening of short sentences

Los Angeles Part 2: Seven Grand - A garden of earthly delights

Dislocation: Over the years I've learned that there's a certain reassurance to be gained from the experience of dislocation, I'm even tempted to say that it can be life affirming. For me it relates to that rare feeling of release experienced when surrendering yourself wholly to your immediate environment, relinquishing control to outside agencies and forces, to recognise, in that moment, you are being "held" by someone or something else.

One example of this that many of us have experienced is flying. Think of your last flight and cast your mind back to the moment the plane takes off; in that moment you are at the mercy of the elements, the interplay between wind and wing, aileron and airspace, the nuts and bolts of the aircraft, conversations between cockpit and control, the skills of the plane crew and so on. In this instance, in terms of safety, time to destination, route taken etc, you are powerless, there is nothing you can do, you have relinquished control and you are free from any responsibilities other than to yourself and your fellow passengers. While for a few, this represents a somewhat scary scenario, for some (me included) it represents an opportunity to experience tranquil dislocation. Anxieties experienced at such times are, to be brutally honest, a waste of emotional and physical energy. Emotional distress is often associated with the fight or flight response (no pun intended) in which we confront that which is causing us stress/anxiety (i.e. fight) or we remove ourselves from the situation (I.e. flight). Here's a this example, when you are airborne, flight is not an option!

To those gripped by acute anxieties related to such experiences and those who, to a lesser extent, have difficulty relinquishing control in their lives, this might seem challenging, but you can choose how you experience such events. Worry, anxiety, stress have absolutely no value in such situations - your influence on the situation is minimal at best, so why worry? The more adaptive emotions might be a feeling of relaxedness, of focus, of freedom, opportunities to gain a deeper awareness of ones self. It might sound somewhat simplistic but the reality is that we all have choices in these situations, we may have to learn what range of choices we have and then learn the skills/habits in order to exercise those choices, but they are there to be had. My flight to LA was physically challenging but psychologically invigorating.

Alongside the flight to LA, travelling to spend an evening of dramming with @redwhiskybar (Rob Throckmorton) was also a moment of dislocation. I'm not referring to the meeting with Rob, (I'll covers that when I expand on "connection"), but to the short journey in the cab to our venue for the evening. The twenty minute journey across LA, in a cab who's driver spoke little or no English, along a packed freeway, in the still sticky early evening heat, was a moment of dislocation. Twenty minutes to let the imagination run free, to relax, to anticipate, to forget, to remember, to take in the surroundings, in be free.....and then back to reality as the driver indicates that we're at our destination.

Connection: One of the enduring attractions of connections made within the whiskey community is the privilege of encountering people with passion. Passion is a word spoken with a regularity that, on occasions diminishes its potency and meaning (the word "awesome" is probably the most well-worked example of this). I suspect that there are many people who meander through life in a soma like contentment without experiencing passion from one year to the next. Passion is infectious, contagious, it is an interpersonal currency that opens doors, creates bonds; it needs attending to, nurturing, it can be claustrophobic and, if confined, it will wither, it needs to be allowed to express itself, to be seen and heard. Needless to say, the whisky commnuity is full of passionate people.

No entry ticket was required to gain entry to red whisky bar, the seeds of an invitation had been sown on Twitter many months prior to the trip, frequent humorous exchanges and thoughtful explorations of all things whisk(e)y had nurtured the whisky bond and I felt it only fair to bring along an offering, in this instance, a bottle of Ardbeg Uigeadail from travel retail.

The evening started well, had a good middle, and ended splendidly. The theme was, not surprisingly "all things whisky". Experiencing a shared passion is one of life's pleasures; it is to be savoured as you might savour the whisky itself. Mein host for the evening Rob, is as passionate as it get when it comes to whisky, not only that, his passion comes with a wealth of knowledge about the product. I think it would be fair to say that his particular niche passion within the whisky world is rye and whilst not having any fixed agenda for the evening, it was clear that he was keen to devote a reasonable portion of the evening to this area.....but a "ryeathon" this was not!

Whilst it may have been useful to have had detailed tasting notes for each of the whiskies, to have taken time out to put pen to paper would have detracted from the experience of the evening. Whisky is not my "work", but is a conduit through which I experience many pleasures. For me, remembering the details isn't the be all and end all, indeed, it can at times be a distraction. The evening was about different levels of connection, and I've seen too many evenings fractured with frantic scribblings of half thought through impressions to let that happen here. Our conversation occasionally delved deep into whisky theory and speculation (different types of peat, the impact of water, organic ingredients, and so on), but for me, the evening will be remembered in the context of simply sharing whiskies with a fellow passionista.

We began with a straightforward and exciting exploration of West coast whiskies but as the evening progressed and our conversation became more animated, Rob conducted the whisky choices in response to the conversation, the whiskies "riffed" off the spoken words. I remember sitting on the red-eye a couple of days later, 7 hours into the flight, reflecting on the evening, I was reminded of the final scenes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind where Truffaut conducts the scene where a guy (using a cross between an organ and a small factory), responds to the alien sound sequences, building up momentum into a triumphant symphonic connection. The evening was well orchestrated and evolved into, well, a free-form jazz kind of experience. I was perfectly happy to see Rob move through different sections of his high quality collection, both of us becoming more animated as the evening progressed. Only occasionally did I purr with nostalgia at the mention of drams that were more familiar to me (Mortlach, Springbank). This prompted a visit to the "old friends" before returning to pastures new.


We compiled a list of the drinks experienced "post event" as it were. If it looks excessive, that's because on some levels, it was! The drinks were never treated as shots, each drink (or pairing) was connected to varying levels of discussion and analysis. One experience firmly located in the memory banks!


One of the first drams was the James Martins Fine and Rare 20 yr old. I had only had this dram once before (see The man with the Jack Daniels tattoo), and Rob had managed to source another bottle - a genuinely lovely start to the evening. We moved on to:

· Faultline Littlemill 21yr old 1990 vintage bottling by K&L exclusive to California - 59% (lush....from a distillery that lost its life in a fire x years ago).

· Old World Spirits (CA) Gold Run Rye ; 45% 100% Organic White North Dakota Rye. Only six months old.

· Red Whiskey Bar Whiskey - This was a lovely blend of 7 or 8 American Whiskies (one of Rob's creations), mostly rye, but one wheat whiskey, one bourbon and an American single malt, married in a medium char 750 ml oak cask for two weeks.


· Firestone Walker Wookey Jack Black Rye IPA with a reverse chaser of Charbay R5 Hop Flavored Whiskey; 49.5% Literally a batch of Racer 5 (California) IPA turned into Whiskey. I'm a lover of the whiskey/beer paring and this was right up there!

· Hirsch 20 Year Canadian Rye ; 43% Glenora distillery.

· Kilchoman (K&L Exclusive) 100% Islay Sherry Cask Release, CS - ; 61.6%

· Lost Spirits Bohemian Bonfire; 59% California organic barley, Canadian Peat, freshly scrubbed French Oak cask.

· Lost Spirits Ouroboros; 54% California organic barley, 4000 year old California peat taken from the San Joaquin river delta. A memory maker.

· Mortlach 22 yr (1990, Chieftains, K&L Exclusive) ; 58% Ahhh, back on my turf with a Sherry Bomb, Oloroso!

· Bunnahabhain 21 yr; 52.6% (The Exclusive Malts) Subtle rolling waves in this.

· Bowmore 11 yr (2001) ; 53.6% (The Exclusive Malts)

· Thomas Handy Sazerac Rye (2010 bottling). 63.45%

· Anchor Distilling (San Francisco, CA) Old Potrero, 18th Century Spirit ; 51.2% 100% Rye malted mash.

· High West OMG Pure Rye ; 49.3% New make.

· Springbank 14 yr Fino Cask ; 55%

· Caol Ila 29 Yr (Duncan Taylor) 53.8%

· Ardbeg / Chieftain's 17 yr 55.5% Barolo cask finish.

Some of the fine whiskies we sampled on the night!

I have to admit that it was Rob's memory and a "morning after" bottle autopsy that enable us to put together such a comprehensive list. So, another stitch in the whisky fabric, a broadening of my whisky education, an affirmation of my passion for not just the whisky, but for the varied positive connections that seem to go hand in hand with it. A door opened in Los Angeles and the offer of an open door in the UK.

Whilst I have a general rule that the whiskies I locate within my whisky shed have to have be full bottles that I've had/shared, I made an exception for the Ardbeg 17. Rob let me have the box and it's now a permanent  reminder of the fantastic evening.....Cheers mate!

An unexpected event that punctuated the evening was my first ever sighting of a real, honest to goodness, skunk! My childlike excitement almost resulted in a wildlife faux pas given that I was all ready to run outside to get a close up photo before Rob reigned me in with the appropriate health and odour contamination warnings. 

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Penderyn: Part of a bigger conversation

What connection does a distillery have with its surroundings?  Is context important when considering the location of a distillery? Clearly there are a number of logistical necessities (e.g. a suitable water source) but lets delve a little deeper. The easiest consideration of this question is located in an exploration of its geography and more often than not, the history associated with that geography. For many distilleries, with heritage stretching back for generations, talking to the past as a way of illuminating and exciting the present is a “privilege of heritage”; and one that is not available to every distillery. What of distilleries that don't have the luxury of decades, that don't have grainy black-and-white photos adorning musty and damp rock walls, the graffiti of generations etched into the out of kilter, off centre, architecturally suspect, cutesy nooks and crannies that seem to be the purview of many of our older distillery brethren?

The untrained eye could be forgiven for missing Penderyn distillery; it nestles by the side of an innocuous A-road, on a ribbon development that offers no clues as to history or context. You might drive through, only glimpsing the seam of gold on the distillery fa├žade out of the corner of your eye and....gone...but that would be a shame. Heading North on the A4059, take a left turn just past the distillery and you are elevated quickly into rustic, yore byways, sunken, slate grey pubs and the cemetery stone overgrowth of a different history.

Get out of the car and you're walking in the footsteps of Welsh sinners wending chapel way, catching whispers of gossip on fading dialects borne on unalloyed Welsh air; it is peaceful, bucolic, and tinged with nostalgia...but back to business.

The satnav shenanigans failed to disrupt my morning given that I always set out to arrive around 30 minutes earlier than scheduled, and so it was that I arrived at Penderyn village with 5 minutes to spare. Five minutes in which to compose, prepare, focus, savour.....but I'd done no preparation, paradoxically, not preparing was the preparation. I was coming in cold, unarmed, but quietly confident that the conversation that was about to take place would be enjoyable, illuminative, interesting and, perhaps most importantly, underpinned with passion. In the event, I was not to be disappointed.

To be honest, I wasn't even sure who I would be meeting other than Jon Tregenna, the marketing manager who gave me a warm welcome. My brief was remarkably simple, just two words, Penderyn was a taboola rasa, a blank slate on which I could choose to daub my notes. 

A brief introduction and a skip up the stairs to the Boardroom where I met fellow conversees, Stephen Davies, the MD of Penderyn, and Sian Whitelock, the commercial director. Stephen and Sian evolved into the distillery business from the somewhat less glamorous steel industry (a fortuitous occurrence in the light of the current economic challenges) but are now fully immersed in all things whisky. Jon's route into the business was somewhat unconventional (a YouTube ambush of a Penderyn competition no less!) We began to talk....

The short, slow and steady history of Penderyn. 

Opened in 2004 and slowly increasing production to 230,000 70cl bottles last year this is a distillery short on history but long on ambition. That 230,000 total is nearer half a million if you include the other spirits produced at Penderyn (e.g. Brecon Gin, Five Vodka & Merlin cream liqueur). Fundamental questions had to be answered in the early days – Steve: "We knew from the off that we had to make the business a certain size in order to make it viable, and there were some tough conversations early on with the shareholders in terms of "Do you want to be a large part of something small, or a small part of something a bit bigger, but that's only going to be viable in the longer term. These were difficult conversations to have..." The successful resolution of those fundamental questions clearly provided the management team with a sense of direction and commitment; the Penderyn journey had begun. 

So what of the whiskies themselves? There is an expanding range of expressions with the Madeira finish being the most well known. These are whiskies that more than hold their own in the category that I would call "aperitif" drams and are drams that I often refer to as "dangerously quaffable!” They are not "heavy hitters" in terms of drams that place a ransom note on your palate, but they possess a clean, light, fruitiness that is having an increasingly broad appeal both nationally and globally. In terms of current debates within the whisky world, it is interesting to note that their predominant output is in the NAS (no age statement) arena. Indeed, it would be fair to say that, since opening in 2004, Penderyn has worn its heart on its sleeve in relation to a commitment to NAS expressions. This was not without its challenges and in the beginning there was a recognition that this market was somewhat uncertain, Steve: "Back in 2004 we were one of the first to produce NAS whisky and a lot of people weren't convinced at the time (2004). That's changed now and a lot of the major brands are doing it for a lot of good reasons; yes, due to shortage of stock, but also the realisation that you can make good NAS was nice that we there early and it hopefully gives us some credibility". I was curious to know if there were any plans for diversification into the "age statement" market. My question was met with an unequivocal and unified "No" from Sian, Steve and Jon. Steve went on to say "...we don't plan to put an age statement on the whiskies. We might do special editions e.g. Vintage 2000, but it would be wrong of us, almost dishonest, to suddenly say that age statements are important." (Note to self: Honesty is a thread that runs through much of this conversation). 

So first principles were established; honesty, commitment to high quality spirit, and a sense of Penderyn’s place in relation to Brecon and the wider Welsh context; so how to "grow the product"? The marketing of Penderyn is certainly worthy of consideration. The honesty associated with their commitment to the whisky is echoed in the marketing choices that they have made. Whilst not shunning the traditional Welsh cultural stereotypes, the message from Penderyn selectively taps into icons that resonate with what one might guardedly call a more contemporary audience. There is none of the traditional Welsh folksiness that for many would have been the obvious choice for the first commercial whisky produced in Wales. There are no leeks, Welsh ladies in tall hats sat spinning wool outside a bwthyn by a llyn, no daffodils; instead, you will see a contemporary thread that connects to a modern Wales. 

The cultural currency of their marketing hints at a more recent past (Dylan Thomas - A Sherrywood expression in the Icons of Wales series), locates itself in innovative contexts (Welsh Rugby - The “Grand Slam” expressions & "That Try"), and interconnects with a variety of artistic experiences (Welsh National Opera, the Penderyn Music Book Prize). Interestingly, it is only after recent discussions with their increasingly impressive European market that Penderyn have taken some more overt steps to "embrace the dragon" as it were. Sian - "...our connections in Europe (e.g. La Maison du Whisky) wanted a little more Welshness connected with the brand." The result can be seen in the "Myth" expression (ex bourbon cask - Buffalo Trace).

As someone who is interested in any opportunities for creativity within the whisky world and someone who has fumbled with guitar strings for decades, I was particularly interested in the Penderyn Music Book Prize. This is "the first UK prize specifically for music titles (history, theory, biography, autobiography)". Any connection between literary/musical luminaries such as prize judges John Cooper-Clarke, Shane McGowan, Beth Orton and Mark Lewisohn (inaugural winner with his book "The Beatles - All these Years: Volume One”), and the whisky community, is a bang on winner for me!

Two new Lantern Stills

So what about the future? In terms of creativity and innovation there are some exciting times ahead. The installation of Penderyn's own Mash Tun has created opportunities for a more nuanced approach to whisky production. The two Pot Stills and two Penderyn stills have increased opportunities to work with different styles of new make spirit, and there is a new, bespoke Penderyn bottle on the horizon (which I find really exciting!). The close collaboration with Dr Jim Swan (legendary distilling consultant) is set to continue. I noted that Steve referred to Jim as a tremendous force for creativity. 

Jon (who is a gifted "outside the still" thinker), will continue to seek stories that are "organic and honest to the business". He goes on to say that, in relation to the context of Penderyn, "we're part of a bigger conversation" which for me at that moment, was (and still is) an illuminative and telling statement. If passion was fuel then this distillery's tanks are full. The question "What does Penderyn distillery mean to you?" took the trio by surprise, but was answered with both eloquence and honesty. Sian - "It is part of me; it feels like my child, we get to bring the brand to life". Steve - "The first sip of Penderyn was astonishing to me. It's a very intense thing being part of a brand" Jon - “My grandfather was from the Rhondda, just over the mountain. I’ve always felt a strong connection here, and Penderyn defines the spirit of Wales.

So the guardians of whisky production at Penderyn are at their posts. There appears to be an exciting creative dynamic at work that, allied with a business acumen located at the coal face of the whisky business, bodes well for the future of this exciting distillery. I for one am excited by the possibilities.

This article was originally written for Issue 5 of Whisky Quarterly magazine. The magazine will soon be available as a free download.