Something like sixteen thousand people are born every hour. That’s ten thousand, give or take, since I’ve had my breakfast and I’m not feeling even a bit peckish yet which is a solid scientific proof that we’re producing babies like we just don’t care. Most of those screamy little humans welcomed to the world since my last meal won’t care about fine Scotch whisky when they are of drinking age, some time between 2032 and 2035. I’m guessing one thousand will taste it at some point, one hundred will acquire a taste for it, perhaps ten of them will be able to distinguish between a malt and a blend. And maybe, just maybe, there is a tiny little creature screaming her head off as I type, somewhere in China, India or perhaps Brazil, who will one day become a slave to great whisky, just like you and me.
I’ve seen a few people share this link on Facebook, Wayne Curtis’ article for The Atlantic touches on a certain painful subject from the American craft distilling perspective but we know this all too well from our Scottish backyard. It’s been discussed on the blog at length in recent months but it doesn’t hurt to say it again: in their effort to meet the global demand some of the producers have been releasing sub-standard stock with scant regard to what this is doing to their brands and the market in general. Big single malt names are the main culprit here.
But with the world population still exploding, the markets changing before our eyes faster than ever before and the production capacity in Scotland growing at merely a fraction of this global expansion rate, something’s got to give, right? Either we lower the standards as much as we have to in a desperate bid to keep up with the demand or we lock ourselves in a mahogany-clad executive penthouse somewhere in Singapore and watch the Scotch whisky slowly lose sight of what has always been the foundation for its success – regular people.
This is of course an exaggeration and I’m not suggesting one of these scenarios will actually come to pass. But following my recent tasting session with Jim Beveridge, the Master Blender for Johnnie Walker, I have been wondering what does the product pyramid across the board look like at the moment and what it should look like in the future to ensure sustainable growth of the Scotch whisky category, not just now but all the way through 2032 and (hey, let’s think big) into the next century.
The fact that single malts are gaining market share against blends is worn by some maltheads like a badge of honour. But I’m turning into a bit of a champion for the good, branded blend and the inspiration for this is coming from very unexpected directions. I have mentioned recently that I’ve been lucky enough to sample a number of great blended whiskies in the past few months. One experience that really stuck in my mind was the Director’s Blend tasting in Edinburgh in March reported here. Last week I saw, in a way, the next step. An application of that singular way of thinking, focused on the taste, in the big bad world of premium commercial offerings. Learnings of an exercise used in anger. And fuck me, did they get angry.
At a cosy but friendly-face-studded event in Soho on Thursday I was privy to one of the early samplings of the John Walker & Sons Private Collection 2014 Edition, the first of a planned series of annual releases mirroring the Director’s Blends in their liberated approach to showcasing various facets of the art of blending whisky, while providing a complete drinking experience.
The 2014 Edition is focused on smoke which is not just obvious from the first sniff but in fact stated clearly on the front of the bottle. The gentle rounded wood smoke on the nose leads to an underlying sweetness full of pink candy and cough syrup connotations. There is waxy thickness to it too and a big slab of marzipan right in the middle, which arrives slowly but once it’s there, it’s there to stay. The palate adds overripe banana, worn leather and a bitter mineraly note while elevating that rounded smokiness to new heights. It’s above all elegant and just stunningly confident. It’s a bit like a perfectly tailored double-breasted navy blue suit; without doing anything new, radical or outrageous it stands out in the best possible way. The finish continues to delight with that familiar silky smoke, Oriental spices and perhaps a touch of elderflower, coming back in gentle waves.
This beautiful blend doesn’t come cheap. The price tag in the UK will be just shy of £500 when John Walker & Sons Private Collection 2014 Edition hits the shelves this or next month. There is a fair allocation of five hundred bottles for the domestic market which is very welcome. The whole release consists of eight thousand eight hundred and eighty eight bottles, that’s a lot of eights so you can probably figure out where most of the rest of it is heading. They are individually numbered and, in my opinion, rather tastefully presented, without the excess which seems to be the order of the day in the super premium category. The glass is deep blue, it seems black at first glance but for some reason they made it look happy-blue in the official photography which just misses the point and doesn’t give it justice. Here’s a real pro’s take.
Back to the money though. Sigh. The price tag definitely makes me a bit uncomfortable and I won’t be queueing outside The Whisky Shop to get a bottle. For me it’s just beyond that point where I could really argue it’s justified. But the way it’s offered to the market makes it quite obvious that I’m not the target consumer and probably neither are you. But just in case you are one of those annoying people who pre-order the new Range Rover before it even comes out and attend parents-teachers Christmas drinks with three shirt buttons open, know this: John Walker & Sons Private Collection 2014 Edition is as close to the pinnacle of whisky blending as your fat wallet is ever likely to take you.
Let’s summarise the Private Collection 2014 Edition, shall we? Put together by a brilliant blending team from remarkable pockets of stock. Check. Blended with a flair and a freedom rarely seen at this strictly commercial level. Check. Celebrating the exquisite components and, above all, the house style of Johnnie Walker. Check. Created with no limits imposed by continuity of taste profile in future incarnations, the need for which has been removed by the limited nature of the release. Check, check, check.
Getting the picture? It’s expensive but it’s also ridiculously good and the reason for the latter is that it stands on the shoulders of a whisky powerhouse. Various stupendous casks, including a few from the 1990′s Calculus trial (I’m hoping to write about this in more detail in the future), the wealth of experience and knowledge possessed by the team, the Director’s Blends exercise preceding the development process, the remarkable gusto with which all of this is being applied… none of this would be possible if not for… yup, the humble Johnnie Walker Red Label. And this is where this lengthy post has been heading all along: the base of the pyramid is always going to be more important than its peak but it’s the peak that has to point in the right direction.
I was lying on the grass in my back garden on Saturday, enjoying one of the rare days of warmth and sunshine in Edinburgh, and I was thinking about those babies popping out of their mums all around the world at an astonishing rate of about four and a half every second. And I thought that if there was a way to turn them one day into whisky drinkers and make sure that the industry we love and cherish survives and thrives, it was not through using triple-charred quadriple-toasted ex-tokaj-ex-champagne casks made from balsa wood rubbed with tofu. It was also, sadly, not through our love for the 1970′s Clynelish releases, the classic White Horse bottlings or indie expressions of Port Ellen. We are going to get there on the backs of giant brands that have the means and, in some cases, the political will to truly experiment, to push the commercial boundaries and to take the love of whisky where it has not yet been. And for that reason alone we should be rooting for brands like Johnnie Walker, Ballantine’s or Grant’s.
Somewhere in China, India or perhaps Brazil, our fellow whisky lover is now all snuggled up and a picture of tranquillity. I’m also much calmer than I once was. The biggest Scotch whisky brand in the world is capable of not just volume but also greatness. And while that greatness is beyond my reach, my heart is that little bit lighter knowing that people like Jim Beveridge care.