Riding the coat tails of their forebears. PATRICK LECLEZIO considers the world whisky phenomenon.
First published in Prestige Magazine (Best of the best edition 2013).
In the past I’ve written about “world whiskies” in nothing less than glowing terms. I’ve always felt that whisky is distinguished from most other fine spirits by three vital attributes, the first two being complexity and variety – towering pillars that have set this drink apart and above. The array of flavours within a single whisky – as evidenced by browsing through any arbitrary enthusiast’s tasting notes (pretentious and overcooked, I’ll admit, as some of these might be, in true anorak style) – is astounding, almost incredible to the uninitiated; and the scale of the variation amongst whiskies is unrivalled in classic liquor (would chasmic be too strong a word?). It is thus safe to assume one would think – a foregone conclusion! – that the relatively recent proliferation of world whiskies should be regarded as an exclusively positive development, adding as these do to this lexicon. Perhaps, perhaps not. It’s sometimes worthwhile to challenge even the most assured assumption. I decided to take another look at this new fringe with a more critical eye; the result: a few musings about why the situation might not be as unambiguous as first impressions might suggest.
First though, what exactly are world whiskies? I’ve always misliked the expression because it pronounces a lumping together of disparate products often with little in common – much of which should not be tarred by each other’s brushes. Anyhow, for the sake of expediency I’m going to persist with it, and I’ll define them as whiskies emanating from regions where no whisky-making heritage exists, and where the whisky-making tradition was imported – wholesale – from elsewhere. Japan is an oddity in this paradigm – whisky is not organic to the country but it could be argued that a heritage of sorts has now come to exist; nonetheless I’m going to include Japanese whiskies in my thinking.
I’ll kick-off with the third of my attributes – integrity. The standards that have been laid down by the collective, established industry are generally rigorous (although I note the odd lapse here and there, and some worrying recent trends – inevitable I guess when the interests of the consumer are being served only indirectly). Scotch whisky and American whiskey, in particular, have precise and exhaustive sets of governing regulations. Whilst these might well be self-serving (and they are – make no mistake) they nonetheless offer us whisky lovers a certain guarantee: that we can part with our hard-earned lucre with the relative security that expectations – instilled over generations – will be met, and that certain important criteria will be respected. This is not something on which we can necessarily rely elsewhere.
In fact new territories may be tempted to distort and exploit the acknowledged whisky-making ethic to serve their own agendas, and some do. Take India as an example (an obvious one, forgive me) – where even the basic rules, the fundamental foundations of whisky production, have been grotesquely violated. Whisky by evolutionary definition (and legal definition, in most places) is a spirit distilled from cereal grains, yet the bulk of Indian whisky is made from molasses, which is often subsequently blended with various proportions of malt or other grain whisky, depending on the particular brand and its level of quality and premiumness. “You will get the alcohol but none of the flavours,” said industry guru Bill Lumsden of the molasses spirit in Indian whisky. The conclusion to which I’m drawn is that a massive swath of drinkers, the largest whisky-drinking population in the world, is being deceived, and short-changed. How can this be good?
I’ll admit that this is a blatant extreme – the issue is not so facile. There are conceivable instances where departures may even benefit flavour. However, as with sports, meaning derives from a set of rules. Rugby might arguably be more exciting if one could pass the ball forward, but then it wouldn’t be rugby, would it? Whisky’s identity, and indeed its value, comes from its link to its past and its traditions. A drink springing from anything other than this platform, good or bad, should not have the right to call itself whisky, or to tap into its goodwill. I wrote some time ago that whisky is only whisky because five hundred years of documented history (and several hundreds more lost in the mists of time) have told us that that’s how it should be made. Integrity is everything.
Some sophisticated whisky drinkers might be willing to overlook such risks – their knowledge and the price points at which they engage are largely insulating. Their sometimes-very-transitory attention tends to focus on the shiny new toy – usually malt with some sort of cachet, and with its own “brand integrity”: the Japanese, yes of course, and others such as Mackmyra (Sweden), Amorik (France), Amrut (India), and Sullivan’s Cove (Australia). I have no doubt that these new whiskies have enriched the variety in our whisky regimens, but the real value of this added diversity is questionable – its impact owing more to novelty than to genuine uniqueness. We can point to some distinctly individual flavours – the incense acidity evidenced by the use of Mizunara casks in the maturation of Japanese whisky for instance – but this is by no means guaranteed. And how much variety do we really need? Surely, at some point, there has to be a diminishing return – because like-for-like (I use the term loosely), generally (our own Three Ships is an exception), these whiskies tend to be significantly more expensive than those from established regions.
Most damningly, to my sense of things, it’s worth noting that whilst there may be product-to-product variety, there is scant by way of collective style variety. New whiskies have emulated Scotch whisky by-and-large – with a few tweaks (be they motivated by genuine passion or by business reasons) thrown in to claim some originality: sorghum or other eccentric mashbills, scrub-wood and juniper twig fragrancing, local oak casks, and unusual stills, to quote a few – rather than build a concertedly separate identity. These experiments are not without merit but ask yourself: is there a new whisky territory that stands significantly distinct? Have original new whisky styles emerged? Not really. Even in Japan (and South Africa, and elsewhere I’m sure), the most compelling contender, blended whiskies are still synthesised using Scotch malt. This cannot be ignored.
Now, I grant you, this is a thin line – almost contradictory given that I earlier mentioned the need for a connection to the past (which is somewhat exclusive) – perhaps impossibly thin, but those are the challenges of a late entry. Here in South Africa there’s no meaningful legal definition, of which I’m aware, for a South African style of whisky. Does this betray the lack of an intention to create anything unique and proprietary, or is it something that just needs to evolve organically as it did with the now established styles? If the latter applies I think we need to concede at the very least that it doesn’t exist yet, and that potentially that it may never exist.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we should moderate our consumption or exploration of world whiskies, not at all – because many of them are exceptional. The best Japanese whiskies, often internationally lauded and awarded, easily rival those from anywhere else, Scotland included, and unless you’ve been hiding in a cave for the past two years you’ll know that our own whiskies have also garnered a few global gongs. I recently had the opportunity to sample a range of Kavalan whiskies, ahead of their imminent local launch. These whiskies hail from Taiwan, a country that is quite special to me. I lived there in the mid-nineties, which doesn’t seem so long ago, especially in whisky terms. It’s incredible then to think that the first Kavalan whisky was only released some twelve years thereafter in 2008, and it’s even more incredible to experience what’s been wrought with such young liquid. They’re still a bit raw, but there’s a symphony of activity: a musical arrangement of lilting flavours – I’ll defer to their orchestral theme – against a signature background of ripe tropical fruits. It epitomises the best of the world whisky phenomenon.
What I am suggesting – and I have little doubt that this will be an unpopular sentiment, one that may be perceived as unsupportive (although that’s not my intention) – is that our enthusiasm should be tempered with the awareness that these whiskies are imitators; great imitators in many cases, yes, often imaginative and innovative, but imitators nonetheless. Originality, real originality, has an irreplaceable, unsubstitutable worth. Authentic objects should always command greater prestige than derivative objectives – especially to discriminating and critical consumers – and world whiskies are undoubtedly derivative. They will not – cannot! – truly come into their own until and if they stake a real claim. May the dram be with you.