2020 Review: Whiskies & Books; Distilleries & More; Santa Triumphs; Hope for 2021
Looking back over the year, even more whisky distilleries have opened or been announced as plans (amongst them Eight Doors at John O’Groats; Wolfcraig in Stirling) while others have bottled their first offerings (Lindores Abbey) or are promising new whiskies from what is currently a gin producer e.g. Crafty Distillery in Newton Stewart (producers of Hills & Harbour Gin). Others again have been progressing – though perhaps rather slowly this year – with renovations and new buildings e.g. Rosebank. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing that one as well as the Johnnie Walker Experience in Edinburgh – a great addition to the city’s main thoroughfare, Princes Street. This week they released design pics of how the interior should look so here’s one which looks super-smooth but I’m happy to wait to see the real thing. Yet others have finished major works including Glenkinchie with its revamped visitor centre which I showed in an earlier autumn column here. It’s also a matter of pride that distillers have stepped up to divert production towards hand sanitiser to help us all to minimise the coronavirus spread. Some distilleries have had to close for parts of this year leading to predictions of stock shortages some years hence (I guess we’ll find out) but others have managed to carry on at their usual pace.
I’ve also been looking back to see which whiskies, of all those I’ve tasted this year, have been my favourites. Without doubt my Whisky of the Year has to be The Glendronach Kingsman Edition 1989. Yes, it’s expensive and not many will taste it but costly or very limited doesn’t always make something good. Not so here – it’s the most glorious liquid and I love re-reading the notes I made at time of tasting just to remind me of how much I enjoyed it and relive the taste in my head. Now that is a virtual tasting! I’ve kept a little bit back from the sample to toast 2021 and hope for a better year for us all. Other whiskies I particularly enjoyed have come mainly in the latter part of this year. It’s not that they’re more memorable as they’re more recent but I do wonder if some companies were saving the best for last, as it were.
Those other stars for me were Ireland’s Bushmills 2001 Feuillette Cask (people make great whisk(e)y in other places!) and Glen Moray Sauternes Cask (my brother was treated to this for Christmas). Indeed, Glen Moray came up with several cracking whiskies this year including the Distillery Edition Chardonnay 2003 earlier in the year. A web posting just before Christmas from Dr. Kirstie McCallum, Head of Whisky Creation for Glen Moray indicated that was her last day with the company but I haven’t yet heard what she plans to do next. They’ll surely miss her deft handling of some of their finest casks. She was even talking about experimenting with other cask types at Glen Moray in a recent web tasting. Laphroaig Red Wine Finish and Cask 88’s Cailleach Beira (an independent Laphroaig bottling) were other goodies as was the Glen Scotia Campbeltown Festival 2020 Edition. On the blend side I’m delighted to say Ballantine’s 7 Bourbon Finish and Johnnie Walker Celebratory Blend are truly excellent whiskies. A lesson for those who dismiss blends. Douglas Laing & Co. and Compass Box continue to surprise and delight with their varied bottlings of blended and single whiskies whether malts, grains or both, not to mention some great label designs. Benriach is another distillery which has shone this year under the meticulous care of Rachel Barrie. I’ve also been delighted to see more emphasis on mixing and cocktails for both blends and malts this year. Long may it continue. There’s an elegance about a well-made whisky cocktail that we can all enjoy. Will the wild decade some are predicting once we see off Covid-19 herald another cocktail age to rival the 1920’s? Cheers to that!
There will have been plenty of retirements this year from unknown (to most of us) heroes in the Scotch Whisky business but two notable known ones are Mickey Heads from Ardbeg (staying on as Chair of the Ardbeg Committee for a while) and Dr. Nicholas Morgan, departing his post as Head of Whisky Outreach for Diageo. I suspect we’ve not heard the last from him on the whisky front and do hope not.
That brings me on to the subject of writing and books this year. As those who have read this column more recently will know, I so enjoyed Nick Morgan’s “Johnnie Walker – A Long Stride” a couple of months back as well as re-reading Aeneas MacDonald’s “Whisky“ with the introductory commentary by Ian Buxton and highly recommend both to any whisky enthusiast whether a history fan or not. Both are absorbing texts. Those of you working in the on-trade (hoping there’s still some left after this year) may also be interested in wines so I’ve also been dipping into Hugh Johnson’s “The Story of Wine – From Noah to Now” received for my birthday in October and the writing is a joy, as is the subject matter. I was fortunate enough to be put through my WSET exams by an employer in the past and still keep up my wine tasting practice too. Another notable piece of writing was Becky Paskin in an eloquent and impassioned article calling out Jim Murray for the distasteful sexism in his latest “Whisky Bible”. It got whisky companies thinking about their actions and promotional activity and their previous support in supplying samples for this book. There is also still mention of the ridiculous notion that whisky is “masculine” and drunk by men. Why does that nonsense still hang around? In my experience, whisky is drunk by women of strong character who know their own minds. Ditto men. Therefore, drunk by PEOPLE.
Well, Father Christmas was a star. That bottle of Royal Salute Snow Polo Edition did arrive under our Christmas tree so all I need now is a bottle of Suze to try the cocktail featured in my last column. I haven’t actually tried the whisky on its own yet so maybe something to cover next month. In case you haven’t encountered it before, Suze is an aperitif made from gentian root and has a bitter element to its flavour. It’s made by Pernod Ricard whose whisky arm, Chivas, produces Royal Salute.
So what about 2021? I’m hoping for a further growing appreciation of blends as well as enjoying more of the creativity and imagination of distillers, brand ambassadors and marketers both in bottlings and in the online offerings they have brought us this year. One to seek online is Mark Thomson’s (Glenfiddich Brand Ambassador) My Next Dram as well as the Chivas Scotch Watch. Also that we can all get back to visiting distilleries soon and that includes my own visits for information gathering and interviewing. It’s not the same over Zoom. It’s affected my tailor-made whisky tours for clients as well as the tastings and whisky dinners I conduct but I have been able to continue with writing. More importantly, visitor centres have largely been closed to protect the lovely people who work in them. Those facilities do contribute much to the economy of Scotland and, more particularly, rural communities. Therefore we’d love to see visitors back in 2021 when safe to do so. Not too long a wait, I hope. We must also seek to revive our hospitality venues and jobs in those which have suffered so much in many countries. In wishing for a better 2021 for all, it did make me ponder, though, that many have been able to spend time more quietly, appreciate the world around us, take more time over drams and maybe rethink priorities. Whatever yours are, I wish you a healthy and happy – and prosperous – 2021. See you in January.