My Round: Nip tuck
The labelling of Scotch is in need of a facelift. But will the recommended surgery give the whisky a new lease of life?
Sunday 12 September 2004
It's official, we now live in the era of new-style unpredictable weather. In honour of the phenomenon, this is a cover-all-bets article. Below: three sunny rosés with which to bask in the sunshine. Here: news from the world of the greatest spirit-warmer on Earth: Scotch whisky.
Among the public, Scotch whisky may be the most accurately identified of all geographically delimited spirits. Everyone knows that it comes from Scotland, with the possible exception of some Indian drinks companies, which make a product they call Scotch and which is... well, I'd try to describe it but that might make me think about the one time I drank it. And the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), in co-operation with the government, has largely sensible and clear regulations about how Scotch - which was first defined in UK law in 1909, and most recently amended in 1988 - is labelled.
Those labelling regulations may now be in for a major shake-up. The SWA has been holding discussions about a new scheme for describing its products. The deal ain't done yet but it's looking like the new categories will be five-fold: single malt, single grain, blended malt, blended, and blended single-grain.
The technical ins and outs are detailed and complex, but the item of particular note is the attempt to clarify the unique position of single malt - and distinguish it unambiguously from everything else. The term will mean, as at present, the product of a single distillery unblended with anything else. Blended single malt, at present called vatted malt, means single-malt whiskies from two or more distilleries blended together. Both these drinks, as now, will contain only Scotch whiskies made from malted barley. The others will contain some proportion of other cereals, which are cheaper and easier to work with.
The reconsideration of terminology has been prompted, in part, by a minor earthquake in the industry earlier this year. Diageo, owner of several of the most famous names in Scotland, announced it was going to relabel its Cardhu 12 Year Old Single Malt as a vatted malt called Cardhu Pure Malt. There was a simple reason for the change: the success of Cardhu meant the distillery could not produce enough of it, especially for thirsty export markets such as Spain. There was a huge uproar, with most voices opposing the idea and the plan was withdrawn. But it had a good effect: it got the industry thinking about how to accommodate innovation and reward commercial success while also protecting the integrity of all its products.
I saw the urgency of these needs last June, when I went on a "whisky course" that Diageo runs for industry professionals and the occasional journo, at its Royal Lochnagar distillery near Balmoral. In two days I learnt more about single malt than I had learnt in my entire life, and one of the chief lessons was that every single distillery really and truly is unique. (Every single barrel is unique, but that's a story for another day.) Each still and each production method gives its own character to the whisky and so, more importantly, does each master distiller. The combination of those variables makes each whisky what it is - and what it's valued for by consumers. Change them at your peril.
This is not to say that every single malt is outstanding or even exceptional. That isn't the point. The point is variety. People's tastes lead them to one distillery or another, one style or another. They are entitled to know exactly what they're buying, and the new regulations will make that easier - once the terms have had time to settle in. Assuming they're adopted, that is. But it seems only to be a matter of time. And if you heard it here first, you can start thinking about making the adjustment.
Top Corks: Indian-summery rosés
Château de Sours 2003 £7.99, Majestic A consistently reliable pink, with deep colour and muscular tannins underpinning toothsome red-berry fruit. A miniature red wine, really.
Amethystos Rosé 2002, Domaine Constantin Lazaridis £7.99, Oddbins Subtle and exciting stuff, herbal notes harmonising with odd, winning berry flavours. Versatile for pairing with food.
Bluff Hill Rosé NV £7.99, Marks & Spencer Charming and good-value sparkler from New Zealand, with just 30 per cent of Pinot Noir but a good hit of that inimitable Pinot flavour.
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