Whisky and the spirit of the purist

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The Independent Online
Yesterday I said that the Scotch Whisky Association was being a bit unfair. They were taking a Manx whiskey firm called Glen Kella to court for putting the name "whiskey" on their product. The SWA's objection is that Glen Kella redistils the "whiskey" before bottling it, and the SWA says that you shouldn't do things to whisky after it leaves the cask. So I said that this was unfair because the Scotch whisky industry itself tampers with whisky before bottling it.

This brought me a quiet phone call yesterday from the wise men of the legal department at The Independent, hinting that I should not say such things unless I had some evidence to back it up. Oh, but I had, I said. (Not often I can say this.) Why, only the other day in the Financial Times, Roderick Oram was writing as follows:

"For decades Scotch producers have put their spirit through further processes after the cask. First, they dilute the spirit from cask strength of about 60 per cent alcohol by volume to 40 per cent with demineralised water. Then sometimes a little caramel is added to darken the colour. Lastly, before bottling, the spirit is cooled to about 0C and filtered to remove fatty acids. These are taken out to prevent the `chill haze' that can occur when whisky gets very cold."

(Whisky, I think, would be a clear liquid if left to its own devices. The colouring comes from the casks in which they chose to store it. I once met a man high up in the organisation that makes Cutty Sark whisky, who bemoaned to me the fact that Cutty Sark was a clearish whisky. "I'm sure we'd sell twice as much if it was darker, as people suppose whisky should be, but it wouldn't be any better a whisky if we darkened it," he sighed.)

The situation seems clear. If you want to alter the whisky after it leaves the cask, you must never do what Glen Kella is doing to it. You must only do all the things that the SWA permits people to do it. And yet, reports Mr Oram, not all experts are happy with the situation.

"Scotch purists like their spirit cask strength and unfiltered. `I do love getting some of the stuff straight from the cask,' says a senior Speyside distiller. `The chill filter is a compromise. It keeps the Scotch clear but it takes out some of the mouth-feel, the wonderful rounded feeling of the whisky.'"

Now I have met some of these Scotch purists and they certainly know what they are talking about. You could meet them too if you went to Edinburgh and wandered down the Royal Mile until you came to a shop called The Whisky Shop. The first time I came to it I went in and asked for a bottle of Laphroaig, that strange smoky, peaty malt whisky from the islands.

"Do you want our Laphroaig or their Laphroaig?" asked the man.

I didn't know what he meant. So he explained to me then the very same thing that Roderick Oram was saying in the Financial Times - that when a distillery markets its own malt whisky, it isn't giving you the stuff straight from the cask. It's doing a bit of filtering and a bit of colouring and a bit of this and that. But The Whisky Shop is run by a firm of bottlers called Cadenhead's who for nearly 200 years have been in the business of buying casks straight from distilleries and bottling what is in the cask without changing it.

"So you can see, sir, that our Glen Whatever malt whisky is more authentic than the whisky that comes from the Glen Whatever distillery. We don't make changes to it. They do."

In all the times that I have been there, or to their shop in Covent Garden, I have never heard Cadenhead's make the risky claim that their straight- from-the-cask stuff is better than the stuff that Glen Whatever fiddles around with.

"You may well prefer the cooled, filtered, dyed whisky," they say. "That's up to you. All we say is that we bottle straight from the cask, and they don't."

I don't suppose for a moment that Cadenhead's would feel like emulating Glen Kella's process of redistilling. But I think they would feel a smidgen of sympathy for any firm which is descended on by the weight of the big whisky boys, as they have been in the past. Oh yes, Glen Whatever has, in the past, tried - and failed - to get the law to stop Cadenhead's from bottling and selling Glen Whatever under that name, even though it was more authentic than the stuff put out by Glen Whatever.

I'm not sure I want to start drinking Glen Kella whiskey. But I can't help hoping that David comes out ahead of Goliath on this one.