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Amber Lights

Don’t like whisky? Maybe it’s time to think again

June 18 2016

It has often surprised — and saddened — me to hear so many people, including countless Scots, say they don’t like whisky and would never drink it. I accept that strong-flavoured spirits are an acquired taste and hence may not tickle everyone’s palate. However, to dislike whisky and totally shun it is to blank out a huge rainbow of taste experiences. To me it like saying one would never eat French, Chinese or Indian food — a narrowing of one’s horizons, a denial of one of life’s great pleasures. To be fair, I know a few people whose dislike of whisky stems from bad experience — a dissolute, whisky-sodden father or imbibing too much whisky at an adolescent party and being very ill afterwards. And some people have genuine aversions to certain types of food or drink — my mother, for one, couldn’t thole garlic. However, I wonder if some people’s aversion to whisky is that they have only known poor blends (in the days when some were indeed dire) or perceive whisky as a downmarket, hard man’s drink, whereas whisky today is anything but. I realise that few or no whisky shunners read this column, so the following paragraphs may be me crying in the wilderness. But on the off chance that it may help convert one or two sceptics, may I suggest, firstly, try a whisky liqueur or a Bailey’s or one of its innumerable clones. If Drambuie or Glayva seem too strong, try Stag’s Breath. At just under 20% alcohol, it is mild, very pleasant and available in half-bottles and miniatures so one can sample it without having to buy a whole bottle. Or try a Scotch or Irish coffee — sweet black coffee with a jot of whisky in it, then thick cream floated on top down the back of a spoon. At first add just a spoonful of whisky to the coffee and, if it pleases, add two spoonfuls next time, a good jigger the time thereafter. My favourite late-evening drink is coffee with a shot of Scotch or bourbon in it. Get the balance right and it is, to me, the perfect partnership.

Amber Lights

Let’s drink to drowning those Brexit sorrows

August 6 2016

The Scotch whisky industry will undoubtedly be seriously affected by Brexit. After all, France is the biggest export market by volume for Scotch, although exports to the US have higher value as Americans tend to buy rare and old malts whereas France buys cheap blends in bulk. Many other EU countries buy big volumes of the cratur, adding up to the biggest single market for it. That would certainly be hit if the current open access to the EU ended. However, it is currently impossible for the industry to make definite plans as no one—including, one suspects, the entire UK Government — has a clue what shape Brexit will finally take. After all the drum beating and tub thumping by the Brexiteers about “sovereignty”, the fact is Brexit will be the longest, most complex and problem-riddled political divorce in history. For a start, one can count the number of experienced trade negotiators in the UK on the fingers of one hand. Why? Because since 1974, all UK trade negotiations with the wider world were conducted by Europe. So we didn’t need any. What’s more, experienced trade negotiators don’t grow on trees and trade negotiations can last forever. One example — it took 300 Canadian trade negotiators seven years to reach their current limited trade deal with the EU. Worse, the trio now charged with implementing Brexit — David Davis, Liam Fox and Westminster’s court jester, Boris Johnson — have so far shown scant appreciation of the Augean task they and the UK face. No wonder Downing Street is keen to delay invoking Article 50 as long as possible. This essentially means the whisky industry — along with all other British exporters — will have to bide its time, make contingency plans, put some projects on the back burner, try to increase exports to non-EU countries and learn to live in a limbo of uncertainty until 2020 and well beyond. It will be tough for the big boys and even tougher for those small distilleries launched amid such high hopes in recent years… What can I suggest? Well, what about pouring ourselves a large dram and trying to forget it all.    

Amber Lights

Whisky: a Scottish success story

April 1 2017

Scotch whisky today is one of today’s great success stories — it contributes £5 billion to the UK economy and earns £4 billion a year overseas — whisky accounts for some 80% of Scottish food and drink exports and a quarter of UK food and drink exports. Yet when one looks back at the early history of the industry and the cudgels that governments of every hue clobbered it with over the centuries, it is amazing we have a whisky industry at all. Early taxation of alcohol began in the mid-1600s and became organised after the 1707 Act of Union which also created the Customs and Excise to collect excise duty and pursue and prosecute illegal distillers. However, as many Scots had distilled freely for years, they balked at being taxed on it. Although the tax seems paltry today (under 10p a gallon), it was 10p too much to a struggling crofter. As many lived in remote glens, they ignored the law, reckoning they would never get caught and, if they were, they could ignore the fines as the authorities were too stretched to collect them. However, legal distillers — mainly in the cities — had to pay ever-rising taxes, and sought ways to evade them. If the government taxed malt, it was smuggled in at night when the exciseman was asleep. Or he was bribed. When governments taxed stills capacity, distillers made shallow, low-volume stills and distilled around the clock. One distillery got distillation runs down to eight minutes. The result was scorched stills and vile-tasting whisky needing re-distilling to make so-so gin, or sugar and spices added to make it palatable. Even so, people preferred the illegal stuff as it tasted better. After 1795, distillers had to be both licensed and pay excise duty. A licence was £20 (£3000 today), affordable for a big city distillery but crippling to a wee farmer. Those who bravely bought a licence and paid duty couldn’t compete against the illegals and smugglers, often at the next farm, so they almost all folded within a year. Only in 1823 did Britain finally get rules that made legal distilling viable.

Amber Lights

Scotchmania rules the roost

July 9 2016

What never fails to amaze me is the enthusiasm for Scotch whisky I see in other countries. Indeed, Scotland sometimes seems to be the one nation that is losing pride and passion for its national drink — whereas, go overseas and in many places Scotchmania rules the roost. I have just spent a week in Germany, where enthusiasm for whisky and Scotland generally verges on the boundless. What is astonishing, too, is that the enthusiasm is German-generated, and not the result of any hefty efforts by VisitScotland. One can debate that Germans’ enthusiasm for Scotland dates back to the 19th Century, when a wide group of artists, composers and writers saw our wild landscapes as dramatic settings for romance and mystery. The German poet Theodor Fontane — in an amazing mix of fact and fable — even wrote a tragic poem blaming the 1879 collapse of the Tay Bridge on the Three Witches from Macbeth. Back to whisky. German enthusiasm is best seen at their countless annual “Whiskymessen”, or trade fairs. Some are vast events that attract the Diageos and Pernod Ricards of the world, others are for the specialist whisky bottlers and importers, plus firms that specialise in one-off bottles of rare malts unearthed in some collector’s forgotten cellar in the darkest Dolomites. Best of these is Whisky Fair at Limburg, near Frankfurt, where every year I do presentations on whisky history. Once the day’s presentation is done, I can browse around the 60-plus stands looking for interesting malts to sample, often at knockdown prices. There are so many that to try them all would seriously endanger the liver. So I draw up a short list and hope some malts that didn’t make it will still be there the following year. I can only urge any whisky enthusiast to visit Whisky Fair (renamed Whisky Festival for 2017), always held on a late-April weekend. Nearest airports are Frankfurt and Cologne, both with on-site rail stations whence superfast trains whisk you to Limburg in minutes. But be forewarned: local hotels tend to get booked up a year in advance, so start planning now and good luck.  

Motoring news

Perthshire Classic Car Show

April 21 2018

For classic car fans, Perth and Scone Palace are THE places to be today. Why? Because 150 classic cars, from Model T Fords to Bugatti Veyrons, are on parade from Scone to Tay Street and back—all in the aid of charity. They will be on show in Tay Street for two hours, from late morning until lunchtime—a golden opportunity to view them close up. Other attractions include a continental market and lively street music. Added to that, Prince Michael of Kent, the royals’ keenest classic car enthusiast, will be taking the salute as the cars return to Scone, passing over the old bridge. Adding a touch of history and colour, the first 20 cars will preceded by a red flag—recalling motoring’s quaint early days when, by law, a red flag bearer had to walk ahead of every motor car. You don’t believe it? Well, there’s actually a prominent 1879 sign at the bridge stating the law and the penalties for flouting it. Those days are long gone, but the sign is still there. Back at Scone, the parade cars will be parked close to the palace for everyone to admire. In addition, Ecurie Ecosse, main sponsor Morris Leslie, Knockhill Circuit and countless Scottish car clubs will have 300 finest classic cars and other vehicles on show. Among many historic cars will be the Jaguar XK120 that Stirling Moss and team drove for 24 hours at over 100mph around France’s Montlhery circuit in 1952. It will be a day of classic cars, history and nostalgia—with the added prestige of Prince Michael visiting stands and exhibits. Not that all action is on the ground—a Pitts Special will perform aerobatics and there are many attractions for children and families. And tomorrow is Drive It Day, when 80 classic cars will leave Blairgowrie Golf Club passing through the town’s Wellmeadow on a 140-mile drive to Royal Deeside via the Cairnwell and back via the Cairn o’Mount, finishing again at Scone Palace—ending a jam-packed classic car weekend.

Amber Lights

Once banned, absinthe is back with a vengeance

February 17 2018

We know that alcohol and homo sapiens have been best buddies for thousands of years. However, it is still much debated: Is it the greatest social drug ever discovered? Or the bane of mankind? Sometimes the second view has prevailed, leading nations to impose partial or blanket prohibition, the latter invariably a formula for disaster. Yet one alcoholic drink was banned throughout Europe and the US for some 75 years. That was absinthe (pronounced abb-sant), outlawed in 1915, yet quietly revived since 1990 and now available in many UK supermarkets and off-licences. So what’s unique about it and why was it banned? It’s a strong, bitter spirit (usually 60% abv or more), flavoured with grand wormwood, green anise, sweet fennel and other aromatics. First distilled near Neuchatel in Switzerland around 1790, it swept through France and became the “in” drink among Parisian artists, writers and intellectuals in the late 19th Century and early 20th. Big-name absinthe tipplers included some Impressionists, Oscar Wilde, Hemingway and Picasso. It contained thujone, a chemical in grand wormwood with a (rather exaggerated) repute as a hallucinogen. That repute, plus the supposedly louche clientele that drank it, plus first world war strictures, led France to ban it in 1915, with other countries following suit. Only in 1990, thanks to new EU-wide trade rules, has aAbsinthe revived. Ironically, grand wormwood (artemisia absinthium) has been used and cherished for its medicinal qualities and aromatic oil for nigh on 4000 years. It’s a herbaceous perennial, almost a small shrub, with yellow flowers. Potions derived from it were used in ancient Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome to alleviate anything from indigestion to period pains. In the Middle Ages, it was used as an effective treatment against tapeworm and (much later) thought to match quinine in fighting malaria. Because of their bitter flavour, some absinthes contained sugar syrup, but most were unsweetened. However, in its heydays, Parisian cafes often served it with a sugar lump on an ornate perforated spoon and a tiny carafe of water. One dripped water onto the sugar lump until it oozed through the spoon into the absinthe. Interestingly, genuine antique absinthe spoons, especially silver ones, now fetch big money at auction. Did I hear someone say absinthe makes the heart grow fonder?  

Motoring news

A trip down motoring’s memory lane

December 6 2017

Although today Bond is usually linked to James, of 007 fame, for years Bonds and Reliants enjoyed a special niche in the UK car market. Both produced quaint, small, low-volume cars with aluminium or fibreglass bodywork that still enjoy a loyal if eccentric following. Today, years after the last Bonds and Reliants were produced, staunch fan clubs hold rallies and get-togethers all over these islands. A Preston-based aircraft engineer, Lawrie Bond, built the prototype Bond Minicar in the 1940s. Its 125cc motorbike engine powered a tiny single front wheel that swivelled 90 degrees left and right so it could turn “on the spot”. So low-slung you could “step into it”, it had a canvas top and two tiny headlights bolted to either side of the bonnet. Later models had hardtops, better engines and more luxury and almost 25,000 were built over 20 years. Car tax changes forced Bond into liquidation after 1966 but it was later bought by Reliant, based at Tamworth, Staffs. They had been building three-wheeler cars, vans and other variants since 1935, mostly with a 747cc engine first designed for the Austin Seven. Reliant were leaders in glass-fibre bodywork and had designed cars for manufacturing in other countries—including Turkey’s Anadol, Israel’s Sabra and MEBEA (correct) of Greece. Over the years they produced a stack of three-wheelers, including the Regal, Ant and Rialto, plus small four-wheelers such as the Rebel, the utility Fox and the Kitten, later made in India as the Sipani Dolphin. Probably their two most notable cars were designed by Tom Karen of Ogle Design—the Ford V6-powered Scimitar GTE and the inimitable Bond Bug. The Bug became an instant cult car (and still is), with its lurid orange paintwork, cheese-wedge shape and cut-off rear end showing the back axle. Love it or loath it, it was a car no one ever forgot. Amazingly, Reliant was for some years the biggest UK-owned car maker (its total output over the years was 650,000) but, as with so many others, it couldn’t compete against bigger continental and Japanese firms. Also, tighter car safety rules and an EU law change that ended motorcyclists being allowed to drive three-wheelers obliged Reliant to stop making cars. Today a vestigial company still supplies spares for some of the many Reliants and Bonds still on the road. Their names live on.

Amber Lights

Whisky-related stories brought to life in book

November 18 2017

One of the great whisky-linked success stories is Bailey’s – Irish whisky and cream, plus other ingredients, which is a global phenomenon and has spawned countless imitations, none quite up to the original. Amazingly, the drink was first concocted by David Gluckman, a South African Jewish advertising man working in London, who mixed it in 1973 in his Soho office from Jameson’s, a tub of supermarket cream, sugar and drinking chocolate. All this and much more can be found in his book, “That S*it Will Never Sell”, recently published by Prideaux Press at £25. He and a business partner ran a brand development agency which was asked by IDV (International Distillers and Vintners, now part of Diageo) to develop a new drink for an Irish subsidiary, as Ireland was assisting firms spawning Irish products with export potential. David had helped to create the Kerrygold butter brand and knew Ireland’s dairy products. But mixing whisky and cream was then a step in the dark. The name Bailey’s came from the pub under David’s office, the initials R&A Bailey were chosen from the Royal and Ancient in St Andrews. Testing the prototype drink on focus groups didn’t go well. Male drinkers sniffed it was “a woman’s drink” and a female group said it “looked like kaolin and morphine”, a well-known cure for diarrhoea. Luckily, David had placed two test bottles in a London pub and within days one vanished. The publican said two off-duty cops had tried it and emptied the bottle. That was the clincher. Company executives in Dublin loved it and soon the drink went into full production. It was no overnight success, but over the years Bailey’s became the drinks success story par excellence. Within eight years, it was selling zillions of bottles a year and it remains a shining star in Diageo’s crown. David has since helped launch countless other drink brands, some successful, some not, but nothing matches his success with Bailey’s. His book is pithily written (as one would expect) and sheds plenty light on the advertising/brand promotion/PR world where lavish, well-lubricated lunches are matched by rejections, put-downs and, after months of effort, occasional failure.  Whether you’re in the trade or just a casual reader, it’s a book to be sipped with pleasure.  

Amber Lights

Raising a glass to distillery tour guides

August 19 2017

Apart from working as a journalist, I have spent many years working as a tourist guide. Many foreign groups I accompany around Scotland have at least one distillery on their holiday itinerary, others are just one long pilgrimage to one distillery to the next. And I can say the vast majority of distillery tours are enhanced by the guides – who are knowledgeable, enthusiastic about their distillery and its whisky and, to boot, often very witty. I have noted how nearly all of them, after the initial fire and safety blurb, immediately ask how many of their visitors have been to a distillery before. Every year, more and more hands shoot up. What’s more, those hands have sampled drams not in one previous distillery, but sometimes 17 or more. It seems some whisky devotees can never see enough distilleries. Many observers would assume that, over time, their fervour would wane. After all, nearly every malt distillery has the same sequence of malt intake chute and bins, grist mill, mash tun, boiler, washbacks, copper stills, spirit vat and casking store. Yet these aficionados never tire of seeing them – and presumably of sampling a dram or two at tour’s end. And they come here unprompted by any marketing or publicity from VisitScotland: their devotion to Scotland and whisky is as total as it is self induced. In response, many distilleries have developed their visitor centres and tours to a fine art, with tour after tour purring through like trains on the London tube. At other distilleries it’s still a work in progress, but I notice how they improve year by year. Indeed, some distillery tours have almost become too smooth, slick and choreographed – one almost wishes a deluge of froth would gush from a washback or a fire alarm go off at an awkward moment to interrupt the guide’s patter. But I’ve yet to see that happen. Well, perhaps just once. At the end of a tour in Canada, in a warehouse where racked casks stretched out of sight, I asked the guide – a very serious student on a summer job – if they had their own cooperage. She looked blank and replied: “That is an expression with which I am not familiar.” Wow, she must have studying for a PhD in obfuscation.  

Motoring news

Back to the Future for DeLorean

March 29 2017

Most classic cars tend to have long and glorious histories, even if the grim reaper of the car world eventually seals their fate. The DeLorean DMC-12 is different: it was a flash-in-the-pan, here-and-gone car that was built on one man’s Trumpian hubris and abetted by a British Labour government desperate to attract new industry to Northern Ireland. Production should have started in 1979 but it was 1981 before the assembly line was running properly. Early cars suffered major quality problems, caused in part by an inexperienced workforce, and the teething problems that all new plants and cars tend to suffer. DeLorean had to set up special centres in the US to rectify problems before the cars could be retailed. The car got a mixed reception. Despite a rorty V6 engine, it was considered underpowered and the sticker price of $25,000 put it out of many potential buyers’ reach. Gradually the wheels fell off the DeLorean bandwagon. Desperate for money, John DeLorean was caught agreeing to smuggle drugs to try and stave off financial collapse. In 1985 the factory at Dunmurry, Belfast, was closed and its plant and equipment sold off at fire-sale prices. Red ink was only matched by red faces. Amid all the shambles, the car itself was, frankly, not a bad piece of kit. All body panels were stainless steel—expensive but it meant no rust treatment, no primer, no paintwork to go wrong. It had gullwing doors and its mid-engine with rear-wheel-drive gave it good handling. All cars went to the US, so it was LHD from day one – another useful production-line saving. What really gave the car immortality was its central role in the Back to the Future trilogy in which, thanks to its plutonium-guzzling flux capacitor, it could travel through time as easily as lesser vehicles cross the Tay Bridge. Even before the film, the car had a big US fan club which is still going strong today. A Texas-based firm today makes, sources and supplies all spare parts and one can even buy an all-new DeLorean (for $57,000) made from original and replacement parts. It is thought some 6,500 of the original 9,000 cars produced are still on the road and the car has a devoted following, mainly in the US but in other countries as well. One occasionally sees them for sale in British classic car mags or websites. It is interesting to ponder whether the car would enjoy its ongoing appeal without its rarity value and the impact of Back to the Future. As for John DeLorean, he died disgraced and forgotten in 2005 aged 80, possibly still wishing he’d found a financial flux capacitor in 1985 to save his great dream from the scrapyard.