Handbook of Whisky – Dave Broom

A complete Guide To The World’s Best Malts, Blends and Brands

RRP £16.99, ~ £5 on Amazon

First published in 2000 by Hamlyn, a division of Octopus Publishing Group Ltd.

Reprinted in 2012 by Bounty Books, a division of Octopus Publishing Group Ltd.

The Handbook of Whisky from Dave Broom is a potted history and very readable commentary on the world of whisky as it stood at the turn of the millennium. Dave has taken time to seek out the people and faces behind each of the distilleries and re-tell some of their personal experience of working within the Industry at a time when it was becoming almost fully automated and computerised. Although this pack of people has been shuffled in the meantime, a few names are instantly recognizable today even though the distillery they work at may have long since changed. As well as focussing on various Malts from each of the major countries and regions Dave also delves into Blended Scotch which was probably approaching its nadir in popularity as the quality and appreciation of Single Malt Scotch was on the rise.

Amongst the gems in this tome are plenty of pictorial displays of branding, packaging and advertising up until the millennium, revealing how much advertising has changed in the last decade. In particular the bottle labellings have certainly been tidied up and many have lost their twee tartan ornateness in favour of cleaner and more simplistic (corporate almost?) logos. However it was within the section on blended scotch that I found the most interesting items. Before we get to this I found a real gem on a subject quite close to my heart.

Viva Mortlach

Since I got into Whisky ‘more seriously’ around 4 or 5 years ago, I stumbled upon a little known speyside distillery that seemed to generate real passion about its whisky amongst ‘those-in-the-know’ named Mortlach. Heres what Dave had to say in relation to the distilleries Diageo selected to represent its Classic Malts range:

“Mortlach might be the mightiest malt in Speyside, but incredibly it isn’t in the frontline of UDV’s single malt range. If ever there was a classic malt, this is it.”

Apt then that in November 2013 Diageo announced it was doubling capacity at Mortlach by building a complete mirror of the current setup on site, and was to re-structure the output to produce at least four expressions. On the 17th December 2013 they further announced University of Edinburgh Graduate Georgie Bell as their new Global Brand Ambassador for the new Mortlach range. Perhaps finally Mortlach’s whisky will discover the recognition it deserves?

Mortlach 16 Year Old Flora and Fauna
Mortlach 16 Year Old Flora and Fauna

The Art of Blending

As for Dave’s comments on blending I found it particularly interesting to read about how Blenders construct a blend from the building blocks of Malts, rather than working to a specific recipe. As such Blenders have a deep understanding of the flavour profile of the final blended mix and know that should some malts be unavailable that they can be substituted with others to restore the missing characteristics needed in the final blend. I had naively assumed that blend “recipes” were closely guarded trade secrets (like the Colonel’s blend of 11 secret herbs and spices for chicken). This gave me a whole different view of why blenders value certain single malts over others. It also reveals how Blenders must have an intimate knowledge of each distillery’s character – something I have been striving for personally on my whisky journey around Scotland’s (and the rest of the World’s) distilleries.

The one point made that really struck home was the use of Peated (Islay) Malt. For most other non-peated single malts you can get away with adding more into the mix if needed. So what to do with the Islay distillate? Dave spoke to (then) United Distillers and Vinters (UDV, a subsidiary of Diageo) inventory and supply director, Christine Wright. Christine pointed out that:

“There are some distilleries which are capable of producing more than one style of whisky. ‘Caol Ila [a significant player in Bell’s and Walker blends] is one that excites me,’ says Christine. ‘I love that whisky! It’s a superb Islay when you peat it, but unpeated it makes a great Highland malt in the Cragganmore/Clynelish mould. It’s a style we make every year.’…’Heavily-peated Islay whiskies are difficult to salt away in a blend at times of surplus. You can’t just shove them in to use them up, so the fact that Caol Ila can make a great unpeated malt means it will keep producing no matter what.'”

So off I set on a mission to find an un-peated example of Caol Ila. I didn’t have to look far as in 2013 Diageo produced the 8th Special Releases Caol Ila Stitchell Reserve whisky. This un-peated Caol Ila expression is named after the distillery manager Billy Stitchell who was set to retire at the end of 2013 after nearly 40 years of service, and is represented by one of the rare occasions Diageo has honoured an individual or family of distillers by naming a single malt expression after them. Tasting notes to come soon.

Caol Ila Stitchell Reserve. 2013 Special Release
Caol Ila Stitchell Reserve. 2013 Special Release.

 

Finally it was nice to be reminded how inadvertently my life and the world of whisky has long been intertwined during my time in Scotland (something which on a bigger scale I now know as ‘whisky fabric’). On many occasions I have taken part in the Gartmorn 6, a 6 mile or ~10km run around the reservoir behind Gartmorn Dam organised by the Wee County Harriers running club in Alloa every March. As part of the local support for this run that starts on Cooperage Way was the local business that provided changing facilities and a location after the run for the partaking of home-made sandwiches and cakes and the giving of prizes. Little did I realise that for many years I had been changing into and out of my running gear and showering in the Blackgrange Cooperage. Nor that on my way to the finish I was running around the vast warehouse complex that holds the majority of Diageo’s blending stock for Johnnie Walker blends. Sadly the run venue has now changed, and with it my participation – I think I loved the cooperage visit at least as much, if not more so, as the run itself.

Gartmorn 6 medals
Gartmorn 6 medals

2008 Position 110/120, Time 62 min 22sec

2009 Position 160/177, Time 60 min 15 sec

2010 Position 113/132, Time 58 min 46 sec

2011 Position 143/158, Time 58 min 28 sec

Thanks Dave for a great read,

and perhaps I have a few more runs left in me, the next Gartmorn 6 will take place on Sunday 9th March 2014…