Despair is a common inclination among malt whisky enthusiasts today. They decry the industrialisation of the industry, the homogenisaition of the product and the fact that whisky is ‘not as good as it used to be’. I admit that I am as guilty of this as anyone. Last year I wrote about the notion of terroir in whisky and posited that it existed through an intermediary relationship with the people that made it and through their own relation to the land in which they lived and work. A ‘transferred’ terroir. Revisiting that has given me pause for thought on the subject once again, I have come to believe it is an analysis that holds merit but it is only one part of the picture.
Ask around and the common reasons given by most people for the decline in character in Scottish whisky throughout the 1970s and 80s will usually be the unbridled pursuit of yield and efficiency in production. A slavering quest to supply the demand and then to grow the demand even further. It is likely most people would point to the fact that character tended to diminish in parallel with the distilleries gathering in ever larger groups under a few very broad company roofs. It is easy to look at the situation and hold it up as an example of a very traditional model of capitalism that destroys the existing in order to create the new. A process of rationalisation from the perspective of the enterprises which instigate and execute the changes. The rise of the modern era of whisky, however, is a more complex evolution that really began with the end of the second world war. It’s easy to lay the blame at the feet of the ‘accountant’ – I have certainly been guilty of that myself – but the reasons are more myriad than that.
Whisky was one of the real victors of the second world war. It was a drink that had percolated into the synapses of the western world via the twin drips of the officer class and Hollywood. Let’s call this Phase 1: recognition. The realisation that demand was beginning to outstrip supply kickstarted the long arc of change that would take place over the coming decades. This would result in the first fledgling changes to the technology and means of production in the 1950s. Although the methodology and technology would remain firmly rooted in the pre-war style for most of this decade.
Phase 2 would be the first serious steps towards modernisation. From the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s the vast majority of Scottish distilleries altered their production equipment. Steam – which had been a rare technology in distillation since the late 19th century – would become the dominant source of still heating by the late 1960s. Similarly, worm tubs were usually replaced with column condensers at the same time. The net effects were not as immense on distillate character as some have argued but it was one of the most significant alterations to the technology and DNA of malt whisky production since the 19th century. In tandem with this the first move towards uniformity was initiated with the decommissioning of the majority of on site floor maltings at distilleries and the rise of the centralised, commercial maltings. Part of the move towards ever greater efficiency involved the regulation of ways in which the worker was able to influence the product. The centralisation of malting removed a significant part of the interaction between worker and product and kickstarted this process of regulation. The net effects of these changes formed a stepping stone in the process which made possible the sweeping, and far more destructive ‘innovations’ that were to come.
The late 1960s through to the early 1980s might be termed ‘Phase 3’. This began as an era of huge appetite and grand prediction. Sights were set on emerging markets in scales hitherto un-pondered in the whisky industry. The companies were swelling is size as well, the industry became less fragmented as distilleries began to coagulate under large corporate roofs. Those in charge of looking at the numbers saw potential and looked to science for the answers to their problems. In their eyes they needed to make more whisky, more quickly and more efficiently. Science provided in the form of distiller’s yeast, higher yielding strains of barley and, latterly, a lopsided infatuation with ever more active wood and wood technology. It’s difficult to overstate what a powerful agent of change distiller’s yeast was to Scottish whisky. Over the course of the 1970s it sounded the death knell for overt fruit flavour at almost all of Scotland’s distilleries. This was an era of massive upheaval. Several distilleries were entirely re-constructed, or re-built anew – Caol Ila, Clynelish, Glendullan, Linkwood – in their place stood modern factories for the blenders. Almost all distilleries underwent some significant modernisation during this era, most in terms of their equipment; all in terms of their process and ingredients.
The products that emerged from these distilleries at the end of the 1970s are very close to the character of distillate we recognise in the same distilleries today. That embryo has since flourished into exactly what its conceivers envisioned: a vast, high yeilding, efficiency driven industry. Of course it took a lot longer to emerge than they originally envisioned, the market fell away sharply in the early 1980s. When closures became commercially necessary it was a very easy decision as to which ones should go. It was the least modified distilleries which were closed, the ones that would be too expensive to ‘upgrade’ or that still produced in a relatively pre-modern fashion. Clynelish 1, Glenlochy, Glenugie, Coleburn, St Magdalene: all swept away by perceived irrelevance.
As the industry emerged, blinking into the light of the 1990s, it was in good ‘technological’ shape to fulfill its destiny. There is indeed much to decry about what has happened. The emergence of corporate monoliths such as Diageo and Pernod Ricard have created distinctly segregated tiers in the way they structure their companies and in how they distribute the profits they have reaped from this ‘gralloching’ of Scotland’s whisky industry. Those that sell it are quite separated from those that make it. Speak to numerous production workers in distilleries today and you’ll find plenty that take issue with the modern methodology, and ideology, of production. It’s not worth their livelihood or family’s wellbeing to go against the way they are told to do things though. I spoke recently to a distillery manager for another article I was writing, he told me:
“Men took greater pride in their work when they could see their actions having a real impact on the product. Even if they weren’t great whisky drinkers they loved seeing a bottle of their whisky in the local pub or giving a bottle of whisky to a friend as a present, something they had a real influence in making. That’s not there anymore, not to the same extent as it used to be.”
How connected can you feel to a product when your role in its creation becomes solitary and related to the correctly timed pushing of buttons? There are undoubtedly many good malt whiskies still produced in Scotland but it has become an industry of factories. An industry long divorced from true notions of craft, authenticity or tradition; except in the abstract as instruments of marketing. The very worst aspects of capitalism emerge when it is allowed to unleash the natural hunger of human greed without checks or balance. A vast corporation is a machine in which each individual can contribute but in which so few can regulate. The greed of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
It all sounds rather dreadful. But whisky is a slow burning product, how pesky that three year rule and how hard they strive to construct apparent maturity. It is an industry that sways back and forth to the tune of decades; something that is hard to fully reflect upon in the brief flourish of a human lifetime. When we take a step back it is possible to see that the very hunger at which we level blame for the loss of malt whisky’s soul is actually the very same hunger which gave us the greatest whiskies ever made. The ones we laud, love and worship in the face of their bland descendants.
In the early 19th century the law finally began to favour the distiller rather than fight them. The right to make a living from commercial distilling was probably the greatest catalyst of change to whisky that there has ever been. It was the sinewed hand that dragged the drink kicking and screaming from the methanol-tinged confines of the illicit croft. We all like to daydream about what it might have tasted like were we proffered liquid hospitality on some far flung highland croft in the late 18th century. No doubt it would be fascinating. To taste an un-aged distillate, replete with heather, honey or whatever other infusions were at hand. But I think we all know it would not be a drink of such grace and pleasure as the great, well matured single malts of the 20th century. The commercial necessity of scale and size was the kernel that allowed whisky to bloom. Small may be romantic, but the greatest whiskies have all been made at commercial scale, reasonably sized distilleries. Likewise the scale required transit and storage. The subsequent tradition of maturation that went from an incidental – or optional – process to a widespread necessity further helped cement brilliance into whisky’s DNA.
The commercial ambition of the very first whisky producers led to the creation of a spirit of unrivaled complexity and beauty. A drink that lends itself to the joyous and the downhearted in equal measure; to the revelry of old friends and the quiet introspection of the solitary mind. The evolution of this commercial hunger has done great things for Scotland. Each bottle of whisky has been a liquid ambassador for our country, it has put us on the map and been a magnet for tourism that only grows stronger with each coming year. The economic benefits in terms of job creation cannot be ignored either, the provision of jobs in rural areas and the fringe work created for associated industries and trades has had a long term positive effect on living standards in parts of Scotland that are often otherwise neglected by industry.
This all brings us back to a question I posited last year but left unanswered.
“The gain from the diminishment in the character of whisky is the fattening of the industry, the creation of more jobs in other sectors outside production and the wellbeing of the people that fill them. Whether the gain is worth the cost in whisky terms is for each individual to measure in their own minds.”
I think now the question is less relevant than before when you take into account the sweeping history of this industry, where it is today and the possibilities for the future.
Craft, boutique, small scale, independent, micro distilleries. The language has become sprawling and – in many cases – irrelevant. Neutered by the fact that this new raft of start-up distilleries are simply small-scale copies of the efficiency-centric production model perfect by Diageo et al. The potential for a positive future for whisky lies with them though. Put aside for a while your feelings on the ‘craft’ debate and look at what the net result is of where the industry is today. The direction it has sent itself in is irreversible and looks set to continue. I would say lament not what it has undone in its pursuit of this path but look to the space it has created.
If the worlds of beer and wine have taught us one thing, it is that there is room for an industry to split. There are now hundreds of big, profitable, quality driven brewing operations around this planet. Companies that do embody a definition of craft, something that is worth quoting from the Oxford English Dictionary here:
An activity involving skill in making things by hand
Companies where their workers can feel a sense of connection to the product they make and take pride in its promotion and sale. Similarly the world of wine has recognised a space for bottles at the €3 end of spectrum and the €100+ end as well. The ‘Grand Cru’ philosophy of absolute quality pervades numerous wineries all over the world. They recognise that the effort and expense required to make a product of absolute, uncompromising beauty and quality is worth it. You can create a model based on quality where you grow demand and value rather than production and efficiency.
Whisky is perfectly capable of embracing these principles as well. It now has the space to do so in the market, more clearly defined than ever by a mainstream industry hell-bent on rationalising itself away into the clouds. It is the duty of the new generation of start-up distillers to build a secondary industry and take up this gauntlet. Let the big players churn out their blends and their brands. The world of serious whisky enthusiasm is still comparatively small, but it is meaningful, dedicated and educated enough to support an appropriately sized industry catering to its desires. They must be bold, reject these notions that efficiency and yield are royalty above all else. The evidence is there – Springbank is there – this sort of approach can work and can be done. Rid yourselves of distiller’s yeast, spend the same money making less whisky but make it better. Make your production process as hands on as possible, take more time, allow human interaction, give your workers as distinctive a voice in the final product as possible. We needn’t be facing a future dominated by vanilla, NAS and insulting marketing. On the contrary, whisky is a drink, and a subject, rife with possibility right now. This notion that commercial hunger trumps all and that you cannot have profit and beauty is false. The coming world will be one in which green energy and localism of enterprise are essential components. This is an environment in which the smaller-scale, quality focused distillery can flourish. Make something that deserves its high price tag!
The question is: do we accept the status quo and let things simply slide away into industrial corporatism, or do we seize that possibility with both hands? The answer lies with those starting out on the long road of creating and bringing to market a new whisky – the next decade will tell…