Giving liquor a bad name

23 July, 2018

A while ago i was walking through Glasgow Airport when I saw a bottle of single malt on offer.

It had a neck tag saying it had won a top award, so I bought it. But when I tasted it, it was a total disappointment – so much so that I rang a writing colleague who had been heavily involved with the judging of the award.

“Yes I know,” he said. “The whisky in that bottle isn’t the same as the whisky we tasted.”

This is not an isolated incident. In another year I helped choose a world-beating whisky and was quoted when the award was announced. The whisky had an alcoholic strength of 47.5%. Within weeks it was being marketed as an award-winning whisky but its strength was now 43% and it was a totally different and vastly inferior whisky. My quotes were still being applied – but to the wrong whisky.

And it happens even with expensive whisky. I’ve tasted Highland Park 30 Year Olds that have been rich, oaky and sherried, and ones that have been delicate, citrussy and like grapefruit marmalade. Both styles were stunning but if you’ve shelled out £600 for one and ended up getting the other, which couldn’t be more different, well that’s an issue.

These examples of Scottish single malt are all at the respectable high end of the whisky world, but I mention them because they illustrate a growing issue at the other end of the market.

I’ve just completed a book on American craft distillers, and while there is much to recommend the distilling revolution that has taken place there, there is also considerable concern that, in a sizeable number of cases, consumers are being flogged a three-legged blind donkey rather than a race horse.

This isn’t about snake oil being passed off as amber nectar, though that is an issue – this is an issue of consistency. Many of the new craft products are being made in small quantities and, as with all whiskey, their barrels vary from one to the next. And, as with the examples at the start of this column, some craft whiskies are receiving glowing reviews for one cask, while the consumer experience is left wanting from another.

The result of this is that drinkers seeking out new whiskey experiences are losing their faith and trust in the writers who they think have misled them, consumers are being conned out of often hefty sums to buy gut-rot and pigswill, and the word ‘craft’ is being dragged into the mud.

A number of high-end bar managers have told me that they have either stopped stocking the most blatant offenders, or are having to act as gatekeepers to stop their customers being misled. What comes next is the inevitable backlash from drinkers who object to playing the whiskey equivalent to Russian roulette by paying two or three dollars more for a shot of something they have never heard of, and who are returning to their tried and trusted favourites.

I heard one distributor tell a member of the public that one craft whiskey he had was ‘Marmite – a love it or hate it whiskey’. It wasn’t. It was raw chicken - quite awful.

We need to call this out. Now. Before permanent damage is done.

Digital Edition

Drinks International digital edition is available ahead of the printed magazine. Don’t miss out, make sure you subscribe today to access the digital edition and all archived editions of Drinks International as part of your subscription.


Tess Posthumus

Staffing crisis could open opportunities

The pandemic has thrown many challenges at bar owners over the past couple of years and the ones that survived the various lockdowns and restrictions deserve a pat on the back. However, while revenues are returning and bars are beginning to recruit once more, we’ve come up against a whole new set of problems, one of which is a global starring crisis.