Friday, 5 April 2013

On the Way to Islay

A great thing about being interested in single malt Scotch whiskies is that in addition to opening up a wonderful world of rich and sophisticated sensory experience directly related with the liquid jewels themselves, exploring this fascinating topic also brings one into contact with a multitude of historical, political and cultural phenomena, things that one might otherwise have not encountered, people one might otherwise have not met, and landscapes one might otherwise have never seen.

A great thing about photographs is that with them, one can share one's otherwise private visual impressions with others. Above you can see a rainbow over Islay. Below are a couple of photographs taken on the way from Edinburgh via Glasgow and Kennacraig to The Island.

An eternalized happy reunion at the Glasgow Bus Terminal

Chillin' with Doggie

Vital Spark

Arrival at Port Askaig

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Scotland Links Added

To celebrate the International Whisky Day, and to facilitate following various things going on in Scotland, I added an assortment of links which can be found by scrolling down the sidebar on the right. The links include Scottish news, politics, independence, and democracy.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Scotland, Independence, and Whisky

On the 15th of October 2012, the Edinburgh Agreement between the United Kingdom Government and Scottish Government on a referendum on independence for Scotland was signed. The political process continues, and before the end of 2014, the electorate (with a lowered voting age from 18 to 16) gets to give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote to the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’. What, then, are the implications of a possible Scottish independence for Scotch whisky?

Scotch whisky is Scotland’s leading single product export, and the UK’s largest FMCG export. Diageo, the biggest player on the field, is investing £ in Scotch whisky production over the next five years. According to BBC, the company’s CEO Paul Walsh has stated that Scottish independence would make no difference to any decision on investing in the country, and that such moves are only made for economic reasons. Walsh also stated that Diageo has a very good relationship with both Holyrood and Westminster, and that he doesn’t think the debate over independence is one Diageo wishes to get into.

A similarly neutral line is taken by The Scotch Whisky Association in its written evidence to the UK Parliament on the foreign policy implications of and for a separate Scotland. The SWA takes no official position on constitutional arrangements within the UK. However, it could be argued that in its written evidence and in its response to the UK and Scottish Governments’ consultations, worries over changing the devolution-based status quo are visible at least beneath the surface.

The SWA points out that the Scotch whisky industry is a major business in the UK, embedded in Scotland, providing employment for around 35.000 people, and contributing massively to the prosperity of the United Kingdom and Scotland. It is also an export-oriented industry, selling nine out of every ten bottles overseas. This leads to various international priorities, which the SWA says are pursued with and through the UK Government whose influence with the European Union institutions ensures that they are handled to the best effect. The existing and apparently very well-working UK framework is analysed with seven paragraphs, whereas the Scottish framework gets only one, its main content seeming to be that the SWA aims to keep the Scottish Government and public agencies updated on industry trade policy priorities.

In late January 2012, British Foreign Secretary William Hague reportedly said in a private meeting that Scotch whisky would be hit by a Foreign Office ban if Scotland breaks away from the UK. According to Hague, Britain’s 140 embassies and high commissions promote whisky for free, but if Scotland becomes independent, Edinburgh would have to take over the job and pay for it. While it might be thought that Hague was merely stating the obvious, with some rhetoric added for dramatic effect, the possibility of diminished promotional resources on an international level seems like a legitimate cause for worry for any export-oriented industry.

The SWA has just held (from 29 November 2012 to 25 January 2013) a ‘From Grain to Glass’ exhibition at the Scottish Parliament to celebrate the Association’s first century. However, the feeling of uncertainty at the prospect of independency with Holyrood might be somewhat intensified by the ongoing disagreement over the principle of minimum alcohol unit pricing between the Scottish Government and the SWA. The latter opposes minimum pricing as damaging to the industry, and has also proceeded to question its legality. The Scottish Government’s expressed aim, on the other hand, is to reduce alcohol harm factors related with health, crime, social care, productive capacity, and wider social costs.

Wherever the constitutional destiny of Scotland may lie at the hands of the electorate in 2014, interested observers may only urge and hope that the political and industrial parties involved possess enough wisdom to steer a sustainable course that continues to take good care of Scotland’s valuable whisky tradition in a way which is also socially responsible.

Monday, 4 February 2013

UISGE 2013 Festival in Helsinki

The Old Student House in Helsinki provided a magnificent venue for the third Finnish UISGE festival organized as a two-day event at the turn of January and February. In the building’s Great Hall and Stage, one could spend two very enjoyable evenings mingling with people sharing an interest in the water of life, and sampling from a selection of two hundred different bottlings. In addition to such floor activities, twenty expertly guided tastings were also arranged in the smaller rooms above.

Festival banners at the entrance

An overview of the Great Hall

The credit for both the original idea and the actual organization of the festival belongs to Mika Jansson and Ilkka Ruponen, who first started developing the very notion of a Finnish whisky festival back in the spring of 2010. The first UISGE 2011 was organized in Gallows Bird, a restaurant in Helsinki’s neighbouring Espoo. The festival turned out to be so popular that a larger venue was definitely needed. The Old Student House situated at the centre of Helsinki then proved to be a very suitable location indeed.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Visual Slices from Lagavulin

My first uisgeous love from Islay was Lagavulin's classic 16 year old from the core range of the distillery. The power of the sophisticated spirit as well as the elegant design of the bottle and the traditional label all strongly appealed to my aesthetic sense and taste. Therefore, it was also a true pleasure to be able to actually visit the site of origin, to enjoy the imposing surroundings at Lagavulin Bay, and to meet some of the people involved in person.

Iain McArthur, Lagavulin's Whisky Legend

Sensory bliss at the Warehouse Tasting

The setting at the Premium Tasting, including the new make

The distillery site on Islay's Kildalton Coast
between Laphroaig and Ardbeg

Our knowledgeable Distillery Tour guide

The distillery's water source

A wee dram back at The Islay Hotel
(both highly recommended - the dram and the hotel!)

Friday, 11 January 2013

Photographs from Islay

Below are some pictorial impressions of Islay, "The Whiskiest Island", from September 2012. By clicking on the photos, you can view them in greater size.

Feel like getting on the bus?...

My kind of road sign!

The third of the Kildalton trio

Malted barley at Bowmore

Yours Truly performing a vintage bottling at Laphroaig
with instruction and assistance from David

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Now You See It, Now You Don't

Alko is a limited company owned by the Finnish Government, and acting as the national alcoholic beverage retailing monopoly in Finland. Going through the single malt Scotch whiskies listed in Alko’s catalogue, I had noticed some time ago that somewhere along the line, the ‘E150a’ markings had mysteriously disappeared. When had this happened? Closer inspection in personal archives soon revealed that the vanishing had occurred already towards the end of 2011. The 7 June – 2 October catalogue still contained information on the caramel colouring of whiskies, but from the next one (3 October 2011 – 31 January 2012), the markings were gone. The natural follow-up question was: Why had such a deletion taken place?

The Alcohol Control Laboratory (ACL), which is part of Alko’s organisation and responsible for testing the quality of alcoholic beverages, told that this was based on Alko’s own decision. There were various reasons for the ruling. Some producers claim to be using the colouring only for the purpose of retaining consistency between batches, which would mean that E150a would not always be needed. Also earlier, the ‘E’ markings were only to be found on more recently introduced products, while the older ones remained unmarked. This constituted an obvious breach of impartiality. Moreover, although the EU regulations do require the labelling of potentially harmful allergens, E150a is not classified among them.

However, probably the most important reason given by the ACL was that it turned out to be practically impossible to maintain a reliable record of the use of E150a, because its chemical analysis proved too challenging under prevailing conditions. The liquid chromatography method used by the laboratory could not reliably detect the presence of E150a, and since the colouring itself is quite harmless, the decision was made to remove the markings altogether. The director of the laboratory suggested that the situation would be altered, if a reliable method of analysis could be found.