Interview: Dave Broom on whisky’s brave new world

Interview
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Dave Broom has arguably been the world’s leading whisky and spirits writer over the last two decades. The sheer breadth and quality of his work across whisky, rum, gin, bars, cocktails and even wine, is unparalleled.

The Scotsman was recently in Australia for a screening of his evocative ode to Scotch, The Amber Light, so I caught up with him at a Melbourne pub for a pint and a chat about the new world of whisky. We talked China, the future of Scotch, the opportunities and challenges facing the Australian whisky industry, and even touched on whisky media following last year’s closure of Scotchwhisky.com, the ultimate, and much-loved, resource on Scottish whisky.

Below is an edited extract of our chat (we were in the pub, after all).

China’s obviously in the news at the moment, and I know you recently visited the country, pre-COVID-19, exploring whisky and tea. Some Australian whisky distilleries are looking closely at exporting to China. Is there a market for whisky there?

There is a market for whisky in China. It’s still really small and they’re still trying to figure out how to do it. It’s jumped from being a blend market – Walker came in hard, Chivas came in hard, threw a huge amount of money at karoake night clubs and everything, and lost a huge amount as a result.

But the market’s shifted really quite quickly towards malt, which is great. But also extremely worrying, because we ain’t got enough.

The level of knowledge and the level of interest over there is just growing all the time. There’s some very good retailers starting up, some good bars – there’s a real bar culture beginning to develop. A little bit in Beijing, less in Shanghai, surprisingly, more kind of down south west – Guangzhou, Shenzhen, around there. I find it a really fascinating and, potentially, a very exciting market.

But it’s a tricky culture, and very different. Most spirits are consumed with food. So how do you get the Chinese diner to take whisky rather than baijiu? Different whiskies perhaps, whiskies that will appeal to the palate, go with the food, perhaps not every dish on the table, but have more general appeal. So it’s going to be a really exciting development. I’m out there every year, and it’s changing all the time.

But I did hear this amazing stat, that 98% of spirits drunk in China is baijiu, and then 1 per cent is other Chinese spirits, and the other 1 per cent is imported. If Scotch could get half of that final 1 per cent, there wouldn’t be enough whisky in Scotland to be able to satisfy demand. The numbers become incomprehensible.

And they’re drinking too much at the top end. It needs to be brought down, there needs to be more no age statement or 12 year old or whatever. There’s a great attachment to the older the better, but there simply ain’t enough 20 year old whisky. We’re beginning to hit a real stock shortage of older whisky, because 20-25 years ago, there wasn’t a lot of whisky getting made.

 

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From an Australian whisky context, one of the things being talked about at the moment is consistency and quality. Scottish whisky does this so well, it’s really the genius of Scottish whisky, the consistency, the sheer volume produced, but also the variety and quality you get from so many distilleries and independent bottlers, single casks, etc. With so much chatter about new producers, new regions, does that side of the industry sometimes get lost?

I think it’s not as easy anymore, because everyone likes bright, shiny new things. That’s the nature of the beast. I don’t think it’s daunted the Scotch whisky industry itself. I’m probably more optimistic about Scotch than I was five years ago. I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff now taking place in Scotland. It’s just a matter of, finally, after 100 years of having the market to itself, Scotch now needs to start shouting about itself a bit more. And that’s not its fault.

That was Bourbon sorting itself out, the Canadians were happy to sell down to America and not export, Ireland only had two or three distilleries – Scotch had the world to itself. But all of a sudden now you’ve got almost every country in the world making whisky. So, hello, we’re still here.

But I’m optimistic, because there’s some really exciting stuff coming out.

I’m probably more optimistic about Scotch than I was five years ago. I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff now taking place in Scotland.

We’ve had a few discussions about regionality before, and we’ve now got some in Tasmania pushing for a regional classification, a Tasmanian whisky appellation of sorts. Do you think whisky producing regions and nations should be careful of this? Or should they pursue it, give themselves a clearer identity in what is a pretty crowded market place?

When you talk about regionality, maybe if we talk about Scotch first, because it doesn’t work in Scotch. I mean Islay works, because it’s geographically defined. Campbeltown works because it’s geographically defined. The rest of it’s either political divisions or tax lines, so that’s not what regionality is about.

I think restricting things like barley is potentially dangerous – one bad crop, you ain’t got any whisky. So I would caution against that to be honest.

The way I look at regionality is not really as terroir, but more a bio-regional look at it: looking at geology, soil, climate, all of that, growing conditions, watersheds, but also history, people, stories, culture, because all of that impacts on people’s sensibilities, not just what grows there, but how it’s utilised.

Think in terms of wine. If you plant cab sav in Coonawarra, you plant cab sav in Margaret River, and Bordeaux and Napa, you’ve got the same grape variety, but you will have four completely different results. And it’s not just the soil, it’s the thinking of the people. You think of the Super Tuscans, for example, you’ve got Bordeaux blends being made in Italy, but with an Italian sensibility. That’s regionality for me. It’s understanding where you are, rather than imposing an idea. It seems a little bit more abstract, but I think it kind of makes sense.

The way I look at regionality is not really as terroir, but more a bio-regional look at it: looking at geology, soil, climate, all of that, growing conditions, watersheds, but also, history, people, stories, culture, because all of that impacts on people’s sensibilities, not just what grows there, but how it’s utilised.

It then becomes interesting for various distillers – how does a distillery in Glasgow or London or Melbourne or New York define itself? How is that substantially different from a distillery in Texas or the Isle of Raasay? Because the thinking is different, the people are different, and the history of the place is going to be different. That’s regionality for me. Regionality is less to do with legislation and more to do with thinking.

I’m all for the guys in Tasmania going, yep, we want to define ourselves as this. But I think as soon as you begin to corral it and say it has to have this legally, I think you’re moving into a very dangerous area.

Again, looking from a wine point of view, the appellation system in France essentially collapsed because of that very fact. It’s not just, you have to grow this, but you also have to make it in this particular way.

And distillers don’t like having their hands tied. Distillers want to be able to do mental things. And so, they have to think long and hard about, yes, we want to define who we are because we’re proud of being Tasmanian, but you don’t want to be restricting yourself ten years down the line.

 

Lark Distillery mash tun.

 

Do you think single malt whisky should be made in one place? The mashing, fermentation, distilling all happening in the one location?

I think if you have a very good relationship with one brewery, then okay, but I would prefer to see everything happen in the one location.

I think that mashing is actually one of the big areas that’s not given enough credit. There’s a lot of talk about maturation and a lot of talk about distillation. With fermentation, people are now thinking, actually, that’s where flavour is created. But there’s flavour and style created in mashing as well. Again, it’s coming back to that point, distillers are control freaks. And if you’re handing that part of your process to someone else, do you really want to do that?

Because how do you fine tune it, how do you walk past those fermenters and smell them and go, hang on a minute, that’s behaving slightly differently. It’s part and parcel of what distilling is – it’s the distillation of aromas, the noises and clunks, the getting to know every nuance. And often it’s knowing when, actually, that’s wrong, or this is wrong, or finding something that’s acting a little weird that sets off a different train of thought.

If all you’re doing is just being a distillation place, I don’t think that’s whisky-making, I think that’s just distilling.

Anything Australian distillers can learn from all the newer whisky distilleries you’ve seen overseas?

All the new whisky industries are still so small, they’re not really geared up for export just yet and they’re very localised.

What can they learn? I think two things: 1. be true to yourself, and 2. don’t be scared of larger casks and refill casks. Allow the distillery to speak. I think it’s changing in Australia, and I think the situation has shifted here in the past two years.

Wood-led, cask-led whiskies can come from anywhere. And if you’re going to start developing a single malt industry, then all these distilleries have to have an individual personality, and the personality is coming from the new make; the personality isn’t coming from the wood. The wood’s there to help that new make get an extra layer of complexity.

And I think European distillers understand that. A lot of them are looking to Japan, and Japan doesn’t really make wood-led whiskies, by and large.

Wood-led, cask-led whiskies can come from anywhere. And if you’re going to start developing a single malt industry, then all these distilleries have to have an individual personality, and the personality is coming from the new make; the personality isn’t coming from the wood.

In terms of whisky in the media, and the closure of Scotchwhisky.com, is that something we can talk about?

Yeah, with Scotchwhisky.com, it was a real shame. That was seven years of hard work by a great team. Everybody behind the scenes, the folk who were pouring money into it, the writing team, we really believed in it. But, financially, it wasn’t sustainable. It’s as simple as that. And that makes me worry.

 

Scotchwhisky.com

 

Do you think the closure of a site as respected and highly-read as Scotchwhisky.com is potentially symptomatic – are we getting to the point now where the funding model for strong media coverage of niche subjects like whisky isn’t really there?

Look, there’s no blame attached to this at all. But if you’re a brand, the old method of taking out an ad on a specialty site or in a specialist magazine, that doesn’t work anymore. It’s much easier to do the Twitter tasting, or the Facebook or Instagram post, or whatever with social media.

The traditional media outlets are struggling. You see that with news and their coverage of niche subjects.

And so it was a slap, it was a real reality check for us. Because when it closed down, I was speaking to Richard [editor of Scotchwhisky.com] and Noah from The Daily Beast, and I was going – it was around about Christmas time – I’ve really not written anything for three months. And Richard went, yeah, me too, cause he went through a similar situation, and it was almost like a period of mourning you kind of go through [laughing].

And it’s not that you can’t do it, or you’re depressed or whatever, it’s that, now, who’s going to publish this? Where are people going to get the information from?

We committed so much to Scotchwhisky.com. Now, where are the new writers coming from? You know this yourself, what’s the best way to get information out there about Australian whisky, set up your own website, and be honest and be true and get that information out there. Because there ain’t media outlets out there that are going to take it. We’ve just got to accept that fact, and try and find new ways, cunning new ways, to get it out there.

Do those new ways mean taking money from the industry you’re covering? Is that just going to become an excepted reality of how media gets funded?

I hope it isn’t. I hope it’s not just product placement. I think one of the most dispiriting things, particularly in the UK, was trying to find new writers. And what we discovered is that people are really good at writing opinions, but they’re not necessarily good at sitting back and analysing. Being able to go, okay, this is my opinion, but that actually doesn’t matter, it’s about the people I’m interviewing – this is about them.

And I think that’s another fundamental shift in writing and writing style. Because of blogs, because of twitter, because of all that, everybody has an opinion and that’s good and that’s valid, but people aren’t very good at being quiet anymore and stepping back and asking why. And listening. And excepting that they don’t know everything.

Will that change, yeah maybe. I don’t know. I’m just an old man moaning [laughing]. I’m an old man, sitting in a pub, moaning about shit [we’re both laughing now].

…people aren’t very good at being quiet anymore and stepping back and asking why. And listening. And excepting that they don’t know everything.

 

The Amber Light

 

What are you most looking forward to writing now?

I’m looking forward to writing my new book. I’m looking forward to my new gin book coming out as well.

And yes, a new book, a new whisky book, just when I swore I wouldn’t write another whisky book. But I had an idea about doing a kind of Scottish equivalent of the The Way of Whisky. That book looked at Japanese sensibility, and the Scotch one is going to be looking more at place, what we were talking about earlier. Looking at Orkney, the north east, Highlands, the central belt, Campbeltown, Islay. Not going to distilleries, but looking at the story of whisky and also what’s happening now, how distillers are re-establishing links with community and place, because I think that’s a really interesting story that is happening now. I’ve been mulling it about for a while. Some of it spun off into the film, but it’s not the book of the film, it’s off on a slightly different tangent.

And then a complete re-write of The World Atlas of Whisky.

Yes! I love that book.

 

A big thanks to Dave Broom for his time. And check out his fascinating new website here.