Life beyond Lagavulin

Life beyond Lagavulin

Michael Jackson refutes the belief that new devotees of whisky want blandness in their drams
Where does one start with malts? This has to be the question I am most often asked. Normally I would say: start with something relatively mild in flavour, perhaps a Lowlander like Auchentoshan or Glenkinchie, or one of the gentler Speysiders, maybe Cardhu or Knockando.

A remarkably common comment comes from the person who has 'just got into malts'. I ask when they discovered them. 'Last week.' What have they tasted so far? As it turns out, not Auchentoshan or Glenkinchie. Nor Cardhu or Knockando. Nothing light at all. Quite the opposite.

'Only Lagavulin, but we just love it. What should we try next?'

What can I say? I could try: 'You should have been shocked, hated the stuff, and been put off single malts for life?' Perhaps not. I mumble unconvincingly about older ages of Ardbeg, obscure vintages of Longrow, rare bottlings of very old Glen Garioch or Clynelish. When this happens, which is very often, I wish I had a marketing man at my shoulder. If I did, would he learn anything? Probably not, but he might have the good sense to jump out of the window.

Marketing men's stock-in-trade is the self-fulfilling prophecy. They constantly tell us that, in all areas of food and drink, we want even paler, lighter-bodied, blander products. Many people do, but the industry appeases them at its peril. Make Scotches lighter and blander and the message is clear: 'malt, peat, sherry, salt and seaweed taste horrible. We are doing our best to remove all whisky tastes from our product. Lack of flavour is good'.

This might be more succinctly expressed in two words: 'Drink vodka.'

There is no shortage of bland whisky for those who like it. What we need, and should be filling into casks this very minute, is a really robust product for the consumer who is drinking Lagavulin today and wants to graduate to something more pungent tomorrow. Even if we do it today, there will be nothing to bottle for quite some years. I hope we can retain the interest of those precocious novices in the meantime.

Such consumers may be a minority, but they are not insignificant. On both sides of the Atlantic, Lagavulin is the biggest seller among the six whiskies marketed as The Classic Malts. The people who drink Lagavulin and Laphroaig, for example, are a new generation of whisky devotees. They visit the distilleries, tell their friends, talk up the joys of malts.

Perhaps I should not be so cautious when I answer that most frequent question.
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