By Dave Broom

As easy as Alpha, Beta…

Dave Broom launches the resistance against the whisky terroiristes
Apparently supermarket lighting is engineered to make us blink less frequently, inducing a trancelike state which makes us more amenable to suggestions. I suspect a similar thing goes on in airports.Being in transit makes you do one of three things: sit in silence in the bar, fall asleep or start shopping. I tend to do the last. That’s how, when I was wandering aimlessly through Birmingham airport recently, I picked up a black and pink leaflet which proclaimed ‘Alpha Whisky Bravo.Discover Whisky.’ Alpha is the duty free franchise operator at this and other United Kingdom airports. I began reading it. This is how it started: “Whisky. You either like it or you don’t.” Well, bang goes any chance of attracting the mildly curious.It didn’t get much better, being cluttered with inaccuracies: Canadian bourbon; monks whose official duty it was to distil the barley; whisky being made from water, barley and peat; single malt “uses only one malted barley”; apparently in a blend: “the higher the blend percentage the higher the concentration of grain whiskies in the blend”. If you can work that last one out, please do let me know.Malts are broken down by region. Lowland malts are “clean and simple”, Speysides are either “elegant and spicy”, or “rich and fruity”, while those from somewhere called Islay are “demanding [of] an acquired palate”.It was the description of the Highland region which brought home how outmoded this way of talking about malt has become. The Highlands, we are told, encompass everything from light to medium to full-bodied. “Fine and delicate”, or “full and assertive”, even salty.Only when you see it written down do you begin to think that it’s perhaps time we re-evaluated this terroiriste view of whisky production. Talking about ‘Highland’ whiskies is the same as saying that in France you have Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and then “French wine.”This regional strategy also lies behind the inference, found in my leaflet and elsewhere, that ‘virgin’ drinkers proceed from light to heavy whiskies in small incremental steps. Which simply isn’t true. It smacks of the stuffy elitism which has hampered the true enjoyment of malt making it a rite of passage, something which has to be endured. It summons up images of a young man being taken along to a gentleman’s club, forced into an ill-fitting tweed jacket and being made to sit, awkward, scratching, uncomfortable as his uncle holds forth. “Aye. Get the lad a dram... He’s young. Make it a Lowland. Mine’s a Laphroaig.”Remarkably, the leaflet almost redeems itself by then showing how Alpha has graded its whiskies into seven styles ranging from “delicate” to “powerful”. In principle, this is a decent idea.Since airports like Birmingham sell more Bell’s than Balvenie, the leaflet shows Alpha sees that there is profit to be made in malt (an unusual concept in the UK these days) and realises that to maximise this it needs to educate its customers in order to trade them up. This is good.The trouble is that the message has been mangled.What is frustrating is that the leaflet is so nearly right. It reads as if it’s been written by someone who has at least skimmed a whisky book if not done some basic training. If the latter, it seems as if the teacher hasn’t checked if this person actually understood what he was saying.Its failings demonstrate the need for the industry to agree on some form of basic education and training plan.Until the simple messages are put across effectively whisky will be stuck in a rut. “You either like it or you don’t” is a much easier way of selling a brand than embarking on the troublesome task of convincing new drinkers to try your product and it’s one which big brands always seem to fall back on. Until we address this education issue and widen the scope of the conversation whisky will also drift into a trance-like state of delusion.