Whisky and WAGs, who would have thought it? There I am, flicking through the United Kingdom's topselling red top, The Sun, (I didn't buy it you understand, someone had discarded it on the train) and there it is, a piece on the cratur, slapbang next to one about Theo Walcott's girlfriend.
For those of you who don't know who Theo Walcott is, he is a moderately successful English footballer. A WAG, for our bemused international readers, is a Wife And Girfriend (I know it should be Wife OR Girlfriend, but that resulting acronym would get even The Sun into trouble, and quite rightly so, I hasten to add. But I digress).
Seeing a positive mention of the amber liquid in the UK press is rare these days.. all part of the febrile atmosphere surrounding drink. Wine writing has been reduced to a few weekly recommendations, while spirits only get a look-in when the issue of binge-drinking rears its head.
Which is every second day.
The reason for The Sun's sudden interest in whisky was nothing to do with bad behaviour, but centred around the Japanese double in the World Whiskies Awards
. In fact, the whole UK press (or at least the Murdoch-owned part of it) has got rather exercised about this. "Should the Scotch industry be worried?" a journalist from The Sunday Times asked me. I explained that: no they shouldn't (and weren't), that the Japanese industry is much smaller, that its whiskies are different and anyway it's a world family. He seemed happy enough with this.
The advantage of the Japanese victory is that it allows us to talk about whisky in an upbeat way, because it underlines how the whole industry: Scotch, Japanese, Irish, American is enjoying a worldwide rise and one which isn't driven by binge drinkers – I don't see many of them clutching a £150 bottle of Yoichi as they stagger from the pub.
That said, I'm only glad that Diageo didn't announce its remake/remodel of Bell's in the same week as the WWA. Then, the press would have had the (apparent) evidence of a Japanese induced panic. The fact that the UK's biggest blend has been given an extreme makeover is big news, though it's not a knee-jerk reaction.
The new Bell's, though somewhat confusingly called Original, is very good, lighter than the old 8 Years Old, but characterful and more amenable for mixing, so there's been no drop in quality. Its arrival frees up stocks (and saves money) which makes sense at this time when Diageo is experiencing a tightening feeling in stocks.
Switching to no-age however is risky and will necessitate a long conversation with a public which has been led to believe (by the whisky trade) that old = good and that therefore an age statement is a carrier of quality message.
Dropping 8yo will make it seem to many drinkers that the quality has fallen. Careful handling will be needed.It also infers that the rationale behind the switch in the first place, to try and raise the image of standard blends, hasn't worked and that another tack is needed. That's no problem, as long as you don't discard brand truths by reformulating. The assumption that whisky remains the same, that blend recipes are set in stone is simply not true. Scotch whisky owes its success to the way in which it has created drams which appeal to an ever-evolving global palate.
The change to Bell's suggests this, as does the reformulation of Glenmorangie, Auchentoshan, Dalmore and many more.
I thought of this as I wandered the hills of Speyside recently. What would George Smith and the Cummings have made of these changes? I suspect they would have approved. They, too, switched from making moonshine to making single malt and then from that to making a spirit which the blenders wanted.
Whisky changes and as long as the change is rooted in quality then that can be no bad thing.
So, for those of you who kindly offered me a hug, thanks.. I'm cheerier.