By Dave Broom

Snakes and Ladders

The complexity of flavours
So there I was, half way up a ladder behind the bar of Cobbler in Brisbane. "Jim McEwan did it," they told me. Now I know that Jim has a dodgy hip so if he could so could I, though obviously I didn't stand on such a high rung as my old buddy. That would have been disrespectful.

Actually, throughout this flying trip 'Down Under' it was noticeable how prominent library ladders were in many of Oz's bars. The reason is simple. There is so much whisky stashed on the shelves that the only way you can get to it is by ascending to the heavens.

Australia was important to Scotch. The assumption has long been that when exports started in earnest at the end of the 19th Century that most of the whisky was destined for the US. Not so. Australia was the most important export market for Scotch until the outbreak of World War II. You could argue, therefore, that Australia made Scotch whisky. Recent years have been less kind. This was a market where Bourbon RTDs (ready to drink) ruled and where Scotch was hard to sell. Brands had scaled back their operations, seeing richer and easier pickings elsewhere.

But now… The after-work drink is no longer wine or white spirit-based. It's whisky, be it as a highball, with fresh squeezed apple juice. The mid-evening drink is whisky, the late night glass is as well. Every city has dedicated - and rammed - whisky bars; every cocktail bar has a great selection. From pariah to the go-to spirit. The transformation has been dramatic.

Here, suddenly, is a dynamic, innovative, fun, quality-obsessed market with new drinkers of all sexes embracing Scotch at places such as Melbourne's Kilburn; Cobbler and The Gresham in Brisbane; the mighty Baxter Inn in Sydney. All have a lot to teach us.

When standing half-way up that ladder, another thought struck me. About ladders in fact. Metaphorical ones. When I started out, back in whisky's Dark Ages, ladders were used to explain everything. New whisky drinkers (of which there were, well, none) started on the bottom rung of a ladder of quality - with standard blends, then worked their way up to deluxe variants (there wasn't anything above 12 Years Old in blends in those days) which were better - and more expensive.

Then, with the arrival of single malt, a new ladder was erected. Rather than being attached to the existing one, it sat off to the side. When a whisky drinker was ready to make the leap to single malt he (and it was a he in those days) stepped off the deluxe rung, dangled over the void and gripped the bottom rung of the malt ladder. Then, the theory went, he started to climb again.

This ladder was less to do with price and all to do with flavour (with flavour being defined in terms of regions). The bottom rung was light, the top rung was smoky. It was a high ladder, because only those with resistance to vertigo would dare ascend to the highest point. Most, it was believed, would enjoy the view from lower vantage points, while gazing down on those cowards languishing still on the blend ladder.

When looking at the ladder theory now, you realise that it was the worst thing to happen to Scotch education. It was elitist, establishing the principle that blends were inferior to malts, and that within blends there was also a hierarchy of quality which was attached to price and age statement. You can see the seeds of discord and misunderstanding being sown.

Of course, the reality is different. whisky's ladders are Escher like, working in a complex, interlinked, fashion with no up or down. Rather, there are points where one can enter the world of whisky. The flavours within malts aren't 'easy' or 'difficult', they are simply different. Blends aren't inferior to malts, they too are different; performing an alternative function, drunk on different occasions, being more versatile. When looked at in this way, standard blends don't even sit on a lower rung in terms of quality. Their function, serve, and occasion are, simply, distinct. Equally, while there may be a ladder in terms of price, it isn't one linked to flavour, or quality.

Brand owners talking up blends will also fix their importance in the minds of this new generation of bartenders.