Awards & Events

The best year yet

This year's Icons of Whisky were the toughest yet. Drawing up the shortlists was a nightmare.And the voting in nearly all categories was painfully close. Dominic Roskrowreports
By Dominic Roskrow
If you’re reading this and you’re one of the industry personnel invited to vote in this year’s Icons of Whisky Awards but didn’t bother then shame on you. Because this year, more than any other, it really was a case of every vote counting.The Icons of Whisky have been held in one form or another for five years now. In that time the awards and categories have been reshaped and in some cases changed altogether. Some have disappeared, only to reappear in another format; for instance, the independent bottler of the year is now the independent bottlers’ challenge and takes up about 12 weeks of judging over the summer.But never has the process of selecting the recipients of the Icons been harder than it was this year.There is no perfect system to decide these things and because the process is a subjective one, debate will rage for evermore (or at least until next year’s nomination process) as to who should have or shouldn’t have been put on the shortlist.Those lists were this year drawn up initially by a small editorial team and then sent for addition and amendment to Europe, America and Japan. The aim was to come up with just six names worldwide in each category, though in one or two cases that became not just difficult but impossible.It should be obvious, therefore, that just to make the shortlist is a tremendous honour. What made this year so much harder than previous ones – and one can only imagine that it will continue to get tougher still – is the fact that the biggest and most established companies and outlets are being pushed by smaller operations. Arran, Bruichladdich and Inver House particularly did well in these awards, not just to reach the shortlists but in the way they scored.The nominations weren’t without controversy: three of last year’s winners didn’t even make the cut this year. It wouldn’t be right to go through the judges’ reasonings beyond to say that the decision in each case wasn’t taken lightly. It’s also true that a large number of companies and individuals really raised the stakes this year.For all but two of the awards the nominations were then put out to a vote by representatives of the whisky trade from across the world. Each whisky company had a vote, for instance, and retailers and journalists were also asked to participate.Each voter was able to cast up to three votes in order of preference, with the first choice scoring highest.It’s an old cliché to say that the voting was close and that every nominee should be proud of what they achieved just by being in the count, but it doesn’t make it any less true. In some cases the gap between winner and runner up was less than five points – remarkably close for a poll of this magnitude – and in a couple of cases the top votes were all but inseparable. The outcome of all this is the return to form of one or two old faces – and the emergence of one or two first timers.We hope you agree with the findings. But if you don’t, contact us with your suggestions and comments. I promise we’ll store them away and address them when we start this process all over again in a few months’ time.Distiller of the Year: Glenfarclas. It’s often said that all the attention among whisky enthusiasts goes towards Islay, so the success of two Speyside distilleries this year is particularly pleasing. Glenfarclas is a family-run distillery that has produced great whisky consistently year in, year out. Such enterprises can often be overlooked as distilleries with flashier and louder marketing departments muscle their way through. But Glenfarclas got a huge vote in its favour – a fitting reward for a distillery that produces some fine examples of sherried whisky and boasts some of the best tasting older whiskies anywhere.Highly commended:
Glenrothes Also nominated:
Chivas Brothers
Diageo Inver House
Nikka Visitor Centre of the Year: Yamazaki. One of the closest of all votes deservedly saw Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery carry off the award. It is the first time an Icon has gone to Japan. Dave Broom said that Yamazaki was a worthy winner.“It’s a great distillery to visit but what made it special for me was the fact that there were school parties going around when I was there,” he says.“The Japanese take a sensible approach of teaching youngsters to respect whisky. “Overall it is a fine distillery with good facilities and a wonderful whisky.” Highly commended:
Edradour, Scotland Also nominated:
Arran,Scotland
Glenfiddich, Scotland
Heaven Hill, Kentucky
Midleton, Ireland Retailer of the Year (single outlet): Berry Bros.& Rudd St James’shopBerry Bros. & Rudd has a long established reputation for fine wines but in recent years it has re-established itself as a purveyor of fine spirits and in particular whisky. The shop is drenched in history and includes gentlemen’s scales where the great and the good of a bygone era would weigh themselves before being fitted for a new suit. As you’d expect in such an establishment, personal service is paramount and should you wish to indulge yourself in a special whisky but are not sure which one, there is no better place to go.Highly commended:
Loch Fyne Whiskies, ScotlandAlso nominated:
LeNells, New York
Mejiro Tanakaya, Tokyo
Park Avenue Liquor Shop, New York
Sam’s Wine and Spirits, Chicago
The Wee Dram, Derbyshire
Whisky & Co.,Lisbon, Portugal Retailer of the Year (more than one outlet): Royal Mile Whiskies Royal Mile Whiskies has been no stranger to this award over the years but was beaten by La Maison last year. But this year it’s back at number one, reflecting the outstanding service it provides at its shops in London and Edinburgh. It’s also got an excellent website and through some of the most gifted staff in the entire business it has proved itself adept at maintaining the highest standards while being prepared to embrace the freshest and newest ideas. And it’s also doing its bit in the wider community with its annual Edinburgh ‘whisky fringe’ event.Highly commended:
La Maison du Whisky, Paris Also nominated:
Robert Graham & Co., Scotland
Shinanoya, Japan Whisky
Exchange, London
Whisky Shop, Scotland Hotel/Restaurant of the Year: Drumchork Lodge,Aultbea,ScotlandDrumchork Lodge punches way above its weight. It not only offers an amazing choice of whisky but through its tasting events and training sessions it pumps energy and enthusiasm in to the whole North West region of Scotland.Highly commended:
Bar Highlander,Hotel Okura,Japan
Loch Torridon Hotel, Scotland Also nominated:
Arisaig, Glasgow
Bourbon Bistro, Louisville,USA Whisky Bar of the Year: The Pot Still,Glasgow
Last year’s joint winner is now a clear winner in its own right. In the year that Whisky Magazine launched its ‘great whisky bars of the world’ award this is a great example of how it should be done. Not big, not flashy – just a warm local pub with fine whisky and staff to guide you through it all.Highly commended:
Albannach, London
The Brandy Library, New York Also nominated:
Boisdale, London
Cambeltoun Loch, Japan Innovator of the Year: Compass Box,London Another winner reclaiming its place after being pipped last year. But Compass Box will never be far away if it continues to come up with ideas like The Spice Tree. The company is right on the cutting edge and is testing the boundaries; and that’s exactly what should be celebrated in this category.Highly commended:
Bruichladdich Distillery, Scotland Also nominated:
Duncan Taylor & Co.Ltd., Scotland
Glenmorangie, Scotland
Heaven Hill, Kentucky
William Grant & Sons, Scotland DOMINIC ROSKROW WRITES: The name of this award doesn’t do Christine Logan justice. Ambassador of Whisky 2006? Nah. THE Ambassador of whisky, period - now we’re getting there.I suspect she lived in the airport or perhaps she just made a point of meeting every plane. Whenever I flew over by to Islay she’d be there and you’d hear her from the runway as she greeted everyone she knew - which was pretty much everyone.Then would come the hug and the greeting and she’d be off down the line. Not one to stand on ceremony, either.The first time I met her I’d been a late night guest of Bowmore and had fallen victim to one of Percy’s cask-drawn sample sessions.“I know you,” she said, picking a copy of Whisky Magazine off the distillery centre counter and waving it. “But you look much better in the picture. What happened to you?” I have loved her ever since.Christine is Islay and its whiskies personified: happy, kooky, fun. Someone you always look forward to seeing and who leaves you feeling better about life and living when you’ve seen her.People ask after her in Bardstown and Banff, in Dublin and Dundee. And the mutual association helps to cement the international family that the world of whisky is so proud of. If that doesn’t define what an ambassador is, then nothing does. I’m very proud to have bene involved with bestowing this award. And I look forward to Christine’s return to whisky work soon.DAVE BROOM WRITES: The stories are legendary. If you ran out of peat, she'd get some .. somehow. Casually mention you’d like scallops? A carrier bag would appear within the hour. Everyone who stepped onto Islay soil -- not just went to Bowmore -- came within Christine's orbit, were charmed by herboundless and genuine enthusiasm for her job, her island.Nothing was too difficult, no request ever turned down.She became our Islay mother, our point of contact should anything go wrong. She made the nervous confident, the homesick forget their worries. For many people Christine was not just Bowmore, she was Islay itself. To have the breath crushed out of you on meeting her again was like coming home. It is incalculable how much goodwill she has generated over the years for all of Islay's whiskies, how much of Bowmore's success has been down to the very simple, but oh-sorare talent of just being warm, genuine and human to all visitors."Whisky is about people."How often has that phrase been trotted out in recent years? It's indisputably true. Whisky is about a chain of humanity which for centuries has been engaged in crafting this wonderful spirit.People are the spirit of the spirit. Whisky making therefore is about making simple human contact, about talking, about appreciating each other, about being open. Whisky is about people like Christine Logan.She distils all which is great about this industry. It would be our great loss if people such as she are discarded in the chase for short-term profit. You forget people at your peril.Lifetime Achievement AwardIt is a credit to Robert Hicks that when we asked arguably the best three whisky writers on the planet to write something about him they all responded immediately. This is what they had to say: MICHAEL JACKSON: As the trade of whisky writer became recognised, I frequently found myself on tasting panels with blenders. They tend to work very quickly. I don’t. Whenever we met on a panel, Robert would complain that I was slowing down the judging. He would have other complaints about my technique.At first, Robert would become genuinely impatient, then it evolved into a routine – I think. What made this especially piquant was the fact that at the end of the tasting, Robert and I tended to have arrived at remarkably similar conclusions. The more he criticised my methods, the more I pointed out the similarity of results.I enormously enjoy these exchanges, and I think Robert does too. We're both just back from Whisky Live in Tokyo, where we had the odd sparring session.CHARLIE MACLEAN: My enduring memory of Robert Hicks was when I was interviewing him for this magazine several years ago. I asked him about how he maintained the consistency of Ballantine’s and Teacher’s from batch to batch."Do you save a reference sample from theprevious batches?" I asked.He looked at me pityingly."You have not been listening to what I told you about how whisky changes in the bottle. Even in the sealed bottle it changes slightly over time. We require unsold bottles to be returned for disgorging after five years (it used to be three years). Once the bottle is opened and air gets in, the change is much more rapid."So there is no way we can rely on samples from previous batches. We rely on our noses, on our memory of what the blends should smell like."Robert has taken on a new role. I understand Sandy Hislop, his assistant of many years standing, has gone with Ballantine’s to Chivas Bros.I wonder what the new owners of Teacher’s are going to do to ensure consistency...?DAVE BROOM: Great blends need a great blender and Robert is just that. He ruled his blending room like a benevolent dictator. No detailof whisky production escaped his notice.A visit to his control tower was a guided tour into the deepest secrets of whisky making. He was in control of them all. A perfectionist, he realised that whisky was a composite of a myriad of smaller details and he ensured that he was on topof all of them. His love and enthusiasm for his subject never seemed to wane, those visits would always be filled with a container-load of glasses being passed to you... some to back up his argument, others simply because he felt they were wonderful drams. They always were.He has travelled the world, building the reputation of not just his blends, but blended Scotch as a whole. The ease with which he took on the mantle of educator and entertainer has made him the perfect ambassador for one of his old charges, a brand which he has given a new lease of life to with one of the most outrageous brand extensions for many years.I will never forget his expression when the door of the distillery warehouse was flung open to reveal a mass of tiny quarter casks.It was this sheer enthusiasm for whisky and willingness to try new things which made his new bosses snap him up. He is a master of blending, a master of whisky.