People

The passion

Serge Valentin is a founder member of The Malt Maniacs and is serious about his whisky. But as we found out, he knows how to have fun with it too.
By Rob Allanson
The problem with any sort of passionate hobby such as wine, art or music is that it very quickly builds up its own hierarchy, a class system dominated by over-serious knowit- alls who start dictating what is good and bad,and what is right and wrong. Normally they’re right and the rest of us are wrong.Curiously, though, whisky isn’t quite like that. Oh, it has its experts, its anoraks and its zealots. As a whole, though, they’re refreshingly non dictatorial. Perhaps it’s the modesty of the whisky makers themselves, or the relaxed way they encourage drinkers to enjoy the spirit as they want, or even the individualistic nature of the drink, but even the most dedicated experts shy from telling us what to do and think.Take The Malt Maniacs. Experts definitely, passionate and enthusiastic without doubt, likely to know a lot more about whisky then you and I surely, and not scared to stand up against industry fraud . And yet they’re quirky, irreverent and they know how to have fun.Serge Valentin is a great example. A Frenchman with a love of whisky, his website Whisky Fun is everything a living, breathing and dynamic hobby site should be. Lots and lots about whisky, true, but lots and lots about music, socialising and sharing experiences as well.For Serge, the music link is a natural one.“Maybe it comes from my early days when we were sipping drams listening to some jazz or blues bands. It’s all about atmosphere and feeding all our senses at the same time.“It’s also quite remarkable that so many great whisky people are also deep into music, often as experienced musicians. Did you know that Dave Broom used to be a jazz journalist? That Michael Jackson was a jazz connoisseur?That ex-distillery manager Mike Nicolson is a fantastic blues guitarist? I’m also very proud to have Dr Nick Morgan (of Diageo) writing fantastic concert reviews for Whiskyfun. Actually whisky and music aren’t a natural fit, they’re a mutual need.” It’s no surprise there is a generation brought up in jazz bars and around whisky with the same view.“I guess whisky is in many Frenchmen’s genes, that’s probably why we’re the number one market in the world in volume,”says Serge.“ I think the roots date back to the second world war, when the American and British soldiers brought blond cigarettes, chewing gum and, yes, whisky to France. To us post-war generations, whisky always meant ‘the new cool’, something more rock and roll than cognac or calvados, or even wine.“It was a must when I was a teenager in the ‘70s, especially J&B.But the ‘revelation’ really occurred in the late 1970s,when we were starting to have enough pocket money to afford drams of single malt in what we used to call ‘American bars’. There was the ‘green’(Glenfiddich) and there was the ‘white’ (Cardhu),my favourite at the time. They were for the cognoscenti and of course,we were all self-styled cognoscenti when we were 18.“Two years later, I was doing my first trip to Scotland, ten years later, I was attending my first serious single malt tasting session in London. And 20 years later, I started to accumulate hundreds and hundreds of bottles after another trip to Scotland with my good friend winemaker Olivier Humbrecht,who’s really been the guilty party in all this madness.” For Serge the simple pleasure of sipping a good whisky remains what it is all about. And he has some memories of his journeys in to the world of whisky.“I remember well my first visit at Glenlivet around 1980, especially our guide. Imagine a kilted Nigel Tufnel pouring you drams as large as a Highlander’s hand.“We did a great tour of Speyside, with a bunch of Malt Maniacs and had a lot of fun, especially at Glenrothes, Glenfarclas and Aberlour where we met generous and friendly people.” As to the future, Serge is relatively optimistic. There is good and bad, he says, but good still seems to be holding its own.“I worry that excessive wood technology may lead all single malts within a global style (say light and fruity) to taste the same one day (big sweet vanilla and ginger, for instance). They’re what I call ‘modern whiskies’, sort of the new world chardonnays of the whisky world, all good but none thrilling. I think that’s what I fear, that malt whisky loses its magic.“But on the plus side I enjoy seeing some old names being back in full form with their younger whiskies, such as Bowmore and Springbank.They have great people and great people make great whisky, should they be allowed to do it by their owners.”