Awards & Events

Twenty-one years and counting

Whisky Magazine has passed a significant milestone
By Christopher Coates
Twenty-one bottles of 21-year-old whisky, which we've given away to mark our 21st anniversary year.
Twenty-one bottles of 21-year-old whisky, which we've given away to mark our 21st anniversary year.
I don’t want to make our most loyal subscribers feel too old (you know who you are), but for the past year this title has been celebrating a rather special birthday. As we look back on 21 years of publishing Whisky Magazine, a much-repeated story told by our founder and managing director, Damian Riley-Smith, comes to mind. He often says that, back in those early days, many people remarked that they just couldn’t believe there would be enough to write about to justify a regular magazine.

They said that the topic of whisky surely couldn’t warrant more than a couple of issues a year and that, whether after 10 issues or 100, we’d inevitably run out of things to say, distilleries to write about and whiskies to taste.

We might scoff and have a little chuckle at their pessimism now but, of course, none of us can really predict the future – though that’s what distillers have to do every day when they decide how much barley to order and stock to lay down, which casks to bottle and when. Early on in my career, I remember being told by one industry veteran that, no matter how much agonising research one did or how sophisticated the market analysis model one used is, the method of projecting future sales of any given whisky brand still very much boils down to licking one’s finger and sticking it in the air. What’s more, he said, even those with the most experience almost always get it wrong. With that in mind, I suppose we should be thankful that there were some naysayers and sceptics back in this magazine’s early days. If everyone had wished us a long and prosperous future, who knows what might have actually happened.

The cover of Whisky Magazine issue #1 The cover of Whisky Magazine issue #1.

Of course, the world was different then. Back in the late 1990s, plenty of people also said the new ‘world wide web’ wouldn’t catch on and the millennium bug was feared to be the great era-defining calamity lurking around the corner. Likewise, one would never have guessed that the historic city of Norwich in Norfolk, England, would become the birthplace of the world’s first and leading whisky periodical but, nevertheless, that’s where it happened. As for when, issue one published on a chilly Friday in winter 1998 (20 November, to be precise) and included features by a host of household whisky names that are still just as prominent today. Charles Maclean, Dave Broom, Neil Wilson: together, their opening bars set the tone of the title’s coverage for the next two decades.

The Glengoyne 21 Years Old The Glengoyne 21 Years Old.

In his very first opinion column for the magazine, the late, great Michael Jackson extolled the virtues of bold and pungent flavours in whisky. He described how newcomers to the category would regularly tell him that they’d become hooked on whisky not after trying something “relatively mild in flavour” but by sampling drams that are the antithesis of “light and inoffensive”. He warned the industry not to fall into the trap of making milder, blander whiskies in efforts to appeal to a wider audience (for those customers, he suggested: “Drink Vodka”) and lamented the actions of those marketers he felt were on a mission to “remove all whisky tastes” from our glasses in their efforts to eradicate the flavours of “malt, peat, sherry, salt and seaweed”. Reading the words of the great man, written more than 21 years ago, it’s remarkable how valuable his insight remains today.

Politically, socially, and technologically, 2020 feels almost as far removed from 1998 as it does from 1988, 1978 or 1968; yet, Michael’s comments could just as easily have been written yesterday and have perhaps even become more relevant with each passing year.

Today, distillery openings and product innovations are coming thick and fast, keeping whisky journalists like me busier than ever as we scramble to document each new development. Food and beer pairings, cocktails, local barley, micro-distilleries, highballs, wine-cask finishes, and even the release of ‘young spirit’ that’s not yet whisky – all have been described by some as disruptive ideas and emerging trends. Yet, there are those of us who find ourselves staring, somewhat bemused, at our screens, as we experience an odd sense of déjà vu. Akin to the bleary-eyed, late-night viewer who feels like the plot of the film they’re watching seems oddly familiar and the protagonists uncannily recognisable, we ask ourselves, ‘Haven’t we seen this movie before?’

The Jura 21 Years Old Tide The Jura 21 Years Old Tide.

Sure, things might be done somewhat differently now – social media, digital publishing, clickbait, PR jargon like ‘recruiting urban millennials’, the climate crisis and new industry rules come to mind – but, in other ways, it almost feels like we’re re-treading an old path, returning to how things used to be done as we simultaneously plough a new furrow. It’s true that the fortunes of the whisky industry have changed a lot since the 90s, but a quick flick through our early issues shows how so many common themes endure: the influence (or perhaps ‘over-influence’) of casks and wood flavours, questions about sherry casks and sulphur, the debate surrounding NAS whiskies, discussion of yeast and terroir, all are still as much at the forefront of whisky discussion as they were two decades ago. I find myself mulling over the words of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, whose magnum opus The Leopard grappled with the paradox of progress and a rapidly changing world:

“Everything must change so that everything can stay the same.”

Thankfully, what has never wavered is the support we receive from our readers and the global whisky industry. In the spirit of this special occasion, 21 whisky brands that have been with us since the early days have kindly gifted a bottle of their 21-year-old expression, distilled the year we began publishing, to 21 of our lucky readers. Chosen at random from our subscriber list, these special bottles have winged their way around the world and are now being enjoyed by very surprised, very happy readers. In the tradition followed since issue one, these whiskies have been tasted blind by us and our tasting notes will be published in the next issue, alongside the kind comments signed by distillery teams in the industry’s ‘birthday card’ to Whisky Magazine.

The Balvenie 21 Years Old Portwood The Balvenie 21 Years Old Portwood.

In our early issues, the first blind tasting reviews analysed whiskies from Highland Park, The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Redbreast, Glen Moray and many more besides. That these same distillery names continue to appear in the magazine's pages is a testament to the quality of the spirit they produce and our enduring kinship. Bereft of either, this magazine couldn’t have reached its second issue, let alone its 170th.

Much has changed since issue one, but we’re thankful for every minute we’ve spent learning and sharing the love of whisky. Beloved bottlings come and go; trends and fads ebb and flow; much-loved friends sadly leave us and we meet others along the way; distilleries expand and contract, open and close – but the passion for whisky always lives on. Here’s to friends, the spirit, and the next 21 years.
The Aberfeldy 21 Years Old
The Aberfeldy 21 Years Old