News

Whisky on the Web

New technology is being adopted by whisky companies. Richard Jones goes surfing
By Richard Jones
Here are a few facts I bet you didn’t know from the world of whisky: there are five washbacks at Springbank distillery, each made from boatskin larch and with a capacity of 21,000 litres; the grist mill at Laphroaig is nicknamed ‘Red Bob’ and is one of the oldest Porteus Mills in the business; Denis McBain, coppersmith at The Balvenie, joined the company as an apprentice in 1958 and often likes to visit other distilleries at weekends; Wild Turkey Bourbon can be used to make a delicious barbecue sauce; and, perhaps most interestingly of all, the cats at Bladnoch distillery are called
Bourbon and Sherry.And how did I accumulate such a mass, a junk-heap, if you will, of assorted trivia?Not, I’m happy to report, from the deepest, darkest recesses of my mind; knowledge is one thing, but this is way into the realms of unhealthy, seriously disturbed, too much time on your
hands territory. Rather, I simply opened up Windows Explorer on my personal computer, spent a pleasant half hour browsing the likes of www.springbankdistillers.com and www.bladnoch.co.uk, and thereby accomplished what would have taken me several weeks of endless distillery visits in the non-virtual world.If you’re a whisky lover and you’ve yet to plug into the digital, dotcom, www. age, I urge you to get connected to the world of cyberspace as quickly as the spread of a computer virus. With so much whisky related information out there on the internet, this is a source you can no longer afford to ignore.For example, if you type ‘whisky’ into the Google search engine, you’ll register about 2,260,000 hits; change the spelling to ‘whiskey’ and your total number of associated websites nearly doubles.
Certainly more than enough to be getting on with, then.All the major, and most minor, malt whisky distilleries in Scotland now have their own website, although they vary considerably in their style, content and general usefulness.As a bare minimum you can expect tasting notes; a news section; a potted history of the distillery; and various details on production. In addition, many sites also include an online distillery shop
featuring branded merchandise, assorted Scottish paraphernalia; and, of course, the whiskies themselves, although annoyingly there is generally little, or no, financial incentive to purchase the
product ‘direct’.Finally, most sites feature a ‘virtual distillery tour’ which, whilst it cannot begin to compare to the experience of a visit to a real live distillery, at least offers a tantalising glimpse of the potential
pleasures to be found.It should come as no surprise that the bigger distilleries, or at least those owned by large companies, boast some of the flashest, slickest websites, although they can sometimes lack charm. As the content has to cater for a broad, mainstream audience, the average reader of Whisky Magazine may sometimes find the information a little basic (the rudiments of whisky production, definition of malt whisky, ice or straight? etc.)However the best sites such as www.laphroaig.com offer substantially more, including movies of the production process and the distillery setting; features on the ‘people’ of Islay; a detailed
200-year chronology of the distillery, despite the fact the full history of Laphroaig is ‘lost in the mist of time’; and an interview with previous distillery manager, Iain Henderson.Yet the real pleasure in the Laphroaig website is to be found amongst its friends. To enter the Friends of Laphroaig area you must first become an official Friend (I did it via a leaflet on the bottle),
then register online for a virtual username and password.Once these hurdles have been safely negotiated (not as straightforward as it seems; I, for one, am constantly forgetting my details), you’re taken through into a vibrant, active and thoroughly
entertaining community.From competitions and exclusive offers, through to web chats and shared stories, there is absolutely tonnes of stuff going on here, all regularly updated. Highly recommended.Amongst the major players in the Scotch whisky industry, other websites worth a visit are:www.aberlour.com – a well-designed, easy to navigate website, containing more information than initially meets the eye. Avoid the free Aberlour themed games in the club bar section (a simple
registration is required), particularly if you don’t have several hours to waste.www.ardbeg.com – follow Shortie the Jack Russell as he guides you around the website of this legendary Islay distillery. Again, well-designed and the use of graphics enhances the experience (I
particularly like the guy rolling the barrel in ‘The Distillery’), although those without broadband may struggle.www.balvenie.com – a tad ‘olde worlde’ in appearance but otherwise a pretty decent site. Make sure you register, as the members’ club contains the bulk of the interesting information.Without a vast marketing budget at their disposal, smaller distilleries and companies have to work at lot harder to develop an interesting website. In some cases money, or the lack of it, talks;
unfortunately, without naming names, some of the most basic and poorly designed sites fall into this category.However at the other extreme, I would argue that some of the best Scotch whisky websites, bar none, belong to distilleries that don’t rely on slick graphics and the services of a trendy London or
Edinburgh agency.Sites such as the dynamic and innovative www.bladnoch.co.uk amply demonstrate that imagination, enthusiasm and sheer hard work can create a truly outstanding domain.At first the sheer volume of information can be overwhelming, but a number of sections really stand out: one, the lively discussion area where whisky lovers debate general topics, as well as hosting
owner Raymond Armstrong’s hugely enjoyable diary; and two, the whisky segment, which takes the standard ‘virtual tour’ option to a new level, focussing as much on the environment around the
distillery as the nuts and bolts inside. Other websites, in a similar vein to Bladnoch, that have caught my eye include: www.bruichladdich.com – the website is everything you would expect from such an original and innovative distillery. Packed with information and character, I particularly like the various webcams dotted around the distillery, although the turquoise background is an unfortunate distraction.www.springbankdistillers.com – again, another example of how to create a website on a, seemingly, limited budget, although a bit more flash, quite literally, than others. Extremely clear and concise, but suffers from a lack of frequent updates.Outside Scotland, the websites of whisky or whiskey distillers in other countries are a similarly mixed. Many of the bigger bourbon brands can be a bit slick and corporate for my liking, but I can
recommend www.wildturkeybourbon.com and www.buffalotrace.com. Both are informative and fun, but they lack the character of some of the better Scottish sites. In Japanese whisky, www.nikka.com/eng is relatively basic, but is well-designed and provides a decent starting point for a foray into this producer’s excellent range. In Ireland, www.bushmills.com is functional but suffers from a lack of depth and general spark.So there you have it, a quick roundup of the great and the good in the world of distillery websites. Certainly more than enough to justify an investment in a basic PC and modem – and that’s without the hundreds of other dedicated whisky sites out there on the internet.An absolute wealth of information available at the click of a mouse button, and, despite my earlier trivia, not all of it obscure and of interest only to the fanatical.However if you really want to see the cats at Bladnoch Distillery, don’t say you’ve forgotten little Bourbon and Sherry, then take a look at www.bladnoch.co.uk/staff.htm. And, if you’re so inclined, you can even contact them direct via email at: cats@bladnoch.co.uk.