Where I grew up, the idea of adding anything to your whisky was positively frowned upon. Sure, we’d seen folk add great cubes of ice in the movies, but this was just a bit too international - more than perhaps a drop of water and you were liable for deportation. I’m not saying this is right, I’m just stating a clear bias so you can understand how my skin crawled at the prospect of sampling a new single malt made for mixing, especially one which the press release proclaimed was 'unchained by tradition' As you can see, I was feeling open-minded as I stepped out of the roasting heat of a London summer (29° C at 8pm) into a dark hipster-filled rock pub in sickeningly trendy Hoxton.
Yardhead, from Edinburgh’s Crabbies brand (yes, them of the alcoholic ginger beer) is, and I quote, “defining the future. For the bold, the brave, the rebellious”. It’s a single malt, but it’s not for sipping.
Crabbies had spared no expense. The venue was decked out in branded paraphernalia, with videos of young people enjoying themselves projected on the walls, mirroring those around me and, most unusual for a whisky launch, various ‘mixing stations’. Should you want, you could make your own highball, shake your own pina colada, or choose from one of the four specially made whisky cocktails. Drinking this stuff neat wasn’t the order of the night. I kept myself sane by repeating the mantra, 'I AM NOT THE CUSTOMER AND THAT'S FINE.'
My heckles relaxed a smidgen as I sipped a cocktail featuring this Yardhead stuff. It was actually rather pleasant, though at that point, given the heat, ‘cold and wet’ was an acceptable standard for any drink.
Wearing a Nike sports shirt, perhaps because of the heat, or perhaps to merge in with the youth of his team, Crabbies managing director David Brown took to the stage. He has the look of a man who might soon pick up some clubs and crack 18 holes. Flanked by Marc Watson, head distiller and 'master of wood' (that gets a cheer, such is the audience), and head of marketing Graeme Sharpe, they present a view that the world of whisky is changing and that there is a clear space for mixing single malt into cocktails. Nothing new I hear you say, with the likes of Haig Clubman (a single grain) and William Grant & Sons' Monkey Shoulder (a blended malt) already well ensconced in bars around the world — but their pitch is that a single malt for mixing is the thing.
I sit down with David and Graeme and, despite having enjoyed several cocktails, I’m still feeling old and cynical. Annoyingly I find them both deeply knowledgeable, incredibly passionate and true whisky fans. They are transparent that this is a bought-in product, as the Crabbies distillery only recently came on stream. It’s a rather standard 40% ABV, it is coloured for consistency and it’s very young (with no age statement). I press them that this doesn't sound very 'unchained by tradition', to which they explain it’s more about the marketing, the type of consumer and the way the product is intended to be mixed. David makes the point again and again that this is not necessarily the whisky his generation (he’s 60) is drinking, but that it has its place. It’s a whisky for a new generation.
It’s hard not to find the team’s passion and commitment infectious but, then again, I meet lots of people who are passionate — I work in whisky for Christ's sake. If you’re not passionate you should go become a dentist. What I found much more potent was hearing them talk to the future; to look beyond the marketing and see Graeme for who he was — a 26-year-old chap working in a company where the majority are under 30. This isn’t a product conjured up by some team of aged menfolk pouring over market segmentations. It’s a company that has invested in the future and they turn to their team to make the product choices that appeal to their generation.
I started writing tasting notes and then I realised that this is not a whisky that anyone will be drinking neat. The only person drinking this neat is someone like me trying to pull it apart with a snide review about how it’s quite young, it tastes a bit like green apples and golden syrup and not much else.
The truth is, this is a product that’s competing with vodka and rum to be at the heart of a cocktail. At least this is characterful, at least their mission is to get people into whisky (or bring back those who’ve had a bad experience) and so I say this: forget the tasting notes.
The notes are to chuck some ice cubes in and drink it or to put this into your favourite cocktail — and suddenly the world is just that little bit easier. It’s cold and it’s wet and it tastes of whisky. It’s a single malt in your glass and you’ve only paid pennies for it. Shut up, drink it, enjoy.
My last thought as I walked home: once you go beyond the tag lines and the hashtags, I feel there is something much more profound going on here. It might just be the kind of product that saves single malt for the future.
The Yardhead bottle draws upon John Crabbie's Leith heritage.