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Just keep walking….

…says Johnnie Walker.

And they/he are right. In a world that is just hard work right now, we can only just keep walking.

Don’t worry, its not going to be a heavy blog. In fact, I am going to indulge in a little bit of reminiscing over a trip I had to Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago. It’s basically a review to be honest, but in two parts. So grab a dram and settle in.

Part one is about my attendance at a tasting, and part two is about visiting the Johnnie Walker Experience.

I’ve never been to Edinburgh before and a couple of months back I was contacted by a member of the “International Wine and Spirit Competition” (IWSC) team, to invite me to a the  IWSC Scotch and Worldwide Whisky Tasting, 2021.

The section of the day I was able to attend was to take part in tasting whatever I wanted from a selection of approx. 250 gold and gold-outstanding medal winning whiskies from all over the globe. Now I must admit the old ego did swell a bit. I’ve never had the opportunity to attend something like this before. I checked travel and accommodation costs and realised that yep, it was game on.

Now, I haven’t stepped foot into an airport for a couple of years, and quite frankly I was so happy to be flying again (even if only to Edinburgh) I didn’t even mind the irritating child in the seat behind me!!

My first Airplane in almost 3 yrs

I got into Edinburgh, jumped onto the shuttlebus and within 30mins was happily checking out my hotel room. Next morning up and out around Edinburgh until the tasting in the afternoon. Edinburgh is just perfect for me. Lots of architecture, walking, mooching, exploring. Coffee, haggis and whisky. What’s not to like?

In the afternoon I made my way to The Balmoral. When I made my way to the whisky tasting itself, I honestly thought that people would be there talking us through the whiskies and it would a bit like a show.

NOPE!!!! There’s the whisky, here’s a glass and off you trot. Free pour, drink what you want and try to not make a tit of yourself, and, dear reader, you’ll be pleased to know I didn’t.

Table of Whiskies at IWSC Tasting Event

In fact it was quite a sedate affair. Firstly, the overwhelming issue is “where do I start?” what do I try first and why that one? Do I go for age or colour, country or reputation?

Well eventually I settled in and tried to ensure I tried some that I haven’t before.

Here is a little run through:

Abosolo – Mexico, 2yrs old.

Arran Sherry Cask

Glenfiddich Gran Cortes XXII

The Dalmore 25

Swiss Mountain Single Malt 8yrs

Golden Blue – The Summit 20yrs (South Korean)

Canadian Club The Chronicles 43yrs

Lark – Chinotto Cask release (Tasmanian)

Mountain Distilling Company, 3 yrs Red aged Gum cask (Australia)

Stork Club – Smokey Rye  (German)

Glenmorangie Sonoma Cutrer Reserve 25yrs

Ardbeg Committee “Discussion” 8yrs

Ardbeg 25yrs

I’m not going to say there was one amazing dram, because they are all amazing for various reasons. Even the one that I really did not take to had some merit. My sole purpose here was to explore, and I did.

Apart from whisky, the other great part was of course meeting people. And I noticed that it seemed the majority of the people attending this particular event was female. Now, it was trade and press; Are there more females in the press side of whisky? Or was it just that way on the day. Whatever, it was noticeable and welcome. I met some great people and it was lovely to talk whisky, be introduced to new whiskies. However, word of day was “Interesting”….

Mr Johnnie Walker

Now, as the song goes, “Lets, skip to the good bit”.

The Johnnie Walker Experience. I could not visit Edinburgh without visiting this new and well publicised attraction.

I will wax lyrical, I will sing its praises from the rooftops and I will tell you to visit. (Note, I was not invited, I paid for myself and so this is a completely honest review). I will try not to give any spoilers. This is new and I think you should all have your own experience of it, not mine.

I booked the “Journey of Flavour” tour.

The Johnnie Walker experience starts when you book, before you even get there. When you book your tickets online, you will be sent a “taste” questionnaire. Now, I will say two things. 1) DO THE DAMNED QUESTIONNAIRE and 2) the wording I feel needs to be adjusted. It asks how “often” you experience flavours, not how much you like them. I personally feel you should answer on “like” to get the best experience later on.

When you arrive, the team will welcome you, explain the process of your tour. They will help you take a selfie with the Johnnie Walker Statue if you want to. When the tour begins it’s like being welcomed to the factory run by Willie Wonka. (I did ask at one point if the walls are lickable!!)

This place is SLICK. It’s stylish. It’s modern, bright and airy. It makes you walk around with your mouth open and eyes flitting all over the place.

Now, as I said I’m not going to give out spoilers. But I will note the following:

Johnnie Walker is owned by Diageo, and Diageo are a very forward-thinking company. Innovation runs through the veins of the company, and innovation ran through the veins of Johnnie Walker.

The whole tour is informative and fun.

The building and the experience are designed for looking to the future while acknowledging the past and experiencing the present. It IS designed with social media in mind and this isn’t a bad thing, it’s an “engaging with your audience” thing.

As an example, at one point, when you are sat in a futuristic bar, sipping your personalised cocktail, you are told to move the wooden board to one side. Under the board is a light. You are advised at the point that to take a good picture for Instagram, you should place your drink over that light.

Not bad……..

There are a number of points like this on the tour. Those people at Diageo and JW, they know exactly what they are doing. They are bringing a brand screaming into the social media age with fun and engagement. And it works.

You are taken through the tour by a great technical and visual experience, along with a score that really excites you and, in some places, involves smells and tastes to accompany all of this.

If you didn’t care about or take seriously Johnnie Walker whisky before, you will emerge from this with at least an appreciation for the drink.

I was like that a little. I have a bottle of Black label at home, never touched it. When I got home after visiting JWE I was inspired to mix a cocktail and add it to my #12Under30 list. The appreciation at least is there. Then I went to a tasting and tried the Green Label, 15. Now I’m hooked.

As with all attractions, when this is all over, you “Exit through the gift shop”. And here, again is a good experience. The staff are quick to acknowledge you, quick to assess if you want/need help and are quick to adjust to that. So there is no hovering or pushing, but helpful if you want it. Spot on.

Now, if you are a whisky nerd, you’ll probably know a lot of the history and how whisky is made etc. That’s ok. YOU WILL STILL ENJOY THIS.

If you are tagging along with the whisky nerd in your life and you aren’t much of a fan, that’s ok. YOU WILL STILL ENJOY THIS.

I want to go back to experience the restaurant and based on the menu, again they demonstrate a modern thinking approach. Instead of leading with meat centred meals, it’s all vegetarian forward, to which you can *add* meat.

There is a driver/non-alcoholic option for the tour, so do tell the guide.

So again, in the words of Johnnie Walker “Keep Walking”.

Claire xx

27 November 2021

Links to IWSC and Johnnie Walker Experience

https://www.iwsc.net/

https://www.johnniewalker.com/en-gb/visit-us-princes-street/

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Can’t find the words for the whisky…..

…well sometimes, neither can I.

I haven’t written here for quite some time. It’s been a bit of a year hasn’t it? And I always said, I will only write when something triggers me to do so. Much of my thinking time this year has been captured by politics and climate issues, and when I have a spark of a topic, it’s disappeared pretty quickly as more important thoughts come into my head. So with all that in mind, I haven’t written much. I won’t ask for forgiveness, I never said this would be a regular gig.

Many people blog about whisky therefore many topics are covered. I won’t necessarily write about any particular whiskies here as there are great whisky review blogs out there. You don’t need my opinion as well.

I have however embarked on a little series on Instagram called #12Under30, where I choose an easily accessible whisky to write about. The whole idea is that its always under £30, easy to find and doesn’t bust your budget, especially if you are new to whisky. Its at @cevokins on IG.

Now, believe or not, all this rambling on does lead to the point of this piece, and why I am writing it.

I’ve been drinking (and enjoying) whisky seriously for around 9 yrs. 7 of which have been ‘guided’ and yet I will still call myself a newbie to the drink and the industry. Others may disagree; I have around 80 bottles (all open) at home, ranging in price from £20 – £800+, though the average is around £65 – £80. I have a couple of hundred dramples (drams/samples) from swaps or tastings. I have had the privilege of working for a well known independent bottler at London whisky shows over the last few yrs, I have had a stint at Milroys in Spitalfields, and take part in online tastings. In reality, I can hold my own when chatting about whisky, but I do it my way.

You see, I still feel, as I said quite new to whisky and my early experiences still sit quite fresh in mind.

I remember my first paid for, professionally given tasting at The Soho Whisky Club. I felt so out of my depth. I was in a room of what I thought were experienced whisky drinkers and as we were going through the drams all these nose and palate notes were being thrown around and all I could think was this “Vanilla, I can taste vanilla”. That was it. By the 5th dram I was half cut, promising to buy a bottle of Coal Ila and had another 2 drams to go. (I learned pretty quick you don’t have to drink the WHOLE dram at a tasting, I also learned to bring my credit card with me).

But back to the tasting notes; vanilla. That’s all I could name for my first few tastings. Then one day I got blackcurrant, I wrote it down and showed my friend. When the person giving the tasting said that we may pick up black currant in the notes I was elated!! I was getting better.

It actually took me a good year or so to my head around a couple of things. Firstly, my palate wasn’t rubbish, it was just not used in the way we use it in whisky. Most of taste is from smell, its also very much from suggestion (hence if you ever meet me on a whisky table, I will not give you tasting notes before you try the whisky). The way the brain works with the scent and taste senses is complex. A fleeting smell, less than a quarter of a second can trigger a memory or a feeling, and then that connects to the smell that was there with that memory or feeling and if you are lucky you can name it. But more often than not, the process is so quick its gone before we can recall it.

Other times the smell and taste are wonderfully obvious, and we can connect them quickly to words.

Over time I have found my nose and palate has developed well within my own parameters and experience (this is important!!!). For example, I will never say I can detect crème brullee within a whisky. I’ve never had one, so how can I. But for me the same whisky may give burned brown sugar and custard creams.

I also have little tricks I’ve learned to detect different smells in a whisky, from how I angle the glass, to closing nostrils (one at a time), to breathing in through my nose with my mouth open (try it, weird but you get different scents). I also still rub a little of the whisky on the back of my hand, let the alcohol dry off and I am left with another layer of scent.

When drinking, I sip first, enough to cover my tongue, but not enough to swallow, make a note. Then a normal sip, make another note. Then a 10-20 second stint just holding the liquid in my mouth, make another note. Take a sip, hold my nose, hold the liquid for a 10 secs, swallow, release nose, make a note. All these little exercises get the liquid and tiny particles to different parts of your mouth and nose, and all those parts give different experiences of scent and flavour. But please believe me, I only really do this in tastings.

Going back to my point of “Can’t find the words for the whisky”. The other day I was on a tasting, a few of you reading this were likely on that same tasting (it’s an online Twitter one).

The whiskies we were trying were created by their team to be accessible both financially and by flavour for the drinker, especially those who are new to whisky. With that in mind I entered into this tasting with my “newbie” head on. If a whisky is to be for a new drammer, then its not going to be complex with multiple layers of nose and palate notes. It needs to allow the drammer to identify at least one flavour note easily, it’s a confidence builder. And for me, these drams absolutely nailed the brief. They were simple, with between 1-4 main notes. They were sweet. They were very smooth. They avoided all the things that people who don’t like whisky say; “it burns, it makes me retch, its like TCP”. One was a little too one dimensional for me, but that’s me, someone who has been drinking and tasting whisky for coming up to a decade, not someone who recently decided to try whisky.

As the tasting went on, I was amused (amused is the politest word I can think of) when I saw notes with lists of seven or more scents/tastes per dram. Look, you can say “Custard cream, crème brulee, hints of Devonshire clotted cream with a dash of Madagascan tesco finest icecream” as much as you like. But in reality you’ve used 4 terms to describe vanilla. JUST SAY VANILLA!!!!

Again, these drams were not complex nor crafted to be and I feel sometimes we forget that. If I was new to whisky and was told that whisky “a” at cost “b” was a great place to start your whisky journey, then saw all these tasting notes, I would be terrified that I was a complete idiot if I couldn’t find all those flavours.

The online tasting community is brilliant, but I do feel sometimes there is a weird competition to come up with the most complex, unusual tasting notes. (Nosing I understand, it is more evocative than tasting, but seriously!!). Do we really need ten ways to describe lemon? Do we mix flavour up with something else? Sweet is sweet, salty is salty, and they sit at different parts of our mouth and tongue. Lime and salt trigger the same part of tongue, they are interchangeable. Wet and dry, thin and thick, all what we call “mouthfeel”, literally how something feels in your mouth.

I do understand that tasting notes are likely from personal experience, but honestly, when was the last time you laid in a field eating sweet sticky sileage with a side of burned Pirelli tyre rubber?

Continuing with words in whisky, I saw a conversation the other day where a whisky had been described as “entry level” and that peated whisky was a seen as a point of being a more experienced drinker and if you like it you have progressed. What absolute nonsense.

Using this kind of language really keeps the “club” going, like there is some kind of progression route and until you can drink “a, b and c” then you can’t try or appreciate “x,y and z”.

There is a thing called “Dunning – Kruger” syndrome/affect, and I do wonder if this is part of the situation. (Google it, is that you??)

There is no hierarchy and if people try to claim one, they need to check their drinking ego. My first whisky was Aberlour 12, hated it. My second was Talisker 10, blooming loved it. My preferred whisky has always been peated, and oh, I love a filthy Ledaig. My whisky collection is probably a 70/30 split of peated/unpeated.

Words like entry and beginner can either degrade the person drinking it, or the whisky itself. If it’s an easy sipper, like the drams we had on the tasting noted above, lets think about using the word  “accessible”. Open for everyone. Maybe we can have something a little more complex afterwards to balance the tastebuds?

Whisky is an inclusive drink, so I for one will be more careful about keeping that inclusivity with the words I use. I don’t want to be responsible for putting someone off what is fundamentally a wonderful drink with a wonderful (generally) community drinking it.

Final thoughts: Its just a drink. Drink it how you want, don’t worry if you can’t find the flavours everyone else is (they’re probably making it up anyway). Find your own flavours, from your life experience, find the scents from your own memories.

It’s your whisky, in your glass, in your hand and only you are drinking it. (though I will question your tyre eating habits).

Xx

Claire 30 August 2021

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Peat VS Peat…

The reason my site is called “Can’t see the wood for the whisky” is because I wanted a space that incorporates my interest in horticulture (see nature, climate, sustainability…) and my love of whisky.

I came into both around the same time, about 8 years ago. Horticulture became my day job and whisky, my drink of choice. As time has gone by the relationship between the two becomes ever stronger and as stated, you can’t have one (whisky), without the other (horticulture).

One of the topics that challenges me personally is Peat.

So I stand before you now, and state “My name is Claire, and I love peated whisky”.

This statement makes me a hypocrite, because in my day job I am very much for ceasing the usage of Peat, but my word I love a dirty, filthy peated whisky.

My original purpose for this article was to break it into two separate posts and examine Peat from a horticultural perspective and a whisky industry perspective. In my research however, I ended up heading down rabbit holes that all lead to the same place, especially within the whisky sector.

Everybody is talking (writing), but there is little demonstrable practical action right now. So, this will be a mixture of opinion (mine) and website links to various projections of “We will”. I wanted this to be factual and offering guidance, but I sort of can’t, because right now the pertinent information I was looking for simply hasn’t been made available….yet.

Peat: what is it, why is it important?

If you don’t already know, then either you’re a climate change denier, don’t care or simply haven’t got to that point of wanting to know.

Here is a good explanation from Garden Organic:

Peat comes from peat bogs, it is an accumulation of partially decayed organic matter. Because it is stored under water, it doesn’t release carbon as it decays.  Peat bogs are the largest and most efficient carbon store on earth (10 times more carbon per hectare than any other ecosystem, including forests) and they are an important defence against climate change.

Peat | www.gardenorganic.org.uk

The more you read into it, the more you find that peat is a really important part of the ecosystem and our future survival.

From a horticultural perspective:

Peat has been used for approx. 40+ years as a growing medium. Mixed into compost it holds water well, adds no nutritional value (so directed nutrition can be added) and when dry is extremely light, making it cheap to transport.

The total amount of UK peat for horticulture is around 25%, the rest generally comes from Ireland and Eastern Europe. Recently Bord Na Mona, have announced that they will be ceasing peat harvesting. This is a very positive move, however on reading the PR a couple of other companies will continue to provide peat for horticulture.

Bord na Móna announce formal end to all peat harvesting on its lands | Bord na Móna (bordnamona.ie)

My take on peat usage in horticulture is this;  For hobbyists its not required. There are companies supplying good alternatives using a variety of materials. The hit and miss of these products is far more “hit” than “miss” these days.

However, some growers may state that the new materials are not quite good enough for their requirements. I will disagree. Some companies are fully unpeated and doing a roaring (pre covid) trade.

Secondly, I would also ask if compost is even required on the scale which we currently use it. If you’re buying plants, they generally already come in nutrition heavy compost to help get the plant started. If you’re growing from seed, then you may require some compost, but not much.

Think on this; how often have you walked through woods, meadows, forests and seen teams of people every year out there adding bags of compost to the woodland floor? You don’t. Nature takes care of this with leaf drop, soil inhabitants and wildlife. Compost is NOT needed.

In your gardens you are constantly working against nature and have to bring items in to create a faux natural environment. If managed properly, aligned with nature, you’d never need to buy compost again (but that’s a piece for my hort based pages).

Peat from a whisky perspective:

Those of us who enjoy a peated whisky are enjoying a by-product of a historically necessary practise. Peat has been and, in some areas, still is, a material used for burning to create a heat source. In whisky that heat source was for heating the Pot-stills. It was and still is for some distilleries used as part of the process of drying malted barley.

Peat from different areas can give varying flavours to the malted grain, and this then is transferred into the whisky. I personally prefer a sweet, coastal peat, to an inland more herbal peat.

I could sit here and wax lyrical about peated whisky, but that’s not the purpose of the article.

The bottom line is this: peat is no longer a necessity within the production of whisky. It’s not required to heat the stills, its not required to dry the barley. Those things can still happen without peat. Peat is now a preferred luxury.

So, the same as plants can grow without peat, so too can whisky be made.

Now, I can hear the cries “Oh but the whisky industry is *only* +/-1% of total peat usage, leave us alone, and focus on the bigger users!!” and I get it, my tastebuds agree with you. But it’s still peat.

I spent quite some time over the past two weeks emailing distilleries, global whisky brands, the SWA (Scotch Whisky Association), even malting companies to try and find out if someone would be willing to answer some questions about peat use in whisky.

In fact only one company responded regarding sustainability, and one lovely weather forecasting Mr Brodie gave me some great background information.

 Is there an acknowledgement of the climate issue, would there be a response?

Well, yes there is. Both the SWA and Diageo for example have highlighted the usage of peat, and how it aligns with the overall  global actions from the UN (United Nations) Sustainable Development Goals. Many are talking about Net Zero emmsions. Well, if you are using peat, you’re not quite hitting that.

I digress.

This link goes to the SWA Insights page and gives some great info on the plans for the future:

Scotch Whisky Sustainability (scotch-whisky.org.uk)

This link focuses specifically on peat and Scotland’s landscapes:

Scotch Whisky: Caring for the Land (scotch-whisky.org.uk)

This is also part of the SEPA (Scottish Environment Protection Agency) action plan:

Scotch whisky sector plan | Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)

Diageo have released the Society 2030 programme which incorporates all manner of responsibilities, from people, to water to land.

Our Role In Society | Our Priorities | Diageo In Society

The biggest negative for me is the timeline. 2030/2035/2040/2050. All these numbers are far away and much damage can be done in that time. Personally I rather see steps taken now towards this.

The one company that did respond said they are waiting on the Peat Action Plan, which is yet to be published.

Can anything be used in place of peat for flavour? Well yes and no. We already char barrels for a smoky effect and some distilleries are experimenting by using other materials within the drying process for flavour. Mackmyra are well known for the use of Juniper. I know its not peat, I know it won’t give that particular profile, but…planet or peated whisky?

Both in horticulture and whisky, the issue is being talked about and planned for. But we are still waiting for that plan for peat in whisky.

So, with all this in mind, how do I feel about peat? My conscience struggles, I’ll be honest. I think where I can easily do without, I will. So, in my day job, no peat. I’ve been doing this for a while anyway.

The process Bord Na Mona has taken is logical and effective. People have been part of the equation and have been retrained to work in the company in the sustainable sector.

Regards whisky? Well I feel comfort in the fact that *something* is happening, I will feel more comfort when I see it happening.

What I don’t want is for all the chat, to remain just chat. Eventually a government will make an order, and rather than a planned phased reduction, which will keep people in jobs, and support distilleries, the process will just be stopped. With such an abrupt seizure, businesses will be lost. Best to plan ahead and adjust on your own terms, than on enforced terms.

As an addition to the research, I asked whisky Twitter its thoughts:

The use of peat in the whisky industry is now more of a choice (flavour) than a necessity (burning for fuel). As we all know (or should), peat is vital to the planet for biodiversity and Co2 sequestering. How would you feel if the use of peat was stopped in the Whisky industry?

Not a problem hate peat – 16.3%

Wd miss it but understand42.9%

No Peat? Whats the point? – 35.5%

Other (please comment) – 5.3%

245 votes·Final results

Will I still drink peated whisky? Yes, but I will reduce how much. I may only be one person, but every small action, from every single person, can create a big impact.

Claire

23 01 2021

Note: The picture at the top of this piece was taken by me, at Keston Common, Kent. It’s a peat bog that is now an SSSI, and was used regularly by Charles Darwin for his studies.

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My Last Sunset……

Sounds a bit ominous doesn’t it? Maybe it comes across as a bit whimsical, or maybe it sounds like I’m not feeling great and could be contemplating seeing my last sunset.

Thankfully, it’s not that bad but given the year I and many have had it would be understandable.

The last sunset I saw was Tuesday evening on 24th November 2020. I was on my way to meet a whisky friend and grab a socially distanced takeaway coffee. Well, that’s what I thought.

Rewinding just a little, let me explain why this sunset was so important and why it stood out for me.

I see sunrise more regularly than many people. It’s one of the joys of being a gardener. We work daylight hours and generally begin our day early. We have a natural affiliation with the seasonal rhythms and take an almost nerdy interest in weather. Our work depends on it. Even at weekends or on days off, I will still witness a sunrise, and will bask in the warmth on my face.  

This year however, due to various restrictions and trying to do my civic duty, when I wasn’t working, I was indoors at home. My only window faces east. So it turns out that I can’t remember seeing a sunset this year. That small, guaranteed, taken for granted event that happens every single day had not noticeably made it’s way into my life this year, and the realisation hit me hard. I wasn’t expecting it, and when I did see the sunset on Tuesday, it choked me up. It made me realise how closed off my world has become over the last 10 months. On many levels I have found myself feeling lucky; my job enables me to be outside, I’ve made friends with an amazing group of people in the whisky world, some old relationships have faded, and some beautiful new ones have come about. I thought I had this year sorted, within the realms of what we have been allowed.

However, the thing that has become apparent, that all this time indoors by myself, set away from other people has led me to think that a lot of the outside world isn’t there, isn’t available. Yes, I’ve been walking and going to wonderful parks and green places and yes I have on occasion met with friends, but not regularly.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my own company and I’m good with being alone. But the intensity of this year has led me down a path I wasn’t aware I was on. I have become ridiculously isolated and I didn’t really know it. The sunset on Tuesday showed me this.

Now, back to the sunset.

I was meeting my friend around 4.30pm to give him some whisky samples. It’s good to share!! I got off the train at Shoreditch High Street, stepped outside the station, turned right heading to Commercial Street…and looked up. The sky was glowing purpley-pink and any reflective space was doing the same. I haven’t seen something so stunning for such a long time and it stopped me in my tracks. I saw an area that I normally absent-mindedly walk through in a completely different light…literally. I saw the colours of the amazing street art in the area glowing from the walls, the lights from the hand carwash creating an almost blinding, clinically white space. I was seeing London.

Upon meeting Thom he suggested we head to Brick Lane and Bethnal Green. Not being over familiar with the area, I followed his lead. Thom is a “Whisky Slinger” and works at Milroys, Spitalfields. On occasion I have the *pleasure* of his company when I either work at or visit the bar. His industry experience is far reaching, and I was just about to experience his local knowledge.

Now, we are in a national “lockdown” and the hospitality industry has been hit significantly. I have seen brand ambassadors gradually get laid off over the year, businesses shutting down and some, luckily have been innovative and diversified their offerings. Virtual tastings have been the huge success of the year, small whisky groups have been set up and meet in virtual pubs. Bars, such as Milroys have created tasting packs to be sent out to clients to then have online tastings with staff, cocktails have been bottled and made available for purchase.

What I hadn’t been aware of, was how other bars had managed. Walking down Brick Lane with the temperature dropping, the waft of Bagels, takeaways and general street smells were beginning to kick in. Thom headed towards a bar that looked closed, but once we got there the front window was open and there were various offerings of takeaway cocktails, hot drinks and canned beers. Welcome to The Cocktail Trading Company.

I had an Irish Coffee. Not just any Irish coffee, the cream part was infused with Tumeric. We spoke with the team there for a bit, cradling the coffee. Enjoying the contrast of sweet Jamesons whiskey, the bitter coffee, the slightly salty turmeric cream. Trust me, it was so good!! We grabbed a couple of cans of IPA and wandered towards Bethnal Green Road.

Its dark now, the windows of shops that are open are misted up with condensation and its cold. I can’t remember the last time I wandered London streets at night drinking alcohol…but I’m loving it. I’m starting to “feel” again, to experience more than my isolation. Along Bethnal Green Road, food shops with open frontage displaying all ranges of fruit, veg, meat and fish are open. On the other side of the same pavement are market stalls selling their wares. People are there, bustling about and doing their shopping. It’s noisy with people talking over each other. It feels normal.

I cracked open my can of IPA and continued to enjoy sublime, noisy, smelly normality of London.

Next stop was “Coupette”. A French inspired bar with a nod towards Brandy and cocktails. Again, the same system; a selection of takeaway cocktails was available, served from the front window. This time I had a Mulled Wine, served with (if I remember correctly) Hennesey. Warming, slightly dry, spicey…served in a takeaway bottle and plastic glass. Just a hug in liquid form.

From here we travelled a bit further along the road and came to our last stop, The Sun Tavern; cocktails and Craft beer in a Rustic space (so says Google maps). There was quite a number of people milling around (socially distanced of course), having a drink, smoking a cigarette. I looked through the hatch into the dark bar and could see a warm, welcoming space. Rows of spirits behind the bar and I made a mental note to return in more normal times. Meanwhile a lager was purchased. As we stood chatting watching the world go by, people-watching and just doing those things that were so normal, so unnoticeable in the past, I found myself witnessing my city through new eyes. Seeing the vibrancy, the community, the support. Feeling normal and sociable (very unusual for me). Also feeling a bit rebellious, this is us, this is London, we will get through this.

We were joined by a friend of Thom’s, and so we remained for another couple of pints and I think, another mulled wine. We were also joined by complete strangers. You know, the “interesting” guy in the pub, who has a lot to say, but says nothing at all; who doesn’t stop talking, makes comments that really should be called out, but you just listen, waiting to see what he may say next, whilst swapping wry smiles with your mates. Standard pub entertainment. And yes, it was getting colder. And no, you can’t use a toilet (men have this a little easier).

Eventually I had to call it a night and get home.

On reflection, this is probably one of the best nights I have had in many years.

Firstly, it wasn’t planned. All the best nights are unplanned.

Secondly, it gave me hope for the hospitality industry. It’s surviving by the skin of its teeth, but it’s surviving.

And lastly for me, it made me feel human again. I experienced the thrill of the unknown, of discovering a world I live near, but not in. I experienced a small adventure and some excitement. I felt I had been let in on a secret which few know. It reminded me of living in Bristol where I ran pubs and lived the hospitality industry, the unwritten rules and the community spirit.

I felt re-grounded. I felt a little more “Vokins” than I have done for a while.

So, wherever you live go out around sunset, and see where it takes you. You may just find yourself in a different world.

(The pic at top of piece was taken by me in India, 2015. No photos were taken on the night this piece talks about, because I was just soaking up the moment, through my senses, not a lens.)

NB. For anyone who may be experiencing feelings isolation, loneliness, anxiety or depression, please reach out to someone.

This link for UK may be helpful:

Mental health charities and organisations – NHS (www.nhs.uk)

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He said, she said……..

Just over a week ago the whisky industry was rocked by the highlighting of language and opinions given in a well known and dare I say, once popular, annual publication.

Before I go any further, I will just say that at times during this piece you may think I don’t agree with the general feeling many have. I do. However I also see things from a different point of view and have taken some time to get my thoughts in order, before issuing a knee jerk reaction.

I understand the “why” of the situation. Why it was highlighted and why it should be addressed. But I do have discomfort with the “how”. More on that later. First, lets talk about me (far more interesting).

My working life has been very much in male dominated industries. I studied aeronautical engineering and worked as an aircraft mechanic. I have also worked in the construction industry. I now work in the horticultural industry and sometimes get paid to work in the whisky industry. I’ve run pubs, played on boys sports teams at school and generally find men far easier to get along with than women. I am not a girl’s girl. I sometimes view myself as the world’s worst feminist, other times the best. Why? Because as far as I am concerned any person should be able to do any job, follow any dream, play any sport, drink any drink they want, without having to justify their position. That said, I know real life is far more nuanced than this.

I sometimes say I do not believe I have been subject to sexism and stereotyping and I can be flippant about it. But if I was pushed, then yes, I have, but how I handled it was purely on me.

Me in my school years:

Sir? Can I play basketball? No, only a boys’ team. Well, then I want to play on that team.

Teacher checked the rules, I could play till third year, then we got a girls’ team going.

Sir? Can I go to the RAF for work experience instead of working at the hairdressers? Don’t know, we’ll look into it. Yep, there’s a company that organises it.

I had two weeks at RAF Odiham, which helped me confirm my career choice at 15 yrs old.

Me in early work:

Apply for jobs working on aircraft. Goes to interviews. Gets jobs. Works damned hard. Learns how to handle “banter”. Isn’t quiet. Gives a good as she gets.

One of my favourite experiences was when I worked at Elstree aerodrome. I needed the toilet more often on one day in particular. The toilet for females was about half a mile away. There wasn’t one in the hangar. No females had worked on shop floor before. On my third trip of the day, the chief engineer came out and instead of just talking to me, shouted across the hangar “Oi, Vokins…where are you going?” “Toilet.” I replied. “Again?? You’re taking the piss.” Everyone had stopped to listen to the interaction. So I shouted back “I’m on my period, I need to change my tampon!!!!” Silence.

He turned on his heel and walked back to his office. The lads all cracked up and clapped. 2 weeks later a female toilet was installed in the hangar.

I’ve never really thought hard about this incident; until a situation arises some things are not seen as an issue. Was it sexist to not have a toilet for females? Or was it just something that hadn’t been deemed necessary before, because women in that industry was just not common at that time? I never worried about it. It was advantageous to some extent, I got longer breaks.

Working in construction, the only issue I ever had came from another woman. “Queen Bee” syndrome is a thing, and its evil.

But again, had I experienced stereotyping and sexism? Yes. When I walked buildings to discuss the installation of communal heating systems and other M&E projects, the visiting engineers would talk directly to the male site managers and not to me, even though the site managers were effectively my subordinates. Always amusing when after remaining quiet, I would ask technical questions and provide solutions to problems discussed.

Maybe this wasn’t the way to go about educating people that women do these jobs. But in the same vein that a black person isn’t responsible to educate a white person on how not to be racist I didn’t see it and still don’t see it as my responsibilty to educate someone on how not to be sexist. My responsibilty was to do my job, on time on budget. I don’t see women working in construction as something to be highlighted, just accepted. Same for the aviation industry, same for……EVERY INDUSTRY.

So here I am again, associated loosely with another male dominated industry, watching it implode. There is a difference here though. The people working in the industry so far, in my experience are very much on board with women working in it. It’s not treated as novel, its normal. But there are some consumers who remain in the dark ages, and its those consumers who pay the money to drink the drink, so generally marketing and media plays to that audience.

The highlighting of the language within the publication will be seen as a positive move. However how it was done sits a little uncomfortably with me. One person, one publication, has been made scapegoat for an industry both by suppliers and consumers.

There is no place for sexism in any industry. In fact, there is no place for sexism.

When the original #MeToo movement had its time, there was a point where ALL industries could have and should have looked at themselves and adapted their diversity and inclusivity agendas and procedures. This movement could have been an umbrella to hide under, to change the narrative and gently ease into a more inclusive way of operating without making a big deal about it. Yes the #MeToo movement was more about actual physical harm and/or abuse of persons and of power, and the issue today is more about language, unconscious bias, micro-aggessions, but surely action could have be taken sooner.

This issue was highlighted last week. Why not last month, last year, last decade? Why does it matter now? I agree, time does need to be called on such language, and these things normally require a guarantee of support and a catalyst. So here we are.

Social media communication makes it so much easier to observe the behaviour of companies and people, and it allows the spread of ideas and collaboration in a fast paced manner. But it also has the same speed for negative news and views.

When the original post came out regarding the publication, I retweeted it. I agreed with it in general. What I should have done in hindsight was think about my role in that retweet. Yes, the language used was archiac, vulgar, not of this century. But the vitriol, the perceived bullying in return seems unjust to me. Within 48 hrs a number of companies in the industry issued statements in support of the post. But scroll through the Instagram posts and marketing material of these companies and you will see they are loaded with pictures of men drinking whisky and very few women. This makes the statements seem disingenuous. To me these are companies wanting to publicly fall on the right side of the issue. They felt they had to say something. Great, well done, you issued a statement. Twitter approves.

These statements quite frankly mean jack. They are a holding statement. They are the swan that looks calm and regal, while in the back-office companies are frantically reviewing posts and marketing to see if they too are complicit. Legal teams and PR are creating strategies just in case previous staff come forward with statements of negative behaviour towards them.

Social media is an uncontrollable animal and the companies who remained quiet are deemed to be on the wrong side of the argument. We don’t know that. They may just be taking a strategic look at themselves, making changes and quietly moving forward. Yet they are still judged.

Actions speak volumes, not words. Let’s see what it looks like in 6 months or in 2 yrs…will it quietly return to the status quo, or will there be change? Slow change, to me is better. We must make sure we avoid tokenism. It happens, and it can backfire.

Many have berated the author of the publication for their response, which was angry. Of course it was. This person has supported and raised awareness of whisky as a wonderful drink for many years. Many have happily accepted the awards without question, enjoying the publicity, the marketing and profit generated. The companies were complicit. We, the consumers were complicit.

Within a short period of time some companies have cut ties and stated they want nothing to do with the author. Well, that’s gratitude for you. But its also normal behaviour. It’s looking at the mirror and realising you are just as bad and no-one wants to be seen in a negative light. Social media creates a pack mentality and we’d rather be part of the pack, than be prey.

As has been mentioned a number of times, this is just the start of “the conversation” (God, I hate that phrase!!). Lets not sit around talking. Do something, but also don’t do something.

Don’t start going over marketing and behaviour from companies and people prior to this “moment”. Trust me, there will be dirt in the cleanest of houses. It wastes time. It wastes money. It can ruin lives.

Do draw a line. Accept that none of us is innocent. How many have heard stories, heard comments and NOT said anything in defence of the person to whom the comment was directed? Believe me I have judged men and women on what they look like, what they are doing in that moment of 10 mins that I met them and never saw them again. I have objectified people. I loved a “diet coke break” as much as the next person. I have drunkenly pinched the backside of a good-looking man in a bar. I am not innocent. I am human. (and yes, in true social style I expect to be “cancelled” for that admission).

Going forwards, many of us are in a position where we can instigate change, through example and education. Not calling out and humiliation (and yes I am guilty of that too).

We can show that the industry is a great place to work in. For long term change we need to show young people that the drinks industry is an inclusive industry, and that yes, you do need to have STEM subjects to be able to create great drinks, and yes you can make money from it. By showing that the industry can be welcoming both financially and personally, it will attract a broader scope of people, and a natural balance will come about. It will likely take another decade at least to see the impact so we should be careful about how we support each other in making that transition.

Anything else?

Yes. Lets consider our thoughts on those social media accounts that are basically good looking people (generally women) who are posing (generally scantily dressed) with bottles of whisky. Are we ok with that? Or should they be called out too? Frankly I really don’t care. People should be able to do what they want. But in saying I don’t care, is it a double standard then to say that it’s not acceptable within the industry either as a supplier or a consumer? Just a point to think about.

I’m not the youngest person about. Which means a few things; it means I have had to at times create my own path and not rely on the support of “social conscience, diversity and inclusivity” to help me, it wasn’t there, but I was. It means I had to grow “Claire-sized balls” and learn to hold my own. Do we really need someone to point out the use of language, to point out issues of diversity…or should we learn to be more assertive in our own way?

It means too, that I have come to the point where I see that sometimes, by trying to be so inclusive, we can sometimes create further division and alienate people. It means that to me, the world is pretty much divided into two; those who are arseholes, and those who are not.

Even when someone is perceived as doing wrong, I feel there are ways to deal with it using education, empathy and compassion. We should try consider the effect of our actions on others in all situations.

Final thought: We don’t raise ourselves by pushing others down.

Feeling a little blue….

Welcome to my first blog!! Bit scary to be honest, and as with the horticulture and the whisky scene, it’s a pretty saturated arena. So why bother? Well, I generally have an opinion on most things, and clearly it’s always the right opinion and the world should know this. I’ve been thinking about a blogging for a while. I have a whole list of subjects to write about, but so does everyone else. However, an experience endured yesterday gave me the push I probably didn’t need. Waterford. There I said it. Waterford gave me the push.

I have sat on the side lines and watched whisky social media tear itself into pieces over what has been viewed as likely one of the most controversial approaches to whisky there has been for a while, and it amuses me. I have a curious mind. I enjoy science. I work in horticulture. So to see a brand experimenting and seemingly setting out to confirm the existence and effect of “Terroir” on the flavour of whisky is interesting to say the least. I am not going to write about the experiment. It’s all available on the Waterford webpages, and it’s pretty nerdy. You can see which farm has which soils and which Barley has been grown in it and the whisky that barley has gone into. I like that *idea*. I’m not really going to speak about the samples I tried last night too much. They’ve all been covered in more depth by other bloggers and Vloggers. But I will write my first hand experience of a *tasting* of Waterford whiskies, with Mark Reynier.

Sussex Whisky Appreciation Group (SWAG @WhiskySussex) had kindly let me take the last space on a Zoom tasting and given the buzz about Waterford I was keen to witness for myself the man leading the “Terroir” project. When I joined Mark Reynier (MR) was holding court, and I did wonder if I was late to the party (obviously not, I’m never late). However it wasn’t clear if this was a general chat, lecture, tasting or what really. A few people tried to ask if there was an order for the whiskies. Most of us who see the “tasting” word assume we will sample the drams in a particular order so we can understand the development of the liquid while take note of the nose, the palate, the finish…but no. Just drink it. In fact drink it, add water to it and throw all the samples into one glass and mix them together (MR’s instructions, not mine).

However I did ignore this to start with as I wanted to try these samples as I would with any other whisky. The Ballykilaven and Bannow Island were quite similar to me. Grassy on nose with with a chemically undertone which I can only liken to a diluted version of the Buttercup medicine I had as a child. Palate is biscuity, sweet with a short finish. The Ratheadon for me is a far more balanced and enjoyable dram. I added a little water to all three…for me it neither improved or made worse the palate. However, MR was right, mixing all three together is a significant improvement….which as we discovered is the ultimate aim; a blended whisky.

As the talk went on, MR’s passion for the project became more and more apparent, however, so did the contempt and disdain for anyone who had a question. I am all up for debate and learning, however for people who genuinely want to ask questions, to be shot down, over talked and not allowed to finish their questions is just plain disrespectful. But I digress…

A number of claims (lets call them soundbites) were made during the talk;

“Waterford will NOT give you a hangover”

“No fixed recipe, it’s a floating margin” when asked about production process to maintain the barley/terroir flavour profile.

“Don’t open it (sic), it will make a lot of money one day” when speaking about Pilgrimage.

I found MR contrary, circular, and at times downright frustrating, but only from the point of view that he contradicts himself regularly. We were told that wood is not important, but minutes later we’re told that only the best French oak from the best Chateau’s will do and that “Every whisky benefits from it’s time in oak” (MR) … From a basic scientific point of view we know that wood has a number of properties and effects on a spirit most notably, flavour. It’s why certain woods, treatments and dare I say “finishes”* are employed by a a distiller. (*MR doesn’t agree with finishing casks either).

Back to the geekiness; my ears pricked up when MR noted that coming up for Waterford will be the development, growth and use of 3 Heritage barley varieties; Hunter (last used 1979), Goldthorpe (c1900) and Old Irish (Bere). (NB all these were noted by MR so he is the source here, not research on T’interweb). I asked MR “How” these varieties will be developed to maintain true seed, and vigour, given that Waterford, right now is “Terroir” driven and if terroir has an impact on flavour, then surely maintaining the health of the grains, chosen for flavour is of paramount importance. The response was somewhat vague, so I assume it will be done within controlled conditions, though MR was clear it wouldn’t be in a covered, “clean” area, but with use of contamination barriers. I will watch the recording and see if I can glean anymore (whisky was being consumed by all of us at this stage).

Winding up. Towards the end of the meeting, more questions were asked, more opinions and comments given, and woe betide anyone who tried to push the Terroir/flavour/production process. A generalised question, which I know many people are asking is ” If you are going to tell us to mix the whiskies, if you’re going to blend them altogether…what’s the point of *proving* Terroir exists in the first place?” The response, no surprise was (pp) “If you haven’t been listening to me then why i have I been here for the last 1 1/2 hours? Maybe its not for you, go back to drinking any other whisky, Waterford isn’t for YOU”. (This is my polite version).

As someone who works in horticulture, I am on board with “Terroir”, otherwise known as environmental factors. Reports and studies abound show that environmental factors affect growth, and flavour of everything. MR doesn’t believe any reports into the existence of “Terroir” exist. A shallow dive into any search engine provider will bring up various studies and articles. I will of course send him some links, just to help out.

To conclude, I got what I was expecting from the experience. I already agree that “terroir” is a thing. I don’t need convincing of that. It was made pretty clear that this is just the beginning of the Waterford journey and that ultimately the goal is a blended whisky, where in essence whether you can taste “terroir” or not, it makes no difference. Drink it or don’t. Like it or don’t. MR doesn’t care what you think, it’s his project, his baby and he’s playing with it. I look forward to trying more whisky from Waterford, to see how it develops. The story is interesting, we’re all talking about it. And thats the thing isn’t it? We’re all talking about it. It’s all that is needed to sell a Whisky.

I’ll leave you with Mark’s final comment (after he told us he’s had enough and is going for his tea and bailing from the meeting)..

“Terroir will not be mentioned after the end of this year” (MR)