It was 1988 and Dave Broom found himself at the start of the single malt boom: “This was the tail end of the great slump in Scotch, brands, especially blends, were declining. There were mutterings that single malt might be quite an interesting thing, but no one was writing about it, apart from Michael Jackson, Charlie MacLean and Wallace Milroy.”
Dave Broom’s career had started when he left university and worked for Oddbins, a chain of wine merchants. He moved from Edinburgh, Scotland to Bristol in England “for the great music scene there”. He then ran the Seahorse pub, opposite the Smiles Brewery [1977-2005] “It was one of these craft breweries before craft brewing existed, it was good fun”.
By the time the pub’s lease ran out Dave Broom was already writing, then a job at Off Licence News came up, which is where he spent the next seven years…
So, Dave Broom, how long have you been writing about spirits?
I have been writing about them for a long time. I make it 34 years.
Do you like whisky?
Do you like whisky?
Do I like…? Yes! Look at my office!
Yes, I see lots of bottles of whisky you haven’t drunk.
I do like whisky. Yes, I genuinely, genuinely do like whisky. The ones I haven’t drunk are samples I’m about to taste… The rest are open!
I honestly do love it. There is always something exciting, something new coming along.
Are you a completist? Do you feel that you must try every single whisky?
I used to. But I am now undertaking a rewrite of The World Atlas Of Whisky and have realised that there is no way to do it.
Just like you can never listen to every piece of music in the world, you can never taste every whisky in the world. So, I’m not a completist in that way, because I know it’s impossible.
There’s a certain sort of music enthusiast who loves new music until it becomes a bit popular, then they move on. It is all about the discovery. Do you recognise that?
Ha! Yes. Absolutely. I spent years trying to persuade people to like Tom Waits, and then suddenly, people liked him, and I’d go “yeah, but the old stuff is better”.
So, what’s your whisky equivalent to Tom Waits?
Oh God. That would be something like…Pappy!
So are you a whisky collector?
I do not have that collector’s mentality.
Oh, or do I?
I don’t think I do.
In terms of whisky I don’t have that mentality.
Can I see a collection of music and a collection of whisky behind you? In what way you are not a collector of either?
No, no, I do not collect whisky. I accumulate it!
I do, to some extent, collect music. But the nature of my collecting music is that I just want to find interesting things, rather than wanting to be a completist.
I’ll buy weird shit, dub, folk, free jazz, because I’m interested in it, and not because I feel I have to have that record because there’s only one white label ever made, sold in a shop in Rochdale.
I do take a degree of pride that the artists I’m interested in are not easily traceable. Maybe I am programmed to like the obscure.
So, what is the “weird shit” that you are interested in? I am talking strictly whisky here.
I am always interested in distilleries which are pushing things forward. I’m interested in what’s happening in New Zealand. I’m interested in what’s happening the Nordics.
And, what is happening there?
In New Zealand, you suddenly have a whisky industry happening out of nowhere; the same thing is happening in the Nordics. In fact it’s happening in pretty much every country around the world. What is exciting about whisky at the moment is the way in which distillers are engaging with where they are, and I would count Scotland in that as well. That is my motivation for keeping going in whisky.
Has your writing style changed from your early writings in the eighties?
Oh yes, trade writing is very different to what I do now, which is essentially consumer writing. I would not call myself a journalist anymore, but I come from a journalistic background. I’ve slowly become more consumer focussed, with a journalist’s sensibility, perhaps.
There aren’t any 100% whisky journalists to be perfectly honest. That is an issue. There are however great writers who do amazing writing in trade papers. They’re the people who don’t just reprint press releases.
What do you mean?
A classic example being this week. A press release that was gibberish to begin with was then reprinted with even more gibberish added because whoever wrote the piece didn’t understand what they’re writing about. That’s not journalism.
Is the most transparent way for reporting a press release to just publish a photocopy of it?
Well, yes but that’s also problematic. The way I was brought up was that you got a press release and then you phoned the agency, or you phoned the distiller to ask questions. There’s a lack of rigour, which points to a lack of interest.
Were there ever whisky journalists?
There were journalists who wrote about whisky. Michael Jackson was a journalist. Jim Murray was a journalist. Richard Woodard is a journalist, Becky Paskin trained as a journalist. There are plenty of people out there who have the journalist’s sensibility still. That way of thinking, questioning stuff and trying to get to the bottom of a story. Once you’ve been trained that way, you’re not going to escape that and that’s good. That is positive.
You can’t make a living only writing about whisky because mainstream newspapers or media outlets in general, are not going to have a whisky correspondent. Which is a shame, I see there’s a need for it but I don’t see it being answered. The declining number of trade titles means there’s very little opportunity to do that.
Are the trade titles now merely a front for an awards racket? I’m surprised to see people with fairly indifferent palates on judging panels.
Yes, that’s one reason I stopped judging. And it’s dreadfully snobby for saying it, but if you don’t trust the panel, then the methodology is flawed.
We talked about innovation. What else delights you about whisky?
It has always been the people. What excites me about the world of whisky is the people who are coming into it and not just from a production point of view. Although that in itself is exciting. It’s also the people who have fallen in love with it, the fact that more women are involved in whisky and all aspects and drinking. That is hugely, hugely exciting and rewarding.
Well, with that perspective of 30-odd years in this game, I can remember what the whisky world was like three decades ago, who was drinking it, how you were meant to drink it, what you were allowed to say… and then compare it to where it is now. Wow! What a change, what an extraordinary change in a very short period of time.
“Your palate had to mature”, that was the line back in the 1980s and 1990s. Young people didn’t drink whisky because their palates weren’t mature enough!?
Women didn’t drink whisky so if you wanted to make a whisky which would appeal to women it had to be pink, or light, or whatever.
Now you can spend every single weekend, maybe even every single day of the year, at some whisky festival or at a whisky club.
What depresses you about the world of whisky?
The investment thing depresses me. The reduction of anything to a commodity, at both ends of the market.
You know the reason that whisky foundered so badly from the 1980s to the 1990s was because in the desperate attempt to turn the market around distillers commoditised the product by slashing the price.
Now, the same thing is happening at the very top end, though in a different way. Whisky is simply being sold as a thing that people would like to buy and I don’t necessarily blame the brands for doing it, because that market exists, but at the same time they’re selling the family silver.
A whisky which was only ever worth £200 per bottle in terms of quality is never worth £20,000 or whatever it’s selling for.
There’s been a shift in thinking, for instance I remember being at one famous distillery and the person taking us round – they were quite senior – was talking about their competitors and they said “we’re not interested in the whisky market, we look to Ferrari”. At that point I thought, OK, well, there you go. The shark has been jumped.
There’s a reductive element to that thinking. If you look again at the way blends were sold, it was just the price that mattered rather than the liquid in the bottle. Then all of a sudden through the early 2000s, you began to see that actually the quality in the bottle was the thing which was driving interest in whisky. It was no longer a commodity, but something which was different, something which was compelling.
And now it’s moved off to that other end where all that matters is the acquisition of a thing which happens to be a liquid.
So you’ve got different elements of commoditisation now, at both ends. And then in the middle, which is probably where you and I live, there’s still the real interest in the liquid and what makes it special.
Hasn’t whisky always been a commodity of sorts?
I accept that it’s always been treated – and always been sold – as a commodity. At the same time, the reason that people have become interested in whisky, and the reason there has been an explosion of distilleries all around the world is because of that love of the specialness in the liquid.
And that loss of specialness in the liquid, in preference to just these things that you can look up at on the shelf. That I find quite depressing.
What else depresses you about whisky?
I find the number of people who are coming in, saying you are going to get a guaranteed return on a cask of whisky crazy. It’s deeply worrying and deeply scary, because that is going to affect the entire industry when that bubble bursts and when the fraud, which is undoubtedly happening, comes out.
What about whisky reviewing?
The changing nature of communication baffles me. I’m an old, grey bearded man, but I find it amusing – bewildering and amusing: that these days a review of whisky can consist of…[Dave Broom holds up a bottle and smiles at the camera]. That is it!
Where are the tasting notes? Where is the information? Where is the story? Why is nobody asking “why?”?
That picking up of the bottle and smiling at the camera is only about self-promotion, it is not, as far as I can tell, about having any interest in whisky whatsoever. OK, take a photo of yourself holding a bottle but give me something else because otherwise that’s not a review.
This sounds dreadfully elitist, but it’s that old debate about “Is everybody a critic? Is everybody’s opinion valid?” Yes. Everybody’s opinion is valid, but if you can have an opinion, then have that opinion within a context, that is more valid.
It’s about doing the hard yards, and it’s doing that extra bit of work. I read Serge Valentin‘s reviews, we have similar palates and nine times out of ten I’m going to agree with him. But I know that within Serge’s reviews there’s a deeper understanding of what it means. Rather than just “I like it”.
What development took you by surprise?
The arrival of Japanese whisky. That took everybody by surprise. Whisky, which nobody had tried, other than Japanese people, obviously. Nobody had tried it on the export market until, about, the year 2000, and then suddenly BOOM! Everybody is talking about Japanese whisky.
That was a real surprise because until then there had been such a resistance to anything non Scotch. Suddenly the gates were open and soon after came a willingness form consumers to accept whisky from “non traditional” countries as being of great quality.
It was a revelatory moment. It helped to change people’s perceptions, because after that, even the fact that there were distilleries in England(!), that was no longer a problem.
The arrival of Japanese whisky on the international market was also a catalyst for new distillers thinking about whisky in the different way. You could follow a Japanese template, which essentially was a Scotch template, but with some fascinating Japanese twists.
Are you suggesting Japanese whisky opened the door for the rest of the world?
Inadvertently, but yes, because it changed people’s perceptions. It allowed people – not just consumers, but distillers as well – to realise that whisky could be made anywhere in the world.
The boom in distilling around the world astonishes me. Did you know there are 250 whisky distilleries in Australia?! There are forty-five, maybe 50 in England! When I started writing there were two distilleries in Ireland, and they were owned by the same company. Now there are 50!
And that is in a very short period of time. Most of it has happened in the last seven years. It is astonishing.
Ask any of these new distillers what they are making and they immediately say “not Scotch, but something that comes from where we are from.” What’s fascinating is that new distilleries in Scotland are now working from a similar ethos – their distillers are asking, “What is Scotch whisky? What can Scotch whisky be?” That now includes different strains of barley and different yeasts etcetera. I find that hugely exciting.
One of the things I discuss in my new book [A Sense Of Place by Dave Broom] is the way in which so many of these new distilleries are deeply embedded in their communities, and are helping to revive them.
It’s also fascinating to see that lots of the ideas which are now being applied to Scotch whisky are ones which existed at the beginning of the 20th century, but which were lost because the industry consolidated, and because it had to look for scale because there was global demand. There was nothing wrong with that decision, but along the way, a lot was lost. Now distillers have gone full circle. A lot of what is “new” is an adaptation of something that was old.
If people are willing to spend more money on a better whisky, doesn’t it make it easier to get investors to fund distillers to make it? Some of these things that excite you about whisky also go hand in hand with what depresses you right?
I’m not saying that the top end of whisky is wrong, I’m just I’m saying that the way the whisky market has always been structured, crudely speaking, was in a pyramid. You’ve got good entry level whisky at the bottom, and there are scales leading to the pinnacle, but everything – price etc., is dictated by the base.
Now that pyramid has been inverted, and the thinking driving whisky is being dictated by these unobtainable things from what should be the apex which only a very small number of people want, or can afford.
It’s that destabilising influence and the lack of long-term thinking on the part of big distillers that is worrying. Whisky is a long term business. If the people who are marketing and selling the whisky are on a three- or four-year cycle because they’re moving through a company, or have their own careers to worry about, then things get forgotten. You need these gnarled old whisky people in there going “I remember 1980” or “I remember that financial crash,” Whisky needs people who know and have lived through these cycles because another one will come.
All right, what did you expect to happen that didn’t happen?
I expected there to be more interest in blends.
I expected rum to be the next big thing a lot earlier than it was. I remember writing that piece in 1992-1993: “rum’s going to be the next big thing” and I wrote essentially the same words every year for about ten years, and now it’s happening.
Well then you were right all along.
Yes, it is a salutary lesson. It’s the same as when I used to write about wine as well. All wine writers will bang on about how wonderful Riesling is and how wonderful Sherry is and why people should be drinking it because they are the pinnacle. And nobody does drink them. But we’re still right!
Shows how much people pay attention to writers, and that’s a good thing.
So yeah. Rum and Sherry were the big calls. One is happening. Sherry will too.
Which of your books are you proudest of?
Can I pick two? The Way Of Whisky and A Sense Of Place because they are companion volumes. Because people got what I was trying to do with them. That’s what I am happiest about. It was a different way of writing about whisky, so it was a personal challenge.
The one that surprised me the most was Whisky: The Manual which was suddenly taken on by the bar trade going “ooh. you can play with whisky”. I didn’t expect that so that was heartening. Another thing that surprised me was the reaction to the Lagavulin & Coke! The emergence of the Smoky-Cokey as a “thing”.
It was hilarious because some people who tried it, got it, and said “this is a lovely drink” while others went into apoplectic rage that anyone would dare to do such things. People were walking out of tastings when I said “right, now add some Coke to that.”
Doesn’t Lagavulin go well with everything?
Caol Ila as well. When I was doing whisky and food matching. I would often be going “well, what’s going to work with this one? This is a tough one. Oh, try it with Caol Ila. Oh yes, there we go.”
Let us talk about whisky scandals. When we discovered that bottles that we thought were Japanese whiskies turned out to be made from spirits imported from other countries, did that surprise you?
No, it didn’t surprise me because I knew it was a widespread practice that bulk Scotch and Canadian whiskies were coming into Japan and getting blended.
I’d been writing about the need for legislation for a while, but the scale of it surprised me.
What I’d understood – or what I’d been told by some Japanese distillers – was that it was only the low priced domestic brands which were the “admix” ones. The fact was that fairly major export brands were also doing it, but not declaring it.
Then the subsequent arrival of all these new, fake Japanese whiskies was, and remains, deeply worrying. It’s destabilised the entire industry.
What do you mean by “fake Japanese whisky”?
Whisky which purports to be Japanese and says “Japanese whisky” on the label, but which is admix, or it is 100% Scotch which is bottled in Japan, or Shochu, which is repackaged as whisky.
What some producers have been saying is “this is common practice to deceive the consumer.” No, it’s not! That is why there are regulations. So, the consumers are not deceived.
Perhaps it is common practice.
It’s not acceptable practice and it remains a real irritant. The sooner the current Japanese industry guidelines are passed into law, the better.
The people who are interested in Japanese whisky, the ones who know about this are immediately suspicious – I’m immediately suspicious – of any new Japanese brand that appears. My initial reaction is “Is this right or not?” And that is not the way it should be. I will investigate, and I will dig before I write about it.
Dave Broom, is there anything that you wish I would have asked you?
We seem to have got into a negative space so I’d just like to say that I am still enthused, genuinely enthused, about what’s happening with whisky around the world.
There are so many great whiskies, there are so many great people and the nature of whisky is shifting, evolving.
The ending of Scotch’s hegemony over the whisky category is a good thing because it’s allowing space and it’s also challenging Scotch whisky.
So we’re in a good place, though I’d immediately temper that with: there are way too many distilleries in the world. I’m Scottish, you’ll always get both sides!