Highlights From An Exclusive Q&A With Serge Valentin

Creator of whiskyfun.com, Serge Valentin talks to Isabel Graham-Yooll about his love of old whiskies.

Highlights From An Exclusive Q&A With Serge Valentin

Serge Valentin’s reviews and ratings are now so influential in whisky buying that they have become a major factor in the prices of old and rare whiskies. His reviews on Whiskyfun have made him the most widely known and influential old and rare whisky critic in the world.

Serge Valentin clearly remembers how it all began. He used to enjoy reading a newsletter by François Audouze, who was tasting and writing about ‘crazy old wines’. Already a member of the Malt Maniacs which had started in 1997, he decided to launch an online tasting diary of his own in 2002, beginning with a list of Brora. By 2004 the Whiskyfun blog had started to look pretty much like it does today. Even then, it was still the early days of blogs (even the word ‘blog’ had only been coined a mere five years earlier, in 1999): ‘we weren’t actually talking about blogs at that time, and despite popular demand, I never allowed any reader’s comments, for example’.

To put this in context, Valentin reminds me that Malt Maniacs website actually started before Whisky Magazine was in print, and the Whiskyfun website was launched before the Whisky Bible came to print.

Whiskyfun was built ‘within a concept of a trilogy’ that Serge Valentin had put together with Johannes van den Heuvel. It was he who was, Valentin believes, ‘the very first whisky blogger’ with his Malt Madness that he had started in 1995.

He is keen to add that Michael Jackson was ‘a sort of mentor’.

So by the early 2000s the trio of whisky websites were established. Malt Madness felt like an online book. Malt Maniacs was more like a magazine, and Whiskyfun was the ‘daily’: ‘Not a set-up that anyone’s ever tried to kind of replicate, right?’ said Valentin.

Success can be measured in clicks and likes. Valentin counts ‘a few million visits a year and a few tens of thousands very loyal readers, not too bad’ he says with some modesty, but even more impressive is surely a blog’s survival. Today, Malt Madness still exists. Malt Maniacs has turned towards social media (if you’re even slightly interested in chatting whisky and are on Facebook then we do recommend the Malt Maniacs & Friends group). Meanwhile, the rebelliously low tech Whiskyfun remains more or less the same. As Serge Valentin says, ‘why change?’

Below, he answers a few of our questions:

You’ve reviewed well over 15000 whiskies. That seems like a lot.

It is not a lot. Wine sommeliers may try ten times more wines, or twenty times more. The idea was, and still remains, to kind of take photographs of whiskies. A tasting note is like a photograph, a way of keeping whiskies forever even when the bottle’s empty. But remember that it was all pretty new when I started, all you had was a few mailing lists and usenet groups. So we were trying to do something that no one had done before, at least not with whisky.

The Facebook group Malt Maniacs And Friends has almost 18000 members. It’s a pretty active group with plenty of opinions. Why do you think it’s so popular?

Most probably because it’s fully independent, totally un-corporate, integrally ad-free, and absolutely not supported by the whisky industry, even if many great industry folks are members ‘as individuals’.

I have to say it, support from the ‘official’ whisky industry as bodies has always been pretty low, or even non-existent (apart from one or two groups). Because you can’t control us, you see! And they change PR agencies every Monday, so to speak. But smaller ventures, especially most independent bottlers, have always been very supportive. All power to them!

It seems that every aspiring whisky blogger wants to emulate you. What makes whiskyfun so different from all the other blogs out there?

They should not, that will lead them nowhere! Most certainly the fact that I started early, and the fact that I’ve never used any blog engines that make all blogs look the same – even if the way I do it is extremely bad for SEO. Also independence, I suppose, and the fact that I am not looking for a job in the industry, don’t do gigs, and have just nothing to sell, including ads, whether native or display. But yeah, the fact that I started early is most probably the main reason. And remember, it was designed in 2002 (and was already pretty much out of fashion back then).

I enjoy reading your reviews, they have a slightly anarchic feel but actually your palate remains pretty consistent. It’s easy to benchmark my taste against yours. Do you ever retry a whisky and think ‘wait I got this totally wrong, what was I thinking?’

Thank you, balm to my heart. It’s true that I try to write without any hindrance, what’s more, English is not my mother tongue, which may make my little scribblings a bit ‘funnier’ at times. It needs more effort than when I write in French, so I suppose my writings are also getting really bad when I’m more tired.

I usually never re-read my old stuff but when that happens, sometimes my hair stand on end. I do retry some whiskies from time to time indeed, the best ones of course, or sometimes when bottlers send me ‘counter’ samples when they are not happy with a score or a note. But it is extremely rare that I would change a score – may have happened once or twice. Oh, I remember, it happened with the first Clynelish 14.

You score each whisky that you review on the 100 point scale? I’m impressed by the precision, how does that work?

It’s much easier than with a shorter scale! With a 5-scale, for example, you have to be extremely self-confident to decide between a 3 or a 4! In truth the 100-scale is only a percentage that answers one single question, how far are we from an ideal whisky that would be ‘at 100%’? We started to use it, with the Malt Maniacs, because we wanted to compare our feelings and assessments with those of Michael Jackson. It’s a standard, Robert Parker uses it as well, Decanter, etc…

But yeah, precision comes with comparison. A score on 100 is hard to give when you try one whisky out of the blue, but when you compare, say six Laphroaigs, everything starts to become much easier, and perhaps more accurate, even if accuracy’s not exactly the right term.

How does your 100 point scale compare to Robert Parker’s for instance?

I think I go lower. A 80 in my book is a good score, at Parker’s it’s a slaughter. But Parker’s ten thousand times better than me – not with spirits having said that, what he tried to do with bourbon, for example, was terrible. But he’s a pro, I remain a little amateur.

On your blog you warn readers: ‘What I write about whisky is not the “gospel” but is based on my personal experience and feelings, with no pretensions to be “the truth”. Therefore, it is not recommended that you buy the whiskies I review without first having tried them yourself. Thank you. Serge’. Why did you feel it was necessary to write this?

Because people started to buy bottles just because I had given a high score, without even trying them themselves, even when they could have. Or some started to trust my palate rather than their own, which makes no sense whatsoever since they’re the ones who’ll down their bottle, not me! I know many people still do that, for various reasons, but I do not feel comfortable with that. Unless, perhaps, when they just couldn’t try a whisky themselves, for logistical reasons, or bad timing…

The handful of whiskies that you’ve rated highest in your reviews were almost all distilled in the mid 1950s and late 1960s, usually on Islay (or at least, peaty from elsewhere). What’s so special about these whiskies?

Distilleries or blending houses were bottling only their best as single malt, not to mention earlier technical practices. Floor malting or Saladin boxes, lower yield barleys, better yeasts (as far as quality goes), longer fermentations, long cuts, direct firing, worm condensers, more neutral wood (great for aging, not for flavouring) etc. As far as quality’s concerned, it was the golden age for malt whisky, but then again, malt whisky was the cream of the crop at distilleries, where 99% was made for blending. Indeed, peat, but rather peat as it evolves in an old whisky (Bowmore, Laphroaig) than peat just as a flavouring agent.

Was whisky better in the good old days?

Whisky generally speaking, maybe not (I mean if you took the blending stock into consideration), but again, as far as whisky bottled as single malt go, I would say yes, probably. But I seem to remember that the Big Mac was better in the late 1970s too. What I mean is that some cognitive biases and myopias may be at play here. And romanticism, the fear of growing old, nostalgia, and perhaps a certain dose of shameless elitism. I like them because I could and can afford to try them mainly because of my position, whilst good people who couldn’t tend to prefer modern whiskies. Anyway, it’s better that people prefer what they can afford, that’s even a marketing law. I’ve heard the new Bentley was dreadful!

Are you personally responsible for the popularity of Brora?

Ha, maybe! But if that’s the case, I’m certainly not alone! There was already a small crew of Brora fans around Richard Joynson and the Scotch Whisky Review, for example!

Do you believe in Old Bottle Effect? [and what do you think causes it?]

I certainly do. OBE, I believe that’s another term coined by the Malt Maniacs, like, I seem to remember, NAS (not too sure, but apologies!) Anyway, I would say there are three kinds of OBE, bad, good, and a mix of both. First, remember the glass used for older bottles was not quite inert, at least not as tight or well-coated as it is today. Some elements of the glass used to get transferred to the liquid over time. Same with caps, whether cork or metal, and that could contaminate the whisky. Good examples are also spring caps, sometimes fantastic, sometimes wrecking the whiskies. Or there, why do all old Cadenheads dumpies share some common traits? Can’t be anything else than glass and/or caps. We’re not talking evaporation here. Beyond the ‘taste of glass’, you also have the ‘taste of light’, but that’s mostly due to bad storage conditions. Or bottles kept in shops for decades. And then, you have the most beneficial ‘further aging’ in glass that would follow aging in wood provided you keep your bottles. Sure it’s slow, much slower than with wine for example, but it cannot not happen. No closure is totally airtight, for example. Anyway, Samaroli used to claim that his much lauded young Springbanks or Glen Gariochs (just examples) were harsh and pungent when he bottled them, while they became some of the best malts there is after decades of bottle aging. Samaroli even used to write this on some of his labels ‘Aged for 20 years in oak, further refined in the bottle’. Or just watch other spirits, especially white eaux-de-vie kept for decades in demi-johns. Mezcal. artisan cachaça. In Alsace, old distillers would never, ever have drunk any white eau-de-vie if it had not been first kept for a good few years in bottles. Or there, old Scots even used to cellar their whiskies. Like good old Professor George Saintsbury, was he not doing that with his Glenlivets?

And here Is a selection of Serge Valentin’s top reviews of whiskies that you can buy in our current auction:

Bowmore 1964 White Bowmore 43 Year Old, 42.8% ABV, OB, 732 bottles. 96 Points

After the legendary ‘Blacks’, here’s the new ‘White’, assembled from six bourbon casks (retails for 3,300 Euros a bottle). Colour: gold, not white (but white wine isn’t white either, is it?) Nose: amazing, in seven letters. Fantabulous notes of tropical fruits (where to start? Mangos, grapefruits, passion fruits, kiwis, god knows what else…) mingling with a very ‘Indian’ blend of spices. Cardamom, caraway, ground ginger, nutmeg, green curry… Stunning, really. There’s also these very maritime notes (kelp, iodine, wet beach) and these floral ones (lilies and peonies, beautifully heady here.) An amazing whisky – no, rather a perfume from the very best makers’. Mouth: frankly, I had thought it would all happen on the nose, but it’s not the case at all. Superb attack all on passion fruits (my mum would say “buy passion fruits, it’s cheaper”) and then mastic-flavoured Turkish delights, a little roasted argan oil, lemon pie, all kinds of soft spices, high-end lemon squash and, as expected, notes of oak, with a very pleasant and subtle bitterness as a signature. And there’s well a little peat lingering somewhere… Finish: probably not extremely bold but amazingly clean and straightforward for a short while, getting then very subtle and complex again. Whispers, but whispers for a very, very long time… … … Comments: is this an “anti Black Bowmore”? Probably, as it’s very subtle, complex and maybe sometimes a tad ‘diaphanous’ but always very wonderful. And what a nose! The epitome of elegance as far as whisky is concerned. I’d even dare to write that it’s (almost) worth its heavy price tag.

Bowmore Bicentenary, bottled 1979, 43%, OB. 96 Points

Why do I try this baby again? Well, this one has a story. Until very recently, all whisky lovers I knew and even some die-hard Bowmore exegetes have been thinking that all the ‘Bicentenaries’ were from the 1964 vintage, as indeed some versions used to bear ‘1964’ on their labels. Well, it seems that little aficionados do read the blurb that’s sometimes delivered with high-end bottles, as this is what I could read in the ‘letter’ that’s to be found in the wooden box of this ‘NAS’ version: “This bottle contains a vatting of the oldest stocks in the Bowmore Distillery. Some of it was distilled in 1950, twenty-nine years ago. In fact the vatting contains whisky from ten different years between 1950 and 1966 – all very rare.” Ha-ha! Colour: dark gold. Nose: even if you know this baby well, it’s always an enchantment. What’s really striking is the complexity of it all, every time you think you’ve found a particular aroma and try to put a name on it, it’s another aroma that shows up and replaces it before you’ve found that name. That happens within quarters of seconds, it’s a true aromatic blitzkrieg. Yet, I seem to have found iodine, tangerines, creosote, mangos, motor oil, kippers, Parma ham, old tin boxes… Oh well, and hundreds of other aromas. Right dozens, let’s not brag too much. An utter classic. Mouth: first, the 43% taste like 50%, at least. In fact it’s less smooth and silky than expected, it’s even sort of brutal, with a lot of salt, pickled sardines or anchovies, then more dried fruits, prunes, sultanas, crystallised papayas, cough lozenges, more salt, honeydew, strong chestnut honey, smoked fish… And a great peppery signature, with also a little nutmeg and cumin. Excuse me, but ‘wow!’ Finish: yes, sadly (I know, the most stupid joke any taster can tell after the whisky turkey and the chef who always cooks with whisky…) Comments: seriously, it’s fabulous whisky. I know, nothing new… The peat and the salt are bigger than I remembered.

Clynelish 1973 41 Year Old Cask 16802, bottled 2015, 45.2% ABV, OB for Wealth Solutions, 144 bottles. 94 Points

The rarest, and certainly the most expensive Clynelish ever. Talking about ‘new’ Clynelish here. If it’s anywhere near some superlative 1973s by Signatory/Prestonfield, we’re up for a treat. By the way I had forgotten I had this one, until some message by some friend appeared on Facebook. Like ‘who’s tried this?’ Happy to oblige… Oh and yes, it’s well an official bottling. Colour: gold. Nose: it needs time. There’s something metallic upfront, this may go away with oxygen. Zzz… zzz… Good, stewed rhubarb, old garage, leather polish, nettle soup, sage, brake fluid, porridge oats, brand new magazines, old books (so ink), rusty nails… It seems that this is a rather cerebral old malt. What’s perfect is that nobody’s thought of re-racking this cask. Bless ‘em. Mouth: a-m-a-z-i-n-g. Bone dry, metallic, petroly, mineral… Do you know Trimbach’s Clos Ste Hune, by any chance? And once again, it’s rather a Brora-ish Clynelish. What’s really strange is that we’ve never seen any Brora 1973. Could we please meet with the gentleman who was responsible for stencilling the casks back in 1973? Please? Or his family? We’ll bring chocolates and good wine… Ashes, pepper, mustard, hay, tar, seaweed fire… Yeah I know, Brora… Finish: long, majestically dry, sharp, concise, precise, ashy, mineral… You may call the anti-maltoporn brigade, but that would be a little too late. My bad. Comments: okay, here’s a new theory. In 1973, some, if not all Brora casks used to be stencilled as ‘Clynelish’. Okay, do you have any proof to the contrary? Like, a picture of a cask of 1973 Brora? Or even a bottle?

Clynelish 12 Year Old, bottled 1970s, 43% ABV, OB Ainslie & Heilbron for M. di Chiano, Italy. 94 Points

Colour: straw. Nose: very special and very complex. Lots of tropical fruits, pink grapefruit, light caramel, old white Chartreuse, Mandarine Impériale, mocha, cappuccino. Hints of smoke (burning hay), seaweed, fresh pineapple. Purely thrilling. No, stunning. And this great freshness after 30 years in its bottle. Mouth, triple wow, at 43%! Incredibly strong, smoky, orangey, hay jam, herbal tea… Tons of spices like clove, nutmeg, curry powder. Superbly pure, this one is definitely not made up like a stolen Mercedes – or many new so-called ‘expressions’. What a word! Anyway, 94 points for this absolute and flawless malt (the Ava Gardner of the single malts?)

Ardbeg 1967 32 Year Old, bottled 2000, 49% ABV, Douglas Laing Old Malt Cask, 309 bottles. 93 Points

Colour: pale amber. Nose: starts peatier, closer to the distillery, even if it’s not as expressive. Whiffs of peonies, blackcurrant buds and beer (a strange mixture indeed), then fir honeydew, mint sauce, dill… A little camphor… It gets more and more on ‘Ardbeg’… A very long development, very complex. More and more on cough syrup and old nuts, then cinchona (Campari). Mouth: one that slowly takes you by the sides, soothingly (is that maltoporn or what?) Notes of wormwood, earl grey tea, kumquats, mint liqueur, verbena… Then small bitter oranges. Superb smokiness, bitter chocolate from the best makers, curcuma… Excellent old Ardbeg. Finish: not immensely long but balanced, subtly resinous and herbal. Just a tad drying but that’s normal.

Brora 30 Year Old 6th Release, bottled 2007, 55.7% ABV, OB for Diageo Special Releases, 2958 bottles. 93 Points

Colour: gold. Nose: what’s striking at first nosing is the rather perfect combination of straight raw peat with soft and rounded nougatty notes. Highland shortbread and coal smoke, then the expected farmy notes (cow stable, wet dogs, farmyard), notes of apple peeling and fresh walnut, then a little linseed oil and damp earth (and chalk)… Plus just hints of horseradish or mustard. A tad less ‘wild’ than earlier batches in my opinion, but not quite a transition between the 30s and the 25 that was to follow this one. In other words, a true 30. With water: totally Brora. More farmy notes and this superb kind of camphory/antiseptic notes that only old peated glories can display. Mouth (neat): hugely huge, extremely powerful, sharp and pretty zesty, much less polished than on the nose when neat. Some lemon, mustard, a lot of raw ginger, green apples, cardamom, liquorice, tar… It’s not exactly brutal but it’s no philosophical malt, if you will. Maybe something of Port Ellen. With water: lemon cake, sweet mustard, quince jelly, smoked tea, civilised kippers 😉 and marzipan. Finish: long, with more ‘peated lemon’ and a little mint. Tar. Notes of lemon sprinkled oysters in the aftertaste. Comments: a Brora that takes water extremely well. In fact, water is de rigueur here or you may miss the best part. I had thought it would be rounder when I nosed it undiluted but no, it’s a genuine, punchy, early-70s style Brora. There.

See full auction here.