How to ‘Premiumize’ Your Whisky Brand, in 10 Easy Steps!

Marketing is one of the many tools for Premiumization

Sales flagging? Running out of quality stock? Desperate to push prices up even higher? Here’s our 10-step plan to get you to the world of ultra-premium spirits.

Step 1: Be well respected at the start

This is crucial. You have to have a good reputation from the start, because the goal here is to make a load of money, and in that process we’ll eventually need to ruin your reputation. There’s no way to do that by starting from a bad reputation. You should have a decent following, with a well respected and reasonably priced range of whiskies with age statements. Also, your distillery should be completely unprepared for a sudden increase in the popularity of your whisky, or at least look it.

Step 2: Discontinue your age statements

Age statements are great from a customer perspective, but to really premiumize those you’ll need to discontinue them so that they become sought after. To do this you’ll need a new range of whiskies to replace the ones with age statements. Name them after colours, something in nonsensical Gaelic, or anything really. People will buy them no matter what.

Step 3: Bring back the age statements… at a price

Ha, a bit switch! Now you need to bring back the age statements to much fanfare and applause… but at a much, much higher price. This means you’ll be getting way more money from the same whisky you were selling before! Boom, premiumized! It really helps if these whiskies were well loved to start with, which is why step 1 is so important.

Step 4: Bring on the marketing gimmicks

Marketing is a fantastic tool that you’re going to be spending a lot more of your money on now you’re a premium whisky brand, so make sure you invest it wisely by blasting whisky into space, using virtual reality experiences, smoke machines, or anything else that will get people talking. It doesn’t need to be positive, just talking. There’s no such thing as bad press.

Step 5: Release crazy expensive stuff

Another way to get people talking is by releasing some crazy expensive stuff they can never afford to buy. Now that you’ve premiumized your age statements, you have the go-ahead to release something astronomically expensive and people will believe that it’s worth it. It is important that every part of this whisky be very expensive looking. Possible packaging could include a massive hand-made wooden box carved by a sixth-generation craftsman, a certificate signed by the distiller, and a hand-blown decanter or bottle. A good rule for the box is that it should be at least three times the size it needs to be. Make sure to auction a few bottles for charity and have huge release events with a premium and exciting setting. Mega-yachts work well.

Step 6: Become collectible

Another crucial step is to become collectible. This is because you want prices to spiral out of control and then capitalise on rising auction prices by raising the prices on your stuff on the primary market. Step 2, 3, and 5 should help with this, but it may also be prudent to bid on your own whiskies at auction, buy back any stocks you sold to other companies or brokers and buy hundred-year-old fakes off collectors to display as a reminder of how premium you’ve always been.

Step 7: Get whisky enthusiasts to hate you

Studies have shown a definite link between whisky enthusiasts hating a whisky brand and the continued premiumization of the same brand. There is some disagreement as to the causality of these two things, but we believe that these same whisky enthusiasts will talk, either way. This chatter will be negative but it’s still talk. But all this whining about how you used to use better casks, ‘it’s not like the old stuff,’ and other rose-tinted-glasses comments is perfect, because you discontinued all the old stuff and made it inaccessible to anyone without a Bugatti, which is then driving collectibility and auction prices (and therefore your own prices, remember) further and further skyward. Of course, this only works if you were well respected in the first place which again, is why step 1 is crucial.

Step 8: Explore Duty Free/Travel Retail

If you aren’t releasing stuff in the airport, you aren’t premiumizing. The important thing to remember here is that people in an airport know nothing about whisky and will either buy your rubbish NAS whisky for loads more than they should or will pay crazy money for dark-looking whisky in fancy decanters and boxes. It’s important that you only release these two things in travel retail and save your good stuff for the Bugatti drivers.

Step 9: Premiumize social media

Social media is becoming bigger and is a fantastic place to shout about your newfound premiumness. Start an official page on all the usual platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. These pages will churn out nothing but artsy black and white photos of the distillery and how premium and ‘hand made’ everything is. You must also start accounts for all of your brand ambassadors (of which there should be quite a few) showing off what rare and collectible whiskies they are getting to try and the exotic places they are getting to go. This will again further associate your brand in people’s minds with the words premium, rare, and collectible.

Step 10: Profit!

Well, we’ve discontinued the age statements, brought them back, raised the bar, raised the prices, become collectible, released a load of new whisky, and become universally hated. The only thing left to do is watch the cash roll in. Wow, it’s that easy? you say. Yes, but be aware, there is a trade-off: Respect. Now that you’ve become hated, you’ve lost all respect and therefore your reputation, since you’ve alienated the customers who actually loved your whisky, not just loved to brag about how expensive it is. To gain this back, you would have to undo all of the premiumizing that we’ve come so far to achieve. Don’t be foolish! What’s the grumblings of the whisky community compared to cash in your pocket? Next round’s on us!

Whisky Brand Confusion: When Is It a Different Scotch Distillery?

The new Macallan Distillery will look quite different…

In 2013 a new brand was launched by William Grant (owners of Glenfiddich and Balvenie distilleries) called Kininvie. You may see its little 35cl bottles in duty free shops. The 17 year old is the cheapest version of this whisky and it will cost you around £80 for that half bottle, £160 equivalent for a full UK bottle size.

Where does this rare and expensive whisky come from? Grants claims it is from Kininvie Distillery. Only sold in minute quantities as a single malt, this mysterious Speyside whisky mostly goes into Monkey Shoulder and Grant’s basic blended whiskies.

If you research this distillery though, you’ll find that in 1990 Grant had need of more malt whisky. To cope with this, it expanded Balvenie. It added 3 wash stills and 3 spirits stills in a building just behind the Balvenie distillery. The mash was mashed and wort fermented in the normal Balvenie distillery buildings and piped over the wall.

Because the whisky can be made slightly differently at the Kininvie stillhouse to that of Balvenie, the little whisky that was sold as a single malt was known as Hazelwood, until recently when it was rebranded as Kininvie. Even more confusingly, Grant has now brought out a blended whisky called Hazelwood.

This stillhouse is a logical extension of what Japanese distilleries and more modern Scotch distilleries have been doing: Producing different whisky styles from the same distillery to give you more options, particularly if you don’t have lots of distilleries. The most obvious example is to produce both peated and unpeated whiskies from the same distillery. Such as Ledaig and Tobermory, Tomintoul and Old Ballantruan, among many others. Much more modern and adaptable super distilleries have also been developed, such as Diageo’s Roseisle and Grant’s Ailsa Bay. However, none of these claim to have whiskies from different distilleries, just different brands produced from the same distilleries.

I would argue that Kininvie is not a different distillery to Balvenie. It shares equipment in the same buildings, and the one building that houses its own stills is not far enough away from the main site. Some would disagree with me however, because Kininvie does have some of its own equipment within the Balvenie distillery and the character of the spirit is different enough.

You may remember from the Scottish film The Angel’s Share, the plot revolves around a rare whisky called Malt Mill. This distillery was actually a replica of Laphroaig, built inside Lagavulin. It shared Lagavulin’s mash tun but had its own fermentation tanks and stills. But is Malt Mill a different distillery? Many seem to think so, with huge amounts of effort and money spent finding even a few drops of the precious stuff. (A miniature was sold at auction recently for a few thousand pounds. Yes, a 50ml bottle.) But again, I would argue not, having the same mash tun and being in the same building as Lagavulin makes all Malt Mill Lagavulin, no matter how different the spirit was.

Another great example is Mannochmore, a distillery built in 1971 on the grounds of Glenlossie distillery. It had its own mash tun and fermenting tanks, but it is still within the same complex as another distillery. Are these two brands made at the same distillery? Diageo doesn’t seem to think so, as it has sold whisky from the two separately for years, but the point remains. In this instance, I would say that Mannochmore is a different distillery as it has all of its own equipment, despite being within the same complex.

More examples include Clynelish and Brora (closed 1983), Linkwood ‘A’ (closed in 1985) and Linkwood ‘B,’ and Glendullan ‘Old’ (closed 1985) and ‘New.’ These three were all examples of a distillery expanding by building a new distillery next to the old one, running them simultaneously for a while then shutting down the original. Why don’t we see Linkwood ‘A’ and ‘Old’ Glendullan going for crazy money like Brora? At first, I had no idea. The principle was the same and they all closed around the same time. Then I realised Brora had been renamed, partly because of a high peating level being used in the early ’70s, so it was treated as a different distillery. The casks were labelled ‘Brora.’ Linkwood and Glendullan were never that lucky. Despite having brand new distilleries (with new equipment and therefore different characters) they were not renamed and so never entered the history books as rare and collectable whiskies. It is funny though that Brora was treated as a different distillery, while Linkwood ‘A’ and ‘Old’ Glendullan were not.

Then we have the opposite question: When does a distillery stop being the original? For me, the best example of this is the recent building work at Macallan. They have invested a huge amount of money in building a massive brand new distillery on the Macallan estate. When the new site goes online (they were running tests at the distillery as of November) the two old distilleries will be shut down, unless they are needed in the future. Separating the two old distilleries and the new one is about the same distance as the distance between the Glenfiddich and Balvenie distilleries down the road. Essentially, Macallan has three distilleries on the same ‘site.’ Even though the new distillery is modelled completely on the old, I think you could make the argument that the new Macallan distillery is exactly that, a new distillery.

And what about when a distillery is completely rebuilt, so that it bears little resemblance to that of before? Should it be considered a different distillery? You have Dalmunach distillery, built on the same site as Imperial, a totally different distillery with new equipment. But equally, now you have Ardmore without its old direct fired stills, Scapa with halved fermentation times, and Benrinnes without partial triple distillation. These things were part of the core personality of those malts. Now, they are different and perhaps the whiskies will never be quite the same again.

The message here is to always be questioning of what the industry is telling you. Should you spend a lot of money on Kininvie because Grant tells you it’s from a different distillery? Perhaps not. Should you trust that Macallan’s new distillery will make exactly the same as the old? Well, we’ll have to wait and see…

Why I Love Ledaig

Ledaig is, unashamedly, my favourite whisky. As a whisky reviewer and writer, I shouldn’t have favourites but of course everyone does. Read the Whisky Bible and you’ll soon realise that Jim Murray despises Fettercairn and Dailuaine but adores Ardbeg and Glen Grant. Read and you’ll find that Serge Valentin prefers Clynelish (or even better, Brora!) to Loch Lomond or Tullibardine.

What is Ledaig? The peated whisky from the Isle of Mull, made at Tobermory distillery. Ledaig, roughly pronounced letch-igg, means ‘safe haven,’ and for those of us that know its depths and complexity it is a haven in an increasing mad world of meaningless NAS releases and marketing ploys.

The first rule of the Ledaig fan club is that you don’t talk about Ledaig in a positive way. The second rule is much the same. You tell people that it smells of manure and tastes of wet dog. And although those things are sometimes true, Ledaig often pulls them off in a positive way.

I’m going to break the first rule now and tell you why I love this distillery so much, and why I’m not a huge fan of its alter-ego: Tobermory.

History time. Ledaig distillery (that’s right, it wasn’t renamed Tobermory until the late ’70s!) was founded in 1798, making it one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, in Tobermory village on the Isle of Mull. Only 39 years later it closed for 41 years, until 1878, at which point it was pretty much the ugly duckling of the distillery ownership world and was passed from owner to owner, eventually closing again in 1930. This time it closed until 1972, another 42 years. It changes hands again in 1978 with part of the distillery converting to accommodation and distilling taking a backseat, closing fully once again in 1982, it stays shut for another 11 years, only reopening after finally being bought by the current owners, Burn Stewart. It reopened 1993, the year I was born. Although the distillery experimented with peating levels, no ‘Ledaig’ was produced in large quantities until 1996. These days the distillery produces medium-peated Ledaig for half the year and the unpeated Tobermory the other half.

So, in total, closed for 94 years and open for 125 so far. That’s a chequered history. One of the reasons I like it is exactly this, Ledaig is the underdog, the one who fought back again and again from the brink of demolition to now, when the whiskies are finally gaining fans and recognition. The Rocky of the whisky world.

The whiskies themselves were not widely celebrated until fairly recently, though. Often they were soapy, feinty, rubbery, or just generally horrific. One blogger remarked that tasting Ledaig/Tobermory was like playing Russian Roulette, but with 50/50 odds.

Luckily things have changed for the better and Burn Stewart has made some great decisions about the whisky making and bottling. They’ve clearly improved the spirit quality since the 90’s, being much cleaner, while still being true to Ledaig’s funky style. They also decided to up the bottling strength to 46.3% abv, use no artificial colouring, and not chill filter the whisky.

Some (notably Serge) are now comparing Ledaig to Ardbeg. Ledaig has that same chequered history and smoky style but hasn’t quite gained the same reputation yet. But to me, that’s almost a disservice to Ledaig. It has so many things about it that are unique. It’s still funky. It still has really interesting barnyard like notes or meaty notes, but it pulls them off, takes them in its stride. If anything, it’s more like a marriage of old style, heavily peated Brora and Ardbeg (yes, that’s the hype plane you can hear taking off).

Matured in Sherry, it offers loads of gritty, meaty notes. Matured in Bourbon barrels, tonnes of lemon citrus and fresh minerality. Matured in Hogsheads, it’s perhaps more salty and elemental.

The reason I’m not a huge fan of Tobermory, is that, despite all of Burn Stewart’s changes, it remains that feinty, off-note riddled ugly duckling, the unpeated spirit unable or unwilling to hide any of the weird notes this distillery throws up. For me anyway. Just an opinion. And perhaps, it’s still improving. Time will tell.

Currently the distillery is silent again and will be for another 1 1/2 years, though this new closure is to refurbish the distillery. This involves replacing the stills, but not increasing production. It’s Rocky going back to training.

For now, we can be thankful for the multitude of bottlings on the market, from the basic 10 to a plethora of independent bottlings. We can also be thankful that these have remained reasonably affordable. (If you found a 21 year old single Sherry cask of Ardbeg, it wouldn’t cost you $115!) Hopefully, reasonable prices remain a theme because it’s the reason rule #1 is in place. If the reputation increases, perhaps prices will too. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen, but for now here’s some recommended bottlings from Ledaig.

Official Bottlings:

Ledaig 10 Years Old – Very good availability. The classic. A great balance of smoke, sea salt and clean lemon juice. $55

Ledaig 18 Years Old – Good availability – More sherried with a slight meaty note, wet tobacco and an oily texture. $100

Ledaig 19 Years Old Marsala Finish – Limited availability. On the expensive side but with lovely meaty and floral notes. $155

Ledaig 20 Years Old Moscatel Distillery Exclusive – Very limited availability. Nectar of the gods. Sublime balance and integration. Mega complex. Epic. $180


Ledaig 2005 Gordon & MacPhail Hermitage – Limited availability. An immediate buy at the price. So meaty and juicy. $70

Ledaig Signatory Cask Strength – Limited availability. Seek these out. Outstanding dark fruit, heavy smoke and a striking length. $115

Ledaig Exclusives – Keep an eye out for casks selected exclusively for people/shops. These are normally great. In the UK, some Whisky Exchange exclusives have really blown me away.

Why Every Drinker Should Try Something New

Over the last year I’ve gotten a little bit into wine. As a whisky guy, my goal was to be able to read a wine list in a restaurant but I quickly became absorbed in a new world, not too dissimilar to the way I fell down the whisky rabbit hole. This process of learning about a completely new type of drink, I think, is fascinating and can open up a whole new world of flavour and give you a greater understanding of other beverages as well as your own palate.

One of my favourite white wine grape types now is Riesling, which can often give stony minerality and a lot of delicious, mouth watering acidity at the same time. This is something I can now translate over into whisky when I find minerality in Bruichladdich or that limey acidity in an Ardbeg.

Another advantage is that many whiskies now are being finished in wine casks, which provide a slightly different flavour from the norm. Recently I’ve tried a Longrow from a Chardonnay cask and a Ledaig from a Hermitage cask. Both are fantastic whiskies and both are really providing something of that wine within the whisky. But by understanding the wines behind these whiskies you get a lot better idea of the flavours and what to expect. On the other hand, perhaps a wine fanatic might find the flavours from a red wine finished Kilchoman to be useful for their understanding and palate, too.

More recently, I was in The Netherlands for a whisky show. I had a day with an importer there and we went to the Jenever museum in Schiedam. If you haven’t heard of Jenever (or Genever), like me you might have thought it was a traditional type of gin. This might be true of some of the bigger players like Ketel 1’s version, but small producers like what the museum makes are more similar to a whisky. Traditionally distilled in direct fired stills from a mash of rye and malted barley, it is then matured in barrels for up to 10 years. Sounds pretty similar to a whisky to me! For a typical Jenever they add some juniper berry flavours, but often not for the more premium expressions. At the museum we got to taste some single casks, straight from three different types of sherry barrels. I was shocked by the similarities to a lot of whiskies I’ve tried.

This type of experience, trying something new, can be hugely valuable and not only help you discover something new and interesting but opens up a new world of flavours and drinks you, perhaps, had no idea existed. So, if you like whisky, try some wine. If you like rum, try whisky. As a beer person, try whisky. Or tequila, mezcal, baijiu, sake, arak, and so many others. Try new things and open your horizons!

How to Analyze, Score, and Review Whiskey

The first time I watched Ralfy on his YouTube channel, it was a revelation. With the right glass and some experience you can learn to get so many different notes out of a whisky! Then you could score it, and share it, letting others know what you think.

Many believe that this dark art of reviewing is reserved for whisky professionals, bloggers and nerds. This simply isn’t true. Anyone can review whisky, and their opinion can be just as valid as anyone else’s.

There are two great examples of this. The first is quite well known among whisky people in Europe: This is a database of whiskies that you can use to search for bottlings, build a collection, and review whiskies. Thousands of people use Whiskybase, and that gives it a huge advantage over one-man reviewers (like Ralfy or Jim Murray) because when loads of people review the same product you build more of a consensus.

Another is Reddit. Reddit tends to be bigger in America and Canada, and is more of a forum for discussion and reviews. It can be a little intimidating at first (always read the rules before posting!), but again, everyone contributes and adds to a database of reviews. I could be just a tad biased as a moderator of r/Scotch, but I think it’s a fantastic and friendly community, and a great place to start reviewing. The network consists of r/Whisky for discussions, r/Scotch for Scotch related reviews and posts, r/Bourbon for American Whiskey, and r/WorldWhisky for whisky from anywhere else. Not only that, but people also swap samples of whiskies they have on r/ScotchSwap, allowing you to try a lot of whiskies pretty quickly.

In either case, it doesn’t matter if you’ve only tasted a few whiskies — your experience can be shared and other people can get something from that.

* * *

So, how do you review a whisky?

  1. You need the right glass.

In a tumbler, all the aromas of the whisky are going to be able to spill all over the place. You want something that can concentrate those aromas towards your nose, so you can appreciate them. A Glencairn is probably the best option if you’re just starting out, then maybe try some other tasting glasses.

  1. Write what you think.

Don’t let anyone tell you what to smell and taste. That includes the back of the whisky box or label or a rep standing across the table from you. Don’t be afraid to write down lime, even though the box says lemon. That said, someone or something to guide you when you’re first starting is no bad thing. Have a look at other people’s reviews and see what they think — but don’t take it as gospel but rather inspiration.

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

If there is someone else with you while you’re reviewing, just ask them, ‘What does this smell like?’ ‘What do you get?’ You might not get the same impressions as them, but it could give you inspiration or you might suddenly recognise a new note because of what they said.

  1. Experience and knowledge will help.

This part takes time. Tasting lots of different whiskies and knowing more about the distilleries they are made at is going to help massively. Eventually, you’ll know an Islay whisky just by smelling it or a Bourbon by tasting a sip. Even further on, you might learn to recognise a particular distillery, age, or cask type!

  1. Drink it your way (water can help).

Again, don’t let anyone dictate how you like your whisky. But for reviewing, to get the whisky to open up, avoid ice, as it can cause the whisky’s flavors to retreat. But don’t be scared of adding a drop of water (particularly to stronger whiskies). A small drop of water can help to develop the whisky’s flavors and reduce the alcohol level (which in itself offers no flavor). Usually I taste a whisky neat first, write some notes, and then add a drop off water to see if I get anything different from it afterwards.

  1. Comparison works!

This is something the famous Serge Valentin from advocates. It’s not something everyone can do, but if you have a few whiskies and a few glasses, you can set up a comparison of them together. This will bring out the differences all the more prominently.

  1. Think before you score.

Ah, the tricky business of scoring. As a beginner I would stay away from it, but it’s alluring in its simplicity: Summing up your experience of the whisky with a grade. If you feel that you can do it, go right ahead — but really think it through before you start scoring. There are many different methods and a host of pros and cons to each one. An exam style A-F grade like Drinkhacker uses or a numerical score ranging from 0-100, 0-10, or 0-5. One of my favourites is the ‘three questions’ scale: Would I buy this? Would I order it in a bar? Would I drink this if someone gave me a glass?

* * *

Some people genuinely don’t care about reviewing or reviews. They can taste a whisky and go “Yeah, I like that” or “No, I don’t like this one.” That’s absolutely fine. But personally, I feel that I’ve gotten so much more out of whisky from reviewing it, from just the fun of it, making better purchasing decisions, meeting friends online, and then starting to write here. It’s become a passion and something that has really added something to my life.

So give it a go!

Understanding Whiskey Marketing Terms

The other day I was asked what a ‘Double Malt’ was, and how it differed from a single malt. The problem was, I couldn’t answer the question because ‘Double Malt’ isn’t a legally defined term. It’s what I would call a marketing term. It suggests everything yet means nothing.

These terms can range from confusing to downright misleading and everything in between. They operate in that grey zone, where they sound like they mean something substantial and are suggestive enough to make you buy one product over another. Are you going to buy a single malt or a double malt? It sounds like you’re getting double the whisky with double the malt, so you might go for that! In reality, ‘Double Malt’ is more likely to mean a blend of two single malts, but could also mean a blended whisky with double the malt content.

I don’t single Glenrothes out with the photo above, because almost every distillery is guilty of using loose marketing terms on their bottles, but it serves as a good example. What is a ‘Vintage Reserve?’ In my opinion, it’s a marketing term to imply the whisky is old when in fact there is no age statement on the bottle.

So to try and dispel the confusion, I’ve tried to make a list of woolly marketing terms as well as terms that have real meaning — with explanations of both.

Woolly Marketing Terms (This list is not exhaustive)


As we saw with Double Malt, double, triple, or even quadruple implies that you are getting more of something, or that there has been a more thorough process involved. Wood is quite common, as with Balvenie’s Doublewood or Triple Cask and Laphroaig’s Triple and Quadruple Woods. But, Balvenie and Laphroaig mean different things by these terms. For Laphroaig it’s the number of barrels the whisky has been through successively, one after the other. For Balvenie it’s the types of casks used for separate barrels of spirit which are then vatted together.


I guarantee, if something is labelled as a ‘Reserve,’ it isn’t from any kind of reserve stock. That’s the funny thing about these terms, you can slap them on anything. So you get the highest priced whisky in huge wooden boxes and shiny decanters, labelled with the same word as stuff you get in the supermarket. This is also a great word to combine with some of the other terms here, like ‘special’ or ‘old.’

Hand Crafted

This is a term that used to have a bit of meaning, but has now been misused so much that I’ve become jaded with it. A certain whisky vlogger jokes that if a computer mouse is on the screen, then it’s ‘hand made!’ Whisky has become more and more automated over the years, to the point where lots of distilleries that claim to still be hand crafted are controlled by one person on a laptop… That’s not to say that there aren’t some distilleries that still hand make spirits, but you should still be suspicious of this particular term.

Double Aged

Another use of double or triple happens here when you mention age. Does it mean that it’s double the age it normally is or is the distillery using two different types of casks? Who knows, it could be either. Jim Beam Black is the classic culprit, being double the age it legally needs to be.

Small Batch

This is another term that can mean different things from different producers. A small batch generally means the whisky was produced from a smaller number of barrels than usual, but it could be a few casks or fifty, depending on what they consider small. Bowmore Small Batch was one of the distillery’s biggest, and most basic, releases!


A classic adverb for the descriptors like ‘Old’ or ‘Rare.’ Does very old or very rare mean that the whisky is rarer or older than it would be normally? No.


You may have also seen ‘Extra Old’ or ‘Xtra Old.’ These phrases are also meaningless.


As with ‘Reserve,’ something labelled ‘Special’ could be a bottle costing $10 or $1000. Again, making it completely worthless.


I would suggest avoiding anything that says it is ‘Old’ that doesn’t have a statement of age attached to it, as it’s likely it’s the opposite.


As with ‘Old,’ ‘Rare’ probably means that the stuff is about as rare as Pappy van Winkle is cheap.


This is a term that makes it sound like the distiller was more involved than normal. Distiller’s Choice or Distiller’s Edition is quite common to see, but these whiskies have the same level of involvement from the distiller as any other whisky.

Limited Edition

Unless there’s a specific number of released bottles mentioned, treat this claim with extreme suspicion. People often think that because something is limited they should buy it now, before it’s all gone. In fact the producers may have put Limited Edition on the label with no intention of limiting the production of the product.

You may have noticed a trend here, where products are the opposite of how they are described, almost like they are trying to compensate for not meeting the definition of that description. ‘Rare’ and ‘Old’ are often used for whiskies that are common and young, so be aware.

Terms That Actually Mean Something

(Blank) Years Old/ Aged (Blank) Years

The age of the whiskey, if stated in years, can only be the age of the youngest whiskey in the mix (in most countries). If the age is not stated, it must be at least the minimum age to legally be called whiskey (normally 2-3 years).

Non-Chill Filtered/Unchillfiltered

I won’t go into the whole description of what chill filtering is, but essentially these terms mean the whiskey hasn’t been excessively filtered to remove any natural oils or flavour chemicals that may cause haze in the glass.

Colouring Free/No Artificial Colouring

Self explanatory. No artificial colouring, normally in the form of E150a, aka caramel color, has been added to make the whiskey look darker or control the colour from batch to batch. Of course, this doesn’t apply to Bourbon, as no colouring can legally be added anyway.

Protected Designations (Bourbon, Scotch, etc.)

Many traditional types of whisky have laws regarding what can be called that type of whisky and the rules they have to stick to. Scotch and Bourbon in particular are covered by extensive laws regarding what qualifies as those things, and sub-laws for Kentucky Bourbon or Single Malt Scotch offer more specific rules.

Single Cask/Barrel

Again, pretty self explanatory. A whisky from one barrel or cask, likely having very few bottles from that barrel.

Cask Strength/Barrel Proof

A whisky that has not been cut with any water after coming out of the barrel; it’s bottled at the natural strength that the angels have left it at. Often this can be in the range of 55 to 60% abv.

The above terms are defined and often have laws stipulating requirements for using them. They are meaningful and give us, as consumers, information about the products we are spending our well earned money on.

But remain vigilant of marketing terms, and try not to get suckered in by vague expressions that suggest very much… but mean very little.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Whisky Festivals

Having been to and worked at quite a few whisky festivals now, I’ve seen the length and breadth of the behaviour spectrum — from upmarket jaunts to paramedics arriving on scene. A whisky festival is a scene of merriment (it’s not apple juice), but there’s a line that can get crossed when people are trying to “get their money’s worth” towards the end.

So, to help you make the most of your festival, here’s our list of whisky festival Do’s and Don’ts.


  1. Pace yourself

This is to make sure you avoid the big Don’t. (Spoiler alert: Don’t get drunk.) Take your time with each whisky. Whisky is a strong drink and it’s easy to get overwhelmed early and have to leave because you’re completely out of it. Then you definitely aren’t getting the most out of the festival. Whisky is also an amazingly complex drink and needs time to be fully appreciated.

  1. Take notes/photos

This is a great tactic. Not only are you going to remember each whisky better but it really helps you with pacing yourself. Personally, I’m a note taker. By writing down something, anything, about the whisky at hand, you slow the drinking process down a bit. It’s fun to read (or try and decipher) what notes you made the next day too.

  1. Drink water

This should be obvious but is easy to forget when you’re in the moment and having a great time — until you’ve got a splitting headache and realize you haven’t had any water all day. Water is normally provided at events and for good reason. It’s important to stay hydrated as alcohol dehydrates you. Try to have a glass of water after every whisky or two.

  1. Use palate cleansers

Bread is good and it’s going to help your body counteract the effects of the alcohol, but any palate cleanser is going to help you clear your palate from the previous whiskies and reset before the next one. My personal favourite is dark chocolate, as it cleanses the palate of sugars and the bitterness can bring out sweeter flavours in the whiskies.

  1. Talk to people

People at whisky festivals are always hugely friendly, and whether it’s the producers, ambassadors, or fellow festival goers they can give you an insight into what they’re drinking, why, and what’s next. Asking people what they would recommend next is a great tactic that can unearth some fantastic whiskies. This also splits up constant drinking and keeps you paced.

  1. Have special whiskies early

One of the best things about these festivals is the ability to try some whiskies you normally wouldn’t be able to access. Some festivals give you tokens to spend on rare whiskies. My recommendation is to try these early while the alcohol hasn’t affected you too much yet. You don’t want to go straight to the Port Ellen though, remember to warm up with a lighter whisky or two to get your palate in gear.

  1. Carb up/Eat plenty

Again, this is obvious, but it’s easy to rush on the day of the festival and forget to eat breakfast and find that there’s nothing to eat at the festival. Big mistake. Normally festivals do provide some sort of meal, but a big breakfast is a must for anyone looking to have some whiskies later in the day without getting smashed.

  1. Have fun!

Whisky festivals are amazing places. Great whisky is flowing, friendly people are everywhere and, as long as no one is too wasted, everyone is having a great time. Enjoy yourself!


  1. Don’t get drunk

Really there’s only one big negative to whisky festivals. But it happens at every one. If you aren’t extremely careful, at some point, it’s going to hit you that you’ve had too many. I see it at every show, around an hour before the end, people suddenly realize that the show is going to end soon and they want more. There’s normally a big rush at this point to get a few last drams in before the end. These whiskies are not really appreciated, because most drinkers are focused on getting the stuff down their necks. When the show does end, the producers and ambassadors then have to deal with the drunken behaviour. Most of it is harmless, but it can be aggressive, rude, and even dangerous.

Bottom line. Don’t be that person. Be the person that has paced themselves and had a great time.

Have you been to a whisky festival? Had a great time or want to add any tips I’ve missed? Let us know!

The Whiskey Hype Train: Expectations vs. Quality

Working at a whisky festival the other day, I was very fortunate to be able to try Pappy Van Winkle 20 and 23 year old for the first time. I think it’s reasonable to say that these bottles are pretty “hyped,” with tales of huge sums of money being exchanged, second mortgages being taken out, fights breaking out at auctions, and thousands of people on the hunt for the magical Pappy. It’s got a reputation. My understanding of this hype was that this is pretty much the best bourbon you can possibly get your hands on.

Was it all it was cracked up to be? Did it live up to the hype?

Not quite. It was very good bourbon, don’t get me wrong. It was a little over-oaked. When I compared it to this year’s William Laurie Weller, I preferred the Weller. By quite a bit.

At the same festival, I was again very fortunate to try an old release of Laphroaig 30 year old. It was on my list of my top whiskies to try in my lifetime. Again, it was a fantastic whisky but not the best I tried that day.

The same could be said of Port Ellen, Brora, or Kariuzawa. These names are kind of mythical in an internet age of Instagram, online auctions and blogs, where everyone can rave about trying the latest, rarest thing even if they didn’t really think it was that great. There’s also the whole “Whisky of the Year” awards situation. Look at Yamazaki Sherry Cask or Craigellachie 31. These whiskies have become hugely hyped almost overnight by winning an award, sometimes only given by one person.

So, why are certain whiskies hyped up? And what can you do to avoid disappointment?

I believe hype comes from a few factors that come together in the right moment. The stuff has to taste good for one. The whisky itself has to be one of the best, but that’s not enough. A bigger factor is perhaps rarity. I’m not talking about Dalmore Trinitas, with only 3 bottles produced. No one cares about that because no one will ever taste it. There could be 100 or 10,000 bottles on the marketplace, but demand has to outstrip supply. Another factor then comes into play: collectability. The whisky has to be something that, perhaps ironically, is so good, no one wants to open it. It’s too good, rare, and/or valuable. You’ll notice that a lot of these whiskies I’ve mentioned above are from closed distilleries. They’ll never make any more after existing casks are bottled and released. That makes them hugely collectable, valuable, and rare. All of these factors drive the price up astronomically, which in turn, drives hype.

What then happens is interesting. These hyped whiskies are then only accessible to the rich few who can afford them. These people often buy up huge amounts of the stuff, making it much rarer and cornering the market. These same people then have a vested interest in driving the hype further and further skyward as they watch their collection’s value soar. There’s money to be made by then drip-feeding these bottles back through auctions and private sales to people only too happy to then spew the hype back up to impress their friends. It’s a vicious circle. And in the midst of it, the actual quality and value of the whisky is often lost.

When ordinary people come to try these whiskies they can be disappointed. It really sucks when you’ve paid a lot of money for that dream sample and reality doesn’t measure up to the hype. Remember: Closed distilleries were sometimes closed for good reason (think Pittyvaich). And sometimes people charge extortionate prices because they can, not because the whisky is worth it.

The message: Be careful. Do your research. To avoid the hype disappointment, try not to buy into it too much. Stay as objective as possible. It’s not always easy, because sometimes the hype is right. Some of the best whiskies I’ve tried have been Port Ellen’s, but there are bad casks from any distillery.

Stay vigilant, my friends!

Peat, Phenols, and ppm: Why Scotch Tastes Smoky

My first taste of peaty whisky was Talisker 10, and like they say with other things, you never forget your first. I wasn’t sure if I liked it, it was like someone had put a bonfire in my whisky. Now, I love it and feel like smoky notes give a complexity to many whiskies, especially at an older age. Actually, old peaty whisky is probably my favourite style, it’s just a shame it’s so damn expensive…

But what the hell is peat, and why does it make our whiskies smoky?

Essentially, peat is a naturally sourced fuel. Small plants and vegetation that have died in bogs or moors become part of the earth as it decomposes and a new layer of flora grows again. In the earth though, that decaying vegetation is compressed and pushed further underground by the following layers of the life and death cycle above. Peat is harvested by simply shoveling it out of the ground. Peat burns well and originally would have used as heating and cooking fuel before coal arrived in more remote parts of Scotland. The important thing for whisky though was that it was used to dry barley after it had been malted. Distillers found that the barley picked up the smoky flavour from the burning peat, and that intense smoky flavour came through into the whisky.

You do occasionally get people telling you that peaty flavour is coming from the water. It makes sense I guess, if you run a tap in the toilet at Kilchoman Distillery, it comes out brown with the peat sediment in it. Peat is in the water, water goes in the whisky. However, if you smell a piece of peat, without burning it, it barely smells of anything.

Understanding Phenol

Burnt peat smalls and tastes smoky because of the presence of Phenol? So what is this phenol that makes our whiskies smoky?

Phenol is a cyclic aromatic compound, but also describes a class of aromatic compounds. The main ones in whisky are Phenol, Cresols, Xylenol, and Guaiacol. There are a tonne of others, and not all are Phenols. Some don’t appear to have any effect on flavour but can affect the volatility of some of the other flavour chemicals. In essence: It’s complicated.

Phenol itself gives you carbolic and antiseptic flavours, Cresols give the whisky medicinal, bandage-like flavour that’s very distinctive in Laphroaig. Xylenol can be extracted from coal tar and has a similar note, while Guaiacol gives a wood smoke type of flavour.

Depending on where the peat is cut from can change the proportion of different Phenols that come through into the whisky too. Highland Park for instance is famous for having a more heathery style of smoke to its whisky and this is often attributed to there being much more heather decomposing and becoming part of the peat than on Islay or mainland Scotland.

You may have noticed that some peaty whiskies use a measurement to declare how peaty they are. The term ppm, which stands for parts per million, is the measurement, but perhaps should be written as Pppm: Phenolic parts per million. A whisky that is 40ppm would be made up of 0.004% phenols. Check my math on that, I’m rubbish at math. [It checks out. -Ed.]

The human nose can detect 1ppm of most Phenols normally, but that can depend on the person, some being more sensitive to the presence of Phenols than others. Also depends on the specific Phenol, because evolution-wise is it pretty advantageous to be able to detect wood smoke, so we are genetically more sensitive to Guaiacol.

Phenol Beyond Peat

Other things that can effect the amount of smoky flavour in a whisky are the production process and maturation, as Phenols are lost at almost every stage of the process. One important aspect though is the cut from spirit to feints, as the Phenols are more concentrated towards the end of the cut. The longer the cut, the more Phenols are going to get through into the spirit.

Note that a lot of Phenol is lost along the way. Laphroaig usually have its barley peated to 40ppm but only 25ppm comes through into the spirit. After 10 years of aging, this drops to 10ppm. This is because these phenolic compounds are only partially oxidised and within the barrel they are allowed to fully oxidise, becoming more complex aromatic compounds. Laphroaig is known for becoming more tropical and fruity at older ages.

So at what point do they measure ppm? Is it the spirit? The final whisky? Neither: It’s actually at the point the barley is malted. Most distilleries specify a ppm level for their barley and let the maltsters do the rest. They can then burn a specific amount of peat for a certain length of time to get it to that exact peating level, and it then gets to the distillery as a very consistent product.

How do they measure ppm? The usual way is High Pressure Liquid Chromatography which is a way of chemically analysing the components of whatever you’re considering. Maltsters and distillers split the category of peated whisky into a handful of sub-categories; lightly peated (2-10ppm), medium peated (11-29ppm) and heavily peated (30-55ppm). Recently another category has emerged: the super heavily peated whisky, which can be anything upwards of 55ppm. Bruichladdich’s Octomore is famous for creating this new category but Ardbeg’s Supernova whiskies (no longer produced) were also at 100ppm. The original Octomores were 80ppm but are now regularly 167ppm and up. Bruichladdich have been setting the bar higher and higher though, and a new record has been set with the Octomore 8.3 at an almost monstrous 310ppm.

Below is a small list of some of the whiskies using peat to give you an idea of the scale of ppm levels. (Numbers are approximate and can vary from release to release):

Bunnahabhain: 2ppm
Bruichladdich: 4ppm
Benromach: 10ppm
Ardmore: 15ppm
Springbank: 20ppm
Talisker: 22ppm
Bowmore: 25ppm
Caol Ila: 32ppm
Lagavulin: 37ppm
Port Charlotte: 40ppm
Laphroaig: 45ppm
Ardbeg: 55ppm
Benromach ‘Peat Smoke:’ 67ppm
Laphroaig Floor Malted: 80ppm
Ardbeg Supernova: 100ppm
Octomore 6.1: 167ppm
Octomore 6.3: 258ppm
Octomore 8.3: 309.8ppm

Tasting Peat and Phenol

Does this mean that Octomore 8.3 is going to taste 8 times peatier than Laphroaig? No, not really. Because nature likes to screw with you, human perception of phenols levels off at around 60ppm (remember, that’s in the barley; what winds up in the whisky is around 25ppm), and when a whisky goes well above this it can can actually taste less peaty than something much lower. The 10 year old cask strength Laphroaig, or some cask strength Ardmores taste peatier to me than some of the Octomores, which I find go beyond overt peat and into a new realm of minerality and meaty complexity. In the end, ppm is a reasonably useless marketing term, as there are a lot of other variables to how peaty your whisky is going to taste.

Peating whisky is a complex science and art. It’s going to bring smoky flavours into your whisky, which you might love or hate, but which you have to admit is distinctive either way. Whether it’s a lightly peated Benromach, floor malted Springbank, or a monster Octomore, peat brings character into a lot of different whiskies and really spreads out the spectrum of flavour you can experience from whisky. Remember that all peat is not created equal. My best friend thought he hated peaty whisky after having a Laphroaig, but now Ardmore is his favourite dram. Even if you think you don’t like peated whisky, I’d recommend picking up a few bottles, trying some different types, and seeing if it grows on you.