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What type of whisky fan are you?

Date

Stephen Lacey

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What's your poison?

What's your poison? Photo: iStock

Whisky is a spirit on the rise, spurred by an unprecedented number of new releases and the local pride that followed a Tasmanian distiller recently being named the world's finest.

But if you think cyclists are tribal with their neat little divisions into fixie-riders, roadies and mountain bikers, they have nothing compared on the clans into which whisky drinkers divide. Regions, styles and brands each have their own fanatical followings.

“Whisky tragics tend to be as bad as (Apple) Mac aficionados,” says Franz Scheurer, the spirits editor of Australian Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine and Australia/New Zealand ambassador for the Islay Whisky Club. “They have a one-track mind. There are ones who like whiskies for a particular flavour or origin; they may like the grassiness of Speyside or the peatiness of Islay.

Ardbeg products attract more fanatical following than most.

Ardbeg products attract more fanatical following than most.

“Then there are those who like blends. The very snobbish single malt drinkers won't touch any blends. Blend drinkers tend to be a little bit more open; they will try single malt every now and then, but invariably return to the blend of their choice.”

Scheurer says there are noticeable differences between the whisky tribes. He says the Johnnie Walker brand is favoured by Middle East and Chinese drinkers, who consider it a status symbol. “The company has managed to capture the imagination of a lot of countries that just drink whisky with their food. These are not particularly discerning whisky drinkers, they just like a bottle on the table that people will recognise.”

The biggest whisky fanatics in the world are the Japanese, Scheurer proclaims. And they really relish drinking their local product; imbibing everything from Hibiki to Hakushu. Apart from the Japanese those who enjoy a Japanese whisky tend to be adventurous types, he says. “They are almost always really young whisky drinkers; the kind of person who will jump off a cliff with a hang-glider is likely to try a Nikka from Japan.

Ardbeg distillery manager Mickey Heads.

Ardbeg distillery manager Mickey Heads.

“On the other hand, your average Speyside drinker is more likely in his 40s, reasonably well-to-do, and will drive a Saab or a Volvo.”

Scheurer says of all the whisky regions in the world, the one that attracts unprecedented adoration is Islay, a small island in the Southern Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. There are eight distilleries on the island, but the one that appeals to the most fanatical supporters is Ardbeg.

“We're talking people who are very set in their ways. They wouldn't even consider other whisky to be whisky,” he says.

Ardbeg was the World Whisky of the Year in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Its 10 Year Old is considered by connoisseurs to be the peatiest, smokiest and most complex single malt on the planet. And because it is not chill-filtered, it has a strength of 46 per cent ABV (alcohol by volume).

The distillery was founded in 1815, and its product polarises whisky fans. Not all of them appreciate the strong peaty nature that's typical of Islay single malts (peat is used for fuel to dry the malted barley, giving the whisky its smoky character).

But those who do, do so with a fervour usually reserved for organised religion. Indeed, Ardbeg's cult following sees its devotees go to extraordinary lengths to show their support. “People are always coming up to me showing me our Celtic logo tattooed on their arms,” says Mickey Heads, Ardbeg's distillery manager. “During my travels I've noticed houses named Ardbeg and I've even seen a car with Ardbeg number plates. It's great for the distillery that we have that loyal following.”

Ardbeg fanatics would kill for Heads' job. Not only does he smell and taste Ardbeg whisky all day, every day, he actually lives at the distillery. Heads' father and both grandfathers were also distillery workers. “I suppose it was inevitable that I work in the industry,” he says. “Thirty five years later I'm still here. I love the job.”

The cult reaches its zenith when it comes to the Ardbeg Committee; an appreciation society that boasts more than 56,000 members in 130 countries across the world. Australia lays claim to more than 2000 members.

Would Heads ever consider toning down Ardbeg's strong, smoky flavour to appeal to a wider customer base? “In 2015 we are marking our bicentenary and we've been making this style of whisky for all those years; it's what we are famous for,” he says. “In saying that, we are always thinking about our future and trying different things. At the moment we're distilling and laying down whisky for the next 10, 20, 30 years.”

His advice for those wanting to enjoy a wee dram is to add a little bit of water, a teaspoon at a time, to open the whisky up a bit. “You don't want the water too warm, but you don't want it too cold either or the whisky closes up. Around 16-18 degrees. Try it and see.”

68 comments

  • only Irish Whisky can claim the name whisky anything else is scotch. its the way its made that makes the difference. The Scots stole the idea from the Irish, as usual, never had an original thought themselves.

    Commenter
    tonyb
    Location
    nth melbourne
    Date and time
    May 30, 2014, 3:35PM
    • And Irish whiskey is always spelt with the "e" - in English at least.

      Commenter
      jphogarth
      Location
      Beijing
      Date and time
      May 30, 2014, 4:06PM
    • what rubbish Tonyb. for a start its Irish Whiskey not whisky. Secondly it's only scotch if it comes from scotland. Australian whisky is not Scotch, its just whisky.
      As for my taste, I like them all. The islay smokies lack balance for my palate and prefer the subtleties of speyside, highland, Irish and Tassie stuff. Nz stuff tastes of bourbon (not to enter the body).
      Right, so now we have established I am correct on all counts and you are wrong - its your shout.

      Commenter
      occhams razer
      Location
      central victoria
      Date and time
      May 30, 2014, 4:09PM
    • You can't even spell whiskey as the Irish do. And there are many whiskies which are neither Irish or Scotch.

      Commenter
      Luigi
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      May 30, 2014, 4:10PM
    • An article on appreciation - there is no need to troll on some ancient feud.

      Commenter
      imac1957
      Location
      Riddell
      Date and time
      May 30, 2014, 4:15PM
    • I heard they stole the kilt and bagpipes from the Irish as well!

      Commenter
      Stig
      Date and time
      May 30, 2014, 4:20PM
    • Sorry, not true. By law, whisky can only be called Scotch if it is matured in a pre-used barrel of a certain description e.g. sherry butt, bourbon cask etc. within Scotland. Everything else is whisky (or whiskey).

      There's legislation on this in Scotland, and various pieces of legislation around the world as well that ensures only certain types of drinks can be called whisky. We have whisky legislation in Australia, too.

      And yes, I am one of the people that the article talks about ;)

      Commenter
      Andrew
      Date and time
      May 30, 2014, 4:38PM
    • Bourbon isn't Scotch, neither is Canadian Club...

      Commenter
      Hazza
      Date and time
      May 30, 2014, 4:47PM
    • If you are so enamoured with Irish Whiskey - then at least spell it correctly.

      Theirish may have invented it, the Scots have made it more interesting and varied.

      Commenter
      Malt maniac
      Date and time
      May 30, 2014, 4:51PM
    • Lagavulin for me.

      Incidentally tonyb there is no such thing as "Irish Whisky", Irish Whiskey having an "e" in Whiskey. Whisky without the "e" is set aside wholly and solely for Scotch, or, Whisky.

      As for the rest the Scots are very inventive: Economics, Modern Geology, pedal bicycle, Rugby Sevens, ATMS and PINs, pneumatic Tyres, Logarithms, surgical anaesthesia and general anesthetic, penicillin, television, refrigerator, lawnmower, flush toilet, the Bank of England and even .... Triple distilled Irish Whiskey. Plus many many more.

      Commenter
      tasch2
      Location
      Mornington Peninsula
      Date and time
      May 30, 2014, 5:04PM

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