Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Scotch Snobs On Parade.

I get in trouble every time I use the term 'scotch snobs.' Maybe I should say 'whiskey snobs,' since there are bourbon snobs too, but scotch drinkers seem to be the worst offenders.

Let me be clear that I do not consider all scotch drinkers to be scotch snobs. That would be ridiculous. Scotch snobs are people who aren't satisfied with choosing for themselves what to drink and how to drink it, they have to tell everybody else the correct way to do it too. (See 'know-it-alls' and 'busy-bodies.')

Scotch snobbery went on rare display after John Hansell posted a press release from the makers of The Macallan, announcing that they are introducing ice ball cutters in bars in London, Scotland and Yorkshire. The Macallan is one of the most highly acclaimed of all single malt scotches.

Ice balls -- molded, not cut -- have recently become popular here in Chicago. They originated in Japan, where apprentice bartenders carve them by hand from blocks of ice. The Macallan device is a copper press that instantly trims a block of ice into a flawless ice ball.

Ice balls, an ice cube the size and shape of a tennis ball, look slick but they have the practical benefit of chilling a drink fast while diluting it slowly.

From the comments to Hansell's post, you would think that parliament had made the use of ice balls mandatory. "Blasphemy!" wrote one. "With an every day blend, maybe. With a Macallan, no way," wrote another. "The entire text is apologetic marketing newspeak for disguising their real motivation:  Finding a way to sell their whisky to more people than before," as if "finding a way to sell their whiskey to more people," is the most unspeakable kind of evil.

Here's how to tell if you're a whiskey snob. If you berate other people about the way they enjoy their whiskey and you berate producers when they stray from your idea of whiskey purity, you just might be a whiskey snob.


Mats said...

Is it snobbery to say that when you refer to scotch, it should be spelled whisky? Whiskey is the spelling for Irish and Bourbon.

Tuesday Never Comes... said...

Red_Arremer here,

Chuck. Ouch. Did you really just say, “Don’t listen to those people who don’t like the iceball– they’re snobs.” Did you really just resort to meaningless, insulting, name-calling in order dismiss the sentiments of sincere whisky lovers who are dedicated to the appreciation of something good?

How about “schmoozing industry insider”? It means almost nothing, but it is a label that someone could unfairly stick on you in order to reduce your apparent credibility in the eyes of the community. That someone, however, would not be me. I respect you, even though our views don’t always line up.

There’s nothing wrong with exploring why people should not make or should be quiet about their negative judgements on the iceball. You just need to step it up a little. There’s plenty of space to explore beyond name-calling.

Chuck Cowdery said...

As a matter of fact, yes, it is snobbery to say that when you refer to scotch, it should be spelled whisky. Whiskey and whisky are two different spellings of the same word, like tire and tyre. The 'whisky = scotch' spelling convention is an affectation. It's a popular affectation, but an affectation nonetheless.

Bas said...

I'm lost- i like Maker's Mark whisky.

Mats said...

I know Wikipedia is not the same as the law, but just to reiterate the point about spelling, this is how it is explained there:

"At one time, all whisky was spelled without the "e", as "whisky". In around 1870, the reputation of Scottish whisky was very poor as Scottish distilleries flooded the market with cheaper spirits produced using the Coffey still. The Irish and American distilleries adopted the spelling "whiskey", with the extra "e", to distinguish their higher quality product. Today, the spelling whisky (plural whiskies) is generally used for whiskies distilled in Scotland, Wales, Canada, and Japan, while whiskey is used for the spirits distilled in Ireland and America. Even though a 1968 directive of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms specifies "whisky" as the official US spelling, it allows labeling as "whiskey" in deference to tradition and most U.S. producers still use the historical spelling. Exceptions such as Early Times, Maker's Mark, and George Dickel are usually indicative of a Scottish heritage."

Whisky Rating said...

Hi Chuck. If you quote me, then please also quote my followup to your reply over at John Hansell's. Let me repeat it here: Nowhere I have written that I think it's evil for a company to attract new customers.

I just don't like the way Macallan is doing this. They are promoting good old fashioned scotch on the rocks. Duh. A drink that's been selling in every bar in the world for many decades (I was tempted to write centuries). And they try to sell it to the glitzy bar people as if it was the most innovative thing since the invention of distillation.

Macallan's target market for scotch on the balls are people who don't give damn if their drinks are pumped out of column stills after having been distilled and filtered to death for five times. They don't care if it's colored (just look at that Pinky Vodka). For most of them, whisky is just another spirit in their repertoire, that happens to be brown instead of pink or blue. My fear is that whisky making will be driven too much by marketing, and that quality concerns will have less and less importance.

And not even the ice balls are are a new invention. There even is a company called Gl├Ące that sell their balls for $8 a piece because they are made from ultra-purified water. That's what I call snobism.

If it is snobism to defend the traditional quality-focussed approach to whisky making, then I am happy to be called a whisky snob.

And you know what: On my blog I posted a cocktail recipe for a Manhattan variation with Macallan called "The Machattan". The distillery put the link on their facebook page and soon I was criticised by some of their readership of adulterating ther beloved Macallan. Talk about snobism. Whisky is always in the eyes of the beholder.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Wikipedia is apparently now publishing fiction. There is no truth to that story. Whiskey and whisky are simply two different spellings of the same word, like tire and tyre. There is no more to it than that and never has been, despite the legends.

Davin de Kergommeaux said...

Chuck, If I were you I would improve that sentence by making it one word shorter. Delete the word now.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Point taken, Davin.

The thing about that Wikipedia entry is that it is absurd on its face. The claim makes no sense. In what way does spelling whisky with an "e" indicate a higher-quality product?

This ridiculous story also implies that these three national whiskeys were in competition with each other, which in 1870 they most certainly were not.

Wikipedia isn't a bad resource if the person using it is capable of rational thought. If you're gullible enough to consider that a credible story, well, I've got a bridge to sell you.

Mats said...

Maybe I am splitting hairs, but "whisky/whiskey" is not quite the same as the "tire/tyre" example. Tire/tyre are North American and British spelling versions of exactly the same product, whereas whisky is how the product made in Scotland (and most other countries) is spelled and whiskey is used for the product made in Ireland and the USA. This is not an affectation, but the definition found in all dictionaries I have at hand. Yes, there are exceptions, such as Maker's Mark whisky, but I have yet to find a "whiskey" from Scotland.

If you want to call the liquid whiskey no matter where it is made, you are of course free to do so, but in my book that makes the writing the less precise and therefore less valuable. But then again, maybe valuing precision means I am a snob?

Chuck Cowdery said...


I acknowledge that mine is a minority viewpoint. You are right about how most people apply the spelling difference. I oppose the conventional usage. I think it should change, and you can find my reasoning for that position here.

As for consistency, the spelling wasn't consistent until pretty recently and historical examples of the "ey" spelling in Scotland can be found. There may be some modern instances, but I can't point to any offhand. In the U.S., four major brands use the "y" spelling.

Davin de Kergommeaux said...

The problem with wikipedia is not so much the errors, and there are many on every whisky page, but that it is just so naive. It is written and corrected by people who really are just getting their whisky feet wet and so we have a whole erroneous paragraph on spelling for example.

As well, the citations refer often to what is probably the most error-ridden and naive whisky books on the market.

Does the entry on pyjamas indicate that the spelling was changed to pajamas to indicate American superiority in their manufacture? No, nobody gives a hoot if there are two spellings and most people outside the US still use pyjamas. In November do bourbon drinkers grow mustaches and scotch drinkers moustaches? You won't find that in wiki either.

Just this past January I bought a bottle of Hirsch Canadian whiskey - brand new - bottled in Nova Scotia, Canada and the label proudly exclaims Canadian Whiskey. Wisers used always to be spelt with an 'e' when they were in their original plant as well.

Yours is a minority view only among those who grasp at any thread of 'knowledge' to demonstrate they know whisky. It can be correctly spelt either way no matter where the product was made and in all likelihood when we get more distilleries in Ireland some will revert to the other spelling just to differentiate themselves. Does a British-made lorry become a truck when it lands on American soil? Of course it does just as trucks become lorries in Britain, regardless of where they were made.

I think the fake AP handbook has it right - you don't spell whisky, you savour it.

Davin de Kergommeaux said...

Yikes! Now I sound like a whisky snob!

Mats, I am not suggesting you don't know your whisky. Among whisky folk your opinion is quite common, in part because of unreliable sources like wikipedia. It's much less common though, among people who know words.

The Oxford English Dictionary (standard for British English) says whisky and whiskey are different spellings of the same word. But you have a point for I have never seen whiskey on a bottle of scotch either, but of course that is only circumstantial evidence. Both spellings have been used in official Scottish government documents though, and in at least one case on the same page.

You may be interested to know that Charlie MacLean's new book, World Whiskey, is called World Whisky (without the 'e') in some markets.

When I was doing family history research I learned that spellings of surnames depended more on the literacy of the preacher than the parents and sometimes changed between generations. In doing my research I came across those who adamantly declared that Mc was Irish and Mac was Scottish, and others who just as vociferously stated exactly the opposite. Same with whisky methinks.

So let's get back to whisky and leave the wiki crowd to pick the word nits.


TVA7321 said...

A fascinating exchange on spelling! I am really glad to have found your blog after starting to read your fine bourbon book, which is telling me a lot that I have wanted to know.

You have been setting a true standard for writing and thinking about "whisky". Whisky and the craft traditions that it embibies [sorry: embodies] are worth taking seriously as a connection to the American past, with all the warts, and as a touchstone for measuring modern cynicism. But never mind.

Anyway, the proof [sic] is that you receive really thoughtful responses. Not just on the subject of flavor and appreciation, but even in philological debate. The words we use really are important- for example in politics they can provoke rage. So they are worth discussing "soberly" once in a while, to clear up the thinking or lack of it behind them.

After visiting the Bourbon Trail, I did believe that the spelling conveyed some deep metaphysical difference of product as well as of tradition. But you have convinced me that this is not true, that down deep they are the same word. And if as you say "white dog" is "white whisky" and the Koval spirits point to new possibilities for taste and thought, then certainly scotch and bourbon should be recognized for the thing beneath the name.

Maybe we are seeing the recent golden age of diversity draw to a close, with mergers and creeping homogenization. All the upholders of sound traditions on either side of the ocean ought to be recognizing their kinship, whether they aspire to great whisky or great whiskey.

Just a thought - if California et al were to name their product "wyne" to mark a difference from the French makers' mark, would anyone gain by that? Their vintages are necessarily different in character because of various local necessities, but does a name change signify that the two are not profoundly related? A new name would just point to a will-o-the-wisp.

But accurate names are essential. As far as really useful names go, your commonsense definition of the terms "American" and "bourbon" is a great place for me to start from. I now get the true sub-species within the broad species called "whisky", and within the broader genus called "distilled spirits." A spelling change adds nothing. Please keep exploring this kind of enlightened terminology, because it lets the next step in the discussion take place.