Remember all those articles about how “Scotch is losing out” and “Japanese whisky is all the rage”? Well, I had the privilege of interviewing the leading player on the world’s whisky stage who started all this when he published Whisky Bible 2015 [Purchase] where he gave the title of “World Whisky of the Year” to Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013.
In this latest edition (12th in its series) of Whisky Bible, Jim shares detailed observations on the nose, taste, finish, and balance of nearly 5,000 different whiskies from around the world. More than a third of a million copies have already been sold internationally.
With such authority on whisky, his single designation of Japanese whisky as the “best” turned the brand “Yamazaki” into the latest craze. Suddenly, it seemed like everyone was asking for a Yamazaki, even the ones who knew nothing about Japanese whisky before.
But this wasn’t always the case. Whisky wasn’t always top of mind and tip of tongue…
The Renaissance of Whisky.
When I started my whisk(e)y journey two and a half years ago, whisky was still not mainstream. Yeah, there were a bunch of speakeasys selling delicious Old Fashions with Bourbons in them, but none of my non-whisky drinking buddies were asking me where to find the best Yamazaki. Not back then.
Thanks to popular characters like Don Draper in Mad Men and James Bond in Skyfall, the past two to three years have been a renaissance for many whisky types (scotch, bourbon, rye, etc). And now, with the crowning of a Yamazaki as Whisky Bible’s top winner, Japanese whisky has become the hottest topic.
Yet, when Jim started, no one thought whisky writing could be a career. Jim began writing about whisky back in the 1980s. He spent thirteen years building his career as a journalist. Then, one day in 1992, he decided to become the first full-time whisky writer instead.
People scoffed at his belief that writing about whisky would become mainstream. However, Jim saw a trend—nay, a need—that proved to be right. He laid the groundwork for whisky reviewers and created an influential voice in the industry. Since 2003, he has published an edition of Whisky Bible every year, detailing flavors from various whisky bottles from all across the country.
But that’s not my story about Jim. Anyone reading his Wikipedia page could have learned all that.
Mine is about his role in saving a distillery and a unique taste that only dragons, superheroes and beautiful women seem to understand…
Smokey Ardbeg 10, A Dragon and Wonder Woman’s Favorite.
After a few minutes of talking about Jim’s life and how he got into whisky, I quickly dove into my passion area: getting women to enjoy whisky. “So, Jim,” I asked, “what expert tips can you give me about getting my non-whisky drinking girlfriends to try whisky?”
“Women tend to like smokey flavors,” he suggested. Turns out, the smoke accentuates the softness and brings out the sweetness from the whisky.
“That explains it!” I exclaimed excitedly. One of the smokiest whiskies I’ve ever tasted was the Ardbeg 10, which transformed me into a powerful fire-breathing dragon and satisfied my needs as Wonder Woman. But most importantly, I told him that many of my girlfriends who had never liked whisky ended up loving Ardbeg 10 and as a result began to try other whiskies.
He laughed heartedly. “Did you know that Ardbeg distillery was going to be destroyed back in the 80’s?”
I couldn’t believe my ears. A favorite amongst my girlfriends could have never existed…
“So what happened?” I asked Jim.
In a calm voice, he told me the story of how he saved the Ardbeg distillery and later helped create the unique taste of Ardbeg 10…
Jim, Ardbeg 10 and Beautiful Women.
In late 1970s and early 1980s, the Scotch whisky market was in a recession. The Ardbeg taste wasn’t “fully appreciated” (aka the distillery hit some financial problems). In 1981, production at Ardbeg ceased and the distillery was set to be destroyed.
To Jim, that was a big deal. He had often visited the distillery in the 1980s to bird watch and scuba dive. It was a place of beauty and peace. And that extreme peaty taste from the distillery was something that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else. He recognized its potential. The owners just had to be patient. (And he was right! Future whisky drinkers, especially beautiful women, would fully appreciate its taste 30 years later.)
Jim campaigned hard to save the distillery. He appeared on TV programs, talked on radio shows and advocated in newspapers. All his public support worked! A set of new owners bought the distillery (not Glenmorangie, who bought the distillery 1997).
Then something crazy (and awesome!) happened.
The new owners brought Jim in as a consultant blender to help redefine the Ardbeg taste. It was then that he helped create the Ardbeg 10—a flavor palette of a spiced sweetness and a thick warm smoke. When I asked him what he was his inspiration when he came up with that flavor profile, he said mischievously, “the silhouette of a beautiful woman.”
It seemed like beautiful women heard this call. More than 30 years later, beauties around me picked Ardbeg 10 when I placed various whiskies in front of them. Could it be that the whisky was destined for beautiful women? Or, did he simply mean that when you drink an Ardbeg 10, you see a beautiful woman in front of you? Does it matter? Either way, it’s a win-win.
So, have you thanked Jim yet for his role in adding Ardbeg 10 to our whisky history?
SOME INTERESTING TIDBITS:
Whisky Bible 2015 by Jim Murray [Purchase on Amazon]
According to the Ardbeg Project, Ardbeg 10 was first bottled in 2000, which would mean the first Ardbeg 10 casks were stored in 1990 (pre-Glenmorangie purchase). [Corrected. Thanks, Tim from Ardbeg Project!]
Ardbeg distillery reopened in 1989 and through 1996 would open for 2 months every year for distilling.
SOME WHISK(E)Y DEFINITIONS:
Whisky vs. whiskey: Both spellings are correct. The difference is primarily due to geography. “Whisky” is primarily used in: Canada, Japan, Scotland, England, and Wales. “Whiskey” is primarily used in Ireland and the United States. For more info, click here.
Peat (flavor): Peat is basically turf made of partially decayed vegetation, e.g. moss and wood. In Scotland, particularly in Islay, peat is used as fuel to create fires that dry malted barley (one of the steps of making whisky).