Combining the two trips into one this year was a bold idea. Our owner Clyde thought it might be more cost effective, so we decided to sack up and knock out two and a half week’s worth of booze tasting all at once. The length of the trip and the fatigue that eventually sets in hasn’t really been a problem so far. David and I don’t want to kill each other yet and there hasn’t been any real setback or roadblock to success. It’s all gone quite smoothly, really. What’s been most difficult for me to wrap my head around is the difference between the products we’re buying and how different the processes of buying them can be. When we buy whisky in Scotland, we deal with companies or brokers. When we buy brandy in France, we’re going into people’s homes and into people’s lives. The evaluation process is not the same in both cases.
When we started this trip in Scotland we went right to Pitlochry and eventually up to Tain and the Glenmorangie distillery. While I love LVMH and everyone I deal with in that company, it’s still a multi-national corporation that has purchased an operation and is basically looking to streamline it into as efficient of a system as possible. Let’s not pretend that we’re dealing with a few Scottish farmers who run a small plant out of the North. However, what’s great about LVMH is that they don’t seem to scrimp or savagely cut costs like some whisky companies do. Some other companies like to fire eighty of their distillery employees despite having one of the most successful profit years in history, simply to add an extra penny to each of their shareholder’s profits. In my opinion, when you start to view whisky this way, as a pure commodity, you begin to lose touch with the product itself. Everything becomes focused on doing things more efficiently rather than making the best product possible.
What I like about Glenmorangie is that they have respect for the trade itself. The sixteen men of Tain are still making the whisky today and their legacy is celebrated in the photos along the distillery walls. They haven’t been replaced by computers or robots, even though I’m sure LVMH could save money by doing so. Everyone within the company has great things to say about working there because they feel valued. If you’ve got money to spend on a giant rocket, then you’ve got money to spend on people. It’s simply a question of whether you’re willing to do so. Good people are what make the booze industry so amazing and it’s nice to work with a company like Glenmorangie that is full of them. Just because you’re a large corporation doesn’t mean you can’t be both caring and respectful.
You have to respect the craft of what you’re doing if you expect others to have respect for the product you’re making. There is something to be said for cheap, easy whisky. Making something inexpensively on a large scale and selling it in bulk offers a valuable service to those who have to watch their wallets. What’s frustrating to us, however, is watching large producers who have taken short cuts with their product play the artisan card as if they’re in the same category. This is the main reason why David and I visit as many producers as possible when traveling abroad. We want to know whom we can stand behind proudly as knowledgeable merchants, knowing that their message we’re spreading is both honest and true. We hear all the time that so-and-so is “doing things the old fashioned way” or is “making a small-batch, artisan product.” Sometimes we show up and the booze is just as advertised. Sometimes we find out that this person or company is completely full of shit.
We talked a lot with Charles Neal about the nature of what we’re doing during our many hours in the car. We had visited with a man in Cognac who was claiming he didn’t add anything to the Cognacs we were tasting, yet the color of each spirit was equally dark between the ten, twenty and forty year old expressions. Basically, it didn’t seem possible that he hadn’t added anything to the brandies, but what were we going to say? “You, sir, are a LIAR!” When someone invites you into their home or office, gives you an hour of two of their time, lets you taste all of their booze for free, and then sends you home with a small bottle as a memento, should you return that favor with a negative blog post that entirely shreds their credibility? It’s a tough dilemma to be in. On one hand this person is possibly spreading misinformation to customers and we’re in a position to help these same customers make better decisions based on our experience. On the other hand, we’re completely blasting a person who was nothing but polite and generous to us and had no reason to believe we were going to write about him.
Tasting with the small producers in Cognac is a similar experience.There are a few small farmers who do their own bottlings, but almost everyone is selling to one or more of the big houses as well. Not one of them is a fan of the big house products, but all of them rely on that money to continue their own operations. It’s like any magazine in any industry that relies on advertising money, listing only the good reviews and never the bad ones. Everyone has to play ball with these companies if they’re going to earn a living. On top of that, even the guys who don’t believe in caramel or boise are using it. If they don’t use it then no one will buy their brandy because it doesn’t taste right and it doesn’t look right either. Most people aren’t asking the questions that we’re asking, so it can get uncomfortable at times.
The Armagnac region is like backwoods Appalachia compared to Cognac. The people we visit in Gascogny lead a simple life. They farm. They make wine, They jar their own preserves. They make grape juice. They wear dirty jeans and work boots. Their hands are calloused and their days are long. Brandy is but one of many different farm-related products they sell in order to pay the bills. Some producers are larger than others, but none of them compare to what’s going on in the Cognac or single malt industry. If you’re the type of person who likes to go to the farmer’s market and buy directly from the producers, then you should go to Armagnac and meet the Claverie family at Baraillon. Have some foie gras on white bread while you taste and they stand by quietly, looking down at the ground, hoping that you enjoy yourself. Go to Normandy and taste Calvados with the Camut brothers who not only want you to like their brandy, they want to be your friends.
Throughout these last two weeks we’ve tasted with large producers and small producers. We’ve tasted with people who actually make the spirit and with others who are simply intermediaries. We’ve tasted great booze that was designed to taste great and we’ve tasted forgotten booze that was supposed to end up in a bottle of Cutty Sark ten years ago, but got traded out to some broker before that ever happened. Sometimes there’s a great story to be told and sometimes there isn’t. When you taste our bottle of 2002 Bowmore that we plan to bring in from our pal David Stirk, I don’t think you’ll care that it’s simply a barrel of whisky we found in a warehouse outside of Glasgow. When you (hopefully) taste a bottle of the Bladnoch cask we sampled, on the other hand, you’ll be know that we got it directly from the hands of the Armstrong family who have worked so hard to keep that small distillery going.
In each case the criteria for evaluation is different. We might like how a certain whisky tastes, but realize it has no soul. We might find another whisky challenging, but realize that the story of that whisky is more exciting than the actual flavor. To do this for two straight weeks requires one to listen, pay attention, and read between the lines (as well as subject to your mouth to a brutal beatdown by high-proof hooch). We’ve got one more stop to go before we head for home. I’m writing this as we speed through Northern France on our towards the English Channel. These are just a few things that have been on my mind lately.