An introduction to the magical world of independent bottling
It was the week before the start of the festival and I was enjoying the last couple of days of a family holiday in Edinburgh when an old friend called to ask if I wanted to join him at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) to celebrate his new job.
Quicker than you can say "I'll have a Bunnahabhain 11yo Pedro Ximénez Finish", I was crossing the murky Water of Leith, dashing past Martin Wishart's Michelin starred restaurant and, with a spring in my step and a flutter in my chest, making my way across the high-walled courtyard of the Vaults.
The Vaults in Leith, a building whose cavernous wine cellars are said to date back to 12th century, is home to the SMWS in Edinburgh. Grand yet snug, decadent yet clubbable, it's like stepping into an Edwardian gentleman's club (at least I imagine it is, never having done so). Membership will set you back £122 for the first year (plus an annual renewal fee thereafter), but included in the price is a welcome pack that contains 3 sample bottles of Society whisky. Members, as I was fortunate enough to discover, can also invite guests to join them for a dram. Knowledgeable and well-informed sommeliers are always on hand to make recommendations based on your personal tastes.
After what is, by all accounts, a vigorous vetting procedure shrouded in secrecy, the SMWS carefully selects its whisky directly from distillery castoffs. When a distillery produces a whisky that it doesn't want to bottle (perhaps it doesn't quite match its unique flavour criteria), rather than simply discarding the unbottled whisky, these casks are instead released to independent whisky bottlers, such as the SMWS. The SMWS Tasting Panel then gives each bottle a mischievous set of tasting notes and a quirky but descriptive name - the bottle I took home with me was called "Eureka Moment".
So as not to identify the distillery from which it originates, whiskies at SMWS are all given a unique, two-part numerical identifier. They are then bottled at cask-strength (upwards of 45%), rather than at the typical industry standard of around 40%. "Eureka Moment" came in at robust 58.6%, so a wee splash of water was necessary to fully appreciate this punchy wee dram.
All told, a visit to the Vaults in Leith is a singular, if not unique, experience.
In fact, there are an ever increasing number of independent whisky bottlers, although few can boast such sumptuous premises as the SMWS. Some, like Berry Brothers and Rudd, which has been supplying gin to the royal family since the reign of George III, and the iconic Gordon & MacPhail, which started out as a grocer in Elgin in 1895, have long histories of selecting and bottling whisky. These veterans have been joined by exciting newcomers like Hidden Spirits, an independent Italian bottler founded in 2013, Rest and Be Thankful, another bold new independent bottler that is producing some outstanding single malts and Chapter 7, which is leading the way with its clean modern branding.
These independent whisky bottlers offer high quality products often at seriously competitive prices.
So, while you're waiting for that elusive invitation to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, why not seek out a single malt from an independent bottler?
As for me, it's nearly midnight and I've got an important deadline to meet.
It's time for another Eureka Moment!
Full of beautiful enoteca and surrounded by lush vineyards, Verona is really a wine-drinking city.
But sometimes wine just doesn't quite hit the spot.
Here are some of my favourite places to enjoy a decent pint, watch the match or just hang out.
Organic wine is becoming increasingly visible on the supermarket shelves these days. Even Italy, a country slower than most to jump on the organic bandwagon, is now embracing this potentially lucrative lifestyle trend. In recent years I've stumbled across a number of organic vineyards and many bars and restaurants here in Verona now showcase a 'vino biologico' on their wine list.
No hangover - the benefits of going bio
Organic wines are made from organically grown grapes. This means that they are cultivated in accordance with certain country-specific rules which exclude the use of artificial chemicals such as fertilisers or pesticides. Perhaps because of less intensive production techniques that use fewer synthetic chemicals, organic wine tastes good. So, while vino biologico satisfies the twin consumer impulses of healthy eating and environmental sustainability, it also contains less sulphur dioxide, which might just reduce the risk of a hangover!
As a recent Guardian article pointed out, the rise in the number of environmentally conscious consumers has led to a boom in sales of organic wines, beers and spirits. The growing importance of organic wine is reflected in increased sales (by as much as 20% in countries like Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands). In Germany, almost a quarter of under 30s regularly buy organic produce.
In order to meet this increased demand, the number of vineyards with organic status has also exploded. Between 2004 and 2011, the number of organic vineyards tripled (from 88,000 to 256,000 hectares). And it's not just small independent producers who are going organic. Today, many big wine brands are adapting their production techniques to meet the green demand.
According to the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), Spain is currently the largest producer of organic wine, with some 80,000 hectares of organic vineyards (Italy is thought to have somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 hectares).
In Italy, regions like Sicily, Puglia and Tuscany are leading the way in organic wine production. But domestic demand for organic wine remains underdeveloped and organic wine producers rely heavily on the export market.
In fact, some producers I spoke to at Vinitaly (Verona's annual wine fair) export as much as 75% of their overall output. The primary export destination for these organic products are the lucrative markets of northern Europe - German and Denmark were mentioned time and time again. The UK market, it seems, is not quite so well-developed, although many producers would love to get a foothold on this potentially rewarding marketplace.
But, amongst all the talk of ethical production techniques and saving the planet, there is a darker side to the Italian agricultural economy. According to a recent New York Times article, the 40,000 Italian women, as well as migrant and seasonal labourers, who constitute the agricultural workforce in Italy, are employed in appalling conditions for scant financial reward. So bad, in fact, that they, have been likened to a system of modern day slavery. In one tragic case a couple of years ago, a cruelly exploited grape picker died in the field while sorting grapes. Such practices have no place in an industry that aspires to be 'ethical'.
Vinitaly goes bio
For a number of years now, Vinitaly has recognised the importance of the booming organic sector. In collaboration with the Italian Federation of Organic and Biodynamic Agriculture, it has launched Vinitalybio, an area dedicated to certified organic wine from Italy and beyond.
Organic wine was not limited to this area though, as throughout the fair there were plenty of organic, vegan, ethical and biodynamic wines to choose from.
For my tastes, these brands, with their simple designs and natural themes, were amongst the most attractive on show. Emerging from the inevitable fog of a four-day wine fair, a few spring to mind.
Le Carline (a family-run organic/vegan vinery just outside Venice), Perlage Winery (an organic/vegan prosecco producer with innovative visuals) and Tenuta Bastonaca (a Sicilian vinery that is currently converting to organic status). These are just a few of the many talented and passionate producers I spoke to.
A final mention for Tenuta San Pietro, an organic producer from Piedmont. Informative front of house staff, an engaging sommelier and a delightful wine, including an innovative "talking label". Here the philosophy is that discerning customers like to know exactly what they are consuming so all the technical information goes on the front label rather than hidden away on the back.
And so, after a day spent enjoying so much organic wine, there was only one way for me to get home.
And no, I didn't have a hangover the next morning!