Interview of the week: Joel Harrison, spirits expert, on gin, rum and why the Scots need to watch out
Many of you probably know Joel Harrison from his days as a whisky blogger for Caskstrenght-and-carry-on. Today he is an award-winning drinks writer and spirits expert. In my interview for “Whiskyundfrauen” he gives us some insights into the latest trends and developments in whisky, rum and gin, and explains why cognac has terroir, but whisky does not, why we need more regulations for rum, why Beefeater is a totally underrated gin and why the Scots have to watch out.
|Joel Harrison, spirits expert and drinks writer|
He has already proven his writing talents as a blogger and for years he has contributed articles to renowned magazines and newspapers such as The Telegraph, Whiskey Magazine, The Wall Street Journal India, World of Fine Wines and other magazines around the world. He gained greater fame through regular television appearances on major television programs such as Channel 4's Sunday Brunch and The Ultimate Shopping List (aired in 2017), as well as radio works across the UK, America, the USA and India. He has also created a series of instructional videos for the WSET on cognac.
Joel is a judge at the IWSC Awards, the World Whiskey Awards, the Spirits Masters, the IMBIBE Awards and Chairman of the Independent Bottlers Challenge (whiskey).
Together with his business partner Neil Ridley he runs the creative marketing consultancy "Caskstrength Creative" and designs, develops and implements creative concepts, the development of new products and well-founded communication between customers and customers in the entire beverage sector.
Noel is also an extremely successful book author: his debut book "Distilled" has been translated into 15 languages and his second book, "Straight Up: A Guide to Global Drinking", was named one of the Top 10 Spirits Books 2017 at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirits Awards. His third book, "The World Atlas Of Gin", was published in September 2019 and will soon be published in German.
With so much creative urge you can only take off your hat in appreciation. I followed his blog, which he ran regularly with Neil Ridley until around 2015, with enthusiasm, and his books are also a real pleasure to read. That's why I'm very happy that he is chatting with me today as an interview guest at "Whiskyundfrauen" about the current trends in whisky, rum and gin, and his latest book.
MM: Joel, you are a well-known spirits expert and award-winning book writer. Can you tell my readers how you got involved in the spirits industry?
Joel: I was working in the music business as a record executive at Universal / Island Records. I was spending a lot of late nights out and about (and not drinking as I was assessing artists!) and when I came home – often late at night – I wanted a drink to relax. A bottle of wine was too much, a beer not really right… so I started drinking whisky! Single malt Scotch. You could have as much or as little as you wanted. It was great. I ended up with a collection of malts and started shopping at store around the corner from my flat: The Whisky Exchange. I learnt a lot and started a blog with a fellow music industry chap, Neil Ridley, called Caskstrength.net. That was the start as our writing was quite different from other people, quite accessible, and we were a lot younger than other people in the writing world, as we were still both in our 20s. The readership grew, we quit our jobs and went full time into writing. Books followed, and our debut book Distilled won the Fortnum and Mason food and drink book of the year in 2015, and is now in 15 languages and is the biggest sell book globally on the world of spirits. It’s been quite a journey.
MM: There has been quite a bit of fuss about whisky and terroir recently. Why does Cognac have Terroir, while whisky doesn’t?
Joel: You catch me at a good time on this one, having just spend some time with an amazing cognac expert. He even let me try an 1880 vintage cognac… anyway! Cognac is made from grapes which are delicate and rely on terroir. One style of grape can do well in one part of Cognac and then less well in another. The quality of the growth will have an impact on the quality of the wine made from it, and therefore the quality of the spirit made from that wine. These grapes only grow once a year, and can only be harvested in a specific period of time, and the wine can only sit for so long before it is distilled. Whisky is made from barley, which can be stored year-round, and can come from anywhere. It is quite hardy. Therefore it is far less important in the world of whisky!
MM: Are “Cask-Finishes” the “follow-up of paxarette and E150”? Do whisky producers rely too much on cask-finishes as a fast remedy and have cask-finishes become a convenient short-cut do turn a mediocre barrel into an expensive bottling?
Joel: Yes and no. The cask is a very important element of whisky production. 70% or so of the flavour of the whisky comes from the cask. Therefore it is almost more important than the barley itself. And to be legally called whisky the spirit MUST have been matured in oak. So why not have a bit of fun with them. If whisky has been sitting in crap casks for 10 years, why not move it into something better for a few months to give it flavour. I see nothing wrong with that, so long as the consumer is informed. I don’t think it is a quick fix at all for flavour. If it is smoke-and-mirrors, then the art would have died away. Can it turn a mediocre barrel into an expensive bottling? Yes, but a fool and his money are easily parted. These bottlings won’t stay expensive for long, and won’t sell, if they’re crap!
MM: More and more consumers are getting interested in whisky from around the world. Is Scotland in danger of loosing its dominance as a whisky-producing nation?
Joel: Yes, in some way it is. It is still the gold standard, as the regulations are so tight that it ensures some level of quality, yet that also stifles some creativity. Look at Starward: amazing young whisky. Kavalan: awesome stuff. Check out Irish pot still whiskey like Red Breast: wonderful. But you just can’t compete with drinking a Lagavulin on Lagavulin pier outside the distillery. Scotch will always have magic, and will always have heart, history and heritage, something which other countries need to earn. When it comes to Japan, I really trust the whisky from Suntory, but there is a lot of Japanese whisky that is actually imported Scotch rebottled. I’ve seen the casks. Just, as a consumer, be aware that regulations are good thing, and should be there to protect the consumer.
MM: Due to fast-rising (and sometimes crazy) prices for whisky, a lot of people have begun looking for “malternatives”. Will Rum, Cognac, Armagnac or Brandy be the next “big thing”?
Joel: I do hope so! I’ve always said this about London. People complain they can’t afford to live in the bit of London they want to live in. If that’s the case, look elsewhere and you’ll find amazing value. The same is true with spirit. Check out Armagnac: CRAZY good value, and if you get a bottle you love, it’ll be as drinkable as any expensive Scotch. I had a 45 year old Cognac from Hermitage (and indie Cognac bottler) this week, which retails at around £350. It was better than a lot of Scotch twice at twice the price. So, yes! Try other spirits and do so with an open mind (and an open wallet!)
MM: Rum has become more and more popular over the past years. Do you think it’s possible to talk about Rum without talking about its difficult history connected with plantations, colonialism and slavery?
Joel: I think that history is an important part of any product, place or person and must be considered, while also understanding that the future is where we need to focus our energy, and changing the future for those who are currently badly affected by the present – changing the small minded folk who hold other people back – is our biggest challenge and where our energy should be focused, without forgetting the past.
MM: Some Rums can contain as much as 45 grams of additional sugar per litre. Is this widespread method of “dosage” acceptable, or necessary, or do you think that Rum should be “sugar-free”?
Joel: I think rum needs less sugar. Too much of it is way too sweet. Yet if it is part of the process, then that’s fine, but just dial it back a bit. In fact, dial it back A LOT!
MM: Do we need stricter regulations for Rum in the EU?
Joel: Yes, it is the wild west of booze and it needs far more regulation.
Joel: Let’s start with what makes a good gin. For me, a good gin is a spirit (40% up) that has juniper at the heart and a balance of botanicals around it. It then depends how I’m going to drink my gin. I like a spiced gin in a Negroni. I like a citrus-forward gin in a martini. I like a more juniper-heavy gin in a G&T. There is a huge variety of flavour that can be in a gin, so that’s a big consideration. There are loads of great gins out there. Some that you might dismiss because of their price, like Beefeater, which is amazing. It has been around for so long, is all made at the Beefeater distillery in London and is of extreme quality and consistency. And there are some craft gins that are amazing too. However, that world (like beer, I guess) is a bit more up-and-down as some people think they can wake up in the morning, buy a still, start making gin and call themselves a Master Distiller. That annoys me. You have to earn that title!
MM:Is the famous and traditionally dominating “London Dry Gin” still a category with some relevance? Or has it become a dying species that is only appealing to old ladies with hats?
Joel: Not at all. London Dry is really the Grand Cru of gin, in that all the botanicals need to be used in the distillation process. It ensures that the botanicals are natural and real, and it is a real art.
MM: What trends to you expect in Gin for the next five years? Will the category continue to grow?
Joel: I do hope so, as gin is amazing. I think of all the spirits it is the most like beer or wine, in that it allows people to drink local. I always like to try local beers and wines around the world, and now gin is kinda the same. So I think there will be lots and lots of local gins, and a few will become global household names, but most will just be respected within their local community. That’s the trend I see.
MM: Your latest book, “Gin Atlas”, will soon be available in German. What is the book about and when will it be launched in Germany?
Joel: The book is a look at the gin category around the world. It has a history of gin, and a chapter on botanicals and production. The bulk of the book curates a selection of gins from over 50 countries with the idea that each gin is made at its own distillery (a lot of gins is contract-made by industrial producers), using an element of local botanicals, and above all is of really good quality! Think of it as the guide to drinking brilliant gins from all over the world!! It will be launched on September 17th in Munich.
MM: Have fun in Munich and good luck, Joel. Thanks a lot for taking the time for this interview.