- Return to Part I
By Dave Kelley
DK: After doing this for more than 20 years, can you still go into a pub
and enjoy a pint , or do you find yourself unconsciously critiquing and
analyzing everything you drink?
MJ: I do find it impossible to drink a beer without thinking about it, and
that's been the case for many years. It does cause trouble with my
girlfriend, who says, (in a firm voice) "Stop working!" I'll say, "But I'm
not working." And she'll say, (in that same firm voice) "Yes you are,
you're thinking about that beer!" I mean, I can't not think about it. I
can't avoid thinking about any drink I have and pretty much any food I eat
for that matter. I find it very hard not to take notes about places I'm in,
you know, thinking maybe I'll want to write about this place sometime. You
can't really do that, just never stop taking notes. You'll never find a way
of filing them in the attic.
I don't go on vacation very often, but if my girlfriend and I do go
on vacation for a few days, we're in such and such a place and somebody
gives me a drink I've never seen before - it doesn't have to be a beer, it
could be a local liqueur or local wine or something - but if it's something
specific as that, I just have to make a little note. We don't do vacations
much, but when we do, after two or three days I find myself sliding off to
a local brewery, or if they don't have a brewery I'll go see the local
winery or distillery or something. By then, she's kind of a bit fed up with
me anyway, she'll want to lie on the beach and read a book, so she says,
"Okay, off you go."
DK: Was your interest in whisky an outgrowth of your beer writings, or was
it something you'd always been interested in along with beer?
MJ: You know when kids at school start smoking cigarettes? In my innocent
youth, it was around age 14 they started smoking cigarettes, I don't know
what it is today. Well, I was never interested in smoking cigarettes, so
from the age of about 14 or 15 I started drinking beer as a sort of a macho
thing. So from 14 or 15 I started drinking beer, and I was 16 when I did my
first job at a weekly newspaper, a small town weekly in the industrial area
of central northern England, county of Yorkshire. I used to drink a lot of
beer, and at that time I became quite fascinated with the flavors of beer.
I'd say I was 16 then.
When I was 19, I went to work on a daily newspaper in Scotland, and
at that time I became interested in the taste of Scotch whisky. So these
interests go back to then. I didn't actually start writing about beer on a
regular basis until I was in my 30s. In the '70s I started writing about
beer seriously, and in the '80s I started writing about whisky seriously.
So the interest runs sort of parallel, with whisky running slightly behind.
The problem always was you could never get anybody interested in
publishing anything on beer. The idea was always, "Who would be interested
in that?" I gradually, myself and some other writers but with me very much
at the fore at that point, hacked down those barriers to some degree. We
didn't really hack them down; it was more like kind of breaking a hole in
the fence rather than knocking the whole fence down, in the '70s.
It just took a little longer to persuade people that single malts
or that whisky was something you could write books or articles about. There
had been some earlier books on Scotch whisky and single malts, books that
contained good documentation but just weren't very interesting. A bit sort
of old-fartish. I tried to make it a little more accessible to the
consumer, to explain a little more about the flavors.
DK: You tried to make it more accessible, but do you still find that the
average person still thinks of Scotch, and single malts especially, as
MJ: It's inevitably a more expensive product, so it does appeal to people
who can afford it. That sounds rather obvious, but it's a product for
people who are at the peak of their earning power. Something that's
expensive like that has to appeal to people who have time to exercise some
sort of discretionary interest in something like that. If a guy's been
doing heavy, manual work all day long, at the end of the day he doesn't
want a single malt Scotch. But if a guy's been looking at a computer all
day long, that might be just what he wants.
It's been very much a part of my writing to say that all drinks are
not for all people. The understandable wish of the producers and marketers
to say, "Yes, everybody can enjoy my product," often again leads to the
dumbing down of product. In a way, that was what led to blending (Scotch)
in the first place. They were blended to make them more accessible. It's
like sort of only being able to listen to middle of the road music. There's
nothing wrong with middle of the road music, but if it means that you can't
listen to jazz or blues or classical music, if those cease to be available
because people say they can't sell enough, that would be catastrophic. It
would be catastrophic not just for the listener, but for the music
industry. It's in the interests of the industry to realize that there are
different beers for different moments.
That's been one of the recurrent themes of my writing, that you
need to have diversity.
DK: As long as we're talking about diversity, do you ever find yourself
"falling into a rut," where you seem to drink one brand or style of Scotch
or beer almost exclusively?
MJ: I think with beers it's relatively easy (drinking a variety), because
with beer it tends to be determined by where I am. I'll tend to look for
what's local and what's good that's local. It's a little harder with Scotch
whisky because they call come from one country.
We sometimes have a single malt before we go to bed at night. After
we've watched the main news at 10 o'clock and night and seen what terrible
state the world's in, and now you're going to go to bed and you feel like
you'd like a little quiet time, it seems like a single malt Scotch kind of
soothes the bones and the brow. I've got about 500 bottles, possibly more,
and we'll have this discussion and it's always a bit like going into one of
your favorite restaurant and they bring you this long menu, and you
wrangle, and the waiter says, "Do you want a little more time?" And you
say, "Yeah, give us a couple of minutes."
So you discuss it, and you always
finish up eating the same thing, which is what you really like more than
anything else. You finish up having the same damn thing and you could've
saved the time. Well, we have a long debate about what malt we're going to
have before we go to bed, and Paddy always really determines it in the end,
and it's always Ardveg, which is particularly peaty and particularly
suitable for bedtime, and we always spend about 10 minutes wrangling before
we finish up having the same one.
I like having a single malt after a meal, and at that point, as
much as I love the peaty, Islay malts, after a meal you don't want that,
you want something rich and sweetish and sherryish, and it's tempting
always to have a MacAllen at that point.
I always ask the waiters, "What have you got?" and they always say
MacAllen, Glenlivet, and Glenfiddich, and I'll say in a rather loud voice,
"Is that all you've got?" It's still difficult because there's still this
sort of tendency (for waiters) to say, "Well I've got everything, what do
you want?" I don't want to hear that shit. I want to know what, actually,
do you have there.
DK: That's really a problem if you go into a restaurant and ask them what
beers they have.
MJ: "Got 'em all."
MJ: Yeah. It's hard to avoid taking the piss a little bit there and saying,
"Okay, I'll have an Erdinger Dunkel Weissen bock beer, please." (laughs)
DK: It seems like single malts are becoming more popular, especially here
in the U.S., as the bulk of the population gets a little older and makes a
little more money, and maybe starts to develop a little more taste.
MJ: I think it's a very obvious thing, and it's the same phenomenon that
lies behind the interest in beers. People who are lucky enough to be
employed, to be earning some money, are on the whole earning more money
than they did before, and they want to have some discretion over how they
use that. They want to have a choice of anything, whether it's the type of
car or stereo you buy, or the type of bread or coffee, or the type of beer
or whisky you buy.
The age of everybody wanting to do kind of the same thing out of
some sort of security need, that was a kind of Eisenhower era, an era of
white picket fences and everybody driving the same gas guzzler with fins on
the back, watching Father Knows Best and eating TV dinners. That began to
break down in the '60s, and it was when the '60s generation finally assumed
the levers of power that we began to see real diversity in all types of
products. There's really not much point in earning more money than the
Russians do if you don't have any more choices in beer than the Russians
do, is there?
Maybe you have to first go through this period that sort of
intermediate economies go through, where there is this very heavy matching,
where you have to be seen smoking Marlboros, or drinking Johnny Walker
Black, or whatever. But after that it gets to where people want to express
some sort of individuality, to have the chance to have different tastes.
That's happening in all the advanced economies, they're all operating at
different speeds, with different emphasis, but everywhere in the world
where people have money to spend and the time to spend it, they want to do
so with more individuality, and microbrewed beers and single malt Scotches
fit that very well.
DK: Is there a chance we'll be seeing a "Scotch Hunter" TV show or CD-ROM soon?
MJ: I wish there would be. I wanted to do something called "The Whisky
Chaser," but they're shy of that so far. There is still this kind of fear
of talking about hard liquor, which is kind of a shame because single malt
Scotches are drinks that require a great deal of discrimination. It's for
the discriminating drinker, not the indiscriminate drinker.
Return to Part I