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Oct 01, 2014

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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 somewhat elitist?

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."

DK: Exactly.

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

STORIES BY
DAVE KELLEY