Scotch whisky is big business right now with the figures to prove it. The Scotch Whisky Association states that whisky exports generated £3.95 billion for the UK last year. That equates to £125 every second. The money that people are currently willing to pay for whisky seems to be limitless. In 2014 Sotherby’s auction house sold a large crystal decanter holding Macallan “M” whisky for £393,000, making it the most expensive bottle of whisky in the world. Where gold dipped in value by 10% in 2015, collectable malts rose by 14% according to Platinum Whisky Investment Fund. Whisky is now being seen as an investment rather than simply a drink. But this wasn’t always the case. Angus MacRaild, whisky specialist explains the dramatic shifts that whisky has undergone in the past decade.
He recalls that there was a huge turning point in the whisky market around 2009. The era before this he refers to as the age of innocence. “Everything up until 2009 was probably cheaper than it should have been, everything was accessible. There were expensive whiskies but they were a small part of the industry. And you could buy loads of great single cask bottlings. In the early 90s you could buy a whole cask of 1960s Islay malt whisky for less than maybe a tenth of what you’d pay for a single bottle of it now – it was a totally different world. That age of innocence was very much in full swing when I started buying whisky and started really seriously getting into it and learning about it which I’m very fortunate for because once that’s gone there’s no way anyone can really ever experience that again, which is a shame.”
Speaking nostalgically about a lost period in whisky’s history you’d be forgiven for thinking that Angus is your archetypal whisky specialist with an excess of 50 years’ experience. He speaks with a natural authority far in advance of his 30 years. Angus discusses whisky with a genuine warmth, passion and appreciation which was cultivated from a surprisingly young age. “I first drank whisky when I was about four or five when my dad gave me some Laphroig 10 year old. He gave me a little sip, probably thinking it would be hilarious but I just said ‘I really like this.’” This is quite startling, not only for a five year old to like whisky but Laphroig has a very distinctive smoky almost medicinal taste. One reviewer on masterofmalt.com who clearly wasn’t a fan describes that the “aroma was that of chloroseptic throat medicine with an after taste as if I had just smoked an entire bowl from a bong. Not for everyone.” Angus wasn’t your average teenager either, when it came to underage drinking he had a unexpected approach, “When I was a little older, early teens I started reading about whisky more seriously. I bought my first bottle of whisky when I was fourteen; it was a Port Ellen 18 year old. I managed to get away with it because they couldn’t compute someone young asking serious questions about malt whiskies”. Whisky has always formed a part of Angus’ life so even at university he made space in the summer months to work in a distillery. He began working at Ardbeg distillery on Islay, an island renowned for its peated whisky and coincidently is the same place where Laphroig is produced. He looks back on his time at Ardbeg with great fondness and it was to prove a formative influence and an exceptional time to work there. “It was a time when things were more relaxed and you could have a lot of fun at the distillery, you could get away with a lot of stuff, it wasn’t so health and safety conscious. You could go in the warehouse and let people taste direct from the cask – that’s the truest way to experience whisky. That’s real, pure pleasure – I’m not sure you can do that anymore, things are more tightly regulated.” It was while working for Ardbeg distillery that Angus discovered a whole new world of rare old whiskies. He recalled how he developed a “passion for old style whisky that I got into when I was 20. Collectors would visit the distillery from Belgium and Germany and the Netherlands and they would bring all these old bottles with them, characterful whiskies, really noticeably different and quite amazing and that just really put the hook in me.”
Against The Grain
As the whisky industry began to become aware of its global potential to make huge profits it’s had a big influence on whisky. This not only included how whisky is being made but how it’s being talked about too. “One thing that most people would decry when talking about whisky is the corporatism that’s coming to it. Accountants coming to it with ever sharper pencils having too much influence over how whisky is made, how it’s sold, how it’s presented. I heard a brand rep in an interview the other day say a phrase along the lines of ‘a whisky moment’ and they talk about brand rather than distilleries.” This is something that makes Angus visibly cringe so it was natural that his next move was into whisky auctioneering. This allowed him the opportunity to work with old bottles of whisky he was so passionate about. It also offered him a freedom that working for a contemporary distillery couldn’t. “it’s a way for me to work with all the types of whisky and whatever whisky I want. I can say what I like about them. I can do tastings and choose what whiskies to talk about. There’s no smoke and mirrors, no marketing bullshit involved. You can keep your integrity to some extent. That’s what I was always chasing. I couldn’t work in whisky if I couldn’t do it on my terms.” And that’s what it all comes down to: his love of whisky. Angus has an uncanny knack for articulating this passion in an incredibly lyrical way, “even if you’re quite casual about it, whisky is a great flavoursome drink. There’s a vast variety of different flavours and characters. It’s fun, it’s enjoyable, it’s social, it’s a drink you can really talk about – it fires the imagination. I love whisky because at its best, it’s an evocative expression of the place and people who make it.” It’s honest, sincere language like this that makes you want to share his passion.
Sharing The Passion
For anyone who didn’t start drinking whisky at the age of 5, the world of whisky can seem impenetrable to a novice. There are an overwhelming variety of different whiskies not just from different regions in Scotland but Ireland, Japan and even Sweden to consider. It’s hard to see past the smoke and mirrors at times. Angus is keen to dispel a lot of myths and prove that whisky is accessible, “Don’t be frightened, don’t be daunted and don’t think that it’s beyond you. It’s not as complex as people say or make it out to be – it’s just a drink. Once you’ve grasped the basics of the process by which it’s made, it’s then understanding how all the ticks and changes brought into that process may alter the flavour and the character. It will suddenly become more apparent and understandable. I learn stuff all the time, and it’s a constant pleasure to discover new things, to open a new bottle, to find out something you didn’t know before.”
When it comes to buying whisky for himself, Angus is far more influenced by this unknown element of discovery whisky offers rather than for any financial investment. Over the past ten years Angus has managed to amass an impressive collection of whisky which he modestly refers to as an ‘increasing stash of bottles’ which is slowly taking over his apartment. However, he is keen to emphasise that he is not a typical collector. He doesn’t have a methodical approach to collecting whisky from one specific distillery or region. His approach is simple, “I try to buy things now thinking there’ll come a time in 20 or 30 years where this is totally impossible to find and totally over the top in terms of what I would have to pay to attain them. I’m an accumulator of whisky rather than a collector. It is an investment but an investment in my own future pleasure and happiness. I’m a drinker first and foremost of whisky, I do it because I love the liquid and I like to sit with friends and open an interesting bottling and enjoy it and find discoveries. I always try and buy things that I don’t know to some extant so that there’s an element of discovery when you open it. That’s the pleasure for me.” In an industry that is becoming increasingly self-conscious and obsessed with the bottom line, it’s refreshing to hear someone speak as much about the value of whisky in terms of pleasure rather than return. Angus has recently left the world of auctioneering to focus more time on writing about whisky and hosting whisky tastings. It’s not surprising that Angus is already thinking of his next big move in the whisky world “I would like to make whisky, but that’s a long term ambition of mine. We’ll see.
You can read more of Angus’ writings about whisky here.
If you’d like to get in touch with Angus about whisky tastings or just whisky in general you can contact him via angusmacraild