A hunt through the whisky blogosphere is likely to yield unlimited results when you’re on the hunt for reviews. Indeed whisky writers/reviewers are a dime a dozen. Good ones, however, are a rare commodity, and to be cherished. I use the word ‘good’ here not simply to refer to one’s verbosity or word palette, but more to what one has to offer.
Unquestionably the best out there is Serge Valentin. His Whiskyfun has become my staple breakfast, after work snack and before bed nightcap. The site is simply awesome and an absolute Mecca for whisky lovers. At the time of this writing, Whiskyfun holds just shy of 8,000 tasting notes. I need to say that again…8,000 tasting notes.
Imagine for a moment that you had access to 8,000 drams. Would you have the motivation and passion to share your aquired knowledge and experiences by way of individual reviews? Would you be able to dust them with humor and humility in order to make them accessible to all? Would you do it all with a frank openness and endearing lack of pretention? Hmmm…I wonder.
Serge was immediately receptive to the idea of a chat with ATW. For this, but more importantly, for all that the man has contributed to drammers around the world…we raise a glass in salute.
First things first…how would you describe Serge Valentin?
An Alsatian guy (i.e. French but slightly German and Swiss as well) who’s got many passions and foolishly decided to launch an amateur online whisky tasting diary ten years ago and then write in printed magazines, while he may have had better things to do.
Second…how would you describe Whiskyfun? (C’mon…you’re an advertising guy…I’m interested in the slant you’d put on it)
I’d say it’s become mainly a large (some say the largest) database of independent and truly non-commercial whisky tasting notes by one single guy – but in fact, it’s always been a lame excuse for posting about another passion of mine: jazz and music in general. I know mixing topics is very bad on the Web but that never stopped me 😉
I say this in all sincerity (and with no disrespect intended to others), Whiskyfun is the best whisky-related site on the net. Being in somewhat of a leading position as you are, do you still look to other whisky websites? If so, which do feel offer the most and why?
Well, that’s all very kind but probably untrue – aren’t you being a tad too polite? But indeed I read other whisky websites. The Malt Maniacs’ of course, as well as our members’ private efforts (dramming, whiskycast, whisky emporium, Canadian whisky, Ralfy, malt madness or whisky intelligence to name but a few, they’re all so different, which is great) or other blogs that offer true content, either educational (about the distilleries, whisky history, technical aspects and such) or blogs that deliver interesting opinions and points of view, even, or maybe because I sometimes don’t agree with them.
You’re a passionate guy when it comes to your drams. This shows in the frequency of updates to Whiskyfun, but even moreso in the quality of those posts. Is it easy for you to maintain that degree of commitment and enthusiasm or do you go through cycles of waning interest (however short)?
Oh yes, I’m not always high ;-). But I use a trick: I taste and write whenever I’m in the mood for that, and don’t when I’m not. I ‘work’ with a lot of what we used to call ‘marble’ when I was a publisher, in another life. At least two weeks’ worth! I’ve got quite a few pre-edited tasting notes that have been written months ago, and some may never see the light.
Your dedication to the subject, enormous archive of tasting notes and seemingly unlimited reach when it comes to sourcing out incredible samples have put you in a very unique position as a point of reference. Have you considering publishing anything as an alternative to the Whisky Bible?
No thanks! I’ve written books but not about whisky and indeed, I’ve got quite a few propositions, but I always felt that the genuine whisky writers out there such as Dave Broom, Charlie Maclean or Martine Nouet – not to mention Michael Jackson – and a few others such as Davin de Kergommeaux and his terrific new book about Canadian whisky were so good that publishing any scribblings by yours truly would be a very stupid thing to do (excuse me). It would also be a way of selling what I do, which is a no-no at Whiskyfun Towers. Having said that, were I to do that one day – and that won’t happen before I retire – that would be in French, because I’m aware of the fact that my English is much too far from ‘print’ quality.
There is a certain amount of influence that comes from being a public voice, especially one with knowledge and coming from a place of judgment (let’s face it…that’s what reviews are). This influence can be a very good thing or a very bad thing. In your opinion, are distillers afraid of a bad Jim Murray rating, and if so how do you think he has changed the industry?
Ah, Parkerisation in whisky… No ideas… Some may like to think so but I doubt it. Whisky isn’t wine and worldwide sales of books, even the leaders, or circulations of magazines are really tiny. The Whisky Bible, according to their own Facebook page, has sold ‘a quarter of a million copies in the seven years since it’s first incarnation’. Let’s assume this wasn’t made up (why would it?), that makes for 250K/7=36,000 copies per year on average, while Parker sells millions every year. Or think Hugh Johnson, he’s sold more than 10 million copies of his Pocket Wine Book alone. What’s more, you can change the style of one wine almost overnight to please one expert (such as Robert Parker Jr.), you can’t do that with whisky unless you’re into quick finishings, or by doing wee tweakings such as drop caramel colouring or chill filtration. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered one whisky that was made to please one expert. There’s no Robert Parker in whisky – and if there ever was any, he was Michael Jackson. Also because there’s much less speculation in whisky (so far) and, above all, no sales ‘en primeur’ (again, so far… gosh, maybe I shouldn’t give bad ideas to the distillers).
Your output is incredibly prolific. How do manage to schedule your ‘malt moments’ around the rest of life? On a weekly average, how much time do you dedicate to whisky?
As I sometimes say, an average Westerner spends around four hours a day watching stupid TV shows. Imagine what you can do with four hours a day. But if we’re talking about the time I need to taste, write and edit WF’s tasting notes, that would be around six or seven hours a week, sometimes a little more. The only thing that’s tricky is not to have to drive after a tasting session. Not that I’m drunk but if you ever have to blow into a breathaliser after just 1cl of cask strength Ardbeg, you’re in jail and presto. Or you’ll have to drink two litres of water…
I’ve seen answers before, but for the sake of completeness in this piece, I gotta ask…where do you source your vast samples from? How big is the sample library at the moment?
I buy some bottles, I buy some samples and I get quite a lot of samples from retailers, distillers or simply good friends. The sample library?… Four figures – not talking about whiskies I’ve already tried. I need that because I always compare my whiskies and never taste them ‘on their own’, so, if I ever get a new Glenallachie in the mail, for example, I need to have at least one or two other Glenallachies already in my library. The nearest, the better (ages, vintages, cask types…) I do not believe in tasting ‘ex-nihilo’, I always need to compare whiskies or nuances just wouldn’t come out, at least not in the same proportions.
That last one ties in to another question. I imagine many of what you review are indeed samples, but you manage to provide bottle shots for everything. Do you actually have all of these old and rare bottles at your disposal and being opened regularly?
Sadly – or rather happily – not. Not all of them, at least. I’ve got unwritten or virtual deals with many retailers, they can use my notes and scores, I can use their pictures. Many are friends anyway. I also use private databases of pictures (not available to the public) that some friends have built, or I shoot bottles at fairs or shops. What’s more, I only post wee snapshots of labels just to give an idea of how a bottle looks like, I don’t think ever use a picture as is.
Speaking of old and rare…why do think there is such a disconnect between whiskies made in the sixties and the seventies to those we are drinking today? Enormous exotic fruits, like those found in older Bowmore, Benriach and Springbank seem to be conspicuously absent in latter day malts.
Good question again. I think there are many factors, some related to the makes, some related to bottle ageing, some related to commercial aspects. At random, direct firing, true sherry casks, larger selection of casks to choose from (because the market for malts was so smaller), worm condensers, different yeasts, slower fermentation, use of paxarette, no or very little fresh/ first fill American oak… And, above all, bottle ageing. Although the general public thinks that a spirit is inert once it’s confined in its bottle, I think it’s not. No top is never 100% airtight. The whisky keeps ageing, getting mellower, and I believe the phenols really change over time. All the good people who distil fruit eau-de-vie, for example, know that you shouldn’t open a bottle before it’s five, and some say even ten. Why would eau-de-vie change, and not whisky? Granted, a whisky was already matured in wood, but it does keep changing in glass, at a much slower pace. Many old glories were young and rough when bottled, and became stunningly complex after twenty, thirty or even forty years in glass. Hard to prove because you cannot quite compare them – or you’d need a time warp machine – but when you talk to older guys, including whisky people, they’ll tell you (sometimes after a few drams). All that means that some of today’s whiskies will be stellar when our children will inherit them ;-). I’d also add that in the old days, almost all the malt whiskies were made for blending purposes, so the distillers were tweaking their recipes depending on what the blenders were asking for. More fruits? More fruits! Some of these old casks are now reaching us via the independent bottlers or via the distillers themselves who bought them back from the blenders’ or indies, and what we’re sometimes tasting, I believe, is not a distillery’s general style, but a malt that was made after some blenders’ specs. Good examples are the older ex-Seagram peated Speysiders, for example. Or, hey, Brora!
You come across as a relatively unassuming fellow. Are there any topics in whisky chatter that make you want to get up on your soapbox and be a little more nasty?
You know, I try to keep anything whisky fun. Otherwise, yeah, some very lousy attempts at premiumising very average whiskies using 20th century stunts (what I sometimes call the cognacqisation of whisky), or widespread commercialism, especially in social media which is fast becoming a kind of very noisy and frankly smelly souk. Or anonymous, obsessive know-it-alls here and there who keep spreading half-truths and plain lies about whisky. To be honest, I may have to include myself in the lot – but at least I’m not anonymous ;-).
What is the one amazing whisky experience you’ve had that you would love to live over again?
There were several and it’s always the same situation. Good friends, a rare old bottle of whisky that none of us have ever tried yet… And pop!
If your evening plans were comprised of the perfect malt, the perfect book and the perfect background music…what would they be and what would tie them together?
Well, the problem is that I don’t believe the evening is the perfect time for a perfect malt. Our senses are tired… For example, I never do my tastings at night. Also, I never taste whisky while listening to music. Sounds odd, I know, but the influence is too big on me, I’d end up writing about the bass line while thinking I’m commenting on the whisky’s… err, tempo. Having said that, I’d go for an old Willet bourbon while listening to R.L. Burnside and reading some of Tennessee Williams’ short stories. Or Duke Ellington with Macallan, Coltrane with Clynelish, Hendrix with Lagavulin, Bill Evans with an old Bowmore, Slipknot with Ardbeg (I’m joking!)…
Finally…any plans to venture over to our great white North for any of the Canadian festivals (i.e. the Victoria Whisky Festival)?
Oh yes, Victoria is on my to-do list since a few years already. It’s just that the beginning of the year is always quite hectic business-wise, but I’ll manage, I’ll manage!
Any last thoughts to share?
Let’s keep it fun; whisky’s no serious matters (unless you have to make a living out of it, or if you down way too much of it).
Sincere thanks to Serge Valentin.