Serge Valentine – wywiad

I invite you to an interview with Serge Valentin one of the most popular writers of whisky. Lover of whiskey since 1978 this year I was born…

His whiskyfun has become for many people one of the most important website about whisky.   At the time of this writing, Whiskyfun holds just shy of 10 000 tasting notes – not bad. You can agree with him or not, but this is one of the most important  person of whisky world.

What he thinks of whisky from the 60s, how Serge evaluates whisky outside of Scotland and will he arrive at whisky tasting organized by whiskymywife (WhiskyLegend ) you will read the following interview.

 

Serge Valentin - whiskymywife

Serge Valentin – Whiskymywife

 

 

 Grzegorz Nowicki: In the beginning, please tell us how it happened that you get interested in whisky and as a result become one of the leading whisky authority? In your country the most popular liquor is wine and whisky is associated mainly with you or by Jean Donnay – the owner of Glann ar Mor and Gartbreck distillery.

Serge Valentin: Well you’re very kind but I’m not too sure I’m ‘a leading whisky authority’. That impression may come from the fact that I’ve started publishing tasting notes online quite early, when there was almost nobody doing that, what the world has then called ‘blogging’ (not a term we were using at that time.) I’ve always liked Scotland and whisky, in fact I’ve first visited Glenlivet around 1978. Or was it 1979? But I got much deeper into whisky thanks to my friend Olivier Humbrecht, the first guy I ever saw buying 25 bottles of high-end whisky in one go. That was at Robertson’s in Pitlochry, a long time ago. Also thanks to my first very large Springbank tasting with Mark Reynier in London, around 1990. Pear shaped bottles and all that. Having said that remember that France is the #one export market for Scotch in volume. We quaff much more Scotch than the UK, for example, or the US. I think it’s got something to do with WWII, whisky was the drink of the liberators.

 GN: How would you describe your website whiskyfun? Whisky is not the only topic there. Please tell us also where did the idea for the famous comics about Pete and Jack came from?

 SV: It’s just a personal online tasting diary. Actually, in the beginning I had planned to write also about other passions of mine, such as motorcycles or wine. And music, of course, which I still do. The idea of focusing on only one topic wasn’t something ‘natural’ at the time, only google’s rise generated the idea that it’s better to focus on one topic, to SEO-ise a website. I don’t care much I have to say. In fact in earlier days I had a personal printed newsletter that I used to mail to my friends. The idea of whiskyfun also came from that. Johannes’ maltmadness has also been a huge inspiration, he was the actual pioneer of whisky ‘blogging’. 1995, imagine! As for Pete and Jack, well, it’s just a way of expressing ideas and concerns without having to tell them directly. Such characters can be very excessive, which a normal well-mannered person can’t quite be. Also, I’ve been a journalist in my younger days (actually an editor in chief) and comics were to be found in any newspapers or magazines.

 GN: Do you – after so many drunk drams of whisky, some of which totally unique and very expensive – still enjoy the usual daily dram?

 SV: If it’s to my liking, of course! But with all these tastings, I do not ‘drink’ much spirits in casual conditions. I’d be dead by now.

 GN: You are a big fan of the famous and unfortunately already closed Brora – why? This year we visited Clynelish and Brora and we were surprised that  we have been told almost nothingabout Brora there, despite this is one of the whisky legends.

 SV: Well the first Rare Malts have been a revelation to me, when I could first try them. The ueberwhisky! Now it’s quite normal that the owners wouldn’t push much their dead distilleries, since the brands are almost extinct. Brora’s probably more for obsessive whisky geeks. And I guess if you go to Mercedes-Benz today, they won’t try to sell you a 230SL from 1963 ;-).

Źródło: Whiskyfun.com

Źródło: Whiskyfun.com

Źródło: Whiskyfun.com

Źródło: Whiskyfun.com

 

GN: Generally whisky from  60’s and 70’s were completely unique. Just to mention Macallan or Bowmore. This unique deep complex taste is practically not available in today’s whisky. Would you agree with that?

 SV: Yes and no, that depends on the distilleries. See Springbank, they still make traditional malt whisky using traditional methods. But indeed the way whisky’s made has changed quite a lot generally speaking. More efficient yeast, rather yield-oriented than flavour-oriented, less direct firing, less worm tubs, faster fermentations, wood technology (creating the final styles of the whiskies using finishing or reracking in recharred or wine seasoned wood), racked warehouses, almost no floor malting, high-yield barley and so on. That had to change the styles of the whiskies. Having said that the distillers have found ways of improving their output’s consistency, and I’m not sure we should blame them. It’s probably better to come up with 100 very good casks than with 5 stellar ones, 35 good ones and 60 pretty mediocre ones. Remember that most of the older whiskies we know are known because they’re superb, hence legendary, but I’m not sure they’re emblematic of that era. I’ve tried bad old whisky as well. There’s also some ‘myopia’, we’re reading comments about old bottlings that youngsters now find brilliant, while we used to find them mundane at best fifteen years ago. And then there’s OBE…

 GN: Your assessment of whisky is based on a scale of 100 points. In our opinion, more practical scale is the one from 1 to 10. Can you explain what is the difference between whisky assessed at 88 points and the one that won 89 points? how did it happen that you have chosen such grading scale?

 SV: I’m using the malt maniacs’ scale, because we’ve always compared our opinions and to do that, you need to use the same scale. The MMs have chosen Michael Jackson’s scale for the very same reasons, we wanted to compare our feelings with his notes. And I guess MJ simply took Robert Parker’s scale. It’s just a standard. Remember it’s actually a percentage! It answers the question “how far are we from an imaginary perfect whisky, which would score 100%?” I believe it works well, especially when comparing very similar whiskies. For example five Laphroaig 1998 bourbon, if you use a short scale you’ll have five times the very same score, while one may be just a little better than the others. The 100 scale helps you come up with a nuanced score. Indeed everybody will understand that there’s very little difference between 88 and 89, while the difference between 8 and 9 is much larger, it’s a bigger responsibility to give an 8 instead of a 9, than a 88 instead of a 89. The shorter the scale, the better the taster has to be. Another example, I still remember my favourite four or five whiskies that scored 98. Had I used a 9 instead, I’d now have 500 or 1,000 favourite whiskies, which wouldn’t make much sense in my opinion. Believe me, most people who start with a 10-scale, in wine as well, end up with adding decimals or quarters, so virtually use a 100-scale ;-). But anyway, I’m also adding stars and halves, so a 10-scale, so that people who don’t like the 100 scale don’t have to read the 100-score ;-).

 GN:  We are in the minority – for now 🙂 How do you organize your time for whisky tasting? And how the tasting /evaluating looks like?

 SV: I always compare similar whiskies, usually from the same distillery. You can be much more ‘accurate’ when doing that, even if you’re just a normal guy – which I certainly am. I never taste whiskies ‘in solo’, meaning just one, that’s much more difficult to do. I try to calibrate my senses using benchmark whiskies, or references. Such as Laphroaig 10. If it doesn’t taste as usual, and so isn’t worth the same usual score, I stop. I always taste at my desk, using the same glasses and the same water. Almost always between 6pm and 9pm, far from lunch, and before dinner. I often use decaf to reset my palate and nose. And when I’m not in the mood, I just don’t taste.

 GN: Knowing what impact has your assessment on the market, probably most of the samples you taste are send to you by distilerries or independent bottlers? Don’t you have a problem with the large number of samples? If you do, remember that I am always ready to help you 🙂

 SV: No, many distilleries or bottlers do not send me samples. Some send samples to other ‘bloggers’ but not to me. Others do the opposite! Some don’t send samples at all. I use to say that ‘some send me samples because they know I’ll write what I think, others don’t for the very same reasons.’ Many whiskies I try come from friends, or I retrieve them myself. If you only try samples sent by the industry you’ll always taste the same brands, while I try to taste whisky from just everyone. I could feed whiskyfun with only ‘official’ samples, I’ve got enough of them, but that’s not what I want to do. Obviously, some brands are only seeking positive reviews, and carefully screen the tone of voice and the ‘goodwill’ adopted by each blogger, before selecting the ones they’ll grant with their whiskies. Fair game, I say, but in fact I think it’s better to source as much whisky as you can yourself when you’re a blogger, because mind you, some distillers will tend to mail you only their best. Again, fair game. I remember a bottler who told me, after a few beers too many, that it’s become “too dangerous” to send samples to me. He used to mail me samples, then stopped when he noticed that there were quite a few readers. Don’t get me wrong, in normal conditions, they’ll always tell you that they don’t care – and indeed they shouldn’t. But anyway, yes I’ve got more whiskies than I can taste. I’ve permanently got around 1,500-2,000 untasted samples in my library, and indeed some will never get tasted. Oh and thanks for the offer, but there’s a long queue ;-).

GN: Don’t you think that the distilleries are afraid of your assessments and opinions? Do they try to exert some pressure on you? Such people like you, Jim Murray and Charles Maclean have a very large impact on the assessment of individual whisky and thus their price. We would like to know if this responsibility overwhelms you sometimes?

SV: Indeed. Pressure? No! As for the rest, I never think about all this that way. It’s still just a hobby. As for responsibilities, well I just try to write what I think, and try to insist on the fact that it’s just one single and simple guy’s opinions. What would be irresponsible would be to claim that it’s a definitive judgement, or some kind of gospel. That would be very silly – masturbation and narcissism are to be avoided like the plague when writing tasting notes.

Pete-and-Jack-91-1

Źródło: Whiskyfun.com

Pete-and-Jack-91-2

Źródło: Whiskyfun.com

Pete-and-Jack-91-3

Źródło: Whiskyfun.com

Pete-and-Jack-91-4

Źródło: Whiskyfun.com

GN: What do you think about the distilleries outside Scotland and Japan? Taiwan? India? France? In my opinion, for example, Kavalan in recent years has done an incredibly good job and Solist series is at a high level.

 SV: Indeed, many are good and many are improving. Just one thing has to be remembered, the fact that some countries have very loose regulations wrt whisky, which means that you can do things at some places that the Scots couldn’t do, by law. For example, the use of additives, beyond caramel. Having said that we tend to only talk about the cream of the crop. Not all Indian whiskies are Amrut or Paul John, not all Japanese are Karuizawa or Yamazaki. I believe the best in the world, provided you take their whole production into account, remain the Scots.

GN: You have wisited Scotland a lot, what have impressed you the most? What would you advise us to see next year – it does not have to be the distilleries only. This year we were on a long tour around Scotland and probably we most enjoyed the Glenfarclass distillery, because of the passion of people working there; and Talisker distillery, due to its location on the beautiful island of Skye.

SV: A restaurant called The Oystercatcher in Portmahomack. Great food, unbelievable selection of wines and whiskies. Rather off the beaten tracks. Other musts, the Thompson’s Dornoch Castle and Jon Beach’s Fiddler’s in Drumnadrochit. Ardmore Distillery.

GN: We met at a festival in Limburg – where, in your opinion, the best festival in Europe takes place? Which is your favorite?

SV: I couldn’t tell you, I don’t know them all! The ones I really enjoy are Limburg of course, Paris Whisky Live, The Whisky Show in London, and the Swiss ones, Zurich, Luzern and Lausanne. And the smaller one in Oostende, Lindores. Small by the size of the place, but the whiskies and the people are ‘big’. I’m sure there are many other very great ones, I just can’t go – sadly.

GN: We would like to invite you to the next year’s whisky festival in Poland or to the „WhiskyLegend” – one of the best open tasting in Poland, organized by us, which takes place in Warsaw! Is there a chance that you will find the time?

SV: I’d love to, but I’d have to check if I can, because mind you, I’ve also got a job ;-).

GN: I hope you manage to find time for the meeting. Thank you for the interview.

 

If you want to join the trip to Scotland in 2015 (August) or will join the best whisky tasting in Warsaw (February) then please contact with us:  kontakt@whiskymywife.pl

Na tle Destylarni Ardbeg 1

 

 

mccoy

komentarze do “Serge Valentine – wywiad”

  1. Bardzo dobry wywiad Grzesiu. Brawo.

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