Whisky is a spirit on the rise, spurred by an unprecedented number of new releases and the local pride that followed a Tasmanian distiller recently being named the world's finest.
But if you think cyclists are tribal with their neat little divisions into fixie-riders, roadies and mountain bikers, they have nothing compared on the clans into which whisky drinkers divide. Regions, styles and brands each have their own fanatical followings.
“Whisky tragics tend to be as bad as (Apple) Mac aficionados,” says Franz Scheurer, the spirits editor of Australian Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine and Australia/New Zealand ambassador for the Islay Whisky Club. “They have a one-track mind. There are ones who like whiskies for a particular flavour or origin; they may like the grassiness of Speyside or the peatiness of Islay.
“Then there are those who like blends. The very snobbish single malt drinkers won't touch any blends. Blend drinkers tend to be a little bit more open; they will try single malt every now and then, but invariably return to the blend of their choice.”
Scheurer says there are noticeable differences between the whisky tribes. He says the Johnnie Walker brand is favoured by Middle East and Chinese drinkers, who consider it a status symbol. “The company has managed to capture the imagination of a lot of countries that just drink whisky with their food. These are not particularly discerning whisky drinkers, they just like a bottle on the table that people will recognise.”
The biggest whisky fanatics in the world are the Japanese, Scheurer proclaims. And they really relish drinking their local product; imbibing everything from Hibiki to Hakushu. Apart from the Japanese those who enjoy a Japanese whisky tend to be adventurous types, he says. “They are almost always really young whisky drinkers; the kind of person who will jump off a cliff with a hang-glider is likely to try a Nikka from Japan.
“On the other hand, your average Speyside drinker is more likely in his 40s, reasonably well-to-do, and will drive a Saab or a Volvo.”
Scheurer says of all the whisky regions in the world, the one that attracts unprecedented adoration is Islay, a small island in the Southern Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. There are eight distilleries on the island, but the one that appeals to the most fanatical supporters is Ardbeg.
“We're talking people who are very set in their ways. They wouldn't even consider other whisky to be whisky,” he says.
Ardbeg was the World Whisky of the Year in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Its 10 Year Old is considered by connoisseurs to be the peatiest, smokiest and most complex single malt on the planet. And because it is not chill-filtered, it has a strength of 46 per cent ABV (alcohol by volume).
The distillery was founded in 1815, and its product polarises whisky fans. Not all of them appreciate the strong peaty nature that's typical of Islay single malts (peat is used for fuel to dry the malted barley, giving the whisky its smoky character).
But those who do, do so with a fervour usually reserved for organised religion. Indeed, Ardbeg's cult following sees its devotees go to extraordinary lengths to show their support. “People are always coming up to me showing me our Celtic logo tattooed on their arms,” says Mickey Heads, Ardbeg's distillery manager. “During my travels I've noticed houses named Ardbeg and I've even seen a car with Ardbeg number plates. It's great for the distillery that we have that loyal following.”
Ardbeg fanatics would kill for Heads' job. Not only does he smell and taste Ardbeg whisky all day, every day, he actually lives at the distillery. Heads' father and both grandfathers were also distillery workers. “I suppose it was inevitable that I work in the industry,” he says. “Thirty five years later I'm still here. I love the job.”
The cult reaches its zenith when it comes to the Ardbeg Committee; an appreciation society that boasts more than 56,000 members in 130 countries across the world. Australia lays claim to more than 2000 members.
Would Heads ever consider toning down Ardbeg's strong, smoky flavour to appeal to a wider customer base? “In 2015 we are marking our bicentenary and we've been making this style of whisky for all those years; it's what we are famous for,” he says. “In saying that, we are always thinking about our future and trying different things. At the moment we're distilling and laying down whisky for the next 10, 20, 30 years.”
His advice for those wanting to enjoy a wee dram is to add a little bit of water, a teaspoon at a time, to open the whisky up a bit. “You don't want the water too warm, but you don't want it too cold either or the whisky closes up. Around 16-18 degrees. Try it and see.”