Amanti del whisky di qualita

Amanti del whisky di qualita

Tom Bruce-Gardyne investigates the success of an Italian club for whisky-lovers: the Single Malt Club of Scotland

People | 09 Jun 2003 | Issue 31 | By Tom Bruce-Gardyne

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Sei un amante del whisky di qualità?” is the opening line on the Single Malt Club of Scotland website. Somehow, it just sounds better in Italian, this invitation to the country’s lovers of fine whisky to sign up and share their passion with like-minded souls from Sicily to the Alps.In just the two and a half years since the club was created, Angelo Matteucci and Nigel Brown have persuaded over 3,000 Italians to join. The two cofounders have been friends for years, having met when Nigel moved to Italy to set up United Distillers’ Italian HQ in Genoa in the late ‘80s. Angelo was also in the whisky trade, and had been for most of his career. As one of the country’s leading whisky experts and a former importer of Jack Daniel’s and Bowmore, he was appointed UD’s brand ambassador to Italy and given the job of launching the Classic Malts range there.Since then, alcoholic consumption has fallen dramatically, and today the average Italian drinks less than a third the amount of alcohol compared to 20 years ago. By far the biggest fall has been with spirits, and Scotch has been no different, with one notable exception.According to Nigel Brown, single malt whisky is the only type of spirit, apart from aged rum, that is bucking the trend. As to the reasons for this, Nigel believes he has a pretty good idea why.“I’ve just come back from the Salone del Gusto [a huge food fair in Turin] which saw 135,000 Italians going to taste only foreign regional food and drink. I think the world is moving in two directions. One is through adding value through convenience and technology. The other is going back to basics and adding value by taste, and I think single malts respond exactly to that. I believe strongly that regional products are not only about old ladies putting muslin on pots of marmalade – I think it can be a major industry.”The pair were not just in Turin for the Single Malt Club. Angelo is also a member of Slow Food, who organised the event, and Nigel is head of Food from Britain in Italy, under whose umbrella the club was formed. Along with single malts, Nigel helped bring together 50 regional producers for the fair.“There was everything from Isle of Man lamb to wonderful hand-made cheddars to real ales,” he told me. But no mention of Mother’s Pride and cheese-cake mix, the two items I was invariably asked for on trips back to Britain by Italian friends, while I was living in Milan for three years.For Angelo, Turin “was a tremendous success all round”, and boosted membership of the club to 3,578. Nigel says they are on target to hit their objective of 5,000 members by the year’s end.So what do these members, these ‘amanti del whisky di qualità’, get in return?“We put on around 70 tastings a year all over Italy, but mainly in the north, and we attend several events like the Salone del Gusto,” Nigel explains. Other events have included Eurochocolate in Turin and Breakfast in Perugia, where the idea of an early morning dram in the Umbrian capital sounds a nice way to start the day.New members are invited to an initial tasting of six different malts and are introduced to their local representative of the club, of which there are about eight dotted around Italy. They are also presented with a folder which includes a brief history of whisky-making, a description of the process and Angelo’s tasting notes for all the malts carried by the club.“We work with the importers,” says Nigel, “and have 17 individual distilleries in the club.”At present, there are some 23 single malts listed. This is not a huge number, at least not from where I’m sitting in Edinburgh, where whisky bars routinely boast of 100, 200 or even 300 different malts. It does represent what is regularly available in Italy, however. Indeed, outside the big cities in the north, the range of malts on offer in your average neighbourhood liquor store extends little further than Glen Grant.For a Neapolitan whisky-lover, being part of the club provides an opportunity to sample such comparative rarities as an Aberlour a’bunadh or a Balvenie 12 year old Double Wood.Glen Grant 5-year-old is still the biggest selling whisky in Italy, making the country quite unique in having a single malt in pole position. True, it is not the most complex of whiskies, but according to Nigel, most Italians do realise it is a malt, even if they are not quite sure what that means.Once other malts were introduced from different parts of Scotland, the Italians were quick to catch on.“Based on the fact that this is fundamentally a wine culture, there is a real understanding of regional differences,” says Nigel, referring to the DOCs, or local appellations for wine. In other words, that a heathery Highland malt should taste markedly different from a peat-smoked heavyweight from Islay makes perfect sense to an Italian raised on Barolo, Chianti and Valpolicella.Angelo adds the fact that the country has a tradition of drinking spirits neat, because grappa, the indigenous spirit of north-east Italy, made from grape skins after the wine harvest, is always drunk that way. So the idea of savouring a premium spirit at the end of the meal as a digestivo is nothing new.With their shared background in United Distillers, do Diageo’s whiskies dominate the list, I wonder?“Not at all,” replies Nigel. “They have just three of the malts in the club, so they are probably under-represented. In fact, one of the objectives for setting it up was that a lot of the smaller distillers and their importers just don’t have the funds to develop their brands in Italy. By working together, putting them all in the club, we can move the whole category forward.”So which malt is proving the most popular among club members, I ask Nigel? “Well, I’d have to say that Ardbeg, which in the spectrum of whiskies is right on the extreme, seems to be capturing the imagination at the moment.”He agrees that for a generation supposedly weaned on Glen Grant 5 year old, that is “one hell of a leap.” Apart from the quality of the whisky, he puts it down to being “so recognisable and individual – you can spot an Ardbeg a mile off.”This being Italy, Nigel accepts there is probably also a degree of machismo at work, with old hands telling newcomers to the club, ‘I shouldn’t try this one, my friend. It’s too difficult, you have to be a really experienced drinker.’To see if that’s true, members are about to have the chance of buying malts direct from the club website. Then they will be able to find out, in the privacy of their own homes, whether Ardbeg really does put hairs on your chestContact
The Single Malt Club of Scotland (within the Food from Britain office)
Palazzo Locatelli, Via Porta Nova 3,
40123 Bologna
Tel. +39 051 656 9014
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