In the past, many moons ago, I had the opportunity to meet Billy Abbott while he was in my hometown, doing a masterclass regarding casks and relatively newish whisky distilleries. He introduced me to some distilleries I hadn’t tried before, including Bimber and Milk & Honey.
We hung out with mutual friends, kept in touch via social media, where I sometimes bothered him with some whisky-related questions. A few years later, Billy wrote an excellent book, and we finally managed to catch up for an interview.
If you’re not aware of Billy, he’s the ambassador, content and training manager for The Whisky Exchange and their other subsidiaries. He’s also a drinks writer and a consultant; check out Spirited Matters (https://spiritedmatters.com/). Also, he’s answering numerous questions on different social media regarding whisky.
Firstly, let’s talk about THE book. The philosophy of whisky is the first book under Billy’s belt. There is currently nine in the series “The philosophy of . . .” published by the British Library. Fun fact, they have six out of nine books related to drinks (beer, coffee, gin, tea, whisky and wine). It’s an interesting beginner-friendly book, and I encourage anyone to pick it up, regardless of their whisky knowledge. The book consists of eleven chapters where Billy tries to encompass the world of whisky in an approachable and straightforward way. You can learn about the “magic” of distillation, whisky history worldwide, whisky cocktails and many more without me spoiling too much. Chapters are precise and short, with historical pictures to better encapsulate the story. Considering this sounds interesting to the reader, you can read it in one day.
Since you’ve been a professional writer for ten plus years, can you tell me more about your motivation and desire to write a book now, not five years ago?
I’ve been meaning to write a book for ages, but I didn’t have the opportunity until this year. I’ve got a stack of notebooks, each with the beginnings of book ideas, but I’ve never got quite far enough with any of them to turn them into a book. However, a friend of mine approached me with The Philosophy of Whisky project – he was asked to write it but couldn’t fit it into his schedule – and I jumped at the chance to write a book for The British Library.
What about the challenges of writing about whisky? Do you have writer’s block?
Whisky is something that I rarely have problems writing about, which was very useful as I only had six weeks to write The Philosophy of Whisky – typesetting and printing take a long time. I needed to get it written quickly to ensure we had the book ready in time for Christmas. Fortunately, I had lots of vacation left at work – one thing that a pandemic is helpful for – and I spent the six weeks alternating between conducting training sessions about drinks with weeks with some time off to write.
My main challenge was working out what elements to include. It’s not a long book – the series is one of the short introductions to the topics – and whisky has a lot to fit in. Fortunately, my editor liked the history side of whisky, which gave me the room to provide enough information to start whisky fans on the road to learning more.
Judging by the positive reviews of your first book, I’m hoping you can tell me about the second book, perhaps?
The book’s only been out for a few weeks, and I’ve been working on Christmas for The Whisky Exchange, so no plans as yet. I do still have *lots* of notebooks that I am adding to, so who knows what might come next.
Will you be going on a book tour?
I’m going to be going to whisky shows to talk about my book, run tastings and sign a few copies. This year, I’ve got a couple and am starting to organise those for the beginning of 2022. Keep an eye on the News section of The Philosophy of Whisky website if you’d like to see where I’ll be. And if you have a local whisky show that might want someone to bring some books and talk about whisky, point them in my direction.
Considering you’re also the brand ambassador for the awamori, would you like to share a few words about it?
While I’m best known as a whisky person, I’ve always been a fan of spirits other than whisky – I started off drinking rum… Awamori is a traditional Japanese spirit from Okinawa prefecture, a series of islands far to the southwest of Japan. It’s very similar to shochu – Japan’s most well-known native spirit – but is older and almost certainly the spirit that inspired shochu. Unlike many shochu, it’s made using just rice and black koji. Koji is a fungus that turns the starch in rice into fermentable sugars – a bit like the malting process with grain and whisky – and black koji is a variety that adds loads of exciting flavour that, along with Okinawa’s tropical climate, make awamori a bit different to shochu from everywhere else in Japan. It’s a delicious and exciting spirit with a rich tradition that I want more people to know about. I’m very proud to be an Awamori Jinbner: someone with whom the Okinawa Distillers Association works to get the word out.
In your opinion, what can you tell me about hybrid tastings where you can interact with people in person, but there are a dozen of them online? Is it a logistical mess?
It’s challenging work. Almost two years of running online tastings have given me the experience to make sure that style of tasting goes well but bringing in the live element again was a bit of a shock at first – in my first hybrid tasting, I forgot how loudly I needed to talk to make sure the room could hear me, which ended up being too loud for the people online, as I had a mic attached to my shirt. As long as you pay attention to both of your audiences and set the ground rules of how the tasting will run initially, you can run a great session. However, the audience online and in-person (especially in person) need to make sure they help the presenter to make everything work – it’s very easy for people in the room to ruin a tasting for those online.
I know you have some strong opinions regarding private persons buying casks, would you like to share them with me?
I have no problem with people buying casks and have a couple of my own. However, I am very worried about the companies who sell casks to people as an investment. Many of them are promising things that they can’t deliver, and even the most reliable and trustworthy often feel a bit dodgy. Lots of folks have heard that buying whisky casks is a good investment. They are trying to make a bit of money, but as always with such things, the people selling them the casks are also trying to make money, and I’m not sure that in most cases, the people at the end of the chain – the people investing in the casks – are going to come out of things that well. In short: don’t buy a cask unless you know what you are doing, especially if you are doing so at the end of a seminar entitled ‘How to invest in whisky’ run by a company that sells casks…
Tell me what whisky left a mark on you this year in a good and bad light.
The most recent drama I’ve been impressed with was The Lakes Liberty (you can read more about it here). The distillery is best known for its sherry, and wine cask focused, very popular whiskies, but Liberty was released without any information. From tasting it, I think it’s much more focused on bourbon and refill casks – my style of whisky. Hopefully, there will be a post on my blog about it by the time you read this, and I now need to work out if I can afford a bottle.
On the bad side of things, although I hope good whiskey is the Craft Irish Whiskey company. I recently had a chance to try The Brollach, a whiskey that focuses on its packaging and high price more than the spirit in the bottle. I previously experienced this with Isabella’s Islay – a whisky that still pops up in ‘the world’s most expensive whiskey’ lists – which I got in trouble due to writing articles that asked how good the whiskey was rather than how expensive the packaging was. In the case of The Brollach, the whiskey is good – although atypical for the style – but it is rarely mentioned by the people trying to sell it. The marketing is painful for a whisk(e)y lover to read, and I hope that not too many people have been taken in and bought a bottle for about 100x as much as I think it probably should be sold for. At least The Brollach wasn’t sold in a box with a Fabergé egg, like the company’s previous release…
What’s new in the TWE that you can disclose, any new releases or exclusives besides Christmas Malt? Also, is the situation any better regarding shipping to the EU and the rest of the world?
We’ll have some new Signatory releases in early January, including a peated Caperdonich, a Linkwood, a heavily sherried Caol Ila and an exclusive distillery bottling of Ballechin. I’ve got a few more things on my list, but I have to keep those quiet for now…
What’s new for Billy Abbott, especially in 2022?
There’s not much new, but there’s lots more of the same. Behind the scenes at The Whisky Exchange, I’ve got loads more people to train and will be running lots of WSET classes at the beginning of the year – from February 2020 to July 2021, I teach about 70 people, and we’ve got at least another 30 people who want to do the qualification.
There are whisky shows up and down the UK to visit and, when such things are allowed, I’ll be heading around the world to talk about my book and pour some tasty drams.
The Okinawan distillers are looking to get more people to try awamori, and we have plans on how to get more of it into the hands and mouths of spirits fans.
And, as soon as I can, I am hoping to start getting out and travelling more – there are so many places I’ve not visited, and my love of travel only started kicking in as lockdown began. As the world opens up, I hope to start seeing more places to spread the word of great drinks and taste whatever is being made locally – there are so many tasty things I need to try.
If you’re curious about the book, you can buy it here:
EU (without fees): https://www.bookdepository.com/Philosophy-Whisky-Billy-Abbott/9780712354554?ref=grid-view&qid=1639596739255&sr=1-1
Feel free to follow Billy’s work on his social media, he’s a great guy: