Serge Valentin of whiskyfun.com
I’ve decided to start a new series of interviews to help demystify some of the many aspects of the whisk(e)y industry. Who makes it, how they do it, how they got into it, how to they sell, promote it, market it, etc…
While this series is called “A Day in the Life” (the title was inspired by the Beatles, in case you didn’t spot it), it will focus on more than a day in the life of a Cooper, Sales Person, Ambassador, Master Distiller, Independent reviewer/critic, etc… I will try to get a little personal (without making said person blush).
Being that Serge just interviewed me on whiskyfun.com, I figured turnabout was fair play and asked that he be my first interviewee. Praise be to the dude upstairs, Serge agreed.
Serge’s Whisky Fun site has helped me, and continues to help me along this strange and wonderful journey through the world of whisky. His website, as it currently exists, has been up and running since 2002 and he posts whisky reviews nearly every single day. Quite amazing really.
Serge, thank you so much for taking the time for this interview. I hope and trust that it will help readers better understand, who you are, what you do, how you do it and, perhaps more importantly, what drives you. Cheers brother!
Readers, read on:
Yossi: Serge, you have new postings/whisky reviews almost every single day. Could you describe your process?
Serge: Basically, I gather samples and bottles from friends and from festivals or shops, and get samples from the bottlers or sometimes retailers as well. I register them all in a ‘rolling’ database of +/-1,200 whiskies and then compose tasting flights of two to, say six or seven whiskies, usually from the same distilleries or sometimes even vintages as I feel comparisons are key to properly assessing whiskies. When I feel I’m in a good shape, I’ll usually do ‘large’ sessions with three to four flights, most of the time during the weekends, and publish all that in chunks. I know people often think I’m tasting whisky every single day but that isn’t true. Sometimes I have no time, or I’m not in the mood, or I feel I’m not in good shape (the use of reference malts or benchmarks comes very handy to check that).
Yossi: Do you have a preferred time of day in which you taste and why?
Serge: Yes, usually between 4pm and 8pm. Before 4pm the latest meal’s influence may be too high and I do not follow a specific diet just to optimize the tastings 😉 and after 8pm my senses are often too tired. Doing and writing up such tastings require a lot of attention, especially since English isn’t my mother tongue (and God knows my little writings are still foul more often than never.) Also, I’ll never taste whisky when I know I’ll have to drive or ride a motorcycle, for obvious reasons, unless I have a chauffeur (read my wife or my children).
Yossi: One thing I try to focus on is what dram to drink for a particular mood or season. Do you approach whisky in a similar manner (when not doing reviews, just drinking for the enjoyment)?
Serge: The problem is that all these tastings do not leave me much time for casual drinking, especially since I’m also much into wine – no I have no wine blog. Sometimes I’ll have whisky with friends after dinner, that is to say late at night, and I’ll usually focus on the best whiskies I’ll have tried in the previous weeks, whichever the distilleries, regions or styles. So no, not really ‘season’ drams I’m afraid, although a superb citrusy Bladnoch or Rosebank may match a sunny July afternoon better than a heavily sherried Laphroaig.
Yossi: I noticed on your website there is an image there of a spittoon with the caption “We want Spittoons!” Can you explain what that is all about?
Serge: Yeah, that wee campaign was organized a few years ago when one of my son’s friends got killed by a drunkdriver who had just attended a wine festival. Anybody should ‘drink responsibly’ and certainly not drive after having swallowed alcohol, but I believe people who organize tastings, festivals or even distillers should make that easier by providing spittoons, or any other kind of empty container, and tell the tasters that it’s okay to spit. What happens too often is that you’re provided with one single glass and several drinks to taste, while there’s no spittoon, which ‘pushes’ some people to empty their glasses by swallowing everything so that they can get the next dram, which, moreover, is usually better than the previous one! Spittoons should be obligatory.
Yossi: Another item I saw on Whiskyfun.com is an image that says “WAR! Of the whisky fakers” Can you describe this? How big would you say the faker industry is?
Serge: It’s not quite an industry but believe me, all serious whisky collectors got caught at least once. There are various kinds of fake whiskies around, not mentioning the huge amounts of popular blends such as Johnnie Walker Red or Black that are forged in Asian, African or South-American countries. Basically, you have fake old bottles (for example, a rather mundane – but good – old Macallan 8yo bearing a 25yo label, or an old bottle of blend with a copied or even imagined label for a rare old single malt). On the other hand, you have also refills, that is to say a genuine bottle of 30yo that’s been refilled with a regular 10yo. That happens with brands that haven’t been careful enough, for example bottles that have cork stoppers and easily removable and replaceable foils. A very trendy Islay distillery starting with an A springs to mind.
Yossi: Have you been faked out in a whisky purchase? How did you find out?
Serge: Oh yes. I have at least five obvious fakes in my stash and maybe others. The first time I found out about one of them it was a very old Suntory that I had bought on eBay. I googled it while looking for more data about the historical side of the bottle (it was a bottle for the US Army in Japan) and stumbled upon an older eBay page. It was the very same bottle, same scratches on the label and so on and it had been sold to ‘my’ seller a few weeks earlier. The problem is that it was empty at the time, whilst it was full and sealed when I bought it! That hit a nerve and I started some pages about fakes, with the help of some very knowledgeable experts such as Sukhinder Singh, Carsten Ehrlich or Dave Broom. Some bottlers have been very helpful as well, such as Springbank or Diageo while others have been, say not so helpful. Mind you, you wouldn’t want to see your super-premium brand name being associated with forgeries, would you! I also remember I had published a picture of a suspicious bottle that I had found on a specialized auction house’s website but the latter instantly threatened me with some lawsuit instead of trying to explain why they thought it was genuine. Very helpful! Anyway, I started to get dozens of daily emails asking for bottle authentication (sometimes regular bottles of J&B or Teacher’s that some guys had found in grandpa’s cupboard, or even just bought at the nearest supermarket) so I decided to stop all that, much to the relief of some distillers, I’ve been told. But the pages remain online as a wee guide, you can find them at www.whiskyfun.com/war.html.
Yossi: How did you get into whiskies? Do you have a story that goes with it?
Serge: It’s been a long process that started in the late 1970s when I visited Glenlivet Distillery with some friends and bought my first bottles of malt as soon as I was back in France. There weren’t many at the time, Cardhu ‘white label’, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet… Ten years later I attended my first serious tasting session at Mark Reynier’s La Réserve in Knightsbridge. A dozen old official Springbanks (pear-shaped or not) lined up… Moving! I still remained a casual whisky drinker before another trip to Scotland and the discovery of an amazing shop thanks to my friend Olivier: Robertson’s in Pitlochry. Imagine dozens of old Signatory bottlings lined up, with all these beautiful colours. Ardbeg 1967, Laphroaig 1966, Springbank 1969… I started to buy (a little) less wine, and much more whisky!
Yossi: Other than independent reviews, do you have a profession within the whisky industry?
Serge: Strange question Yossi. Had I a profession within the industry, would I really be independent? Seriously, the answer is ‘nope’. But I’m an owner of some advertising agencies, which is probably almost as bad.
Yossi: Did you have a gateway whisky?
Serge: Hard to tell. Maybe these old Springbanks that I tried in London twenty years ago, or the very first Brora ‘Rare Malt’ that I tried later. Why don’t all single malts taste like a 1972 Brora?
Yossi: Looking at all of your top whiskies, there seems to be a theme; peat, peat and more peat. A bit of an exaggeration, I know, but the majority of whiskies seem to be the peatier ones. Do you have a preferred Scotch whisky region? Or time period for that region?
Serge: I beg to disagree! Now it’s true that there are many peated whiskies in my top lists. Old Ardbegs, Laphroaigs, Lagavulins, Bowmores, Caol Ilas, Broras, Port Ellens, Ledaigs, Longrows… I feel peat brings another dimension to old whiskies, it sets them apart from other aged golden spirits such as calvados, cognac or armagnac, or even rum, whilst unpeated or very lightly peated old whiskies tend to resemble brandies or rums as golden spirits tend to converge when they age well. Peat also transmutes in a beautiful way, it can be replaced with myriads of tiny ‘tertiary’ aromas and flavours in a well-aged peated whisky (either aged in wood or in its bottle but that’s another story). As for younger whiskies, let’s not forget that a heavy peatiness, just like a heavy sweetness (ah, new oak or first fill bourbon!) or ‘sherriness’ will mask many of the flaws that are inherent to a young immature spirit. That’s also why, I believe, many very young peat monsters are surprisingly good whereas a Speysider of similar age is usually too spirity, mashy and ‘simply fruity’ (apples, pineapples, pears). But as usual, there are many exceptions.
Yossi: You use the 0-100pt rating system. When rating whiskies, if you gave a bourbon 90 points and a Scotch whisky 90 and a Japanese 90 points (just pulling numbers out of the air), would you say that they are equal to each other? Is the 90pt Scotch better because it’s “Scotch”? Or, are these all in a league of their own not to be compared to each other? Please explain.
Serge: In my system, all drinks are equally treated, which means that should a Japanese and a Scotch (or even, say a tequila) be given the same score, that would mean that I think that they’re of equal quality indeed. I know some people say that that means comparing apples and pears. Why not? Both are fruits. But that works only because I believe a score is only a way of summing up one guy’s opinions in a numerical form, and certainly not a judgment or any kind of gospel. A score (whichever the way it’s expressed, 100-scale, 20-scale, stars, thumbs up, pictograms) should always go with complete tasting notes and any reader should first try to know a bit about the taster’s preferences, background and experience before taking any score into account. Ultimately, it’s always better to try the whisky yourself. I also insist on comparing. I think trying a whisky alone or alongside wildly different other whiskies does not allow proper assessments, you have to compare a whisky with similar whiskies (say, three 20-25yo Cragganmores) and with reference whiskies that you know very well as well (say Ardbeg Ten, HP 12 and so on) to be able to find some kind of consistency. It’s not perfect but I believe it’s the only way not to score the same whisky 80 pt one day and 85 pt the next day. Now, I’m afraid total accuracy and consistency are impossible to achieve, no taster is a machine.
Yossi: A large focus on your website is music. Where do your tastes lie?
Serge: Firstly, jazz, especially avant-garde or ‘free’ as we used to call it. Also opera, blues, good rock and roll, African music, Asian music, Brazilian… I try not to post too much ‘avant-garde’ music on Whiskyfun but I’m trying to let people discover rather rare or little-known artistes. Should I stop blogging about whisky one day, I’ll probably blog more about music. You can live without whisky, you cannot live without music! Apart from listening to music, I also love reading Nick Morgan’s gig reviews as soon as they drop into my mailbox, prior to publishing them on Whiskyfun. And Kate’s exclusive photographs are always fab as well! Both add so much flesh to this wee website!
Yossi: What was the first piece of music that stopped you in your tracks? How old were you and what about it moved you?
Serge: Probably like everybody, my father’s records. I remember very well Art Blakey, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Wes Montgomery, Don Byas, Jimmy Smith… I don’t know how old I was, probably less than 10. My favorite at the time was a Dixieland band called Firehouse Five Plus Two, also Kid Ory. And then, a little later, there was our neighbor who used to play Jimi Hendrix records very loud, all windows open. We started to paint our rooms with large purple and orange flowers.
The very first record I bought with my own pocket money was a band called Steampacket, that used to gather Brian Auger, Long John Baldry and Rod Stewart if memory serves me well. It was already an old record, I can’t remember why I bought it! Probably because of the picture on the sleeve.
Yossi: You asked me this in your interview with me for my band Kimono Draggin’: If you were on a desert island, what one album would you want with you? What one whisky?
Serge: Haha, one of these ‘All of Mozart’ 30-CD sets that are issued from time to time. You say only one record? Maybe Ummagumma by Pink Floyd. It’s the second record I ever bought with my own money. Or Exile on Main Street, or Trout Mask Replica. Or maybe something quiet, such as a good Bill Evans. Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin. Coltrane at the Village Vanguard (which isn’t that quiet, agreed). No, wait, Miles’ Kind of Blues. That’s it, Kind of Blues! Or why not Kimono Draggin’s latest? I like it a lot and it may help the coconuts fall from the trees, should you play it loud! ;-). As for the whisky, a double-magnum of just anything. Alternatively, a carefully composed vatting of old Springbank, Bowmore and Brora or Clynelish.
Serge: Ah, that picture! It’s a pocket trumpet and it’s a funny story. It was during the Islay Festival, around 2003 or 2004. Glengoyne had commissioned a yacht and sailed to Port Ellen harbor, calling themselves ‘pirates’ as their whisky was totally unpeated whilst most of the island was celebrating its peat monsters. With some maniacal friends (Olivier Humbrecht, Davin de Kergommeaux, Charlie McLean, Dave Broom) we attended a fabulous wee party on the ship. We had already tasted (right, quaffed) a lot of great Glengoynes when the captain opened a chest full of small musical instruments such as ukuleles, tambourines, pocket trumpets, triangles and so on. We all took one each and started to jam, in a certain way. I don’t think it’s been recorded but I’m sure the end result would be up there with the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s very wackiest! Seriously, I do own old horns and reeds, which I used to blow quite some years ago but I’ve always been hopelessly bad. If you desperately need a Selmer Super Action 80, I have one for sale, it’s virtually new.
Yossi: What passions, other than whisk(e)y and music do you have?
Serge: First, my family and my friends. Then motorcycles (old Ducatis, old Harleys), vintage watches, wine, fine food, painting, travelling… Also my work and probably many other small things.
Serge: No, I’m afraid I wasn’t one of the great MJ’s friends. Not that I wouldn’t have loved that to happen but I only met him a couple of times, as a simple whisky lover (which I am anyway and shall always be). Now, I do have a fond memory of the last time I very briefly chatted with him, it was at Whisky Magazine France’s launch party in Paris five or six years ago. No whisky chatting, jazz… MJ was a huge jazz connoisseur. The man had depth and was not full of himself at all, there will never be anyone to touch him.
Yossi: Lastly, if you had a message or lesson to give people who are just getting into whiskies, what would that be?
Serge: Message why not, lesson certainly not. Have fun. Don’t take all this too seriously, it’s only booze. But remember, next time you try a whisky, there’s a better one out there. Try to unearth it!